Sam Levine in New YorkFri, 12 February 2021, 6:28 pm
Donald Trump’s lawyers launched their attempt to defend the former president on Friday, saying the second impeachment trial was a “politically motivated witch hunt”.
Michael van der Veen, one of Trump’s attorneys, used that phrase on Friday to describe Democrats’ motivation for impeaching Trump a second time. He argued Trump’s heated rhetoric on 6 January was no different than the language politicians frequently use in American politics today. Trump exhorted his supporters to “fight like hell” during a rally just before they marched down Pennsylvania avenue in Washington and attacked the US capitol.
“No thinking person could seriously believe that the president’s January 6th speech on the Ellipse was in any way an incitement to violence or insurrection,” van der Veen said.
He also veered away from the events on 6 January, instead focusing on several instances over the last year in which he accused Democrats of using similar heated language and not doing enough to condemn violent protesters last year.
“This unprecedented effort is not about Democrats opposing political violence. It is about Democrats trying to disqualify their political opposition. It is constitutional cancel culture,” he said. “History will record this shameful effort as a deliberate attempt by the Democrat Party to smear, censor and cancel not just President Trump, but the 75 million Americans who voted for him.”
At one point, Trump’s lawyers played an extensive supercut of Democratic politicians using the word “fight” in an attempt to argue that Democrats were being hypocritical for impeaching Trump. But Democrats have said Trump wasn’t impeached merely for saying the word “fight” – he invited supporters to Washington on the day congress was counting the electoral college, and after years of encouraging violence, told his supporters to “fight” and descend on the capitol.
Democrats spent much of the week pre-butting some of those arguments. They played numerous videos in which the insurrectionists shouted at police that they had been invited to there by Trump, and pointed to several court documents in which rioters charged with criminal offenses have said they were acting at Trump’s behest.
“President Trump was not impeached because he used words that the House decided are forbidden or unpopular. He was impeached for inciting armed violence against the government of the United States of America,” David Cicilline, a House impeachment manager, said earlier this week.
Jamie Raskin, the lead House Democratic prosecutor, addressed the claim that Trump’s statements were protected by the first amendment earlier in the week, saying it was “absurd”. While a private citizen can urge overthrow of the government, Raskin said, the president of the United States, who swears an oath to defend the nation against all enemies, cannot do the same.
“If you’re president of the United States, you’ve chosen a side with your oath of office,” Raskin, a longtime constitutional law professor, said earlier this week. “And if you break it, we can impeach, convict, remove and disqualify you permanently from holding any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.”
Trump’s lawyers signaled they intend to present a brief defense today.
The attorneys are likely to try to redirect the responsibility from the former president to solely the people who laid siege to the Capitol. They also plan to argue that his speech at that day’s rally was protected by the first amendment. Trump’s lawyers are likely to frame the impeachment trial as a rushed effort without due process that is driven by Democrats’ personal animus, according to the Associated Press.
Though Trump’s team has 16 hours to make their case, they intend to only use three or four hours to do so, Schoen told reporters on Thursday. Republicans want to conclude the trial quickly, according to Axios, after Democrats mounted a strong prosecution filled with harrowing videos.
Trump’s lawyers will go into their arguments knowing that 17 Republicans would need to vote to find Trump guilty in order to convict him. It is unlikely so many Republicans would vote against the former president, increasing his chances of being acquitted.
Trump’s team may also revisit the argument that Trump cannot be impeached because he is no longer in office. A majority of senators – including six Republicans – rejected that argument after hearing hours of debate on the issue on Tuesday.
Friday will be the first time Trump’s lawyers will present arguments in the trial since a rocky opening on Tuesday. Bruce Castor, a Pennsylvania prosecutor serving as one of Trump’s attorneys, gave meandering opening remarks that were difficult to follow, a performance that reportedly infuriated Trump.
Depending on when arguments conclude, there could be a vote in the trial as soon as Saturday.