Tuesday, July 27, 2021

in-focus

4 takeaways from Day 2 of Trump's impeachment trial


Democratic House impeachment managers on Wednesday began formally laying out their case that President Donald Trump incited the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. They are allowed 16 hours, spread over two days, to make their arguments.

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Below are some early takeaways from Day 2 of the Senate impeachment trial.

1. Raskin's extended fire-in-a-theater metaphor

While Tuesday's presentation was mostly about emotion - Democratic impeachment managers sought to emphasize the importance of the trial to pass a procedural hurdle - Wednesday was more about actually connecting things to Trump.

It's one thing to remind viewers that bad stuff happened, after all. But to prove incitement, you need to argue that Trump actually caused it to happen.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the lead impeachment manager, sought to do that early in his presentation. Trump's team has broadly referred to Trump's claims of free speech while ignoring the established limits on such speech, which include incitement and defamation. The generic example is shouting fire in a crowded theater. Yes, you have free speech, but no, you can't just say whatever you want, because your words have consequences for other people.

Raskin rode that metaphor:

"This case is much worse than someone who falsely shouts 'Fire!' in a crowded theater. 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, and who then when the fire alarms go off and the calls start flooding into the fire department asking for help, does nothing but sit back, encourage the mob to continue its rampage and watch the fire spread on TV with glee and delight.

"So then we say this fire chief should never be allowed to hold this public job again, and you're fired and you're permanently disqualified."

There are limits to the metaphor. Trump's response was delayed, even by the accounts of GOP senators and some former White House aides. He also offered words of praise for the rioters, expressing "love" for them even as it was occurring and later saying it would be a day for them to remember. But he did, in the same "love" video, tell them to go home peacefully.

Trump often mixes his messages like this, giving himself plausible deniability while seeming to send a message. His team will focus on the "go home" stuff rather than the "We love you" stuff. It's up to Democrats to argue that his encouragement and negligence outweighed these messages.

Expect that argument to rely heavily upon the statements of rioters who say they were encouraged by Trump to act - along with accounts that Trump was happy about the scenes he was seeing on TV.

2. Connecting the dots on subversion

Democrats' impeachment article focused mostly on one event: Trump's Jan. 6 speech on the Ellipse. It also mentioned Trump's call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, in which he asked the official to "find" enough votes to flip the state, as well as a broad reference to Trump's "prior efforts to subvert and obstruct the certification of" election results.

Given that, there was a real question about how far back in history they would go and what they would use to prove incitement - including whether and how much they would lump in Trump's past references to violence by his supporters.

Early on, they did go through some of that history, while focusing more on Trump's subversion of the election.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas,) laid out a timeline of events dating to the summer, noting Trump laid a predicate for claiming the election was stolen as far back as June. Trump made these claims long before even mail ballots were sent out. The argument: He was whipping up his supporters for a moment like Jan. 6 for a very long time.

"This attack did not come from one speech, and it didn't happen by accident," Castro said. "The evidence shows clearly that this mob was provoked over many months by Donald J. Trump. And if you look at the evidence, his purposeful conduct, you'll see that the attack was foreseeable and preventable."

Castro pointed to Trump's tweets and comments as early as May saying that the only way he would lose the election was if it was rigged - despite polls at the time repeatedly showing his loss was the likeliest outcome. He played clips of Trump supporters who internalized this message and took it at face value. He also played clips of people, even as the votes were being counted, rising up in protest - scenes that bore a less violent resemblance to what transpired Jan. 6.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said Trump sought to "prime" his supporters for Jan. 6 for months.

"That took time," Swalwell said, revisiting the fire metaphor. "Just like to build a fire, it doesn't just start with the flames. Donald Trump for months and months assembled the tinder, the kindling, threw on logs for fuel to have his supporters believe that the only way their victory would be lost was if it was stolen - so that way President Trump was ready, if he lost the election, to light the match."

There is no question that Trump's claims about the election have been routinely wrong; the courts have ruled as such. Claiming an election will be stolen months before it's held also speaks to the idea that he was planning for a specific eventuality.

The challenge for Democrats, from there, is to argue that this wasn't just an effort to save face - to pretend he never lost. Playing with fire is different from deliberately lighting it. On that front, you would think they'll soon talk about the many ways in which he seemed to offer a specific course of action in the situation he spent so many months preparing his supporters for.

3. References to Trump and violence

Democrats did get around to highlighting Trump's past rhetoric encouraging and suggesting violence by his supporters, while keeping it focused on events surrounding the election.

Del. Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands was given an unusually large platform for a non-voting member of Congress. She used it to lay out Trump's past comments about such violence.

She noted that Trump endorsed his supporters surrounding a Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway just before the election and, according to some accounts, attempting to drive it off the road. Trump tweeted a video with fight music behind it and said at the time, "These patriots did nothing wrong." Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also approved of the scene.

An organizer of that event was later involved in encouraging people to storm the Capitol, having cited flimsy fencing around the Capitol and using a bullhorn to urge people to enter the building.

The second major event she spotlighted was Trump being asked at a September presidential debate to repudiate more extreme elements of the conservative movement, during which he told the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by." The comment, like many of Trump's which will be at issue in the trial, was criticized for promoting potential violence which eventually became a reality. The Proud Boys also used it as a mantra, suggesting they viewed it as encouragement. And they figured prominently in the storming of the Capitol.

"This was not just one reference or a message to supporters by a politician to fight for a cause," Plaskett said. "He'd assembled thousands of violent people, people he knew were capable of violence, people he had seen be violent. They were standing now in front of him. And then he pointed to us (in Congress), lit the fuse and sent an angry mob."

Thus far, Democrats haven't delved more deeply into Trump's past suggestions or endorsements of violence, outside the context of the election. Plaskett's presentation was focused upon those specific ones, which could be more directly attached to those who literally stormed the Capitol.

But there is plenty of grist for that mill beyond what she referenced, which could come later in the Democrats' presentation.

4. The deliberate-negligence argument

One way to drive home the above point is to note that Trump didn't just light the fire - he declined to snuff it once it started burning. That shows that, at the very least, this was an outcome he was OK with, even if he didn't outright desire it.

Democrats set about making such an argument - call it deliberate negligence - on Tuesday.

Beyond Raskin's allusion to Trump deciding to "sit back" and let it happen, Castro and Swalwell noted that some officials had warned about the possibility of such scenes weeks beforehand, but Trump did little. Swalwell contrasted this with Trump's other calls to action.

"'Stop the count.' 'Stop the steal,'" Swalwell said, referring to Trump's post-election tweets alleging fraud. "President Trump was never shy about using his platforms to try and stop something. He could have very easily told his supporters: Stop threatening officials. Stop going to their homes. Stop it with the threats. But each time he didn't. Instead, in the face of escalating violence, he incited them further."

Democrats signaled this will be a focal point of the case against Trump, including Trump's tweet attacking Vice President Mike Pence, even shortly after Pence had been removed from the chamber for his safety.

"You will see his relentless attack on Vice President Pence, who was, at that very moment, hiding with his family as armed extremists were chanting, 'Hang Mike Pence!,' calling him a traitor," said Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., another impeachment manager. He added: "If as soon as this had started, President Trump had simply gone on to TV, just logged on to Twitter and said, 'Stop the attack,' if he had done so with even half as much force as he said, 'Stop the steal,' how many lives would we have saved? Sadly, he didn't do that."

Published : February 11, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Aaron Blake