Former President Donald Trump’s lawyers put up a pugnacious if brief defense presentation in his impeachment trial Friday, saying his rally speech before the Capitol riot was “ordinary political rhetoric” and blasting the proceedings as a “sham” fueled by Democrats’ “political hatred” for the ex-president.
Parts of the attorneys’ presentation invoked the former president’s language and arguments, with his lawyers charging that Trump’s second impeachment trial is “constitutional cancel culture” while making numerous false claims.
During the question-and-answer session, however, the lawyers wouldn’t say when Trump discovered the Capitol had been breached on Jan. 6 and what, if anything, he did to stop it.
Here are some key takeaways from Day Four of the trial.
The Trump defense
Trump’s legal team used just three of the 16 hours allotted to them for the former president’s defense, but it was jam-packed with references and statements that echoed their client’s bombastic language.
The trial “is constitutional cancel culture. History will record this shameful effort as a deliberate attempt by the Democrat Party to smear, censor and cancel, not just President Trump, but the 75 million Americans who voted for him,” one of the attorneys, Michael T. van der Veen, told the Senate in his presentation, which included other attacks on the Democrats.
“Like every other politically motivated witch hunt the left has engaged in over the past four years, this impeachment is completely divorced from the facts, the evidence and the interests of the American people,” van der Veen said. The House managers presenting the case, he said, are motivated by “political hatred.”
“House Democrats hate Donald Trump,” he added.
At other points, the lawyers defended Trump’s comments about “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly 2017 protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump’s Jan. 2 phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, where the former president urged him to “find” the number of votes he’d need to win the state.
Lawyer Bruce Castor complained, as Trump has, that the call pressuring Raffensperger to overturn the state’s already-certified results was “secretly recorded.”
Referring to the Georgia call, which is under investigation by state election officials and the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office, Castor said Trump’s actions were taken out of context and repeated one of Trump’s debunked election fraud claims as fact.
Castor also said Trump could not have incited the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol because “by any measure, President Trump is the most pro-police, anti-mob-rule president this country has ever seen. His real supporters know this. He made it clear throughout his presidency.”
Van der Veen, meanwhile, seconded Trump’s assertion that his Jan. 6 speech was entirely appropriate.
“No thinking person could seriously believe that the president’s Jan. 6 speech on the Ellipse was in any way an incitement to violence or insurrection. This suggestion is patently absurd on its face,” he told senators.
What did the president know, and when did he know it?
During the question-and-answer session, Castor was unable to answer a question from Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska about when their client found out that his supporters had broken into the Capitol and what he did to stop the carnage.
Instead, he blamed his inability to answer the question about his own client’s actions on Democrats’ quick move to impeach.
“With the rush to bring this impeachment, there’s been absolutely no investigation into that,” Castor said. Asked if Trump was aware Vice President Mike Pence was in danger from the mob at the time he sent a disparaging tweet about him, van der Veen later said, “At no point was he informed the vice president was in danger.”
House manager Joaquin Castro noted that the storming of the building was broadcast live and that the Trump tweet came after Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., had told Trump on the phone that Pence had just evacuated from the Senate floor.
Lead manager Jamie Raskin, D-Md., noted that Trump had declined a request to testify to present his version of events.
Fight, fight, fight
House managers argued that Trump helped incite the riot at the Capitol by repeatedly using the word “fight” at his rally beforehand, including urging them to “fight like hell” or “you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Van der Veen said that was “ordinary political rhetoric that is virtually indistinguishable from the language that has been used by people across the political spectrum for hundreds of years.”
To prove their point, Trump’s team played a lengthy, contextless video of Democrats saying the word “fight” over years.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said Trump’s pattern of behavior was unlike a typical politician’s call to fight for specific policies or issues.
“Donald Trump was warned, ‘If you don’t stop talking about a stolen election, people will be killed.’ He was specifically warned that,” Kaine said. “He kept talking about it, and a violent mob attacked the Capitol and seven people are dead who would be alive today had he just followed their advice. That’s what I thought about those videos.”
“This is not whataboutism,” van der Veen told senators of the “fight” and other videos of the Democrats the legal team played.
“I am showing you this to make the point that all political speech must be protected,” he said. “I did not show you the speech to balance out the speech of my client.”
But the Trump lawyers repeatedly compared Democrats’ prior statements to the president’s, including Raskin’s unsuccessful attempt to object during the electoral vote count in 2017.
“Mr. Trump’s words are no different than the figurative speech used by every one of the senators assembled here today. If it is not about the words, but about the big lie of a stolen election, then why isn’t House manager Raskin guilty since he tried to overturn the 2016 election? The more the House managers speak, the more hypocrisy gets revealed. Hypocrisy,” van der Veen said.
He also compared Trump’s protests to Hillary Clinton’s far more limited court challenge in 2016. While Trump never conceded the election to President Joe Biden, Clinton conceded to Trump the day after the election.
Trump’s lawyers also played a video of Trump saying he supports “law and order” and contrasted it to Democrats, including Biden, praising peaceful protesters after the death of George Floyd. The video then cut to a scene from a riot, the type of which Biden had denounced.
Van der Veen then complained that the “House managers have played manipulated, selectively edited parts of Mr. Trump’s speech.”