Fighting talk: Trump defence seeks to sully Democrats with their own words
Violent language common in political discourse so ‘please stop the hypocrisy’ – lawyer
David Schoen, defence attorney for Donald Trump, speaks in the Senate Chamber in a video screenshot in Washington, DC, US, this week. Screengrab: Senate Television/Bloomberg
Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight, fight. The first rule of Fight Club is just keep bashing your audience with the same word, ad nauseam.
A video in which Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and other Democratic politicians uttered the word “fight” 238 times, according to a count by the MSNBC TV network, was the most bizarre turn yet at Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.
The montage was played by Trump lawyer David Schoen on Friday in an attempt to demonstrate that such language is common in today’s political discourse, and protected by the first amendment to the constitution, so Trump’s call for his supporters to “fight like hell” should not be blamed for the insurrection at the US Capitol.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Mr Schoen told senators, many of whom had seen themselves on TV screens inside the chamber. “It’s a word people use, but please stop the hypocrisy.”
He was not wrong that it’s a word people use. Hillary Clinton, who was seen in the video, made Fight Song the theme of her ill-starred 2016 campaign against Mr Trump. The world champion “fighter” is surely Senator Elizabeth Warren, who sprinkles the word in interviews liberally and wrote a book called This Fight is Our Fight.
But what Mr Schoen was also doing was displaying “whataboutism” in its purest form – a wonder to behold, like a flawless diamond or pristine snow.
Whataboutism is a dodge often seen in right-wing media. If allegations are made against Mr Trump’s connections in Russia, respond: what about Ms Clinton’s emails? If Mr Trump’s family are accused of exploiting their position, respond: what about Joe Biden’s son Hunter? If white supremacists are running riot, respond: what about antifa? It doesn’t matter if the equivalence is false because it’s all about attacking the opponent in order to muddy the waters.
The Trump legal team’s relentless “fight” video was a case in point. Some of the Democrats were quoted out of context due to selective editing. We heard Mr Biden, for example, say “never, never, never give up this fight” but did not hear the full quotation: “I looked into the eyes of people who survived school shootings, and I made each of them a promise: I will never, never, never give up this fight.”
(Speaking of hypocrisy, Mr Schoen accused the impeachment managers of “manipulating video” during his presentation.)
In addition, these Democrats were urging supporters to fight for a political cause. Mr Trump was urging supporters to fight against democracy: his cause was based on the mendacious claim of a stolen election. And as the impeachment managers laid out on Thursday, he had spent years deploying incendiary rhetoric and demonising opponents.
Still, the Trump defence cleared the very low bar set by their opening Laurel-and-Hardy gambit on Tuesday. On Friday they provided talking points for right-wing media, straws for Republican consciences to clutch at and a boost for Trump’s spirits after some very grim days.
It was not hard to imagine the ex-president at Mar-a-Lago, his luxury estate in Florida, nodding in approval as lawyer Michael van der Veen kicked off in Trumpian style: “The article of impeachment now before the Senate is an unjust and blatantly unconstitutional act of political vengeance. This appalling abuse of the constitution only further divides our nation when we should be trying to come together.”
Mr Van der Veen even described it as a “politically motivated witch-hunt”, a phrase the former president has used even more often than Ms Warren has uttered “fight”.
In a first salvo of whataboutism, Mr Van der Veen played video clips of Jamie Raskin, the lead impeachment manager, and other Democrats objecting to Mr Trump’s victory in the electoral college in 2016. “To litigate questions of election integrity within the system is not incitement to insurrection,” he argued. “It is the democratic system working as founders and lawmakers have designed.”
The lawyer then falsely asserted that one of the first people arrested after the insurrection was a leader of antifa, when that individual denies any such affiliation and indeed antifa is a broad spectrum of far-left, anti-fascist groups, and not an organisation with a leader.
He claimed that Democrats had encouraged “mob violence” during the Trump presidency and played clips accompanied by ominous music.
The impeachment is “about Democrats trying to disqualify their political opposition”, he said, accuse them of indulging “constitutional cancel culture” – another phrase sure to play well on Fox News, Newsmax and the One America News Network.
Later, lawyer Bruce Castor argued that the attack on the Capitol was pre-planned – pipe bombs were planted a day earlier, for example – and so Trump’s fiery speech on January 6th could not have been the cause. However, the president had tweeted in December that the rally “will be wild”, and the prosecutors have shown Mr Trump spent months laying the groundwork.
Mr Castor also misnamed the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, referring instead to the NFL star Ben Roethlisberger, and quibbled over the definition of “insurrection” . After two and a half hours, the defence case rested. They had put up a fight, of sorts, but it was unlikely to be remembered alongside Winston Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches”.
Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, tweeted drily: “Of all impeachment defence speeches in American history, Castor’s was the most recent.” – Guardian service