Video stirs emotions on Trump trial’s first day
House Democrats on Tuesday launched their impeachment case against former President Trump with a stirring video montage of violence and mayhem at the Capitol on Jan. 6 — a highly charged opening salvo, stripped of all subtlety, that at once implicated the former president in the deadly attack and heightened the pressure on Republicans to convict him.
The 13-minute video, introduced by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the lead impeachment manager, featured a sampling of Trump’s fiery rhetoric leading up to the deadly siege, mashed up with scenes of mob violence in and around the Capitol building in the subsequent hours.
The extraordinary demonstration — violent, profane and highly visceral — set an early tone for this week’s trial in the Senate, where lawmakers will decide if Trump’s conduct surrounding the unprecedented assault should disqualify him from ever holding high office again.
It’s highly unlikely that Republican senators will cross the aisle in numbers high enough to convict their party’s standard-bearer, a judgment requiring a two-thirds majority of the upper chamber. And in a test vote on Tuesday evening, only six Republicans joined Democrats in allowing the trial to move forward on constitutional grounds — a likely preview of the final verdict.
“Nobody seemed to change any minds,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said after the vote.
“No one’s going to convince me that impeachment was put in place to remove from office someone that’s not in office,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
But by forcing the Senate jurors to relive the chaos of Jan. 6, the Democrats’ made-for-TV trial strategy is designed to appeal to voters outraged by Trump’s conduct — and to maximize the discomfort for the Republicans already signaling a readiness to clear the former president of any wrongdoing.
Indeed, the Democrats’ video did not pull punches, but featured the most brutal scenes to emerge publicly from the countless hours of footage that have circulated in the month since the siege, including depictions of police officers being beaten and crushed, and the gunshot that killed a rioter outside the House chamber.
Interspersed with those tumultuous scenes were Trump’s remarks at different points during the attack, including a video urging the “very special” rioters to “go home,” and a later tweet claiming that rampant fraud had “viciously” stolen his election victory from “great patriots” denied their voice.
When the video ended, Raskin paused on the floor in silence to allow the message to sink in.
“You ask what a high crime and misdemeanor is under our Constitution? That’s a high crime and misdemeanor,” Raskin finally said. “If that’s not an impeachable offense, then there is no such thing.”
House Democrats had impeached Trump last month on one charge: inciting insurrection. And a handful of Senate Republicans appear poised to side with the Democrats’ verdict that such a charge is merited. While Trump has already left office, a Senate conviction could prohibit him from running again in 2024, as he has hinted he might do.
Trump’s defense attorneys have said the impeachment case should be immediately dismissed, and they’re leaning on a two-pronged argument to make their case. First, they say Trump cannot be subject to impeachment because he’s no longer in office. And second, they maintain that Trump’s fiery rhetoric leading up to the Capitol siege is well protected under the First Amendment right to free speech.
“Presidents are impeachable because presidents are removable, former presidents are not because they cannot be removed,” said Trump defense attorney David Schoen.
Democrats rejected both arguments out of hand. There’s nothing in the Constitution preventing the impeachment of a former official, they said, and the First Amendment should not shield a president from provoking an attack on the federal government.
“President Trump was not impeached because he used words that the House decided are forbidden or unpopular. He was impeached for inciting armed violence against the government of the United States of America,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), another impeachment manager.
One thing the two parties could agree on is that the Democratic prosecutors came fully prepared, while Trump’s defense attorneys left lawmakers on both sides of the aisle underwhelmed.
GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general who has argued cases before the Supreme Court, called Raskin “impressive and “a serious lawyer.”
“Anyone who listened to those arguments would recognize that the House managers were focused, relied upon and trusted upon the opinion of legal scholars,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (La.), one of the six Republicans who voted to advance the trial. “Anyone who listened to President Trump’s legal team saw they were unfocused, they attempted to avoid the issue, and they talked about everything but the issue at hand.”
But if the dramatic video made an impression on the Republicans in the audience, they gave little indication. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who was featured in the video warning against the dangers of voting to overturn state election results based on scant evidence of fraud, sat unflinching, his hands folded in his lap.
“It was uncomfortable,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
Other Senate Republicans appeared to turn away from the video footage of the rioters sacking the Capitol. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has aggressively argued the Senate trial is unconstitutional, doodled on a piece of paper, while Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) studied papers in his lap, according to The Washington Post. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also kept their attention on papers in front of them rather than the screens set up in the Senate chamber.
The sounds from the video montage echoed in the chamber, filling it with the screams and yells of the mob, bringing witnesses back to the day of the attack, according to people in the room. In one piece of footage, rioters breached the Senate floor and rifled through the very desks where senators now sat as jurors.
Minutes later, Raskin again rendered the normally boisterous chamber perfectly still by telling the personal, heart-wrenching story of how his family survived Jan. 6. The day before, he had buried his 25-year-old son, Tommy, a Harvard law student who had taken his own life. As rioters swarmed the Capitol, the lawmaker was separated from his daughter, Tabitha, and another family member. He feared he could lose her too in the violence.
When he was reunited with his daughter, Raskin apologized and promised it wouldn’t happen the next time she visited the building.
“She said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to come back to the Capitol again,’ ” Raskin recounted, choking up. “Of all the terrible, brutal things I saw and I heard on that day … that one hit me the hardest.
“That and watching someone use an American flagpole, with the flag still on it, to spear and pummel one of our police officers, ruthlessly, mercilessly, tortured by a pole with a flag on it that [the officer] was defending with his very life.”