Trump’s lawyers say claim he encouraged violence ‘a monstrous lie’

Senators pave way for final vote in impeachment trial as early as Saturday

House impeachment manager Jamie Raskin said in his closing arguments to Congress that former president Donald Trump's rhetoric is not protected by free speech. Video: Reuters

 

Lawyers for former president Donald Trump dismissed Democrats’ claims that he incited the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6th, as they presented their defence case on Friday in the impeachment trial of Mr Trump.

Mr Trump’s legal team, who were allocated 16 hours over two days to set out the defence, instead wrapped up their arguments in less than three hours on Friday. The Senate then reconvened and began a question and answer session on Friday night, paving the way for a final vote as early as Saturday.

Opening the fourth day of proceedings, attorney Michael van der Veen said that the prosecution’s case was “absurd”.

“No thinking person could seriously believe that the president’s January 6th speech on the Ellipse was in any way an incitement to violence or insurrection. The suggestion is patently absurd,” he said.

“To claim that the president wished, desired or encouraged lawlessness or violent behaviour is a preposterous and monstrous lie.”

The defence claimed that Mr Trump had consistently opposed violence in his career, despite Democrats highlighting several instances when Mr Trump had encouraged violent behaviour in his public comments or tweets.

Like the prosecution, the team made extensive use of visual displays, though in their case they did not focus on footage of the January 6th riot. Instead they assembled an eclectic mélange of clips from Black Lives Matter protests, comments by Democratic politicians, media personalities and celebrities like Madonna as they alleged that the impeachment trial was part of a “witch-hunt” against Trump.

Among the clips displayed were recordings of some Democrats objecting to the certification of presidential election results in certain states after previous elections, including January 2017, when Joe Biden presided over the joint session of Congress as vice-president.

They also played a video montage of Democratic members calling for Mr Trump to be impeached at various points in his presidency, arguing that the opposing party was committed to impeachment, regardless of Mr Trump’s alleged crimes, from the outset.

As expected, lawyers for the president focused on Mr Trump’s much-quoted line during his speech at the Ellipse on January 6th when he told his supporters: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

They said his words constituted “ordinary political rhetoric which is virtually indistinguishable by language used by people from across the political spectrum”.

Speaking metaphorically

Mr Trump was speaking metaphorically, they said, as they played clips of Democratic politicians from Mr Biden, to Nancy Pelosi to Elizabeth Warren using belligerent language in the past.

This included quotes from Mr Biden saying during the presidential campaign that he would like to “beat the hell” out of Mr Trump and senator Cory Booker saying he would like to “punch” Mr Trump.

The lawyers also focused on a free speech argument – the idea that Mr Trump’s words were protected by the first amendment of the constitution.

They also rejected the characterisation by Democrats of the events of January 6th as an “insurrection”.

“[Insurrection] involves taking over a country, a shadow government, taking the TV stations over and having some plan on what you’re going to do when you finally take power,” said attorney Bruce Castor. “Clearly this is not that.”

Concluding the arguments after just over three hours, Mr Castor urged the Senate to move on from the impeachment trial, saying that the trial was “about cancelling 75 million Trump voters”.

“Our country needs to get back to work. I know that you know that. But instead we are here. The majority party promised to unify and deliver more Covid relief. But instead, they did this,” he said.

With the Senate back in session on Friday night, the final part of the impeachment trial was expected to move quickly, with a vote on acquittal possible on Saturday.