Democratic House impeachment managers on Wednesday began formally laying out their case that President Donald Trump incited the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. They are allowed 16 hours, spread over two days, to make their arguments.
Below are some takeaways from Day 2 of the Senate impeachment trial.
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1. The new video
Before Tuesday’s proceedings, the House impeachment team sent word that its presentation would include never-before-seen video.
What they showed was harrowing, illustrating how close several lawmakers came to disaster. Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, were all shown to have come very near harm’s way.
Pence was shown evacuating just across from where the Capitol rioters had penetrated. Schumer was shown heading one way and then quickly running in the other at the direction of law enforcement. Romney was walking through a rope line when he too was told to run by Eugene Goodman of the Capitol Police.
Other lawmakers were also shown evacuating just feet from a rioter being held at gunpoint on the floor.
We already knew that the rioters targeted lawmakers and chanted threats about Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. We also knew that people died that day and in the aftermath. But until Wednesday, we didn’t have a full picture of how close some high-profile lawmakers came to the mob.
Whether that makes Trump’s conviction any more likely is yet to be seen. But it became clearer that Jan. 6 could have been much worse if events shifted by just a few seconds or a few feet.
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2. Raskin’s extended fire-in-a-theater metaphor
It’s one thing to remind viewers that bad stuff happened, as Democrats did Tuesday. But to prove incitement, you need to show Trump actually caused what happened.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the lead impeachment manager, sought to do that early. Trump’s team has broadly referred to Trump’s claims of free speech while ignoring the established limits on it, which include incitement and defamation. The generic example is shouting fire in a crowded theater.
Raskin rode that metaphor:
“This case is much worse than someone who falsely shouts ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater. It’s more like a case where the town fire chief who’s paid to put out fires sends a mob not to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater but to actually set the theater on fire, and who then when the fire alarms go off and the calls start flooding into the fire department asking for help, does nothing but sit back, encourage the mob to continue its rampage and watch the fire spread on TV with glee and delight.
“So then we say this fire chief should never be allowed to hold this public job again, and you’re fired and you’re permanently disqualified.”
There are limits to the metaphor. Trump’s response was delayed, even by the accounts of GOP senators and some former White House aides. He also offered words of praise for the rioters, expressing “love” for them as it was happening and later saying it would be a day for them to remember. But he did, in the same “love” video, tell them to go home peacefully.
Trump often mixes his messages like this, giving himself plausible deniability while seeming to send a deliberate message. His team will focus on the “go home” stuff rather than the “We love you” stuff. It’s up to Democrats to argue that his encouragement and negligence outweighed those messages.
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3. Connecting the dots on Trump’s actions
Democrats’ impeachment article focused mostly on one event: Trump’s Jan. 6 speech. It also mentioned Trump’s call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, in which he asked him to “find” enough votes to flip the state (which, as of Wednesday, is the subject of a criminal investigation), as well as a broad reference to Trump’s “prior efforts to subvert and obstruct the certification of” election results.
Given that, there was a real question about how far back in history they would go to prove incitement – including whether and how much they would lump in Trump’s past references to violence by his supporters.
Early on, they did go through some of that history, while focusing more on Trump’s subversion of the election.
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, laid out a timeline of events dating to the spring, noting Trump laid a predicate for claiming the election was stolen as far back as May.
“The evidence shows clearly that this mob was provoked over many months by Donald J. Trump,” Castro said. “And if you look at the evidence, his purposeful conduct, you’ll see that the attack was foreseeable and preventable.”
Castro pointed to Trump’s tweets and comments saying that the only way he would lose the election was if it was rigged – despite polls at the time repeatedly showing his loss was likely. He played clips of Trump supporters who took that at face value. He also played clips of people, even as the votes were being counted, rising up in protest.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said Trump sought to “prime” his supporters for Jan. 6 for months.
“That took time,” Swalwell said, revisiting the fire metaphor. “Just like to build a fire, it doesn’t just start with the flames. Donald Trump for months and months assembled the tinder, the kindling, threw on logs for fuel to have his supporters believe that the only way their victory would be lost was if it was stolen – so that way President Trump was ready, if he lost the election, to light the match.”
There is no question that Trump’s claims about the election have been routinely bogus; the courts have ruled as such. Claiming an election will be stolen months before it’s held also speaks to the idea that he was planning for a specific eventuality.
The challenge for Democrats, from there, is to argue that this wasn’t just an effort by Trump to save face – to pretend he never lost when that seemed likely. To continue the fire metaphor, playing with it is different from deliberately lighting it.
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4. Making the case on Trump and violence
Democrats highlighted Trump’s past rhetoric encouraging and suggesting violence by his supporters, while keeping it focused on events surrounding the election. Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-Virgin Islands, was given an unusually large platform for a nonvoting member of Congress to make the case.
She noted that Trump endorsed his supporters surrounding a Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway just before the election, leading to a collision. According to some accounts, they attempted to drive the bus off the road. Trump tweeted a video with fight music behind it and said at the time, “These patriots did nothing wrong.”
An organizer of that caravan was later involved in encouraging people to storm the Capitol, pointing out flimsy fencing around it and using a bullhorn to urge people to enter.
The second major event Plaskett spotlighted was Trump being asked at a September presidential debate to repudiate extreme elements of the conservative movement, prompting him to tell the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence, to “stand back and stand by.” The comment was criticized at the time as promoting potential violence. The Proud Boys adopted it as a mantra. They figured prominently in the storming of the Capitol.
Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., said in her presentation later: “This was not just one reference or a message to supporters by a politician to fight for a cause. He’d assembled thousands of violent people, people he knew were capable of violence, people he had seen be violent. They were standing now in front of him. And then he pointed to us [in Congress], lit the fuse and sent an angry mob.”
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5. The deliberate-negligence argument
One way to drive home the above point is to note that Trump didn’t just light the fire – he declined to snuff it once it started burning. That shows that, at the very least, this was an outcome he was okay with.
Democrats made that deliberate-negligence argument Tuesday.
Beyond Raskin’s allusion to Trump deciding to “sit back” and let it happen, Castro and Swalwell noted that some officials had warned about the possibility of such scenes weeks beforehand, but Trump did little.
“‘Stop the count.’ ‘Stop the steal,'” Swalwell said, referring to Trump’s post-election tweets alleging fraud. “President Trump was never shy about using his platforms to try and stop something. He could have very easily told his supporters: Stop threatening officials. Stop going to their homes. Stop it with the threats. But each time he didn’t. Instead, in the face of escalating violence, he incited them further.”
Democrats signaled this will be a focal point of the case against Trump, including Trump’s tweet attacking Pence.
“You will see his relentless attack on Vice President Pence, who was, at that very moment, hiding with his family as armed extremists were chanting, ‘Hang Mike Pence!’ calling him a traitor,” said Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), another impeachment manager. He added: “If as soon as this had started, President Trump had simply gone on to TV, just logged on to Twitter and said, ‘Stop the attack,’ if he had done so with even half as much force as he said, ‘Stop the steal,’ how many lives would we have saved? Sadly, he didn’t do that.”