The House impeachment managersconcluded their arguments in the Senate trialThursday with a forceful condemnation of former President Donald Trump, arguing that he should be convicted to send a message that extremism and violence have no place in American politics.
The Democrats claimed Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was part of a broader pattern stretching back to his run for president in 2016. They also warned he emboldened extremist groups to carry out similar attacks in the future.
Despite the stark warnings, most Republicans appeared unmoved after the House managers concluded their presentation. Trump’s defense team will make their rebuttal Friday, giving them the final word before senators consider whether to convict the former president. Here are key takeaways.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the lead House manager, framed Trump’s conduct in the lead-up to the Capitol attack as part of a long history of inciting and condoning violence perpetrated by his supporters.
Raskin played video clips of Trump urging supporters to attack opponents at rallies during the 2016 presidential election, and noted that Trump continued the behavior in office — including as recently as last year, when he praised a group of extremists who were charged with plotting to kidnap Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“President Trump knew exactly what he was doing” when he incited a mob to attack the Capitol in his speech on Jan. 6, Raskin said.
But over the course of several days, Democrats never presented concrete evidence that Trump was told his supporters were planning to carry out the attack. They argued he must have been aware of news reports about the potential for violence on Jan. 6, and that his efforts to promote a “wild” day at the Capitol indicated he knew it would turn violent. They bolstered the argument with clips of supporters who said they believed they were carrying out Trump’s orders when they attacked the Capitol.
“It’s pretty simple. He said it, and they did it. And we know this because they told us,” Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., another House manager, said of the rioters. “They were doing this for him because he asked them to.”
Still, the Democrats’ argument left a wide opening for Trump’s attorneys to claim that his call for supporters to “fight like hell” was not a literal call to arms. His defense team will likely also claim he could not have anticipated the extent of the attack, an argument most Senate Republicans appear open to.
A trial about more than just Trump
The House managers used their final day of arguments to frame the Capitol attack was part of a larger narrative about American democracy. The trial is about more than just punishing Trump, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said. “We simply cannot sweep this under the rug. We must take a united stand.”
DeGette and other House managers argued that if the Senate acquits Trump it would be tantamount to condoning future political violence. They noted that in the days after the Jan. 6 attack, law enforcement officials warned of potential attacks on state capitols and in Washington around the inauguration of Joe Biden.
The inauguration went off smoothly, likely due to the presence of 25,000 National Guard troops who were deployed to defend the Capitol and new fencing that kept the public from getting anywhere near the event. But Democrats said if left unchecked Trump’s incitement of the insurrection would encourage violent extremists going forward, including the white supremacist groups that helped plan the attack last month.
“If we pretend this didn’t happen, or worse, let it go unanswered, who’s to say it won’t happen again?” Neguse asked.
The argument turned the Democrats’ final presentation into a larger debate about the country’s political divisions, something both parties are grappling with as they assess Trump’s legacy. In the near-term, however, it may fall on deaf ears among Republicans, who have argued that the trial is a partisan effort with a specific goal: blocking Trump from running for office again.
A short case, with lots of repetition
Under the trial rules, the House managers had 16 hours to make their case. Raskin noted in his closing remarks that they made a “concise” argument that clocked in at roughly five hours under the maximum time they were allotted.
The presentation was raw and emotional at times, especially when Democrats played footage of Capitol Police officers under attack by a violent mob. And in placing Trump’s conduct in a historical context, Democrats made a compelling argument for why his impeachment represents an important crossroads for the nation.
The Senate voted Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2021, that the trial of former President Donald Trump is constitutional and that he can be subject to the Senate as a court of impeachment. CREDIT: Handout/Getty Images
Whether it was concise is up for debate. Over the course of their roughly 10-hour presentation, several House managers showed the same video footage of the attack. Clips of Trump’s speech on Jan. 6 were replayed numerous times. Members of the House managers team had dedicated lanes, but they frequently ended up making the same points.
The repetition resembled the Democrats’ argument in Trump’s first impeachment trial last year, and it had a similar effect on Republican senators. On Wednesday, some Republicans said they were moved by aspects of the Democrats’ case. By Thursday, some told reporters they believed the House managers had weakened their case by repeating themselves, a bad sign for Democrats if the sole purpose was to win over enough Republican votes to convict Trump.
But a conviction — which would require all 50 Senate Democrats and at least 17 Republicans to vote yes — was unlikely from the start of the trial.
The House managers were speaking to the public as much as they were to the Senate itself. By hammering home Trump’s role in the attack, they ensured that it won’t fade from memory anytime soon.
How will Trump’s defense respond?
Trump’s attorneys previewed their defense on the first day of the trial, which was devoted to the question of whether the Senate could conduct an impeachment trial for a former president.
Trump’s defense team claimed that only sitting presidents could be impeached, though Trump was in fact impeached before his term ended. The Senate ultimately voted 56-44 to move forward with the proceedings. On Thursday, Raskin reminded senators that the so-called constitutionality question had been resolved by that vote, and urged them to focus on the facts of the case. But the defense will likely return to that issue Friday, and once again argue that the proceedings are unconstitutional and that Trump cannot be convicted as a private citizen, an argument most constitutional scholars have shot down.
The defense team also signaled Tuesday that it plans to argue Trump’s remarks at his Jan. 6 rally represent free speech that’s protected by the First Amendment, a view many Republican senators share. Democrats proactively disputed this, noting that there are well-established limitations on free speech.
Trump’s attorneys have up to 16 hours to present their arguments. But the defense team is reportedly considering taking just one day to make their case. If they wrap up Friday, the Senate could move forward with the final portions of the trial and hold a vote as early as Saturday.
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