WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump’s defense attorneys echoed the combativeness of their client Friday, punctuating their arguments with falsehoods and misrepresentations as they sought to recast his actions leading up to the mob violence at the Capitol.
Trump’s team sprinted through their defense at the Senate impeachment hearing, hoping to quickly move the proceedings to a vote. Republicans have already signaled they are unlikely to provide enough votes to secure a conviction. They concluded after just just two and a half hours.
The 2-hour, 30-minute presentation was peppered with inaccuracies and false claims. During one line of argument, attorneys stated the first rioter arrested in the Jan. 6 insurrection was not a supporter of Trump, but of the leftist antifa movement. There is no evidence to support the assertion.
Attorney Michael van der Veen also argued that Trump encouraged his supporters to respect the Electoral College count and to protest only peacefully, a claim directly contradicted by bountiful evidence.
“To claim that the president in any way wished, desired or encourages lawless or violent behavior is a preposterous and monstrous lie,” van der Veen said. The defense team repeatedly sought to cast Trump’s encouragement of the rioters at the Capitol as the same style of constitutionally protected speech as that all politicians frequently use to rally supporters around their policy and political priorities.
At one point, the defense team tried to underscore the point by displaying an 11-minute video with various clips of Democrats using the word “fight” spliced together. It was complemented with clips of Trump talking about the need for law and order during the protests that erupted over racial violence over the summer, as Democrats expressed support for the protesters.
“It feels like they’re erecting straw men to then take them down, rather than deal with the fact that the events of the 6th happened, including Donald Trump doing nothing to protect this place,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
The defense attorneys’ arguments were seen by at least some Republican lawmakers as an improvement over their meandering performance earlier in the week. The lawyers spent much of their time Friday focused on legal arguments, making the case that Trump’s words were protected by the First Amendment and that his actions on Jan. 6 do not meet the definition of incitement.
“The defense is more on their game today than what I saw the other day,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, expressing the sentiment of Trump loyalists who are eager to move to a vote and shut the trial down, said “the president’s lawyers blew the House managers’ case out of the water. They just legally eviscerated their case.”
The Trump team used just a fraction of the 16 hours allotted for the defense, a sharp contrast from the approach taken by House Democrats prosecuting the case against Trump.
The Democrats spent 10 hours over two days methodically building a case around harrowing video that recounted the mob violence that overtook the Capitol on Jan. 6. It included never-before-shown security footage highlighting how dangerously close rioters came to face-to-face confrontations with lawmakers, including scenes of senators sprinting away from the mob.
The presentation unsettled lawmakers and put allies of Trump in an awkward spot. It left television news saturated with the fresh footage of the insurrection, along with the former president’s rally cries, tweets and false claims leading up to the mob overrunning the Capitol. Also highlighted was Trump’s failure to take meaningful action to protect lawmakers and restore order as the violence unfolded.
Yet, many Republicans remain anxious about the political consequences of crossing Trump and argue the impeachment process should apply only to a sitting president. It remains unlikely Democrats can win over the 67 senators they need to convict Trump.
“This case unfortunately is about political hatred,” said van der Veen. “It has become very clear the House Democrats hate Donald Trump. This type of political hatred has no place in our political institutions, and certainly no place in law.”
Another Trump attorney, David Schoen, argued the impeachment process was a sham that denied Trump due process. Schoen accused House managers of manipulating the evidence, rushing the trial, and failing to share the security footage with the public and the defendant before dramatically unveiling it at trial.
Trump’s team and Senate Republicans, however, agreed to the timeline for the trial. And Democrats said the security footage had been available to Republicans ahead of time, though Trump’s attorneys dispute that. The charges that Democrats unfairly edited the former president’s remarks were undermined by the defense team’s own blatant manipulations and omissions of what Trump and Democrats said in the footage they presented.
The defense attorneys also argued that when Trump encouraged the rioters to turn their anger on the lawmakers in the Capitol, his intention was for them to coalesce around political primaries against them, not physical violence.
“You knew what the president really meant,” Schoen said. “He meant the crowd should demand action from members of Congress and support primary challenges.”
The point echoed comments by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Trump loyalist who has already made clear he plans to vote to acquit. “The House managers focused a great deal on the president, using words like ‘fight’ or ‘fight like hell,’” Cruz said. “Well, if that constitutes incitement, then every single political candidate in America is guilty of incitement, because I guarantee you all 100 senators in that chamber have stood on the stump and said we need to ‘fight’ or ‘fight like hell.’ ”
Cruz was among a group of GOP senators who met with Trump’s attorneys Thursday night, even as they are jurors in the trial. “We were discussing their strategy for tomorrow and we were sharing our thoughts, in terms of where the argument was and where to go,” Cruz told reporters.
Story by Evan Halper and Sarah D. Wire.