In this image from video, Michael van der Veen, an attorney for former President Donald Trump, talks as he answers a question from Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, during the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. Credit: Senate Television / AP

WASHINGTON — A lawyer for Donald Trump did not answer a question from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine on when the former president learned of the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot and how he tried to stop it on Friday, the fourth day of his impeachment trial.

Trump lawyers defended him against impeachment Friday by accusing Democrats of waging a campaign of “hatred” against the former president and manipulating his words in the lead-up to the deadly siege of the U.S. Capitol. Their presentation included a blizzard of their own selectively edited fiery comments from Democrats.

In trying to draw that equivalency, defenders minimized Trump’s monthslong efforts to undermine the election results and his urging of followers to do the same. Democrats say that long campaign, rooted in a “big lie,” laid the groundwork for the mob that assembled outside the Capitol and stormed inside. Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer.

The case is speeding toward a conclusion and near-certain acquittal, perhaps as soon as Saturday, with Trump’s lawyers making an abbreviated presentation that used less than three of their allotted 16 hours. The defense arguments and the quick pivot to the Democrats’ own words deflected from the question of the trial — whether Trump incited the assault on the Capitol — and instead aimed to place impeachment managers and Trump adversaries on the defensive.

One of few Republicans seen as a possible vote to convict Trump is Collins, who asked one of the most pointed questions of Friday’s proceedings alongside fellow centrist Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska: “Exactly when did President Trump learn of the breach of the Capitol and what specific actions did he take to bring the rioting to an end, and when did he take them?”

Michael van der Veen, a Trump lawyer, did not attempt to answer the question, only referencing a tweet that indicated the former president knew of the riot that afternoon. He then blamed Democrats for not presenting that information.

“The House managers did zero investigation and the American people deserve a lot better than coming in here with no evidence — hearsay on top of hearsay on top of reports that are based on hearsay,” he said.

Collins told reporters after the trial ended for the day that she did not feel she got a response but she wasn’t sure it was van der Veen’s fault, repeating past criticism of House Democrats for not holding hearings to establish fact patterns.

Friday was marked by Trump lawyers’ suggestion that Democrats have typically engaged in the same overheated rhetoric as Trump after a two-day effort by Democrats to sync up Trump’s words to the violence that followed, including through raw and emotive video footage.

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The Trump defense team, however, left out that what Trump was doing in telling his supporters to “fight like hell” was to undermine a national election after every state had verified its results, after the Electoral College had affirmed them and after nearly every election lawsuit filed by Trump and his allies had been rejected in court. 

Instead, they contended, he was telling the crowd to support primary challenges against his adversaries and to press for sweeping election reform — something he was entitled to do. Without Trump, who in a speech at a rally preceding the violence told supporters to “fight like hell,” the violence would never have happened, Democrats say.

On Friday, as defense lawyers repeated their own videos over and over, some Democrats chuckled and whispered among themselves as almost all of their faces flashed on the screen. During a break, some joked about the videos and others said they were a distraction or a “false equivalence” with Trump’s behavior.

“Well, we heard the word ‘fight’ a lot,” said Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

Trump’s defenders told senators that Trump was entitled to dispute the 2020 election results and that his doing so did not amount to inciting the violence. They sought to turn the tables on prosecutors by likening the Democrats’ questioning of the legitimacy of Trump’s 2016 win to his challenge of his election loss. When Trump implored supporters to “fight like hell” on Jan. 6, he was speaking figuratively, they said.

“This is ordinarily political rhetoric that is virtually indistinguishable from the language that has been used by people across the political spectrum for hundreds of years,” van der Veen said.

“This is ordinarily political rhetoric that is virtually indistinguishable from the language that has been used by people across the political spectrum for hundreds of years,” van der Veen said.

The defense team did not dispute the horror of the violence, painstakingly reconstructed by impeachment managers earlier in the week, but said it had been carried out by people who had “hijacked” for their own purposes what was supposed to be a peaceful event and had planned violence before Trump had spoken.

Anticipating defense efforts to disentangle Trump’s rhetoric from the rioters’ actions, the Democratic impeachment managers spent days trying to fuse them together through a reconstruction of never-been-seen video footage alongside clips of the president’s monthslong urging of his supporters to undo the election results.

“And so they came, draped in Trump’s flag, and used our flag, the American flag, to batter and to bludgeon,” Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pennsylvania, one of the impeachment managers, said Thursday as she choked back emotion.

Story by Eric Tucker, Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick. BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.