Former president Donald Trump’s legal team began and completed their defense on Friday, arguing that their client’s words were protected by the First Amendment, that he was not given fair access to due process and that impeaching him would set a dangerous precedent as well as disenfranchise millions of voters who share his political beliefs.
Trump’s lawyers had 16 hours to present their case, but yielded their time after just over three hours. In their case, the defense leaned its case on legal precedent, edited videos of Democrats pledging to “fight” for various issues, and attacks on the House managers’ evidence.
A central focus of the defense’s argument was the political rhetoric that Trump used in his Jan. 6 speech. While the House managers made the case that this speech was the final piece of months of incendiary language before the deadly insurrection at the United States Capitol, the defense argued that similar rhetoric is used regularly by Democratic politicians.
The defense team presented a nearly 10-minute-long video of edited clips depicting Democratic politicians, ranging from President Joe Biden to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, (as well as non-politicians like Madonna and Johnny Depp) using language that the defense argued was is similar to Trump’s rhetoric. This video was referenced several times throughout the defense’s case.
Michael van der Veen, one of Trump’s defense lawyers, called the impeachment trial a “witch hunt,” politically motivated, and a product of “constitutional cancel culture.”
He asserted that Antifa was a driving force behind the Jan. 6 insurrection, saying the mob was composed of “extremists of various different stripes and political persuasions” who “pre-planned and premeditated an attack on the Capitol.”
If Trump can be convicted regarding his speech and actions regarding the insurrection, no political speech will be safe, and politicians would now face the threat of impeachment for any speech, van der Veen warned.
“I am not showing you this video as some excuse for Mr. Trump’s speech, this is not ‘whataboutism’, I am showing you this to make the point that all political speech must be protected,” van der Veen said.
“Let us be clear,” he said, “this trial is about far more than President Trump. It is about silencing and banning the speech that the majority does not agree with. It is about cancelling 75 million Trump voters and criminalizing political viewpoints.”
A critical moment in the day’s proceedings came early in the question-and-answer session after the defense closed. Trump’s lawyers were unable to offer evidence that the then-president did anything to mount a response to the Capitol attack or defend his own vice president.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asked Trump’s legal team: “Exactly when did President Trump learn of the breach at the Capitol? What specific actions did he take to end the rioting, and when did he take them? Please be as specific as possible.”
Trump’s attorneys refused to answer the question before finally insisting that House managers gave them no evidence, that they “pieced together a timeline” and that Trump was denied due process.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, asked Trump’s team: “When President Trump sent the disparaging tweet at 2:24 p.m. regarding Vice President (Mike) Pence, was he aware that the vice president had been removed from the Senate by the Secret Service for his safety?”
Van der Veen maintained that “at no point was the president informed the vice president was in any danger.”
However, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, said he specifically informed the president in a brief phone call during the insurrection that Pence had to be evacuated from the chamber because he was in danger. The senator repeated his assertion to reporters after Friday’s session adjourned, according to multiple news outlets.
CNN reported Friday night that a source close to Pence said Trump’s lawyers were not telling the truth when they said the president did not know the vice president was in danger during the Capitol attack.
The network also reported that Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, had a volatile phone call during the attack. When McCarthy asked the president to call off his supporters, Trump replied: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” according to lawmakers familiar with the exchange.
Defense lawyer David Schoen displayed images of tweets used during the House managers’ presentation, saying they had been doctored.
Schoen argued that Democrats “manipulated evidence and selectively edited footage’” to make their points.
Schoen also claimed in his defense that Democrats’ hatred for Trump had infected the impeachment trial; he said that Democrats withheld footage of the siege in the Capitol that was important to criminal trials for political points, that they had tampered with footage and didn’t present enough evidence.
A third Trump lawyer, Bruce Castor, insisted Trump cannot be convicted for inciting violence against the government because the insurrection in question was not an insurrection after all because it was not successful.
“Insurrection is a term of art defined in the law,” Castor said. “It involves taking over a country, a shadow government, taking the TV stations over and having some plan on what you’re going to do when you finally take power.”
When Congress resumed its proceedings on the night of the insurrection, however, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, described the day’s events as a “failed insurrection.”
The defense team rested with Castor saying he wouldn’t use all of his time so the Senate can use the unused hours to focus on the “delivery of COVID relief to the American people.”
The House managers and Trump’s defense lobbed sharp remarks at each other during their responses to senators’ questions.
Instead of answering a question, van der Veen accused Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, of misrepresenting a tweet from Trump and intentionally misleading the American people.
After the defense also claimed it had not seen evidence or had access to evidence, lead House manager Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Kensington, appeared exasperated: “Rather than yelling at us and screaming about how we didn’t have time to get all of the facts about what your client did, bring your client up here and have him testify under oath about why he was sending out tweets denouncing the vice president of the United States while the vice president was being hunted down by a mob that wanted to hang him and was chanting, in this building, ‘Hang Mike Pence!’”
In the only moment of bipartisan unity and good feeling, the Senate unanimously passed legislation to award U.S. Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman the Congressional Gold Medal for his role in protecting lawmakers during the attack.
Goodman, who stood at the back of the room on watchful guard over Congress once again, was given a standing ovation by all the senators.
“I think we can all agree that Eugene Goodman deserves the highest honor Congress can bestow,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York.
“If not for the bravery and quick thinking of Officer Eugene Goodman, in particular, people in this chamber may not have escaped that day unharmed,” McConnell said.
The medal is the highest accolade Congress can award for distinguished achievements and contributions.
The Senate reconvenes Saturday at 10 a.m. for closing arguments and a vote on whether Trump should be convicted on a single article of impeachment charging him with inciting an attack on the government. A conviction requires 67 votes.