If anything could change Republican minds about convicting Donald Trump for inciting the deadly January 6 insurrection, I thought on Tuesday, it would be the legal and moral arguments marshaled by House Democratic impeachment manager Jamie Raskin, and the devastating, terrifying video evidence his team presented. The violence depicted there was beyond what any of us knew happened on that scary day.
But on the question at issue—whether the trial was even constitutional (it was)—well, it passed with unanimous Democratic votes, but only one Republican, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, actually flipped, and joined the five GOP senators who’d found the impeachment move constitutional to begin with.
I had a night of despair: If this set of arguments and evidence won’t move GOP senators, nothing will. It’s beyond gaslighting to have to watch conclusive evidence that the ex-president deserved impeachment, while knowing it can’t matter to most Republican senators.
By Wednesday evening I felt new hope, at least a little, watching the House Democratic impeachment managers lay out the many months of Trump’s inciting violence against potential election results that might turn against him, culminating in the January 6 insurrection. Trump sent a “save the date” notice, Raskin noted, almost three weeks before the deadly riot.
Raskin and his allies won the day Wednesday, even if they can’t ultimately win two-thirds of the Senate to convict Donald Trump. But they might. I will not rule that out.
Not only did Democrats conjure the horror of what Congress members and their staffs experienced on January 6. They also built a convincing case that Trump had been riling his supporters up for that horrific afternoon since the middle of 2020, in speeches from Wisconsin to Florida to Pennsylvania, making a fraudulent case that Democrats could win only via voter fraud that whole time. In the last two months, their Twitter and video evidence showed, he regularly called for an uprising against what he called a stolen election, in increasingly violent terms.
Even worse—or it should be—the House managers showed that during the violence of January 6, Trump refused requests to call the National Guard to secure the Capitol. Trump was “completely and totally out of it,” Joaquin Castro said, quoting a Washington Post story. Vice President Mike Pence, who would come into the day’s arguments early and often, was the one who mobilized the National Guard. That seems like an investigation in itself.
“The president caused this protest to occur, and only the president can make it stop,” Trump ally Chris Christie said midday, during the riot, according to the House Democrats’ presentation. Many people, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, tried to get Trump to call off the mob. He did not.
“This attack never would have happened but for Donald Trump,” impeachment manager Madeline Dean said, to close her affecting speech on Wednesday, noting that in his bitter January 6 oration Trump said “fight” 20 times and “peace” only once.
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But what mattered most in the impeachment managers’ arguments were the clips they assembled going back to the middle of 2020, as Trump repeatedly said the only way he’d lose was via voter fraud. As someone who believes Trump deserves to be impeached, Wednesday made me realize I had some atavistic First Amendment questions about merely relying on Trump’s January 6 remarks (though I think you can).
Raskin, of course, explained why I was wrong. He laid out the many times Trump incited his followers to come to the Capitol and rampage, and summed up: “This case is much worse than someone who falsely shouts fire in a crowded theater,” he said, referencing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous free-speech dictum. “It’s more like a case where the town fire chief, who’s paid to put out fires, sends a mob not to yell fire in a crowded theater, but to actually set the theater on fire.”
But Democrats then wove together Trump’s incitement about nonexistent voter fraud, from mid-2020 through January 6. It was devastating. I didn’t pay enough attention to so much of it at the time. Before Election Day, just one example, which hurt to remember: that time Trump supporters tried to drive a Biden-Harris bus off a Texas road, and Trump tweeted in response “I LOVE TEXAS.”
After Election Day, he stoked mobs to protest or riot outside vote-counting sites from Detroit to Atlanta to Milwaukee to Las Vegas. They ranged from nasty to genuinely violent. He sent a group to protest at the home of the Michigan secretary of state.
“This was never about one speech,” Representative Eric Swalwell told the Senate. “He built this mob over many months.… He made them believe their victory was stolen and incited them so he could use them to steal the election himself.”
I’m so glad Trump got kicked off Twitter. On the other hand, Trump’s Twitter logorrhea created an insane government record (his staff said his tweets were an official government record, which will help everyone who’s going to sue him, through time immemorial). I think he should have been banned long ago, but this trial is bringing home some positives about his long Twitter tenure.
One of them: While Senate Republicans, especially, liked to tell reporters they hadn’t seen what he’d said, on Wednesday it was all read out loud and written on big screens for all to hear and see. And they didn’t do well with it.
Still, at the end of the day, literally, GOP Utah Senator Mike Lee tried to claim the House impeachment managers got something wrong, and it was pretty funny: It seems like House Democrats were right to say Trump called Lee at a fragile time during the Capitol invasion, though the outgoing president was trying to phone incoming GOP Senator Tommy Tuberville. But Lee tried to claim the impeachment managers were wrong about what Trump said. I don’t know who’s right. I only know that Lee was raising a pathetic objection on a day that had gone all the Democrats’ way.
Raskin knew that too. He acquiesced to Lee, graciously, knowing how silly the right-wing Utah senator looked, while promising to come back to examine the evidence of what was actually said, by whom and to whom, down the line.
I’ve set this up as though what matters is convicting Trump. I will not dismiss the chance 17 Republicans will vote to do that, given the evidence of his assembling and riling up a mob to assault them, and (maybe less important to them) that he tried to upend the legitimate results of an American election. On the one hand, if Democrats won over one senator in about two hours on Tuesday, as they did Cassidy, at the same rate they could pull over another eight in the 16 hours they have to present their case about Trump.
On the other, I mostly don’t believe that’s possible. But I can’t write it off after what happened Wednesday. Democrats made a decisive case for Trump’s sedition, and how he was fine with even Republican allies’ facing mob violence. Those allies might repay him with undeserved loyalty, but it’s still possible to hope they won’t.
Editor’s Note: This article initially misidentified Joaquin Castro as Julian. The text has been corrected.