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The Ridiculous ‘Free Speech’ Defense of Trump

A lot more went into the January 6 insurrection than a few bad tweets.
February 2, 2021
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(Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty)

The Senate’s upcoming impeachment trial is supposed to be about former President Donald Trump’s role in inciting the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. If Trump’s allies and apologists get their way, it will be another excuse to whine about cancel culture and the supposed persecution of Trump.

Trump impeachment lawyer David Schoen previewed the strategy with Sean Hannity on Monday night, calling the proceedings “a very, very dangerous road to take with respect to the First Amendment, putting at risk any passionate political speaker.”

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who first tried to declare the trial “dead on arrival” when all but five Senate Republicans supported his motion to declare it unconstitutional, is also positioning his next defense of Trump as a free speech issue. “[Trump] said, ‘Go fight for your country, and let your voices be heard in a peaceful and patriotic way.’ I don’t know how that can possibly be considered to be violent speech,” Paul told a Louisville TV station. Rep. Jim Jordan is also on script, huffing that the Democrats want to “cancel the president and anyone who disagrees with them.” And of course Rep. Matt Gaetz is on message, tweeting: “Impeachment is the zenith of cancel culture.”

Trump is a victim of the liberal mob, see? His former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, complained, “They beat him up before he got into office. They’re beating him up after he leaves office. At some point, I mean, give the man a break!” Sen. Ted Cruz groused that impeachment is “petty, vindictive, mean spirited, and divisive.”

As if it were totally reasonable for a sitting president to conduct a deliberate and systematic campaign to subvert an election. To hear them tell it, Trump isn’t guilty of anything except maybe saying some regrettable things on Twitter or at a rally or two.

But while the Orange Man has said plenty of awful things, the exclusive focus on his words is a dodge.

From November through January 6, Trump engaged in an aggressive, meritless quest to hang on to power.

Even before election day, there were many earlier indications that Trump would not go gently into a post-presidency. He spent months laying the groundwork for delegitimizing the election in case he lost. In September, he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

By election night he was upfront about his intentions. As it began to look like he would lose, he put the country on notice: “This is a fraud on the American public,” he said in a televised speech shortly before 2:30 a.m. “This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election—frankly, we did win this election.”

That was the beginning of the big election lie that led thousands of Trump supporters to breach the U.S. Capitol in a failed quest to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. Without the lie, perpetuated by Trump and his acolytes, there would have been no insurrection. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick would still be alive.

Just as soon as the media called the election for Joe Biden on November 7, Trump and his lawyers whipped up false claims about election fraud in hopes of stopping the states from certifying Biden’s election. Trump wheeled out White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany to accuse the Democrats of “welcoming fraud” in a spectacle that was so embarrassing Fox News cut away from it.

There was no substance to any of it. Trump’s campaign lawyers went on to lose dozens of cases in court. Even Bill Barr, his strongly supportive attorney general, said there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud. (At odds with Trump on this issue, Barr announced his resignation even though he had just a little more than a month left to serve.)

Still, Trump pressed on with his longshot bid to wipe out election results in the swing states.

Remember the lawsuit filed in the Supreme Court by the attorney general of Texas, seeking to nullify 20 million votes in four states, thereby throwing the election to Trump? The lawsuit that 18 other state attorneys general supported? It was “secretly drafted by lawyers close to the White House,” the New York Times has reported. Filed on December 7, the suit absurdly claimed that it was statistically impossible for Trump to have lost the election:

The probability of former Vice President Biden winning the popular vote in the four Defendant States—Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—independently given President Trump’s early lead in those States as of 3 a.m. on November 4, 2020, is less than one in a quadrillion, or 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000. For former Vice President Biden to win these four States collectively, the odds of that event happening decrease to less than one in a quadrillion to the fourth power.

White House staff—which is to say, paid government employeespushed that preposterous statistical fabrication, too. And Trump’s White House pressured members of Congress—including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy—into signing an amicus brief supporting the bogus case. Two thirds of the Republicans in the House would do so. An array of longtime conservative grassroots leaders enlisted in the effort as well. These swamp creatures—including Tony Perkins, Al Regnery, Tom Fitton, Becky Norton Dunlop, Brent Bozell, and Gary Bauer—falsely and bizarrely stated: “There is no doubt President Donald J. Trump is the lawful winner of the presidential election. Joe Biden is not president-elect.”

When the Supreme Court rejected the Texas lawsuit on December 11, Trump still did not concede.

When the Electoral College met on December 14 and confirmed Joe Biden’s victory, Trump did not concede, either.

Instead, he kept grasping and clawing for more options. His efforts to overturn the election results were so many and so varied that by mid-December, journalists had run out of clichés to describe them: “last-gasp,” “last-ditch,” “eleventh-hour,” and “hail Mary” had all been burned through.


At that point, only one more deadline was left.

January 6, the date scheduled for the constitutionally required congressional “counting” of the Electoral College votes. It was supposed to be a mere formality—but as the final procedural step before the new president was sworn in, Trump and his supporters seized it as their last chance to alter the outcome, by any disruption necessary. His efforts, and those of his allies, began to converge on that date.

On December 27, Trump began promoting a January 6 gathering in Washington—what would eventually serve as the staging point for his rally-turned-mob:

On December 30, Sen. Josh Hawley said that he would object to the certification of Electoral College votes on January 6. Three days later, Sen. Ted Cruz and a batch of other Republicans also said they would object.

In Georgia, where incumbent Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue were campaigning to retain their Senate seats in a pair of run-off races that would determine the balance of power in the chamber, Trump hijacked the spotlight for his own means.

In public, he repeatedly berated Georgia officials over their handling of the election. Behind the scenes, he squeezed them to change the results of the presidential election with the aim of blocking Biden’s election from being certified by Congress on January 6. Trump pressed Georgia Governor Brian Kemp to use the state legislature to overturn Biden’s win in the Peach State. Trump called Georgia’s elections investigator and told him to “find the fraud.” When no one bit, Trump then directly called Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, on January 2 and told him to “find” the precise number of votes Trump needed to win the state or else there would be “a big risk to you.”

Meanwhile, lawyers and organizations working on Trump’s behalf, such as Lin Wood, Sidney Powell, and an activist outfit called Women for America First, enthusiastically promoted Trump’s baseless claims with splashy events designed to garner grassroots support for Trump’s cause.

Militia groups started raising money and organizing to take mass action on January 6.

Trump returned to Georgia on January 4 for a final campaign rally for the senators and told the crowd he would stop Biden from becoming president.

“They’re not going to take this White House,” Trump said. “We’re going to fight like hell, I’ll tell you right now.”

Earlier that day, Loeffler and Perdue both revealed that they would join Hawley and Cruz in objecting to Biden’s certification on January 6, which jazzed the crowd. Trump welcomed newly elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to the stage. Known for embracing all manner of bigoted and delusional conspiracy theories, Greene said said she was “so fired up” that Loeffler agreed to object. “We have to save America and stop socialism. . . . We’re going to fight for President Trump on January 6! God bless, Georgia, God bless America—let’s do this!”

On January 5, Loeffler and Perdue ended their campaigns in failure. But Trump’s campaign was just about to reach its bloody climax.


At his January 6 “Save America” rally on the Ellipse by the White House, Trump’s tough talk became explicit marching orders. Trump falsely suggested to the rallygoers that he would accompany them to the Capitol, giving them the full impression that he shared their goal of physically descending on Congress to prevent the certification of Biden’s election. His apologists have made much of his one remark about “peacefully and patriotically” marching to the Capitol. But that line must be looked at in the context of the rest of his speech. He said:

We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.

And:

We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore, and that is what this is all about. And to use a favorite term that all of you people really came up with, we will ‘Stop the Steal’. . . . You will have an illegitimate president. That is what you will have, and we can’t let that happen. These are the facts that you won’t hear from the fake news media. It’s all part of the suppression effort. They don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to talk about it. . . . We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.

And:

Now it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy. And after this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you. . . . We are going to the Capitol, and we are going to try and give—the Democrats are hopeless, they are never voting for anything, not even one vote, but we are going to try—give our Republicans, the weak ones, because the strong ones don’t need any of our help, we’re try—going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.

And then the mob came.

The Washington Post reported that “as senators and House members trapped inside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday begged for immediate help during the siege, they struggled to get through to the president, who—safely ensconced in the West Wing—was too busy watching fiery TV images of the crisis unfolding around them to act or even bother to hear their pleas.”

While the violence unfolded, Trump didn’t send help to protect Congress. He remained focused on pushing Republican members of Congress to object to or delay the vote count, dialing the phone in hopes of finding another recruit for his cause.

It wasn’t until long after the windows had been smashed and the blood had been spilled that Trump issued any kind of public statement about the shocking scene that had unfolded. In an awkward, short video shot in the Rose Garden, he didn’t manage to unequivocally condemn the violence; rather, he bathed the insurrectionists with warm words in support of their shared cause.

“This was a fraudulent election, but we can’t play into the hands of these people,” Trump said. “We have to have peace. So go home, we love you, you’re very special, you’ve seen what happens, you’ve seen the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel, but go home and go home in peace.”


People like Rand Paul would like to pretend that Trump’s words have no real significance and that he didn’t do anything much different than any other run-of-the-mill politico.

They want you to think that saying “Go, fight, win!” means the same thing when said on the sidelines of a football field as it does when barked by the commander-in-chief to a group of men and women, some of them armed, all of them with a grievance, who believe they are on a mission from God to rescue their country from evil.

They want you to believe that Trump is something like a mere “private citizen” who mistakenly yelled “Fire!” in a crowded theater, when what Trump really did is like pulling all the alarms, pumping up a smoke machine, and cranking the thermostat to trick people into believing they would perish if they didn’t immediately follow his lead.

As Rep. Liz Cheney said, “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President.”

Trump created a dangerous threat to democracy out of thin air. He made enemies out of men and women who performed their duties to carry out our laws in the service of an orderly election and the peaceful transition of power. He convinced saboteurs they were patriots. He incited an insurrection.

So forget the concern-trolling about Trump being “canceled” just for his words. Trump should be convicted for his deeds.

Amanda Carpenter

Bulwark political columnist Amanda Carpenter is a CNN contributor, author, and former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz and speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint.