Democrats warn of 'whataboutism' ahead of Trump defense

As Donald Trump's defense team prepares to take the stage Friday in the former president's impeachment trial, Democrats are rejecting one of the central arguments likely to emerge: that Trump's speech ahead of last month's assault on the Capitol was no more dangerous than words employed by Democrats over the years.

"The blatantly false equivalence that the Trump team is going to try to draw between Trump's concerted incitement of insurrection and a handful of isolated comments from Democrats" should be rebuffed, a senior aide to the Democratic impeachment managers told reporters Friday morning.

"Whataboutism is never a particularly morally strong case," the aide added.


Trump is on trial this week on charges that he incited a mob of his followers to march on the Capitol to block the vote formalizing the presidential victory of his opponent, Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden 'disappointed' in Senate parliamentarian ruling but 'respects' decision Taylor Swift celebrates House passage of Equality Act Donald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' MORE.

In two days of emotional arguments on the Senate floor, the nine Democratic impeachment managers had highlighted tweets, speeches and rallies where Trump had falsely claimed that November's election results were fraudulent; encouraged supporters to travel to Washington on Jan. 6 to protest the outcome; and sat silent for several hours after violent rioters stormed into the Capitol, even as some of his closest GOP allies were pleading for him to defuse the attack.

“If we pretend this didn’t happen, or worse, if we let it go unanswered, who’s to say it won’t happen again?” Rep. Joe NeguseJoseph (Joe) NeguseOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Five things to know about Texas's strained electric grid | Biden honeymoon with green groups faces tests | Electric vehicles are poised to aid Biden in climate fight Democratic impeachment manager: Trump trial could have lasted years if witnesses were called Democrats warn of 'whataboutism' ahead of Trump defense MORE (D-Colo.), an impeachment manager, asked senators on Thursday.

David Schoen, one of Trump's defense attorneys, said Thursday that the Democrats had failed to make the case that Trump was responsible for the violent behavior of others. The president, he said, enjoys the same First Amendment protections as everyone else.

"The evidence they have under no circumstances would make out a case for incitement," Schoen told reporters in the Capitol.


Democrats have rejected that argument out of hand, saying that Trump must be held to a higher standard because he was not an ordinary citizen expressing beliefs, but a president who was bound to an oath to protect the country and the Constitution.

"If you're the president of the United States, you've chosen a side with your oath of office," Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDeJoy apologizes for mail delays while defending Postal Service changes Officer on Capitol riot: 'Is this America? They beat police officers with Blue Lives Matter flags' Considering impeachment's future MORE (D-Md.), the lead impeachment manager, told senators this week. "If you break it, we can impeach, convict, remove and disqualify you permanently from holding any office of honor, trust or profit in the United States."

Trump's defense team is expected Friday to air clips of Democratic lawmakers making their own combative statements. Writing in The Hill, Jonathan Turley, a constitutional lawyer who's advising Senate Republicans during the trial, offered a preview of that argument, noting that Democratic Reps. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersLawmakers, Martin Luther King III discuss federal responses to systematic racism The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Ahead: One-shot vax, easing restrictions, fiscal help Hillicon Valley: Biden signs order on chips | Hearing on media misinformation | Facebook's deal with Australia | CIA nominee on SolarWinds MORE (Calif.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyPressley says image of Black custodial staff cleaning up Capitol after Jan. 6 riot 'haunts' her DeJoy apologizes for mail delays while defending Postal Service changes DeJoy set for grilling by House Oversight panel MORE (Mass.) and Vice President Harris have all encouraged aggressive protests against perceived injustices. The issue took on a special resonance during last year's national protests against police brutality, which turned violent in some rare cases.

Democrats maintain that there's no comparison between the fiery rhetoric of some lawmakers and Trump's entreaty for thousands of supporters to march on the Capitol on Jan. 6 in order to "stop the steal."

"President TrumpDonald TrumpDonald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' Schiff sees challenges for intel committee, community in Trump's shadow McConnell says he'd back Trump as 2024 GOP nominee MORE was not impeached because of the words he used, viewed in isolation, without context, were beyond the pale. Plenty of other politicians have used strong language," Rep. David CicillineDavid CicillineHouse passes sweeping protections for LGBTQ people The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - J&J A-OK, Tanden in Trouble Six ways to visualize a divided America MORE (D-R.I.), another manager, told the Senate this week.


"He summoned an armed, angry and dangerous crowd that wanted to keep him in power and was widely reported to be poised on a hair trigger for violence at his direction," he added. "He then made his heated statements in circumstances where it was clear, where it was foreseeable, that those statements would spark extraordinary, imminent violence."

Trump's defense was expected to feature the argument that, under the Constitution, Congress lacks the power to impeach a president who is no longer in office.

Raskin undercut that argument on Thursday, noting that the Senate had already settled that question with a vote earlier in the week, when it determined that Trump's impeachment trial was, indeed, constitutional. Six Republicans crossed the aisle to proceed with the process.

"They are going to try to rest it on free speech, or constitutional jurisdictional — probably a mix of both. But we shouldn't kid ourselves about what these guys are saying," said a second senior Democratic aide to the impeachment managers.

"They really believe that the logical conclusion of the law is that a president who has lost an election can incite mob violence, can direct his followers to ransack the Capitol to stop the peaceful transfer of power, and that there is nothing that the United States Senate can do about it," the aide added. "It just can't be that way."