House Democrats prosecuting Donald Trump's impeachment said on Thursday the Capitol invaders believed they were acting on "the president's orders” and reflected his violent rhetoric when they set out to storm the building and stop the joint session of Congress that was certifying Democrat Joe Biden's election.
The prosecutors were wrapping up their opening presentation, describing in stark, personal terms the horror they faced that day and unearthing the many public and explicit instructions Trump gave his supporters — both in the weeks before the January 6 attack and at his midday rally that unleashed the mob on the Capitol. Videos of rioters, some posted to social medial by themselves, talked about how they were doing it all for Trump.
“We were invited here,” said one. "Trump sent us,” said another. “He’ll be happy. We’re fighting for Trump.” Five people died.
“They truly believed that the whole intrusion was at the president’s orders,” said Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado. “The president told them to be there.”
Trump’s lawyers will launch their defence on Friday, and the trial could wrap by the weekend.
At the White House, President Joe Biden said he believed “some minds may be changed” after senators saw chilling security video on Wednesday of the deadly insurrection at the Capitol, including of rioters searching menacingly for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence.
Biden said he didn’t watch any of the previous day’s proceedings live but later saw news coverage.
This second impeachment trial, on the charge of incitement of insurrection, has echoes of last year's impeachment over the Ukraine matter, as prosecutors warn senators that left unchecked Trump poses a danger to the civic order. Even out of office, the former president holds influence over large swaths of voters.
The prosecutors on Thursday drew a direct line from his repeated comments condoning and even celebrating violence — praising “both sides” after the 2017 outbreak at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and urging his rally crowd last month to go to the Capitol and fight for his presidency.
“There’s a pattern staring us in the face,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, the lead prosecutor.
“When Donald Trump tells the crowd as he did on January 6 to fight like hell, or you won’t have a country anymore. He meant for them to fight like hell.”
Trump lawyers will argue later this week that his words were protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment and just a figure of speech.
Though most of the Senate jurors seem to have made up their minds, making Trump’s acquittal likely, the never-before-seen audio and video released on Wednesday is now a key exhibit in Trump’s impeachment trial as lawmakers prosecuting the case argue Trump should be convicted of inciting the siege.
Senators sat riveted as the jarring video played in the chamber. Senators shook their heads, folded their arms and furrowed their brow. Screams from the audio and video filled the Senate chamber. Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma bent his head at one point, another GOP colleague putting his hand on his arm in comfort.
Senator Mitt Romney, R-Utah, saw himself in the footage, dashing down a hallway to avoid the mob. Romney said he hadn’t realised that officer Eugene Goodman, who has been praised as a hero for luring rioters away from the Senate doors, had been the one to direct him to safety.
“That was overwhelmingly distressing and emotional,” he said.
Videos of the siege have been circulating since the day of the riot, but the graphic compilation shown to senators on Wednesday amounted to a more complete narrative, a moment-by-moment retelling of one of the nation’s most alarming days. In addition to the evident chaos and danger, it offered fresh details on the attackers, scenes of police heroism and cries of distress. And it underscored how dangerously close the rioters came to the nation’s leaders, shifting the focus of the trial from an academic debate about the Constitution to a raw retelling of the assault.
The footage showed the mob smashing into the building, rioters engaging in hand-to-hand combat with police and audio of Capitol police officers pleading for back-up. Rioters were seen roaming the halls chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” and eerily singing out “Where's Nancy?” in search for Pelosi.
Pence, who had been presiding over a session to certify Biden’s election victory over Trump — thus earning Trump’s censure — was shown being rushed to safety, where he sheltered in an office with his family just 100 feet from the rioters. Pelosi was seen being evacuated from the complex as her staff hid behind doors in her suite of offices.
“President Trump put a target on their backs and his mob broke into the Capitol to hunt them down,” said House prosecutor Stacey Plaskett, the Democratic delegate representing the Virgin Islands.
The goal of the presentation was to cast Trump not as an innocent bystander but rather as the “inciter in chief” who spent months spreading falsehoods about the election.
“This attack never would have happened, but for Donald Trump,” Representative Madeleine Dean, one of the impeachment managers, said as she choked back emotion. “And so they came, draped in Trump’s flag, and used our flag, the American flag, to batter and to bludgeon.”
The Trump legal team takes the floor on Friday and on Saturday for up to 16 hours to lay out its defence. The difficulty facing Trump’s defence became apparent at the start as his lawyers leaned on the process of the trial, unlike any other, rather than the substance of the case against the former president.
Trump's lawyers are likely to blame the rioters themselves for the violence.
The first president to face an impeachment trial after leaving office, Trump is also the first to be twice impeached.
His lawyers also say he cannot be convicted because he is already gone from the White House. Even though the Senate rejected that argument in Tuesday's vote to proceed to the trial, the legal issue could resonate with Senate Republicans eager to acquit Trump without being seen as condoning his behaviour.
While six Republicans joined with Democrats to vote to proceed with the trial on Tuesday, the 56-44 vote was far from the two-thirds threshold of 67 votes needed for conviction.
Minds did not seem to be changing Wednesday, even after senators watched the graphic video.
Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who was among those leading the effort to challenge the Electoral College tally, said, “The president’s rhetoric is at times overheated, but this is not a referendum on whether you agree with everything the president says or tweets.”
It appears unlikely that the House prosecutors will call witnesses, and Trump has declined a request to testify.
Trump's second impeachment trial is expected to diverge from the lengthy, complicated affair of a year ago. In that case, Trump was charged with having privately pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden, then a Democratic rival for the presidency.
The Democratic-led House impeached the president swiftly, one week after the attack.