Prosecutors in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial said Wednesday they would prove that Trump was no “innocent bystander” but the “inciter in chief” of the deadly attack at the Capitol aimed at overturning his election loss to Joe Biden.
Opening the first full day of arguments, the lead House prosecutor said they will lay out evidence that shows the president encouraged a rally crowd to head to the Capitol, then did nothing to stem the violence and watched with “glee” as a mob stormed the iconic building. Five people died.
“To us it may have felt like chaos and madness, but there was method to the madness that day,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.
The day’s proceedings were unfolding after an emotional Tuesday start to the trial that left the former president fuming after his lead attorney, Bruce Castor, delivered a meandering defense and failed to halt the trial on constitutional grounds. Some allies called for yet another shakeup to his legal team.
Trump is the first president to face an impeachment trial after leaving office and the first to be twice impeached. The riot followed a rally during which Trump urged his supporters to “fight” against certification of Joe Biden’s election, words his lawyers say were simply a figure of speech. He is charged with “incitement of insurrection.”
Senators, many of whom fled for safety the day of the attack, watched Tuesday’s graphic videos of the Trump supporters who battled past police to storm the halls, Trump flags waving. More video is expected Wednesday, including some that hasn’t been seen before.
House Democratic prosecutors on Wednesday plan to use Capitol security footage that hasn’t been publicly released before as they argue that Trump incited the insurrection, according to Democratic aides working on the case.
Security remains extremely tight at the Capitol, fenced off with razor wire and patrolled by National Guard troops.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would not be watching the trial.
“Joe Biden is the president, he’s not a pundit, he’s not going to opine on back and forth arguments,” she said.
The House impeachment managers described police officers maimed in the chaos and rioters parading in the very chamber where the trial was being held. Trump’s team countered that the Constitution doesn’t allow impeachment now that he’s no longer president. That’s a legal issue that could resonate with Senate Republicans eager to acquit Trump without being seen as condoning his behavior.
Castor said he shifted his planned approach after hearing the prosecutors’ emotional opening and instead spoke conversationally to the senators, saying Trump’s team would denounce the “repugnant” attack and “in the strongest possible way denounce the rioters.” He appealed to the senators as “patriots first,” and encouraged them to be “cool headed” as they assessed the arguments.
Trump’s other attorney, David Schoen, argued that Democrats were fueled by a “base hatred” of the former president.
Republicans made it clear that they were unhappy with Castor’s defense, many of them saying they didn’t understand where it was going. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who voted with Democrats, said she was “perplexed.” Sen. Lisa Murkowki of Alaska said it was a “missed opportunity” for the defense.
Six Republicans joined with Democrats to vote to proceed with the trial, but the 56-44 vote was far from the two-thirds threshold of 67 votes that would be needed for conviction.
At one pivotal point, Raskin told his personal story of bringing his family to the Capitol that day to witness the certification of the Electoral College vote, only to have his daughter and son-in-law hiding in an office, fearing for their lives.
“Senators, this cannot be our future,” Raskin said through tears. “This cannot be the future of America.”
The House prosecutors had argued there is no “January exception” for a president to avoid impeachment on his way out the door. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., referred to the corruption case of William Belknap, a war secretary in the Grant administration, who was impeached, tried and ultimately acquitted by the Senate after leaving office.
If Congress stands by, “it would invite future presidents to use their power without any fear of accountability,” he said.
It appears unlikely that the House prosecutors will call witnesses, and Trump has declined a request to testify. The trial is expected to continue into the weekend.
Trump’s second impeachment trial is expected to diverge from the lengthy, complicated affair of a year ago. In that case, Trump was charged with having privately pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden, then a Democratic rival for the presidency.
Reporting by The Associated Press.