The Memo: Emotive video dominates day one of Trump impeachment trial
A 13-minute video was more dramatic than any word spoken by lawyers from either side during the opening of former President Trump’s second impeachment trial Tuesday.
The video, compiled by Democrats seeking Trump’s conviction, interspersed comments the former president made on the day of the Capitol insurrection with graphic scenes of the violence and chaos that followed.
The overall effect was to offer a visceral reminder of events that took place only five weeks ago, yet which were so appalling that it seems scarcely believable that they really happened.
They were also a reminder, from the Democratic perspective, of the stakes involved in the trial.
There is little chance that the Democrats will attain their ultimate objective, however. Even if they vote as a bloc to convict Trump, 17 Republicans would need to join them to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority to carry the day. There is virtually no chance of that happening.
Trump’s lawyers sought to cast the attempt to convict him as a nakedly partisan move. One of those lawyers, David Schoen, said the effort was an attempt “by a group of partisan politicians seeking to eliminate Donald Trump from the American political scene and seeking to disenfranchise 74 million American voters.”
But even if the outcome in the Senate is largely a foregone conclusion, Democrats want to persuade the court of public opinion that Trump should never be able to shirk responsibility for the events of Jan. 6.
They are starting on fairly favorable ground. A CBS News-YouGov poll released Tuesday morning found 56 percent in favor of his conviction and 44 percent against.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at the opening of proceedings that the upper chamber was about to hear “the gravest charges ever brought” against an American president.
The video succinctly compressed the events of the day, beginning with Trump’s speech to supporters just yards from the White House.
At that point, Trump repeated his false assertion that the 2020 election had been stolen from him and pledged that, “We’re going to walk down [to the Capitol], and I’ll be there with you.”
Trump was not there in person, of course. But the video made a strong case that the rioters were animated by his spirit and his resentments. The clips including one protester yelling “we are listening to Trump” and another instance of the crowd chanting “Fight for Trump.”
The video was delivered to a silent Senate chamber, and reporters in the Capitol said that some senators seemed shocked anew by the scenes being replayed. The video included some new footage.
The Democratic argument did not lean entirely on the emotive video, however.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), one of the impeachment managers chosen by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), contended that it was absurd to claim that someone who had left office could not be convicted as part of the impeachment process.
This was a clear rebuttal to the vast majority of Republican senators who recently backed a move by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to have the impeachment proceedings declared unconstitutional. Only five GOP senators dissented from Paul’s line. On Tuesday, in a vote on whether the Senate had jurisdiction for the impeachment trial, a sixth GOP senator, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), joined the five other Republicans in voting with Democrats.
Raskin insisted that Paul’s position would amount to a “January exception” that would empower people leaving office to do anything they wanted. It would be, he said, “an invitation to our founders’ worst nightmares” where a defeated president could use violence with impunity to “hang onto the Oval Office at all costs.”
Other Democrats built upon the same point, with Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.) suggesting that “things could have been much worse” on Jan. 6.
The Trump side, in making its case, did not argue with the emotive power of what had happened on the day. The former president’s lead lawyer, Bruce Castor, paid tribute to the Democrats’ “brilliant” presentation and said that the insurrection should be “denounced in the most vigorous terms.”
Whether Trump has ever done that is highly questionable.
Castor received plenty of criticism on social media for the meandering nature of his remarks, but his underlying case was the same as that of Schoen, who spoke after him: that Democrats were engaged in a partisan attack because they fear Trump’s political power.
In the highly unlikely event that Democrats secured the super-majority necessary to convict Trump, only a simple majority would be required to bar him from future office. But the latter is not possible without the former.
The trial will proceed for at least several more days, but Tuesday’s presentation from the Democrats served as both a reminder and a warning about how fragile American democracy seemed little more than a month ago.
The trial, dramatic as it is, is missing one fractious factor.
The former president’s ban from Twitter still stands, silencing the fusillade of commentary from him that would otherwise be expected.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.