The Senate moved into the next phase of former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial Friday afternoon, as senators got their turn to pose written questions to the legal teams with the trial racing toward its conclusion.
Trump’s legal team wrapped up its presentation in a little more than three hours Friday before the question-and-answer session. In their brief argument, Trump’s team equated the former President’s speech with that of Democrats’ rhetoric — showing lengthy montages of Democratic politicians saying they would “fight” — to argue that Trump’s rhetoric on January 6 did not incite the rioters who attacked the Capitol afterward.
The defense team’s presentation showed Democratic reactions to videos of protests and riots over police violence last year, comparing them to the attack on the US Capitol, while they argued that Trump’s language telling his supporters to “fight like hell” was merely “ordinary political rhetoric.” Trump’s lawyers also falsely suggested Antifa was responsible for the deadly riots, rather than Trump supporters, and raised Trump’s false claims of voter fraud in Georgia.
The presentation underscored the goal of Trump’s team Friday: Do no harm. Unlike the Democratic managers, who hoped to win over Republican senators with their presentation, Trump’s lawyers expect to already have the votes they need for acquittal, as most Republican senators are saying they will vote to acquit Trump because they believe the trial is unconstitutional.
Democratic senators told CNN they expect the final vote to convict Trump could happen at 3 p.m. ET, with the Senate expecting to reconvene the trial at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday, although the vote time is not yet locked in. Senators have up to four hours for the question-and-answer session, and the Senate will wrap for the day once that’s completed. Senators don’t expect to use the full four hours, though there’s no way of estimating what time questions will be done because any senator can decide to ask a question on the floor on the fly as long as it’s within the four-hour time period.
During their two days of arguments, the House managers tried to force senators to confront the horrific images in a bid to change Republican minds, while Trump’s team was more than content with a partisan draw. At the first break of the day Friday, the partisan division was on display in a way it had not been in the two days when the managers presented: Republicans praised Trump’s lawyers and Democrats universally panned them.
Trump lawyer Michael van der Veen played clips of congressional Democrats objecting to the certification of Trump’s win in the 2016 election, including Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the lead impeachment manager. And they ran a nearly 10-minute montage of Senate Democrats, the managers and other politicians saying the word “fight,” suggesting they used the same rhetoric as the former President.
Trump’s lawyers also went after House Democrats, accusing them of political retribution in impeaching the former President a second time after going after him throughout his time in office. They accused the managers of selectively editing footage of Trump’s speeches and tweets and ignoring Trump’s comments for protesters to remain peaceful.
“The hatred that the House managers and others on the left have for President Trump has driven them to skip the basic elements of due process and fairness,” Trump attorney David Schoen said.
A divided reaction
Inside the Senate chamber, Republicans reacted with chuckles and laughter at various points, nodding in agreement with the Trump lawyers’ presentation. Democrats were mostly stone faced at the start of the lengthy montage, but that changed quickly as more and more clips played. There were constant murmurs in the chamber, as well as whispering, some laughing and note passing.
Republicans had panned the initial meandering presentation from Trump’s team on Tuesday, but they praised his attorneys on Friday.
“I just think the President’s attorneys just blew their case out of the water,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who voted the trial was constitutional, said Trump’s team was “putting on a good defense today.”
“The first two hours I thought were well put together,” she said.
To Democrats, the Trump lawyers put forward a “bogus argument,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat. “Donald Trump was told that if he didn’t stop lying about the election people would be killed. He wouldn’t stop, and the Capitol was attacked and seven people are dead who would be alive today. That’s what I think about this,” he said.
Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico called it a “completely false equivalence.”
“I don’t remember any violent mobs after any of those comments, so it’s just not the same thing,” Heinrich said.
The question-and-answer session could give hints at where the six GOP senators who voted that the trial was constitutional will land on the final vote for conviction.
‘Peacefully and patriotically’
Van der Veen acknowledged the abhorrent violence at the Capitol on Friday, but also suggested that groups of “extremists of various different stripes and political persuasions,” including Antifa, pre-planned the attack, meaning Trump could not have incited it.
“Nothing in the text could ever be construed as encouraging, condoning or enticing unlawful activity of any kind,” van der Veen said. “Far from promoting insurrection against the United States, the President’s remarks explicitly encouraged those in attendance to exercise their rights peacefully and patriotically.”
To be sure, the arguments from Trump’s lawyers included factually dubious and outright false claims about the circumstances of the riots. Antifa was not responsible for the riots at the Capitol — the dozens of charging documents have shown many well-known leaders of far-right groups led the attackers. Though it is hard to pinpoint the political ideology of some participants in the riot, video evidence and court documents conclusively show that the riot was perpetrated by Trump supporters.
A top FBI official told reporters in early January that they had seen “no indication” that Antifa members had disguised themselves as Trump supporters. Even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said on the House floor last month during the impeachment debate there was “absolutely no evidence” Antifa caused the riots.
The defense team’s focus on Trump’s January 6 speech also ignored the argument House Democrats had made earlier in the week that Trump’s incitement dated back months and involved more than just that speech.
The most substantive case Trump’s lawyers made was that Trump’s speech on January 6 did not amount to incitement and was protected by the First Amendment, just like other political speech is protected speech. Trump’s team argued that he used the word “fight” in a political context at his speech at the January 6 rally, such as fighting Republicans who voted against him in a primary.
“There’s no doubt Mr. Trump engaged in constitutionally protected speech that the House has improperly characterized as incitement of insurrection,” said Trump attorney Bruce Castor.
The Trump team’s presentation concluded with an effort to push back on the allegations that Trump told Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes for Trump to win, as Castor raised many of the false allegations about voter fraud in Georgia to argue Trump had done nothing wrong when he called Raffensperger.
Democrats look to limit questions
In another sign that things are moving quickly — and that senators may get their chance to question each side Friday evening — GOP and Democratic senators were asked ahead of the question-and-answer session to submit their proposed questions to their respective leaders. The idea among the leaders was to avoid duplication. Some senators are working together on questions.
Democratic senators discussed Friday limiting the number of questions they plan to ask the impeachment managers and Trump attorneys. It’s unclear how many questions they might ask — one Democratic Senate source said perhaps just five on their side — but the belief is there’s no need to further clarify what they believe is a slam-dunk case from House Democrats.
This also is another indication that the question period — which is expected to happen as soon as Friday evening — is not expected to go the full four hours as allotted under the Senate trial rules.
Still, several of the key Republican senators say they have multiple questions. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah said he submitted five, while Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said he wanted to hear more about Trump’s tweet attacking Vice President Mike Pence after Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama told Trump that Pence was being evacuated.
“The President clearly had knowledge at that point and then the tweet went out,” Cassidy said. “I would like both sides to address that, certainly the defense team. How would they explain that away if you’re going to explain that away?”
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Friday.