Today we saw the first evidence presented in the second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump. The evidence was not conveyed from the mouths of live witnesses, but instead through footage captured from body cameras on law enforcement officers, videos posted online by rioters and reporters, and audio clips of the mob’s chilling taunts directed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (“Nancy, where are you, Nancy?”) and calls to execute former Vice President Mike Pence. We also heard on-air pleas from Trump’s fellow Republicans—including his former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger—that he command his riotous followers to stop, and that he was the single person on the planet with the power to do so.
Nonetheless, hours into the carnage, Trump did nothing as commander-in-chief to save the thousands of lives at risk. Zilch.
Even worse, as the House impeachment managers made plain, Trump egged on his mob, tweeting that Pence was a coward—a tweet sent out after footage was already swirling on the internet showing rioters trolling the halls of the Capitol building, hunting Pence like an animal. Meanwhile, never-before-seen security camera footage showed Pence and his family fleeing down a set of back stairs. Senators Mitt Romney and Chuck Schumer were shown abruptly backtracking when security officers realized that exits were blocked by angry crowds, armed and bloodthirsty. Understandably, emotions ran high as the senators were forced to relive the trauma that would not have occurred but for weeks of encouragement from then-President Trump.
When the trial turns to Trump’s defense, which will likely occur on Friday, a primary argument will surely be that Trump’s Jan. 6 rhetoric amounted to nothing more than routine speech by a politician, albeit in his typical incendiary manner. The House impeachment managers proleptically anticipated that argument today, showing split-screen images of the violence unfolding in the halls of the Capitol alongside Trump’s tweets, speeches, and overall inaction in the face of mayhem and violence. He sent out sixteen tweets or retweets between midnight and noon on Jan. 6, before the insurrection erupted, but went largely silent once the Capitol was deeply under siege.
To be sure, as former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci told me in an interview this week, Trump is skilled at sprinkling his bad-boy words with softeners for the sake of plausible deniability later. His defense team will accordingly point to tweeted terms like “peaceful” as magically operating to erase the damaging ones—a strategy that served Trump well during his four years in office. It may well carry the day when it comes time for Senate Republicans to vote on whether to ban him from running again in 2024.
For his part, lead House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin’s opening remarks on Wednesday were extraordinary by any lawyerly measure. In quasi-Trumpian fashion, he coined a number of hashtags, calling Trump the “inciter-in-chief” and mocking the Republican argument for a “January exception” to the Constitution that would allow presidents to commit high crimes and misdemeanors willy-nilly at the end of a term.
When Trump finally spoke to tell his mob to go home, he added “We love you. You’re very special,” and at 6:01 p.m., tweeted that his people should “Remember this day forever!” Remember what, Raskin asked? The trauma, the death, the bludgeoning, the blood? For weeks, Trump told his devotees to come to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6—a date chosen because it was the date of the joint session in which Congress would count the certified electoral votes for Joe Biden’s victory by 306-232, the same “landslide” win that Trump trumpeted in his favor four years prior.
When Jan. 6 erupted in a violent attempt to stop the orderly counting of ballots and overturn the election results, Trump tweeted that it all happened as he expected: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”
If you have a beating heart in your chest, there’s no way today’s narrative could not have moved you. The question is whether it will move enough voters from Trump’s column so as to cause cowardly Republicans to do what’s right for the country and the Constitution—not to mention the maimed and injured and the families of the dead. If Republicans instead vote not to convict Trump, they will be agreeing with him that his words and deeds were “totally appropriate.”
In doing so, they will not only be acquitting Trump, but revealing how we should judge them: as too craven to defend our Constitution, and as willing to let the same thing happen again.