Proof positive isn’t proof at all when the other side agrees that the proof presented was indeed proof – all of it was absolutely true, and presented brilliantly – but that all of what was presented doesn’t really matter much. And it certainly doesn’t change anything. That seemed to be the case with Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial. Wow, he had done awful things! But they’re done. And he’s gone. He’s not the president now. What was the point of all this?
Maybe the evidence will show that. The New York Times’ Peter Baker and Nicholas Fandos report on the proof positive, against Trump, summed up in one final day:
House impeachment managers wrapped up their emotionally charged incitement case against former President Donald J. Trump on Thursday by warning that he remains a clear and present danger to American democracy and could foment still more violence if not barred from running for office again.
With the sounds of a rampaging mob still ringing in the Senate chamber, the managers sought to channel the shock and indignation rekindled by videos they showed of last month’s attack on the Capitol into a bipartisan repudiation of the former president who inflamed his supporters with false claims of a stolen election.
“My dear colleagues, is there any political leader in this room who believes that if he’s ever allowed by the Senate to get back into the Oval Office, Donald Trump would stop inciting violence to get his way?” Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland and the lead impeachment manager, asked the senators. “Would you bet the lives of more police officers on that? Would you bet the safety of your family on that? Would you bet the future of your democracy on that?”
They had made their case:
The argument was meant to rebut Republicans who have said that holding an impeachment trial for a former president was pointless and even unconstitutional because he has already left office and can no longer be removed. But if Mr. Trump were convicted, the Senate could bar him from holding public office in the future, and the managers emphasized that the trial was aimed not at punishment but prevention.
“I’m not afraid of Donald Trump running again in four years,” said Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California, another of the managers. “I’m afraid he’s going to run again and lose, because he can do this again.”
That’s how Trump rolls. He never loses. When he loses, officially, he sues. When the lawsuits fail, he sends in his angry people, perhaps with guns this time. He will get his way. Strong leaders always do. Billionaires always do. Winners always do. They take what they say is theirs, even if it isn’t theirs. They smack down anyone who disagrees, but now there are problems with that sort of thing:
In the final day of their main arguments, the managers sought to pre-empt the defense that Mr. Trump’s legal team will offer on Friday by rejecting his claim that he was simply exercising his free-speech rights when he sent a frenzied crowd to the Capitol as lawmakers were counting Electoral College votes and told it to “fight like hell.” The First Amendment, managers said, does not protect a president setting a political powder keg and then lighting a match.
“President Trump wasn’t just some guy with political opinions who showed up at a rally on Jan. 6 and delivered controversial remarks,” said Representative Joe Neguse, Democrat of Colorado and another manager. “He was the president of the United States. And he had spent months using the unique power of that office, of his bully pulpit, to spread that big lie that the election had been stolen to convince his followers to ‘stop the steal.’”
He was looking a bit pathetic, so it was time for a counterattack:
While a handful of Republican senators may break from the former president, others seemed to go out of their way on Thursday to express impatience with the trial, the second that Mr. Trump has faced.
They said they were tired of this gory stuff. They said everyone was tired of this stuff. And this was all about nothing at all:
After a much-panned preliminary appearance earlier this week, Mr. Trump’s lawyers planned to argue that he was being prosecuted out of partisan enmity, never overtly called for violence and was not responsible for the actions of his supporters.
Republican senators exhibited little eagerness to defend Mr. Trump’s actions, instead explaining their likely acquittal votes by maintaining that it is unconstitutional and unwise to put a former president on trial and accusing Democrats who sometimes use fiery speech themselves of holding a political foe to a double standard.
This really was a waste of time:
Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, offered similar reasoning. “What happened on Jan. 6 – I said it the moment it started – was unpatriotic, un-American, treasonous, a crime, unacceptable,” he said. “The fundamental question for me, and I don’t know about for everybody else, is whether an impeachment trial is appropriate for someone who is no longer in office. I don’t believe that it is.”
Senator Rick Scott of Florida could be seen filling out a blank map of Asia. Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina retreated to his party’s cloakroom to read on his phone. At points, a dozen or more Republican senators were away from their mahogany desks.
“To me, they’re losing credibility the longer they talk,” Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said of the managers.
They were just whining:
The managers argued that the president’s actions posed a threat to democratic institutions, the culmination of months of incendiary lies about election fraud meant to generate support for his effort to hang onto power despite the will of the voters. In their presentations, the managers played clips showing Mr. Trump repeatedly telling backers that they had to stop the election from being finalized.
They likewise made the case that Mr. Trump had shown a propensity for mob violence over the years, regularly encouraging supporters at rallies to “knock the crap” out of hecklers and praising a congressman who body-slammed a reporter as “my kind of guy.” The managers reminded the senators of Mr. Trump’s infamous comment that there were “very fine people on both sides” after a white supremacist march in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly and noted that he did nothing to discourage armed extremists who stormed Michigan’s statehouse last year.
Yes, there’s a pattern here, so what came next was inevitable:
They made the point that Mr. Trump not only incited the crowd on Jan. 6 but disregarded pleas from fellow Republicans to more explicitly call on the rioters to stop the attack, endangering his own vice president, Mike Pence, whom he blamed for not trying to overturn the election. Even as 16 members of his own administration quit in protest, Mr. Trump offered no remorse and defended his actions as “totally appropriate.”
“President Trump perverted his office by attacking the very Constitution he was sworn to uphold,” Mr. Raskin said.
Representative David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island, quoted a police officer shaken by the Capitol siege and asking if this was still America.
“Is this America?” Mr. Cicilline repeated, turning the query toward the senators. “What is your answer to that question? Is this OK? If not, what are we going to do about it?”
That was blunt and direct, and the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake adds detail:
A big question going into the trial was how much Democrats would keep focused on Jan. 6 and Trump’s effort to overturn the election, and how much they would address his past rhetoric encouraging or excusing political violence.
Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), the lead impeachment manager, made his team’s offering on the latter Thursday.
This is hardly the first time that people have tied Trump’s comments to real or potential violence. It happened throughout his presidency. It happened to the point where even many Republicans now allied with Trump – who are playing down the need for his impeachment – warned about a situation similar to this, including former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.).
Raskin referred to many of these instances, including Trump jokingly praising a Montana politician for assaulting a reporter, suggesting that there were good people on “both sides” of the racist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and his repeated suggestions both at his 2016 rallies and since that his supporters might get violent. Trump also endorsed a clip from a supporter saying “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” – before that supporter was arrested for his part in the Capitol riot.
Reminders really are useful:
Perhaps most compellingly, Raskin noted Trump’s tweet to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” in April. It came two weeks before armed protesters flooded the state Capitol there. Trump suggested approval for their show of force and, in response, urged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) to negotiate with them on the coronavirus restrictions Trump had criticized. Two weeks later, protesters returned with more violent rhetoric. Then an alleged plot to kidnap Whitmer surfaced – a plot in which the alleged perpetrators echoed Trump’s rhetoric.
“This Trump-inspired mob may indeed look familiar to you,” Raskin said of the initial scenes at the state Capitol. “Confederate battle flags, MAGA hats, weapons, camo Army gear – just like the insurrectionists who showed up and invaded this chamber on Jan. 6. The siege of the Michigan Capitol was effectively a state-level dress rehearsal for the siege of the U.S. Capitol that Trump incited on January 6th.”
This was all starting to make sense, and there was another issue:
The early focus Thursday was on driving home the incitement argument by pointing to rioters who said they had been incited.
Multiple rioters who have been charged with crimes have cited perceived invitations from Trump as part of their defense. That could be convenient for them, legally speaking. Another impeachment manager, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), focused more on people who said these things in real time.
One man who wrote on the day of the siege, “Trump just needs to fire the bat signal … deputize patriots … and then the pain comes.”
Another man said on a live stream from inside the Capitol: “Our president wants us here. We wait and take orders from our president.”
One man told a police officer who stood in his way: “There’s a fucking million of us out there, and we’re listening to Trump – your boss.”
Another woman responded to now-President Biden’s calls for peace by saying, “Does he not realize President Trump called us to siege the place?”
Another talked about calling Trump from inside the Capitol and said, “He’ll be happy. … We’re fighting for Trump.”
“Have you noticed throughout this presentation the uncanny similarity, over and over and over again, of what all these people are saying?” DeGette said. “They said what Donald Trump said and they echoed each other. ‘Stand back and stand by.’ ‘Stop the steal.’ ‘Fight like hell.’ ‘Trump sent us.’ ‘We are listening to Trump.’ “
It’s possible to cherry-pick anecdotes in a prosecution. It’s also possible that people perceived a message that Trump didn’t technically send. The combination of these comments and those citing Trump’s invitation as part of their legal defense, though, suggests that this is something many truly believed was done at Trump’s behest – or at least that it would meet with his approval.
Who ARE these people? That would be these people:
The mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol may have been a fringe group of extremists, but politically motivated violence has the support of a significant share of the U.S. public, according to a new survey by the American Enterprise Institute.
The survey found that nearly three in 10 Americans, including 39% of Republicans, agreed that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.”
That result was “a really dramatic finding,” says Daniel Cox, director of the AEI Survey Center on American Life. “I think any time you have a significant number of the public saying use of force can be justified in our political system, that’s pretty scary.”
That is what Trump legitimized:
The survey found stark divisions between Republicans and Democrats on the 2020 presidential election, with two out of three Republicans saying President Biden was not legitimately elected, while 98% of Democrats and 73% of independents acknowledged Biden’s victory.
The level of distrust among Republicans evident in the survey was such that about 8 in 10 said the current political system is “stacked against conservatives and people with traditional values.” A majority agreed with the statement: “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
The survey found that to be a minority sentiment – two out of three Americans overall rejected the use of violence in pursuit of political ends – and Cox emphasized that the finding reflected “attitudes and beliefs” rather than a disposition to do something.
“If I believe something, I may act on it, and I may not,” Cox says.
That’s fifty-fifty. That’s cold comfort. And this too is unsettling:
About 3 in 5 white evangelicals told the pollsters that Biden was not legitimately elected, that it was not accurate to say former President Donald Trump encouraged the attack on the Capitol, and that a Biden presidency has them feeling disappointed, angry or frightened.
On all those questions, Cox says, white evangelicals are “politically quite distinct.” Majorities of white mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, Catholics, followers of non-Christian religions and the religiously unaffiliated all viewed Biden’s victory as legitimate.
But then there’s Trump’s base:
The AEI survey found that white evangelicals were especially prone to subscribe to the QAnon movement’s conspiracy theories. Twenty-seven percent said it was “mostly” or “completely” accurate to say Trump “has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.” That share was higher than for any other faith group and more than double the support for QAnon beliefs evident among Black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics and non-Christians.
“As with a lot of questions in the survey, white evangelicals stand out in terms of their belief in conspiracy theories and the idea that violence can be necessary,” Cox says. “They’re far more likely to embrace all these different conspiracies.”
This will not end well, and Slate’s William Saletan lays out Trump’s problem now:
Donald Trump’s lawyers face a challenge as they begin his defense at this week’s Senate impeachment trial. House prosecutors have made the case that Trump, in his Jan. 6 speech to a crowd in Washington, D.C., incited the insurrection that followed. Trump’s lawyers deny that the insurrection was what Trump intended. But in that case, they need to offer a plausible alternative. If Trump wasn’t directing the mob to attack or threaten Congress, what was he telling it to do?
In their trial brief, the defense attorneys point out that Trump’s Jan. 6 remarks never explicitly called for “an insurrection, a riot, criminal action, or any acts of physical violence.” At worst, the brief argues, Trump was “misunderstood” by the thugs who subsequently attacked the Capitol. But nowhere in the brief do the lawyers explain what the misunderstanding was. That’s because Trump’s behavior, over the course of two months, rules out any other reasonable explanation. By rejecting every nonviolent option that could have ended the election dispute, he drove his supporters to violence.
That won’t work, and there’s this:
According to Trump’s attorneys, when he told the crowd to fight – “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore” – he was just referring to “action at the ballot box,” calling for “a change in the occupants of Congress through future primary elections,” or talking “about the need to fight for election security in general.” But that explanation is obviously false. Trump summoned the crowd to show up two years before the next federal election. The question on the table was whether to accept the election that had just taken place.
That won’t work either, and there’s this:
The lawyers, in their brief, note that Trump didn’t specifically demand “unlawful action.” But he got the same result by telling his base that lawful action had failed to save the country. He denounced every court, including the Supreme Court, that rejected his election challenges. When the FBI and the Department of Justice found “no evidence of widespread voter fraud,” he denounced them too. He told his followers to ignore state-certified ballot counts and the Dec. 14 vote of the Electoral College. As lawful options were exhausted, Trump continued to demand that the election be overturned. The conclusion was inescapable: He wanted action outside the law.
That clarifies matters. He wanted violence. He got violence:
The president made clear that these actions would have to be taken by citizens, because public officials had failed. He urged his supporters to come to Washington on Jan. 6, when Congress was scheduled to certify the electoral vote, because Republican senators lacked the courage to block certification. On Jan. 4, he told his followers that it was their job to “fight like hell” and make sure the certification didn’t happen. On Jan. 5, he vowed that they would “inundate” Washington and galvanize Republicans. The mission of the mob, as he described it, was to intimidate Congress.
In his speech to the crowd on the morning of Jan. 6, Trump inserted a token line about protesting “peacefully.” Hardcore Trump fans knew he often sprinkled that line in speeches as a joke. Then, over the next hour, Trump foreclosed every peaceful option. He called Joe Biden’s victory illegitimate. He dismissed the Supreme Court as biased and hostile to the country. He told his supporters to suspend the usual rules of election acceptance, urged them to counter the left’s “ruthless” power grab, and warned that if Biden were inaugurated, “our country will be destroyed.”
By the end of the speech, his meaning was obvious: Violence was justified and necessary.
And that’s that:
Trump made clear what he wanted. He declared that the country was in mortal danger and that officials who stood in his way were enemies of the people. He told his followers that every legal option had failed them and that every institution was rigged against them. He warned that the putative winners of the election were ruthless, and it was “time somebody did something about it.” He scoffed that Congress, without pressure from the streets, would never do the right thing. If these messages weren’t a call for insurrection, what were they?
The former president’s lawyers had better have an answer.
Don’t expect one. There are no answers now.