'Political vengeance': Trump's defense blasts second House impeachment as partisan attack

  • In Politics
  • 2021-02-12 21:07:48Z

WASHINGTON - Former President Donald Trump's legal team went on the attack Friday in his Senate impeachment trial with a fiery defense of his speech Jan. 6 before the Capitol riot and accusations of hypocrisy for House managers who wielded the same language and tactics as Trump.

The forceful opening argument came in stark contrast to earlier debate Tuesday, when senators panned defense lawyer Bruce Castor Jr.'s presentation as meandering and a lost opportunity. But other members of the defense team - Michael van der Veen and David Schoen - roared back Friday.

The lawyers denied that Trump urged violence of any kind and that he sought legislative remedies for his complaints about the election. They also argued that his speech the day of the riot featured common political language such as "fight" that is protected by the First Amendment.

The defense team also blasted House managers, accusing them of selectively editing video of Trump's speech and tweets to distort his role. And the lawyers argued that Democrats routinely wielded the same vocabulary and political tactics to challenge elections as Trump.

More: Impeachment live updates: Trump defense rests; attorney says Jan. 6 was not an insurrection

"The article of impeachment now before the Senate is an unjust and blatantly unconstitutional act of political vengeance," van der Veen said. "Like every other politically motivated witch hunt the left has engaged in over the past four years, this impeachment is completely divorced from the facts, the evidence and the interests of the American people."

After Trump's defense closed, the Senate moved to up to four hours of questions. Senators submit written questions for either side in the case.

Once questions are concluded, if no witnesses are requested, up to four hours of closing arguments are expected Saturday. The Senate could vote on the verdict Saturday afternoon.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of six Republicans to join Democrats in voting to uphold the constitutionality of the trial, said the defense presentation Friday was better than earlier in the week.

"I think they are putting on a good defense today," she said. "I think the defense is more on their game today than what I saw the other day."

The House impeached Trump last month, charging him with inciting the violence that left five dead and 140 police officers injured as rioters rampaged through the Capitol searching for Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The riot interrupted the counting of Electoral College votes that confirmed President Joe Biden's victory.

But van der Veen said Trump urged a peaceful protest and that he couldn't be blamed for the mob's actions.

More: Ex-Pennsylvania prosecutor Bruce Castor, whose defense of Trump was widely derided, is no stranger to controversy

"The Senate should promptly and decisively vote to reject it," van der Veen said. "These are not the words of someone inciting a violent insurrection."

Trump's speech before the crowd laid siege to the Capitol, he called for legislative remedies to his complaints about the election, including better voter identification, requiring proof of citizenship to vote, van der Veen said.

"Nothing in the text could ever be construed as encouraging, condoning or enticing unlawful activity of any kind," van der Veen said.

The presentation disturbed some senators. Sen Tim Kaine, D-Va., said during a break that Georgia election officials had warned that Trump's repeated challenges to election results would lead to violence, but he ignored them.

"Donald Trump was told that he didn't stop lying about the election, people would be killed," Kaine said. "He wouldn't stop, and the Capitol was attacked and seven people are dead who would be alive today. That's what I think about this."

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said Trump's occasional reference to peaceful protest was drowned out by "dog whistles" and overt statements encouraging violence.

"It's just not the same thing," Heinrich said.

More: House managers say timeline shows Trump's silence encouraged insurrection

Van der Veen argued that Trump's speech hadn't violated any law. The lawyer cited James Wilson, one of the first Supreme Court justices and an expert on impeachment, who said lawful and constitutional conduct may not be used an impeachable offense.

"I know these First Amendment arguments are not anywhere close to frivolous," van der Veen said. "They are completely meritorious."

The lead House manager, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., had argued that Trump's speech wasn't protected by the First Amendment because he hadn't just encouraged violence, but refused to call off the mob once the riot began.

"Incitement to violence is, of course, not protected by the First Amendment," Raskin said Wednesday.

David Schoen, a lawyer for former President Donald Trump, arrives for the third day of the second impeachment trial on Thursday.
David Schoen, a lawyer for former President Donald Trump, arrives for the third day of the second impeachment trial on Thursday.  

Another contrast with Democrats came when the defense team played videos officials using the word "fight," calling for Trump's impeachment and even threatening to punch him.

"If I were in high school, I'd take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him," President Joe Biden says in one clip from the campaign.

Another Trump lawyer, Schoen, played a staccato video of Democratic officials saying the word "fight," including Vice President Kamala Harris; Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Trump's lawyers cited cases of Republican lawmakers being attacked by Democratic supporters. Van der Veen referred obliquely about how a gunman shot four people including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., at a softball practice in June 2017 after reportedly being inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

"A man claiming to be inspired by the junior senator from Vermont came down here to Washington, D.C., to watch a softball game and kill as many senators and congressmen as he could," van der Veen said. "It cannot be forgotten that President Trump did not blame the junior senator."

More: House managers say timeline shows Trump's silence encouraged insurrection

The defense team also played a video showing a series of Democrats objecting to Electoral College votes the same way that Trump and his supporters did Jan. 6. The video began with Raskin, the lead impeachment manager, raising an objection to Florida votes for Trump in 2017, just three days after he was sworn into office.

"You claim that it's wrong to object to the certification of election results," Schoen said to Raskin. "It's one of the first things you did when you got here."

Schoen also criticized managers for using mislabeled tweets and short, out-of-context snippets of Trump speaking. But House managers said video of Trump's speech was played in context and tweets were cited with confirmation checks of their authenticity.

"There is significant reason to doubt the evidence the House managers have put before us," Schoen said. "If they did this in a court of law, they would face sanctions from the judge."

Contributing: Savannah Behrmann

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump impeachment trial: Defense blasts trial as partisan attack


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