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Trump lawyers dismiss context of Jan. 6 insurrection to claim Trump's innocence

Jon Ward
·Chief National Correspondent
·8 min read
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Lawyers for former President Trump put forward a narrow defense of his actions on Jan. 6, ignoring the broader context that formed the majority of the case against him.

Much of the three hours Trump’s lawyers spent before the Senate on Friday was taken up with lengthy and repetitive videos set to cartoonish music which simply showed Democratic politicians saying the word “fight” over and over.

It was a heavy-handed way of arguing that when Trump used the word “fight” numerous times on Jan. 6, it did not mean anything malicious or nefarious.

Michael van der Veen
Michael van der Veen, lawyer for former President Donald Trump. (via Reuters)

Perhaps more significant, it was also an attempt to ignore the way that Trump lied to his supporters for months about a stolen election and summoned them to Washington at the same time that Congress was scheduled to certify the results of the election.

After the Trump team finished, senators asked questions of the two sides for four hours. The trial is expected to conclude on Saturday after up to four hours of closing arguments evenly divided between the two sides.

The House Democratic managers spent much of their time over two days of arguments illustrating the ways in which Trump fomented and encouraged violence at different times during his presidency rather than tamping it down; how he deceived his supporters that the election had been stolen from them; how he would have known that his supporters had already engaged in violence in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6; how he had been warned by Republicans in Georgia that his rhetoric was going to cause further violence and death; and how he continued to incite his supporters against Mike Pence even after the vice president had been evacuated from the Senate chamber after rioters had invaded the Capitol.

And they showed how the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol repeatedly said they were doing so because Trump had told them to.

Yet Trump’s lawyers insisted he had done nothing wrong. “No thinking person could seriously believe that the president’s Jan. 6 speech on the Ellipse was in any way an incitement to violence or to insurrection,” said Michael van der Veen, a Philadelphia attorney who had not spoken at any point in the trial until Friday.

But this revisionist history has been dismissed by some of those who worked most closely with and for Trump during his presidency.

“[W]hat happened on Capitol Hill ... was a direct result of [Trump] poisoning the minds of people with the lies and the fraud,” said John Kelly, Trump’s former White House chief of staff.

“He did incite this mob with the clear intention of having them disrupt the Electoral College certification and delay it to give him more time. I don’t think there’s any question about it,” said John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor.

“There are many reasons for this assault on the Capitol, but foremost among them was the president’s exhortations, was the president’s sustained disinformation,” said H.R. McMaster, a retired lieutenant general who served as another one of Trump’s national security advisers.

Senior Republican senators have also pointed the finger directly at Trump.

Mitch McConnell
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

“The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government, which they did not like,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"The president bears responsibility for today’s events by promoting the unfounded conspiracy theories that have led to this point,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., on Jan. 6.

“The call to march down to the Capitol — it was inciting,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. “It was pouring fuel on a spark. ... So, no, he does bear some responsibility.”

“We witnessed today the damage that can result when men in power and responsibility refuse to acknowledge the truth,” Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., said on Jan. 6. “We saw bloodshed because a demagogue chose to spread falsehoods and sow distrust of his own fellow Americans.”

And there were 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last month. Among them was Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who said that “the president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack.”

“None of this would have happened without the president. The president could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” Cheney said.

Despite all this, Trump’s lawyers claimed that the impeachment was being driven only by Democrats, and purely out of irrational animus.

“We would like to discuss the hatred, the vitriol, the political opportunism that has brought us here today,” said Trump lawyer David Schoen.

The Trump lawyers largely ignored the actual merits of the case, choosing instead to play and replay videos of Democrats saying “fight.”

Maxine Waters
Maxine Waters. (via Reuters)

After one of these videos, van der Veen pointed to the Democrats in the chamber and at the House managers. “Every single one of you, and every one of you,” he said, apparently indicating that his team had shown each Democrat saying the word “fight” at some point. “Please stop the hypocrisy.”

Van der Veen also accused Democrats of condoning violence during nationwide protests in the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And even though Democratic then-candidate Joe Bidenrepeatedly condemned the riots and looting that occurred in cities last year, van der Veen also accused Democrats of stoking violence.

“Many Democrat politicians endorsed and encouraged the riots that destroyed vast swaths of American cities last summer,” van der Veen said. And he claimed Trump had told his supporters “we’re not going to do what they did all summer long.”

Van der Veen made his presence felt in the Senate chamber, attacking Democrats in hostile terms and tones. He mocked one of Raskin's arguments as “less than what I would expect from a first-year law student.”

He and the other Trump lawyers also played video clips of Democrats in the House objecting to the certification of the 2016 election results, including Raskin. Raskin sought to explain why he did this, although it was one of the more substantial criticisms of the Democrats by Trump’s attorneys.

But it was muddled by the many inaccurate statements that Trump’s attorneys made, along with their inclusion of provably false conspiracy theories. At one point, van der Veen alleged that the people who assaulted the Capitol were actually “extremists of various different stripes and political persuasions” rather than uniformly in support of Trump. He offered no evidence for this claim, or for his insistence that there were members of Antifa present. This has become one of the conspiracy theories popular among Trump supporters to shift blame for the insurrection away from the former president.

As the day went on, Trump’s lawyers avoided legal questions and leaned more heavily on bizarre accusations about what Schoen alleged were “manipulated evidence and selectively edited … video.” The only evidence they provided was two tweets. In one, they made a confusing claim about the time stamp on a tweet, and then admitted that the mistake was not even presented to the Senate during the trial, but was corrected by House managers. In another, they accused House managers of essentially Photoshopping a blue check mark denoting Twitter verification next to the name of a person whose tweet they displayed.

David Schoen
David Schoen, defense attorney for Donald Trump. (Jabin Botsford/Washington Post/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

By the end of the day, this was being referred to as a scandal by Trump’s attorneys. “They got caught doctoring the evidence and this case should be over,” van der Veen said.

They also accused Democrats of misinterpreting Trump’s words, and used that allegation to springboard into a discussion of the media’s treatment of Trump’s comments about the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, in which he said there were “very fine people on both sides.”

Trump and his supporters have long complained that his comments condemning white supremacists and neo-Nazis at that time are rarely mentioned, and when Schoen blasted the media for this, Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., nodded his head vigorously.

The Charlottesville example is instructive to the way that Trump has tried to retrofit reality in the days after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Trump’s own allies castigated him for his “both sides” comments back in 2017. Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican senator, said Trump had “compromised” his moral authority with his comments.

All of this came down on Trump because he repeatedly tried to defend people who, based on first-hand evidence and reporting, were clearly in Charlottesville to promote racism and extremism. Trump’s own allies were offended and angered by this, and did not put much stock in the fact that Trump had said a few words condemning white supremacists.

At trial, Trump’s lawyers pointed to Trump’s single use of the word “peaceful” in his Jan. 6 speech as evidence that he was not inciting violence. The House managers, meanwhile, provided the context that led so many Republicans to condemn Trump and find him directly responsible.

At one point, van der Veen said, “we agree with the House managers, context does matter.”

But then he played a video again — one already shown — of Democrats saying the word “fight.”

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