Now it’s the Trump team’s time. The Senate trial is shifting to Trump’s defense lawyers on Friday, and they’re prepared to acknowledge that the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was every bit as traumatic, unacceptable and illegal as Democrats say.
But Trump’s lawyers plan to say Trump had nothing to do with it. They want to pivot to what they see as the core and more winnable issue of the trial: whether Trump can be held responsible for inciting the deadly riot.
The argument is likely to appeal to Republican senators who themselves want to be seen as condemning the violence without convicting the former president.
House prosecutors at former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial relied on emotion and violent images on video to make their case in arguments over the past two days.
The goal for Donald Trump’s lawyers is to blunt the impact of the House Democrats’ visceral case.
Most Republican senators have indicated they’ll vote to acquit Trump on the House impeachment charge of incitement of insurrection. They say the trial is unconstitutional and that Trump didn’t incite supporters to lay siege on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 when he told them to “fight like hell” against the certification of Joe Biden’s White House victory.
If Republicans hold the line, Democrats will fall well short of the two-thirds of the Senate needed for conviction.
Trump’s two top lawyers, Bruce Castor and David Schoen, risked losing one Republican vote on Tuesday after Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy said they did a “terrible” job arguing that the trial is unconstitutional.
Cassidy, who had voted with his party two weeks earlier to stop the trial, switched his vote to side with Democrats.
Castor, a onetime rising-star prosecutor from suburban Philadelphia, had burned bridges with much of the Republican establishment after a series of election losses and he’d pretty much stayed out of sight.
But he’s made a comeback at Trump’s impeachment trial, though his moment in the national glare on Tuesday was seen as a rambling and at times aimless hourlong presentation in search of a point.
He’s getting a chance to make a different impression when he begins to present Trump’s defense on Friday.
David Schoen, one of the former president’s lawyers, told reporters near the end of two full days of Democrats’ arguments “They haven’t in any way tied it to Trump.”
He previewed the essence of his argument Tuesday, telling the Senate jurors: “They don’t need to show you movies to show you that the riot happened here. We will stipulate that it happened, and you know all about it.”
In both legal filings and in arguments earlier in the week, Trump’s lawyers have made clear their position that the people responsible for the riot are the ones who actually stormed the building and who are now being prosecuted by the Justice Department.
Anticipating defense efforts to disentangle Trump’s rhetoric from the rioters’ actions, the impeachment managers spent days trying to fuse them together through a reconstruction of never-been-seen video footage alongside clips of the president’s months-long urging of his supporters to undo the election results.
Democrats, who wrapped their case Thursday, used the rioters’ own videos and words from Jan. 6 to pin responsibility on Trump. “We were invited here,” said one. “Trump sent us,” said another. “He’ll be happy. We’re fighting for Trump.”
The prosecutors’ goal was to cast Trump not as a bystander but rather as the “inciter in chief” who spent months spreading falsehoods and revving up supporters to challenge the election.
In addition to seeking conviction, they also are demanding that he be barred from holding future federal office.
“This attack never would have happened but for Donald Trump,” Rep. Madeleine Dean, one of the impeachment managers, said as she choked back emotion.
For all the weight and moment that the impeachment of a president is meant to convey, this historic second trial of Trump could wrap up with a vote by this weekend, particularly because Trump’s lawyers focused on legal rather than emotional or historic questions and are hoping to get it all behind him as quickly as possible.
With little hope of conviction by the required two-thirds of the Senate, Democrats delivered a graphic case to the American public, describing in stark, personal terms the terror faced that day — some of it in the very Senate chamber where senators are sitting as jurors. They used security video of rioters searching menacingly for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence, smashing into the building and engaging in bloody, hand-to-hand combat with police.
They displayed the many public and explicit instructions Trump gave his supporters — long before the White House rally that unleashed the deadly Capitol attack as Congress was certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s victory. Five people died in the chaos and its aftermath.
Videos of rioters, some they posted to social medial themselves, talked about how they were doing it all for Trump.
“What makes you think the nightmare with Donald Trump and his law-breaking and violent mobs is over?” asked Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the lead prosecutor. He said earlier, “When Donald Trump tells the crowd, as he did on Jan. 6, ‘Fight like hell, or you won’t have a country anymore,’ he meant for them to ‘fight like hell.’”
At the White House, Biden said he believed “some minds may be changed” after senators saw the security video, though he has previously said that conviction was unlikely.