House Democrats prosecuting Donald Trump's impeachment claimed Thursday that Capitol invaders believed they were acting on "the president's orders” and reflected his violent rhetoric when they set out to storm the building and stop the joint session of Congress that was certifying Democrat Joe Biden's election.
The prosecutors were wrapping up their opening presentation, describing in stark, personal terms the horror they faced that day and pointing out what they claim were many public and explicit instructions Trump gave his supporters — both in the weeks before the Jan. 6 attack and at his midday rally that unleashed the mob on the Capitol.
“We were invited here,” said one. "Trump sent us,” said another. “He’ll be happy. We’re fighting for Trump.” Five people died.
“They truly believed that the whole intrusion was at the president’s orders,” said Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado. “The president told them to be there.”
Trump’s lawyers will launch their defense Friday, and the trial could wrap by weekend.
At the White House, President Joe Biden said he believed “some minds may be changed” after senators saw chilling security video Wednesday of the deadly insurrection at the Capitol, including of rioters searching menacingly for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence.
Biden said he didn’t watch any of the previous day’s proceedings live but later saw news coverage.
This second impeachment trial, on the charge of incitement of insurrection, has echoes of last year's impeachment over the Ukraine matter, as prosecutors warn senators that left unchecked Trump poses a danger to the civic order. Even out of office, the former president holds influence over large swaths of voters.
The prosecutors on Thursday drew a direct line from his repeated comments condoning and even celebrating violence — praising “both sides” after the 2017 outbreak at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and urging his rally crowd last month to go to the Capitol and fight for his presidency.
“There’s a pattern staring us in the face,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the lead prosecutor.
“When Donald Trump tells the crowd as he did on January 6 to fight like hell, or you won’t have a country anymore. He meant for them to fight like hell.”
Trump lawyers will argue later this week that his words were protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment and just a figure of speech.
The Trump legal team takes the floor Friday and Saturday for up to 16 hours to lay out its defense. The difficulty facing Trump’s defense became apparent at the start as his lawyers leaned on the process of the trial, unlike any other, rather than the substance of the case against the former president.
Trump's lawyers are likely to blame the rioters themselves for the violence.
The first president to face an impeachment trial after leaving office, Trump is also the first to be twice impeached.
His lawyers also say he cannot be convicted because he is already gone from the White House. Even though the Senate rejected that argument in Tuesday's vote to proceed to the trial, the legal issue could resonate with Senate Republicans eager to acquit Trump without being seen as condoning his behavior.
While six Republicans joined with Democrats to vote to proceed with the trial on Tuesday, the 56-44 vote was far from the two-thirds threshold of 67 votes needed for conviction.
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