11 February 2021

Impeachment trial: Harrowing footage and Trump’s rhetoric take centre stage

11 February 2021

Democrats opened their first day of arguments in former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial with searing footage of the US Capitol riot.

They painted Mr Trump as an “inciter in chief” who systematically riled up his supporters and falsely convinced them the election had been stolen, culminating in the deadly attack.

“He assembled, inflamed and incited his followers to descend upon the Capitol,” the lead impeachment manager, Representative Jamie Raskin (Democrat-Maryland), said.

As she presented harrowing footage of the siege, Delegate Stacey Plaskett, a Democrat representing the US Virgin Islands and one of the prosecutors, said Mr Trump had “put a target” on the backs of then-vice president Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who were leading the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory.

“His mob broke into the Capitol to hunt them down,” Ms Plaskett said.

Here are the highlights from the first full day of arguments:

– Trump’s words come back to haunt him

Mr Trump’s voice rang out in the Senate Chamber as Democrats aired video from his rallies and other remarks to supporters. Interspersed throughout were slides of Mr Trump’s tweets contesting the election and promoting the January 6 rally in Washington, which he promised would be “wild”.

In this image from video, a quote is displayed on a photo, part of the prosecution evidence presented during the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump in the Senate (AP)

The impeachment managers put Mr Trump’s rhetoric on trial, from the months he spent laying the groundwork to contest the election results to the speech he delivered outside the White House egging on his supporters to “fight” before they stormed the Capitol.

“He truly made his base believe that the only way he could lose was if the election were rigged,” said Representative Joaquin Castro, (Democrat-Texas), another one of the prosecutors.

Mr Trump, the House impeachment managers argued, whipped his supporters into a frenzy with the “big lie” that their votes had been stolen, and urged them to fight.

“This attack never would have happened but for Donald Trump,” said Representative Madeleine Dean, (Democrat-Pennsylvania), choking back emotion. “And so they came, draped in Trump’s flag, and used our flag, the American flag, to batter and to bludgeon.”

There was no widespread fraud in the election, as has been confirmed by election officials across the country and former attorney general William Barr. Dozens of legal challenges to the election put forth by Mr Trump and his allies were dismissed.

– New surveillance footage

To reconstruct the siege for senators, Democrats aired never-before-seen security footage from inside the Capitol that showed the attack unfolding. Their presentation included chilling video of the rioters rampaging into the building and audio of distressed police officers who tried in vain to keep them out. “We have been flanked and we’ve lost the line,” one frantic officer could be heard saying.

The presentation also showed the perilous moments when legislators and others, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Mr Pence, were rushed to safety; body cam footage of an officer being beaten; the sounds of crunching, breaking glass; profane screams and violent threats; and cries as the rioters streamed into the building, some carrying riot shields and weapons.

“Where do they count the f****** votes?” one member of the mob could be heard shouting. “You work for us,” one yelled at officers. “Where’s that meeting at?”

Democrats warned that many of the scenes would be hard to watch, including the horrifying screams of an officer being crushed in a doorway and video of one of the rioters, Ashli E Babbitt, being shot dead by US Capitol Police.

Also never before seen: Footage of Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, who has already been hailed as a hero, warning Republican Utah Senator Mitt Romney that the mob was heading his way. Mr Romney turned and dashed in the other direction.

“I did not know that was Officer Goodman,” Mr Romney told reporters after seeing it. “I look forward to thanking him when I next see him.”

Mr Goodman also directed the mob away from the Senate chamber.

– Praise for Pence

While the Democrats excoriated Mr Trump, they lavished praise on an unlikely figure: former vice president Mr Pence, outlining in exacting detail how his life had been put in physical danger and hailing him as a “patriot” for defying Mr Trump’s pressure campaign to overturn the election results.

A security video shows then vice president Mike Pence being evacuated as rioters breach the US Capitol (AP)

“Vice President Pence had the courage to stand against the president, tell the American public the truth and uphold our constitution. That is patriotism,” said Ms Plaskett, whose presentation included previously unseen footage of Mr Pence and his family being evacuated from the Senate chamber as rioters spread through the Capitol.

Other footage showed the rioters chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” as others searched for him. At one point, Ms Plaskett said, the rioters were within 100ft of where Mr Pence was sheltering with his family.

“They were talking about assassinating the vice president of the United States,” she said.

Many Republicans had been appalled by Mr Trump’s treatment of his most loyal soldier during his final days in office. And the focus appeared to be a tacit acknowledgement of the Democrats’ intended audience as they try to convince Senate Republicans – many of whom are close to Mr Pence – that Mr Trump deserves to be punished for what happened.

“Mike Pence is not a traitor to this country. He’s a patriot,” said Mr Castro. “And he and his family, who was with him that day, didn’t deserve this, didn’t deserve a president unleashing a mob on them, especially because he was just doing his job.”

– Trump’s lawyers return

They were merely observers as Democrats had the floor. But members of Mr Trump’s legal team indicated they would stay the course despite a flood of criticism, both from Republican senators and the former president, about their performance during procedural arguments on Tuesday.

David Schoen, left, and Bruce Castor (AP)

“Not at all,” said lawyer Bruce Castor when asked by reporters whether there would be any changes to their strategy. “No, I don’t anticipate any,” echoed David Schoen, another lawyer.

Both Mr Castor and Mr Schoen said they had spoken to Mr Trump on Tuesday, but Mr Castor denied that the former president had expressed displeasure to him.

“Far from it,” he said, even as Mr Schoen allowed that there was room for improvement after Republican senators panned their performance as disjointed and unhelpful.

“To the extent they were critical of anything that I did, I just want to try to do a better job then,” he said.

“Bottom line is I think his team will do better, can do better,” said Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina), a close ally of the president, after the two had spoken. While he acknowledged there was “room for improvement”, Mr Graham said he had tried to tell Mr Trump that “the case is over. It’s just a matter of getting the final verdict now”. All but six Republican senators voted on Tuesday against moving forward with the trial.

– Making it personal

Ms Dean described the House chamber descending into chaos as she stood with colleagues in the gallery above the floor and made panicked calls to her husband and sons.

Security video is shown to senators during the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump (AP)

“Someone shouted up to us, ‘Duck!’ then ‘Lie down!’ then ‘Ready your gas masks!’” she remembered. “Shortly after, there was a terrifying banging on the chamber doors. I will never forget that sound.”

Representative Eric Swalwell (Democrat-California) described the text he sent to his wife telling her to hug their young children.

“On January 6,” said Mr Castro, “President Trump left everyone in this Capitol for dead.”

Throughout the proceeding, the House managers served as personal witnesses of the horror and repeatedly invoked the word “us” as they appealed to fellow legislators targeted in the attack.

“He was coming for you, for Democratic and Republican senators. He was coming for all of us, just as the mob did at his direction,” said Representative Ted Lieu (Democrat-California) after describing Mr Trump’s rhetoric.

– Republicans hold firm

There appears little chance enough Republicans will break with Democrats to convict Mr Trump at the end of the trial. And some of them appeared indifferent to the proceedings and unmoved by the evidence on Wednesday.

Security video is shown to senators during the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump (AP)

Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who led the Senate challenge to the election along with Texas Senator Ted Cruz, said the prosecutors’ case was “predictable” and included information that was already public.

The video evidence was “nothing new here, for me, at the end of the day”, said Mr Hawley, who maintains the trial is unconstitutional.

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, another close ally of Mr Trump, predicted the remainder of the trial was “going to be pretty tedious” and said the two sides would be better served if they just made their cases “in a couple hours” and be “done with this”.

And Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who sat with his back to the screen, writing notes on a pad, walked out in the middle of Ms Plaskett’s description of the threats against Mr Pence.

It was a notable contrast with Democrats such as Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, who described the prosecutors’ presentation of evidence as “painful” to watch.

While it forced them to relive a traumatic moment, “it also helps to bring closure, so I think it’s something that we have to go through”, said Mr Cardin, who described January 6 as “one of the roughest days of our life”.

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