Donald Trump’s use of violent rhetoric with his supporters was purely “metaphorical,” his lawyers told the former president’s impeachment trial, and he was not responsible for causing the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
Defending him before the Senate, Mr. Trump’s legal team on Friday repeatedly tried to equate his exhortations for supporters to descend on the Capitol and overturn his election loss with speeches by Democratic politicians, in which they called on people to “fight” for progressive policies.
“No human being seriously believes that the use of such metaphorical terminology is incitement to political violence,” said Michael van der Veen, one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers. He derided the impeachment as a “witch hunt” and “constitutional cancel culture.”
Mr. Trump’s legal team was allotted 16 hours to make its case but used only three, setting up a final vote on the verdict as early as Saturday.
His lawyers argued that convicting their client would violate his right to free speech, and that the swift impeachment process had abrogated his right to a fair trial.
The core of their presentation was a series of frenetic videos showing Democrats using martial language in political speeches. One 10-minute-long supercut showed President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris and members of Congress repeatedly calling on supporters to “fight” for their principles as record-scratch noises played in the background. Another intercut Democrats praising racial-justice protests with shots of property destruction and arson.
Stacey Plaskett, one of the Democratic impeachment managers, fired back that her party’s rhetoric was not equivalent to Mr. Trump’s. She pointed to previous incidents of him praising violent acts by his supporters, such as when pro-Trump motorists tried to run Mr. Biden’s campaign bus off a highway in Texas. And she contended that he knew the crowd he had assembled on Jan. 6 was armed when he told his supporters to march on the Capitol.
“He has encouraged actual violence, not just the word ‘fight,’ ” she said. “He knew who he was calling and the violence they were capable of, and he still gave them their marching orders.”
Bruce Castor, the head of Mr. Trump’s legal team, also defended the former president’s Jan. 2 phone call to Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state. Mr. Trump threatened Mr. Raffensperger with criminal prosecution and demanded that he “find 11,780 votes” in Georgia – enough to overturn Mr. Biden’s victory in the state.
Mr. Castor said Mr. Trump was merely concerned that some ballots in Georgia had been fraudulently cast and wanted Mr. Raffensperger to “find” them. Mr. Castor did not say how Mr. Trump knew the exact total of ballots Mr. Raffensperger would find, or why that number coincided with the number Mr. Trump would need to win.
Mr. van der Veen, meanwhile, raised a baseless internet conspiracy theory that the attack on the Capitol was actually secretly instigated by left-wing activists. He said that the first person arrested on Jan. 6 was a member of “antifa,” an anti-fascist movement. While some anti-racism protesters were arrested at previous Trump rallies in Washington, there is no evidence that they were involved in the Jan. 6 riot.
Mr. van der Veen also litigated a June 1 protest at Lafayette Square near the White House, in which riot police used pepper spray and truncheons to clear away a peaceful crowd of anti-racism protesters so Mr. Trump could hold a photo-op at nearby St. John’s Church. Mr. van der Veen defended the police action, arguing it had “prevented many calamities from occurring.” He said the public backlash against it was to blame for the much lighter police presence at the Capitol ahead of the riot.
But the former president’s defenders did not address some portions of the case against him, including Democrats’ assertion that he did nothing to stop the riot as it unfolded.
In a question-and-answer session with senators, Susan Collins, one of the few Republicans considered likely to vote for conviction, asked Mr. Trump’s lawyers to clarify when he learned of the riot on Jan. 6 and what he did about it. Mr. van der Veen said he did not know. He blamed the Democrats for not holding an investigation to find out. The Democrats asked Mr. Trump to testify during the trial, but he refused.
The Senate will reconvene Saturday morning for up to four hours of closing arguments from both sides. A conviction, which requires a two-thirds majority, would take 17 Republicans voting with all Democrats. Currently, all but six Republican senators have indicated that they do not believe the trial is constitutional.
The day saw one moment of bipartisanship, as the Senate voted unanimously to award a congressional gold medal to Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman. Mr. Goodman single-handedly redirected a group of rioters away from senators and then-vice-president Mike Pence on Jan. 6.
Were it not for Mr. Goodman’s actions, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “people in this chamber may not have escaped that day unharmed.”
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