Prosecutors at Donald Trump’s impeachment trial said Wednesday they would prove that the former president was no “innocent bystander” but the “inciter in chief” of the deadly attack at the U.S. Capitol aimed at overturning his election loss to Joe Biden.
Opening the first full day of arguments, the lead House prosecutor said they will lay out evidence that shows the president encouraged a rally crowd to head to the Capitol on Jan. 6, then did nothing to stem the violence and watched with “glee” as a mob stormed the iconic building. Five people died.
“To us it may have felt like chaos and madness, but there was method to the madness that day,” Rep. Jamie Raskin said.
The day’s proceedings were unfolding after an emotional start Tuesday that left the former president fuming when his attorneys delivered a meandering defence and failed to halt the trial on constitutional grounds. Some allies called for yet another shakeup to his legal team.
Trump is the first president to face an impeachment trial after leaving office and the first to be twice impeached. The Jan. 6 Capitol riot followed a rally during which Trump urged his supporters to “fight like hell,” words his lawyers say were simply a figure of speech. He is charged with “incitement of insurrection.”
Impeachment manager Rep. Joe Neguse said that Trump “used his speech as a call to arms.”
House Democratic prosecutors are seeking to link the former Republican president directly to the deadly riot, replaying videos of the rioters trying to stop the certification of Biden’s victory and Trump’s statements urging them to fight the election results.
“This was, as one of our colleagues put it, so cogently on Jan. 6 itself, the greatest betrayal of the presidential oath in the history of the United States. The evidence will show you that he saw it coming and was not remotely surprised by the violence,” Raskin said.
Security footage not previously released
The prosecutors are arguing that Trump’s words weren’t just free speech but part of “the big lie” — his relentless efforts to sow doubts about the Nov. 3 election results. Those began long before the votes were tabulated, revving up his followers to “stop the steal,” though there was no evidence of substantial fraud.
They used Trump’s own words — from his tweets dating from months before the election in which he warned his supporters the vote would be rigged and from the days following it, repeating his messages of “stop the steal” and “stop the count” — as well as video clips played in the Senate. More video was expected Wednesday, including some that hasn’t been seen before.
Trump knew very well what would happen when he took to the microphone at the outdoor White House rally that day, almost to the hour that Congress gavelled in to certify Biden’s win, Neguse said.
“This was not just a speech,” he said.
Trump’s supporters were prepped and armed, ready to descend on the Capitol, Neguse said. “When they heard his speech, they understood his words.”
WATCH | Trump could suffer permanent damage politically regardless of verdict:
House impeachment manager Rep. Eric Swalwell detailed how Trump announced the rally on Twitter, writing on Dec. 19: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
Swalwell said that Jan. 6 was Trump’s “last chance to stop a peaceful transition of power.” He said Trump’s tweet wasn’t a “casual, one-off reference or a single invitation” and that for the next 18 days, he reminded his supporters “over and over and over” to show up.
“This was never about one speech,” Swalwell said. “He built this mob over many months with repeated messaging until they believed that they’d been robbed of their vote, and they would do anything to stop the certification.”
As violence mounted in the states during the weeks and months before Trump supporters marched to the Capitol, the House managers argued he could have told loyalists to stand down, but didn’t.
The mob “didn’t come out of thin air,” said Rep . Joaquin Castro.
But during a break in the trial Wednesday afternoon, many Republicans appeared indifferent to the Democratic prosecutors’ case and made it clear they were still unlikely to convict.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said the prosecutors’ case was “predictable” and included information that was already public.
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, another close ally of Trump, said the trial “is going to be pretty tedious.” He said the two sides would be better served to make their case “in a couple hours, and be done with this.”
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe said Democrats have “put a real good team together,” but said he didn’t think anything had been said “by either side that has changed any votes.”
CNN reported that some Republican senators didn’t even appear to be listening to what the prosecutors were laying out.
Trump frustrated with legal team
Senators, many of whom fled for safety on the day of the attack, watched Tuesday’s graphic videos of the Trump supporters who battled past police to storm the halls.
A frustrated Trump on Tuesday night revived his demands to focus his defence on his unsupported claims of voter fraud, repeatedly telephoning former White House aide Peter Navarro, who told the Associated Press in an interview he agrees. He is calling on Trump to fire his legal team.
“If he doesn’t make a mid-course correction here, he’s going to lose this Super Bowl,” Navarro said, in a reference to public opinion, not the unlikely possibility of conviction.
Republicans made it clear after Tuesday’s proceedings that they, too, were unhappy with Trump’s defence, many of them saying they didn’t understand where it was going — particularly Castor’s opening.
6 of 50 Republicans vote that trial is constitutional
Security remains extremely tight at the Capitol, which is fenced off with razor wire and patrolled by National Guard troops.
Six Republicans joined with Democrats on Tuesday to vote to proceed with the trial in a 56-44 vote. A two-thirds threshold of 67 votes would be needed for conviction.
WATCH | Highlights from Day 2:
It appears unlikely that the House prosecutors will call witnesses, and Trump has declined a request to testify. The trial is expected to continue at least until the weekend.
Trump’s second impeachment trial is expected to diverge from the lengthy, complicated affair of a year ago. In that case, Trump was charged with having privately pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden, then a Democratic rival for the presidency.
This time, Trump’s “stop the steal” rally rhetoric for two months after the Nov. 3 election and the storming of the Capitol played out for the world to see.
The Democratic-led House impeached the president swiftly, one week after the attack.