Senate impeachment trial: Key GOP senators push Trump’s lawyers to explain ex-President’s actions as Pence was endangered
Trump’s team wrapped up its presentation in a little more than three hours before the question-and-answer session concluded several hours later Friday evening. In their brief argument, Trump’s team equated the former President’s speech with Democrats’ rhetoric — showing lengthy montages of Democratic politicians saying they would “fight” — to argue that Trump’s words on January 6 did not incite the rioters who attacked the Capitol afterward.
The defense team’s presentation showed Democratic reactions to videos of protests and riots over police violence last year, comparing them to the attack on the US Capitol, while they argued that Trump’s language telling his supporters to “fight like hell” was merely “ordinary political rhetoric.” Trump’s lawyers also falsely suggested Antifa was responsible for the deadly riots, rather than Trump supporters, and raised Trump’s false claims of voter fraud in Georgia.
The presentation underscored the goal of Trump’s team Friday: Do no harm. Unlike the Democratic managers, who hoped to win over Republican senators with their presentation, Trump’s lawyers expect to already have the votes they need for acquittal, as most Republican senators are saying they will vote to acquit Trump because they believe the trial is unconstitutional.
During their two days of arguments, the House managers tried to force senators to confront the horrific images in a bid to change Republican minds, while Trump’s team was more than content with a partisan draw. At the first break of the day Friday, the partisan division was on display in a way it had not been in the two days when the managers presented: Republicans praised Trump’s lawyers and Democrats universally panned them.
Questions focus on Trump’s response
After three days of mostly scripted presentations, the question-and-answer session was more free-flowing, although the House managers and Trump’s lawyers were clearly prepared for the friendly questions they received from senators.
The questions, alternating between Democrats and Republicans, were submitted on a notecard to Sen. Patrick Leahy, the presiding officer as Senate president pro tem, and they were read by the Senate clerk.
Democrats’ questions to the managers and most GOP questions to the President’s team were intended to help bolster their respective cases. There were a few exceptions, such as when independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont asked both sides whether Trump had won the election as he falsely claimed.
But the most interesting questions came from some of the handful of Republican senators open to conviction: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.
Collins and Murkowski jointly asked Trump’s legal team to describe when he had learned of the riots and the actions he had taken. They asked the lawyers to be as specific as possible, but Trump attorney Michael van der Veen said only that Trump had tweeted at 2:38 p.m. ET before the lawyer launched into an attack against the House Democrats for what he called lack of due process.
“I didn’t really feel that I got a response, but I’m not sure that that was the fault of the counsel,” Collins said when asked about the answer. “One of the problems is with the House not having hearings to establish exactly what happened when, it’s difficult to answer a question like that.”
Murkowski also expressed dissatisfaction with the answer. “It was like, wait a minute, that wasn’t very responsive,” Murkowski said.
After the Senate session ended for the day, van der Veen approached Murkowski and Collins at their desks and the three briefly chatted.
Romney asked both sides whether Trump had known that Pence was in danger when he criticized his vice president in a tweet at 2:24 p.m. while Pence was being evacuated from the Senate.
“The answer is no,” van der Veen responded.
Later, Cassidy asked about Trump’s tweet and the conversation Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama had had with Trump minutes beforehand, in which, Tuberville said this week, he had told Trump the vice president was being evacuated.
Cassidy said Trump’s tweet “suggested President Trump did not care that Vice President Pence was in danger,” asking whether it showed Trump was tolerant of intimidation of Pence. Van der Veen responded that the answer was no, but said that he disputed the facts underlying the question, even though Tuberville’s description of the call was recounted on the record to reporters this week.
Asked if he was satisfied with the response, Cassidy said, “Not really.”
“I didn’t think it was a very good answer,” he said, adding that the call “obviously wasn’t hearsay” because Tuberville had confirmed it.
A source close to Pence said Trump’s legal team was not telling the truth when van der Veen said at the trial that “at no point” did the then-President know his vice president was in danger. Asked whether van der Veen was lying, the source said, “Yes.”
And a source with knowledge of events on January 6 told CNN that Pence did not call Trump when he was whisked away. However, Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short called Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows and informed him what was going on.
Raskin, whose family members were trapped in the Capitol during last month’s riot, later responded to van der Veen, “For that I guess we’re sorry, but man, you should have been here on January 6.”
A divided reaction
During the defense presentation, van der Veen played clips of congressional Democrats objecting to the certification of Trump’s win in the 2016 election, including Raskin. And they ran a nearly 10-minute montage of Senate Democrats, the managers and other politicians saying the word “fight,” suggesting they used the same rhetoric as the former President.
Trump’s lawyers also went after House Democrats, accusing them of political retribution in impeaching the former President a second time after going after him throughout his time in office. They accused the managers of selectively editing footage of Trump’s speeches and tweets and ignoring Trump’s comments for protesters to remain peaceful.
“The hatred that the House managers and others on the left have for President Trump has driven them to skip the basic elements of due process and fairness,” Trump attorney David Schoen said.
Inside the Senate chamber, Republicans reacted with chuckles and laughter at various points, nodding in agreement with the Trump lawyers’ presentation. Democrats were mostly stone faced at the start of the lengthy montage, but that changed quickly as more and more clips played. There were constant murmurs in the chamber, as well as whispering, some laughing and note passing.
Republicans had panned the initial meandering presentation from Trump’s team on Tuesday, but they praised his attorneys on Friday.
Murkowski said Trump’s team was “putting on a good defense today.”
“The first two hours I thought were well put together,” she said.
To Democrats, the Trump lawyers put forward a “bogus argument,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat. “Donald Trump was told that if he didn’t stop lying about the election people would be killed. He wouldn’t stop, and the Capitol was attacked and seven people are dead who would be alive today. That’s what I think about this,” he said.
Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico called it a “completely false equivalence.”
“I don’t remember any violent mobs after any of those comments, so it’s just not the same thing,” Heinrich said.
‘Peacefully and patriotically’
Van der Veen acknowledged the abhorrent violence at the Capitol on Friday, but also suggested that groups of “extremists of various different stripes and political persuasions,” including Antifa, pre-planned the attack, meaning Trump could not have incited it.
“Nothing in the text could ever be construed as encouraging, condoning or enticing unlawful activity of any kind,” van der Veen said. “Far from promoting insurrection against the United States, the President’s remarks explicitly encouraged those in attendance to exercise their rights peacefully and patriotically.”
A top FBI official told reporters in early January that they had seen “no indication” that Antifa members had disguised themselves as Trump supporters. Even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said on the House floor last month during the impeachment debate there was “absolutely no evidence” Antifa caused the riots.
The defense team’s focus on Trump’s January 6 speech also ignored the argument House Democrats had made earlier in the week that Trump’s incitement dated back months and involved more than just that speech.
The most substantive case Trump’s lawyers made was that Trump’s speech on January 6 did not amount to incitement and was protected by the First Amendment, just like other political speech is protected speech. Trump’s team argued that he used the word “fight” in a political context at his speech at the January 6 rally, such as fighting Republicans who voted against him in a primary.
“There’s no doubt Mr. Trump engaged in constitutionally protected speech that the House has improperly characterized as incitement of insurrection,” said Trump attorney Bruce Castor.
The Trump team’s presentation concluded with an effort to push back on the allegations that Trump told Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes for Trump to win, as Castor raised many of the false allegations about voter fraud in Georgia to argue Trump had done nothing wrong when he called Raffensperger.
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Friday.
CNN’s Ted Barrett, Daniella Diaz, Clare Foran, Sarah Fortinsky, Lauren Fox, Annie Grayer, Ryan Nobles, Alex Rogers, Kristin Wilson, Ali Zaslav, Jim Acosta and Gloria Borger contributed to this report.
Nothing is normal about an extreme moment in America’s modern story with a political system assailed by extremism, truth under assault and a country desperate to emerge from a once in a 100-year plague.
The proceeding will restore the full glare of Trump’s compelling but malevolent influence over Washington three weeks after he left office in disgrace and will challenge Biden’s efforts to fully establish his own new presidency.
Trump has refused to personally step back into the spotlight by testifying in his own defense. But the never-before-seen spectacle of an ex-commander-in-chief being held accountable through impeachment for crimes against the Constitution — even if he’s ultimately acquitted as expected — will be an apt final chapter for a presidency that still threatens to tear the nation apart.
It also seems to mark the culmination of the failure of Trump’s Republican Party to answer for a leader whose bond with grassroots supporters granted him complete impunity and exposed a fatal flaw in the checks and balances of the US political system. A majority of GOP senators have signaled they will yet again punt on Trump’s offenses and take refuge in a questionable constitutional argument that a President impeached while in office cannot be tried as a private citizen.
Democrats are almost certain to be deprived of the two-thirds majority needed to convict in a presidential impeachment trial and to bar Trump from future federal office. But they plan to lay out a case so damning about the horror inside the Capitol on January 6 that they hope it will forever stain Trump politically and damage the Republicans who defend him.
Democrats can “still win in the court of public opinion. That’s why I think the trial remains an important part of our political landscape,” said David Gergen, an adviser to four presidents and a CNN political commentator.
“It’s a chance for Democrats to make the case once and for all that there was no fraud, that Joe Biden was legitimately elected and the people who tried to steal this election are the ones who assaulted the Capitol,” Gergen told CNN’s Ana Cabrera.
Biden criticizes Trump for Covid-19 effort
The sense that America is at a historic and disorientating pivot point is exacerbated by the hopes raised by a decline in new cases of Covid-19 but also fears that new viral variants will dilute the full potential of vaccines that hold the key to ending the disaster.
In his Super Bowl interview on “CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell,” the President stuck to his practice of frank talk about the state of the pandemic while offering optimism of better days to come if America stays united, wears masks and Congress does its part.
“One of the disappointments was — when we came to office, is the circumstance relating to how the administration was handling Covid was even more dire than we thought,” Biden said, again grappling with the legacy of Trump, who downplayed, denied and politicized a virus that has killed more than 463,000 Americans.
But the President also offered some, albeit distant, hope of a full house at next year’s big game.
“It’s my hope and expectation, if we’re able to put together and make up for all the lost time fighting Covid that’s occurred — that we’ll be able to watch the Super Bowl — with a full stadium,” Biden said.
“The economy has come roaring back, savings rates are at record highs … it is not an economy in collapse,” Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey told Tapper.
“Today, we have serious problems for workers in the restaurant, the hospitality, the travel and entertainment sectors. That’s really a handful of places.”
“It is a pretty big setback,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National College of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College. While other vaccines may offer more protection against the South African variant, the increasing prevalence of the UK variant in the United States is worrisome, he told CNN “Newsroom.”
“Even though the number of new cases daily is cut in half, that is the eye of the hurricane and the big wall is going to hit us again, and that is the UK and the South African variant, maybe one or two others will become dominant.”
‘In the Soviet Union, you’d call it a show trial’
As the virus — and the havoc its wreaked on the economy — continues to pose a serious threat, it’s impeachment that will suck up all the oxygen in Washington this week.
“I’m going to listen to the arguments on both sides and make the decision that I think is right,” the Pennsylvania Republican said, adding that there was “no place in the Republican Party for people who believe in conspiracy theories like QAnon,” in an apparent allusion to Greene and some other Trump loyalists.
But Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy slammed Democrats for their swift impeachment of Trump, who is facing a single charge of inciting insurrection, before he left office last month. “There was no process,” Cassidy said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “If it happened in the Soviet Union, you would have called it a show trial.”
“Every day he remained in office he was a danger to the country. We simply couldn’t sit still and wait for weeks or months while this man posed a danger to the country. So, we did act with alacrity,” Schiff said on “Meet the Press.”
“Somebody who has provoked an attack on the United States Capitol to prevent the counting of electoral votes, which resulted in five people dying, who refused to stand up immediately when he was asked and stop the violence, that is a person who does not have a role as a leader of our party going forward,” Cheney said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Her remarks underscored the fact that Trump’s trial and the continuing tumult in the Republican Party over his toxic legacy mean that the fight to preserve the traditions of US democracy are far from over even though he left office.
Party leaders will meanwhile resume consideration of whether to censure Greene, who spent several hours in a meeting with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday evening. There is pressure from Democrats and Senate Republicans for her to lose committee assignments over offensive social media activity before she ran for office and her behavior in only a month as a Georgia representative.
The challenges facing Cheney and Greene encapsulate the raging battle for the control of the GOP between orthodox conservatives and pro-Trump radicals who are viewed by the establishment as a “cancer” and “wacky weeds.”
Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is the epitome of the old school, ultra-conservative but internationalist Republican Party that disdains Trump’s assault on democracy. Greene is a proponent of the QAnon conspiracy theory and is an avatar of the wild fringe welcomed into the GOP by Trump.
No sign of regret from Greene
The volatile state of the GOP is evident in the way that Cheney faced far more public criticism from her House colleagues than Greene, an advocate of a fringe conspiracy theory anchored on baseless claims that Democratic leaders are pedophiles.
McCarthy asked if Greene would apologize for her past comments and views, which she did not agree to, a person with knowledge of the matter tells CNN. Another person familiar with their conversation also said that McCarthy provided a slew of options to her, including that she could show remorse and apologize.
Top GOP senators, like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have defended Cheney. But emphasizing her growing estrangement from the GOP House caucus, a Trump acolyte, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, even traveled to Wyoming last week to rally against her and to initiate an effort designed to end her career. The visit underscored how Trump’s loyal base is still dictating the party’s direction, even with the ex-President out of the White House and as some GOP power players hope his influence will fade.
Tensions sure to rise over impeachment trial
The tussle that is tearing the House GOP apart — and alienating its members from their brethren in the Senate — is coming at an especially fraught moment with the second Trump impeachment trial set to start in the Senate next week.
The former President’s team indicated Tuesday that it intends to once again highlight Trump’s dangerous lies about a stolen election, while Democrats present graphic evidence of his insurrection that will discomfort GOP senators.
The outcome of the drama involving Cheney and Greene are skirmishes in the wider search for the GOP’s identity that will shape the run-up to midterm races next year and weigh on the GOP’s chances of fielding candidates capable of helping recapture Congress — a crucial consideration for Biden’s presidency.
Fundamentally, the fight that rips away at the Republican Party every day is the one ignited the moment that Trump declared his candidacy for president in 2015 and directed the GOP on a wild populist, nationalist ride.
It has been exacerbated by a generation of pro-Trump figures inspired to run for Congress by his success.
Thune argued Tuesday that “the House Republicans are going to have to decide who they want to be.”
“Do they want to be the party of limited government and fiscal responsibility, free markets, peace through strength and pro-life, or do they want to be the party of conspiracy theories and QAnon, and I think that is the decision they’ve got to face,” Thune said.
Another mainstream Republican, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney — who is now an outlier cut off by the Trumpian tide — also weighed in.
“I think our long history as a party has shown that it’s important for us to separate ourselves from the people that are the wacky weeds,” the Utah senator said. “If we don’t, then our opposition tries to brand us with their image and with their point of view, which has been detrimental to any party that doesn’t do that.”
GOP is hostage to its most radical elements
The challenge for the broader Republican Party, however, is that there is plenty of evidence that the party’s activist base is not excited by small government, debt reduction, globalization and a hawkish foreign policy — four pillars of the Republican Party for decades between Ronald Reagan and Trump.
“We have to be aware that Marjorie Taylor Greene has a very wide following in this country,” said Gabriel Sterling, one of the Republican electoral officials who stood firm against Trump’s attempt to steal the election in Georgia.
“I mean, she’s raised millions of dollars based on things that she said and sometimes … being attacked by the quote/unquote ‘elites’ only drives her up in terms of the esteem she’s viewed by many, many people,” Sterling told CNN’s Kate Bolduan on Tuesday.
In many ways, this is a schism that the Republican Party in Washington has brought on itself, and that is already more destabilizing than the influxes of radical lawmakers brought into Washington by the Tea Party uprising and New Gingrich’s Republican revolution that captured the House in 1994.
Four years of appeasing Trump’s uncouth character, unconstitutional power grabs and appeals to baser instincts — in a Faustian pact that returned a conservative Supreme Court — has effectively provided an entry path into the party for the extremists who found inspiration in the ex-President.
McConnell is turning against die hard Trumpists like Greene and Capitol Hill insurrectionists now. But his failure for weeks to condemn the ex-President’s assaults on the integrity of the election helped brew the crazed atmosphere that Trump exploited when he incited the Capitol insurrection on January 6.
The strength of the pro-Trump faction in the GOP — at a time when more traditional conservatives like McConnell would like to rid themselves of his influence — was underscored by the fact that a majority of House Republicans voted not to certify Biden’s election win over election fraud lies.
And even in the Senate, 45 Republicans — including McConnell — voted to support Sen. Rand Paul’s attempt to have the impeachment trial that begins next week declared unconstitutional.
The conundrum for the wider GOP is that the path to fundraising riches, fame and primary success lies in sponsorship from Trump. McCarthy’s pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to meet the ex-President last week shows that he believes his hope of winning the House lies closer to Greene’s appeal than Cheney’s.
Senate Republicans however have long memories about past races squandered by extremist candidates. And Trump’s style of politics just cost the party two runoff elections in Georgia that handed the Senate to Democrats.
“Whose side do I want to be on? Liz Cheney or Marjorie Taylor Greene?” former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who was himself driven out of the party because of his opposition to the Trump revolt, asked on “The Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer, in encapsulating the electoral conundrum facing an increasingly ungovernable GOP.
“Where do you think the party will likely grow more or where do I want to be as an elected official? It is pretty stark and that is what the party is facing right now.”