Five people died when Trump supporters besieged the Capitol last month, including Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick. Two other Capitol Police officers have since died by suicide. Others suffered a host of physical injuries from their clashes with pro-Trump rioters, including brain damage, fractured bones, bruises, and lacerations. One officer lost an eye. More than three dozen of them have since tested positive for Covid-19.
During their presentation on Friday, Donald Trump’s lawyers condemned the violence against the Capitol and those who protected it last month. But to their minds, there was another victim of those attacks: Donald Trump himself. According to their narrative, Democrats maliciously used the fact that a riot occurred to harm the man responsible for it. “The purpose of this gathering is to embarrass the forty-fifth president of the United States,” Bruce Castor, one of Trump’s lawyers, told senators on Friday. Michael van der Veen, who also represents Trump, denounced the impeachment trial as “constitutional cancel culture.”
This sense of victimization permeated Trump’s defense. Both sides were allotted 16 hours to present their case. The House managers used nine hours and nine minutes of that time to build a painstaking case for Trump’s guilt. By one NBC’s reporter’s count, Trump’s lawyers only used two hours and 32 minutes of theirs to level their absurd complaints. (The Godfather, by comparison, is two hours and 58 minutes long.) A significant portion of Trump’s defenders’ presentation was padded out with video footage. Using video isn’t a problem in and of itself: The House managers used theirs to show Trump’s history of violent rhetoric and how his supporters responded to it, building a key portion of their case.
Trump’s lawyers used video footage for a flamboyant display of high-test whataboutism. “This is not whataboutism,” Michael van der Veen told the senators before playing an indulgent bevy of clips of Democratic politicians—and some left-wing celebrities, for some reason—using heated rhetoric of their own toward Trump. In one bizarre instance, they played an extended supercut of various Democratic lawyers saying the word “fight,” shorn from any context, to demonstrate that Trump wasn’t doing anything wrong in his January 6 speech. Some of the clips were played in different videos by Trump’s lawyers three or four times. At times, it seemed like Trump’s lawyers were trying to justify Trump’s role in the January 6 riot by suggesting that Democrats also incite violence.
The former president’s team went on to describe him in ways that defy the last five years of lived experience. In their version of events, Trump is a passionate believer in “law and order” because he’s said the words “law and order” aloud at so many rallies. They cast Trump’s months-long campaign to delegitimize the election results as a good-faith inquiry into election integrity, as if he were more Inspector Clouseau than Maximilien Robespierre. And they assured senators that when Trump told his supporters to “fight like hell” when marching on the Capitol, he meant that they should express their views in future elections—you know, the same plebiscites he’s spent the last year suggesting had been entirely undone by a massive national conspiracy against him.
Trump’s lawyers were not quite so foolish as to pretend the attack didn’t happen to a room full of direct witnesses. But they took some disingenuous steps to downplay its significance. “Clearly, there was no insurrection,” Castor remarked at one point, arguing that an insurrection involves taking over TV stations, seizing civil powers, and the like. An insurrection is typically defined as a violent uprising against the government. Storming the Capitol to stop Congress from confirming a president-elect’s victory falls squarely under that definition.
They also went to great lengths to frame the impeachment trial as “cancel culture,” a term used to obscure a person’s wrongdoing by focusing on the consequences they face for it. An impeachment trial is not “cancel culture,” of course. It’s a constitutional mechanism for accountability that protects the republic from the predations of corrupt and malevolent officials. But Trump’s lawyers tried to cast him as a First Amendment martyr instead. “This is ordinarily political rhetoric that is virtually indistinguishable from the language that has been used by people across the political spectrum for hundreds of years,” van der Veen told the senators. “Countless politicians have spoken of fighting for our principles.” Few of them can match Trump’s track record of encouraging violence, however.
After they rested their case, the senators moved into a question-and-answer phase. From there, Trump’s lawyers refused to engage with both reality and the underlying facts of the case, even in instances where it might have materially helped their client. “Exactly when did President Trump learn of the breach of the Capitol, and what specific actions did he take to bring the rioting to an end, and when did he take them?” asked Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, two senators who could conceivably vote to convict Trump. “Please be as detailed as possible.”
Trump’s lawyers blew them off in a remarkably blunt way. “The House managers have given us absolutely no evidence one way or another on that question,” van der Veen replied, before criticizing the managers for not conducting a full investigation. As Trump’s lawyer, he could have easily provided an answer. Had there been an answer that might have been advantageous for his client, van der Veen would have had a strong incentive to give it. But he conspicuously and consciously did not, leaving an ominous gap in Trump’s defense. His response only bolsters the case for calling witnesses to flesh out what Trump knew and when.
It’s possible that a majority of senators will vote in favor of Trump’s guilt, though they will almost certainly fall short of the two-thirds margin necessary to convict him. If Republican senators possessed any self-respect, either for themselves or their institution, they would be more willing to convict Trump after his legal team’s disingenuous presentation to them today. Unfortunately, the country is not that lucky. And so Trump, the eternal victim who never actually seems to get victimized, will avoid consequences for his actions once more.