WASHINGTON • US senators voted yesterday in favour of allowing witnesses in the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump, extending the proceedings as lawmakers weighed whether to convict Mr Trump of inciting the Jan 6 riot at the Capitol.
The development came after news that Mr Trump told a top congressional Republican during the deadly assault by his supporters last month that the mob was “more upset” about his election defeat than lawmakers.
The 55-45 vote in favour of allowing witnesses means a decision in the trial was unlikely to come late yesterday. Prior to the vote, closing arguments from the House lawmakers serving as prosecutors and Mr Trump’s defence attorneys had been expected yesterday after a week-long trial.
Much of the trial focused on how much Mr Trump knew about the rioters’ actions as they rampaged through Congress on Jan 6, seeking to prevent lawmakers from certifying Mr Joe Biden’s victory in the November presidential election.
Republican Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler, who is expected to be one of the witnesses called to testify, recounted in a statement late on Friday the details of a call between Mr Trump and the top House Republican, Mr Kevin McCarthy.
“‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are’,” Ms Beutler quoted Mr Trump as saying.
Mr Trump’s lawyers argued on Friday that he bears no responsibility for an attack by supporters on Congress after he failed to win re-election. The defence lawyers finished their presentation in just three hours, of the 16 hours they were allotted, accusing Democrats of persecuting Mr Trump.
This followed two days of evidence from Democratic impeachment managers, centred on harrowing video footage of the mob assault against the Capitol on Jan 6.
The indications so far are that Democrats will not get enough Republican support for a conviction.
The US Senate’s top Republican Mitch McConnell revealed yesterday that he will vote against convicting Mr Trump, US media reported.
While describing the vote on whether to convict as a “close call”, he told colleagues in a letter that “I am persuaded that impeachments are a tool primarily of removal and we therefore lack jurisdiction,” according to Politico which obtained a copy of the message. “I will vote to acquit,” Mr McConnell added.
In his arguments on Friday, defence lawyer Michael van der Veen called the impeachment unconstitutional and an “act of political vengeance”. “The Senate should promptly and decisively vote to reject it,” he said.
But impeachment managers charged that Mr Trump deliberately stoked national tension after losing to Mr Biden with a campaign of lies, claiming there had been mass voter fraud. On Jan 6 he staged a fiery rally near the White House, calling on the crowd to march on Congress, which was in the process of certifying Mr Biden’s victory.
Key arguments made at trial
Democratic impeachment managers finished presenting their case last Thursday after two days of what they described as overwhelming evidence proving former president Donald Trump incited the Jan 6 riots at the US Capitol. Led by congressman Jamie Raskin, they used videos of the riots and Mr Trump’s words in speeches, rallies and tweets to make their case.
HIS OWN WORDS
In making their case that Mr Trump was responsible for “incitement of insurrection”, the Article under which he was impeached last month, the Democratic managers turned repeatedly to one figure: the former president himself. For months, Mr Trump had spouted conspiracy theories that the election was stolen, had refused to agree to a peaceful transfer of power and pressured state officials to “find” extra votes. Impeachment managers played clips from his incendiary Jan 6 speech in which he urged his supporters to march on the nearby Capitol and “fight like hell”. They also highlighted dozens of his incendiary tweets.
TAKING ORDERS FROM THE PRESIDENT
To show that Mr Trump himself was inextricably linked to the men and women who besieged Congress, the impeachment managers quoted rioter after rioter who said they took Mr Trump at his word when he told them he needed them to save the nation. “President Trump is calling us to FIGHT!” read one extremist’s social media post that was used as evidence, one of dozens of examples that showed insurrectionists were convinced they were taking orders directly from the then President. “They were acting in perfect alignment with his political instructions,” Mr Raskin said.
IN ‘MORTAL PERIL’
Impeachment managers at the trial made clear exactly how close then Vice-President Mike Pence and senior lawmakers had been to the raging mob before they were evacuated. They showed security camera footage that shocked some lawmakers, who acknowledged after seeing the images they had been unaware how narrow their escape was. “Never did any of us imagine that we or our colleagues would face mortal peril by a mob riled up by the president,” impeachment manager David Cicilline said. “But we did.”
DID NOTHING TO STOP VIOLENCE
The prosecution also argued that Mr Trump did nothing on Jan 6 to stop the violence once it began. They said he remained silent for hours with the Capitol besieged, refused to condemn the riot and did not call off the invaders even after Republican politicians went on television begging him to. “President Trump left everyone in this Capitol for dead,” manager Joaquin Castro told the Senate.
Mr Trump’s lawyers presented their impeachment defence in a span of three hours on Friday. They called the House’s charge against Mr Trump a “preposterous and monstrous lie”, and said that he should be acquitted because his call to “fight” the election was a figure of speech protected by the First Amendment.
THE WORD ‘FIGHT’ USED FIGURATIVELY
Mr Trump’s defence team delivered a rapid-fire video montage of Democrats saying the word “fight” in their political speeches, challenging a key House argument that Mr Trump incited the attack on Jan 6 by telling his supporters to “fight” in a speech just before urging them to march to the Capitol.
Earlier in the week, House impeachment managers had played video of that speech, including Mr Trump saying: “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.”
Mr Trump’s lawyers maintained that this figurative language is common among politicians, as evidenced by the video montage, which they asserted included all of the House managers as well as Democratic senators using phrases such as: “You don’t get what you don’t fight for.”
RIGHT OF FREE SPEECH
Mr Trump’s lawyers argued that the US Constitution guarantees free speech rights, which they say he was exercising on Jan 6 when he told supporters at a rally ahead of the Capitol attack to “fight like hell” to stop Congress from confirming President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.
If the Senate voted to convict the former president for his words, they argued, it would have a chilling effect on political speech and open any politician up to punishment.
Anticipating this argument, the Democrats had made the case earlier in the week that the First Amendment did not protect speech that incites violence. But Trump attorney Michael van der Veen argued it had not been proved Mr Trump “explicitly or implicitly encouraged the use of lawless action”, and therefore his speech was protected by the First Amendment.
BID TO PREVENT COMEBACK
Mr Trump’s lawyers argued that behind Democrats’ decision to impeach him was an intention to prevent his comeback.
If the Senate convicts Mr Trump, it could pursue a separate vote to bar him from holding federal office in the future. When all but six of the 50 Senate Republicans voted last week that the trial of a former president was unconstitutional, it was clear that it was highly unlikely that he would be convicted. But the Democrats proceeded with the trial anyway, Mr Trump’s lawyers said, to heap political damage. “Why are we here? Politics,” said Mr Bruce Castor, one of Mr Trump’s attorneys. The Democrats’ “goal is to eliminate a political opponent, to substitute their judgment for the will of the voters”.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES
The mob then charged the Capitol, disrupting the certification. Five people, including a police officer and a woman shot during the unrest, died as a result of the mayhem.
Impeachment managers said Mr Trump, who has never expressed remorse for his encouragement of the violent crowd, is so dangerous that he should be barred from holding office again. It would take a two-thirds majority to convict, meaning 17 Republicans would need to join the Senate’s 50 Democrats.
Although Mr Trump looks set for acquittal, even a few Republican votes against him would leave a mark on his presidency, fuelling civil war within his party over whether to return to more moderate values.
Mr Trump’s lawyers argued that his rally speech on Jan 6, when he told supporters to “fight”, was merely rhetorical. They also argued that the Democrats’ true aim is to remove him from the political scene.
“Let us be clear: This trial is about far more than president Trump,” defence lawyer Bruce Castor said.
“It is about cancelling 75 million Trump voters, and criminalising political viewpoints. That is what this trial is really about.”
Seeking to turn the tables on the Democrats’ powerful use of video evidence, defence lawyers played their own compilations showing Democratic lawmakers at different times using the word “fight”.
Democratic senators, along with Mr Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris, were among those shown using the word in past speeches and on television.
“Please, stop the hypocrisy,” Trump lawyer David Schoen said.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE