Lawyers for Donald Trump have opened his impeachment defence by denying he played any role in inciting the deadly riot at the US Capitol, condemning the case against him as political vengeance and part of a years-long Democratic “witch hunt”.
A lawyer for the former president told senators he was entitled to dispute the 2020 election results and doing so, including in a speech that preceded the assault on the Capitol, did not amount to inciting the violence that followed.
“Nothing in the text could ever be construed as encouraging, condoning or enticing unlawful activity,” said Michael van der Veen.
The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump in the Senate (Senate Television/AP)
After a prosecution case rooted in emotive, violent images from the Capitol siege, the impeachment trial shifted to defence lawyers who were prepared to make a fundamental concession: the violence was as traumatic, unacceptable and illegal as Democrats say — but Mr Trump did not order it.
Acknowledging the horrors of January 6 in Washington DC is meant to blunt the visceral impact of the House Democrats’ case and quickly move to what Mr Trump’s defenders see as the core — and more winnable — issue of the trial: whether he can be held responsible for inciting the riot.
The argument is likely to appeal to Republican senators who want to be seen as condemning the violence but without convicting the ex-president.
“They haven’t in any way tied it to Trump,” David Schoen, one of the president’s lawyers, told reporters near the end of two days of Democrats’ arguments.
David Schoen (Susan Walsh/AP)
He previewed the essence of his argument on Tuesday, telling the Senate jurors: “They don’t need to show you movies to show you that the riot happened here. We will stipulate that it happened, and you know all about it.”
In legal filings and in arguments this week, Mr Trump’s lawyers have made clear their position that the people responsible for the riot are the ones who stormed the building and are now being prosecuted by the Justice Department.
Anticipating defence efforts to disentangle Mr Trump’s rhetoric from the rioters’ actions, impeachment managers spent days trying to fuse them together through a reconstruction of previously unseen footage alongside clips of the president’s months-long urging of his supporters to undo the election results.
Democrats, who concluded their case on Thursday, used the rioters’ own videos and words from January 6 to try to pin responsibility on Mr Trump. “We were invited here,” said one Capitol invader. “Trump sent us,” said another. “He’ll be happy. We’re fighting for Trump.”
For all the significance the impeachment of a president is meant to convey, this historic second trial of Mr Trump could wrap up with a vote by this weekend, particularly since his lawyers focused on legal rather than emotional or historic questions and are hoping to get it all behind him as quickly as possible.
With little hope of conviction by the required two-thirds of the Senate, Democrats delivered a graphic case to the American public, describing in stark, personal terms the terror faced that day — some of it in the chamber where senators are sitting as jurors.
They used security video of rioters searching menacingly for House speaker Nancy Pelosi and vice president Mike Pence, smashing into the building and engaging in bloody, hand-to-hand combat with police.
They displayed the many public and explicit instructions Mr Trump gave his supporters — long before the White House rally that unleashed the deadly Capitol attack as Congress was certifying Joe Biden’s victory. Five people died in the chaos and its aftermath.