Trump's many defenses, explained

Asked for specifics about when former President Donald Trump learned of the Capitol breach and what actions he took to end the chaos, defense attorney Michael van der Veen referenced an incomplete timeline dating back to December 2020 and suggested that House impeachment managers failed to address the topic in their presentation.

Posted: Feb 13, 2021 3:30 PM
Updated: Feb 13, 2021 3:30 PM

Former President Donald Trump's defense team used just a few of the 16 hours they were allotted to make their case for his acquittal on Friday, and encouraged senators to use the rest of the time on Covid relief.

It was simple and it was quick. Here's what they argued:

The political speech defense. Their basic thrust was that Trump was totally misconstrued. He didn't mean tell his supporters to literally go "fight" on Capitol Hill before they turned into a riotous mob that sacked the Senate. He meant they should be fighters in the political sense of the word and find primary challengers to Republicans. (Don't think the Republican senators in the chamber didn't hear that word -- primary -- and shudder.)

The free speech defense. They detailed the importance of freedom of expression and argued that Trump's words should be protected. They cited multiple court cases, including Brandenburg v. Ohio, to argue Trump did not meet the legal threshold of incitement, although this is not a legal proceeding.

The Trump didn't have anything to do with the violence defense. They argued, like the Democrats, that the march was preplanned. But they argued it was preplanned as an attack and by criminals, not by Trump, citing evidence that a pipe bomb on Capitol Hill was planted before January 6.

The they-do-it-too defense. The defense team focused in depth on Democratic senators in the chamber and representatives who argued the impeachment case, playing video of them using the word "fight" in political speech. But rioters didn't attack the Capitol after Democrats used the word.

The political grudge defense. Trump's lawyers argued the Democrats weren't trying to protect the Constitution but to rob American voters of a choice in future elections. (This argument has always confused me since Trump, by rejecting the election results, has been trying to rob a larger number of Americans of their voices in opposing him.)

The what-about-them defense. Without defending the rioters, the defense team argued the riot at the Capitol was not unlike violence that broke out after rallies for racial justice over the summer. Trump was forceful in rejecting that violence.

The out-of-context defense. They played longer portions of Trump comments and speeches and argued that impeachment managers had mangled his words. This was a somewhat effective line until the defense team played video of Trump defending protesters in Charlottesville who wanted to keep a statue of Robert E. Lee. People died in that event too.

They said he had amplified a tweet that the calvary -- a religious word -- was coming, not that the cavalry -- a military term -- was coming.

Similarly, the defense efforts to distance Trump from the mob and focus on the moments where he halfheartedly asked them to be peaceful ignored the literal love and thanks he showed them as they were rampaging through the Capitol complex.

They also tried to defend Trump's phone call with Georgia's Republican secretary of state, arguing that he hadn't been asking the official, Brad Raffensperger, to find votes, but rather to do more signature verification, which Trump believed would result in more votes for him.

Constitutional cancel culture. Here's the defense in one passage from attorney Bruce Castor:

This trial is about far more than President Trump. It is about silencing and banning the speech the majority does not agree with.

It is about canceling 75 million Trump voters and criminalizing political viewpoints. That is what this trial is really about.

It's the only existential issue before us. It asks for constitutional cancel culture to take over in the United States Senate. Are we going to allow canceling and banning and silencing to be sanctioned in this body?

Will this defense work? Yes, in that Trump will likely be acquitted.

"What they are looking for, so many of these Republican senators, most of them, I would even say, is a way out and a way to vote to acquit," said Dana Bash on CNN after the defense ended its case.

But it may be a harder sell among a larger body of Americans expected to suspend common sense to agree with the Trump defenses.

Read a fact check of the defense from CNN's Daniel Dale, Tara Subramaniam and Holmes Lybrand.

Can one branch of government go to war with another?

My editor Allison Hoffman had the single most important takeaway I've seen:

The good news is, Trump and his lawyers have to throw the rioters under the bus to make his defense work.

The bad news is, it's either with a wink, or it's license for these violent, subversive and anti-democratic elements to go even further, without Trump at the helm. They will just corrode the system -- in state capitols, on state and local election boards, on school boards.

And in that sense it doesn't matter whether Trump is convicted or acquitted. This movement -- whatever you want to call the stew of Q and Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and others -- is now abroad everywhere in the country, and it needs to be met at every level up and down the government.

Question time

Ahead of schedule, senators moved straight to question time Friday night. They could ask questions, in writing, and they're usually more important as leading indicators of where different groups of senators are leaning.

There were interesting questions from Sens. Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski -- Republicans who seem likely to vote to convict -- about when Trump knew the Capitol was in danger, what exactly he did to protect it, and whether he knew about the danger faced by Vice President Mike Pence.

There were not good answers to those, since impeachment managers relied mostly on the public record to put forward their case. Trump's defense team has argued the lack of a thorough investigation is a problem with the case against the former President.

Where is the wind blowing?

Ask Nikki Haley. Keep an eye on Republicans who seem likely to run for president in 2024. Haley, a former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the UN, would top anyone's list.

She gave a series of interviews to Politico that were published Friday and CNN's Chris Cillizza picked out these two most eye-opening quotes.

First, about Trump:

"We need to acknowledge he let us down. He went down a path he shouldn't have, and we shouldn't have followed him, and we shouldn't have listened to him. And we can't let that ever happen again."

And this one about Trump's political future:

"He's not going to run for federal office again. ... I don't think he's going to be in the picture. I don't think he can. He's fallen so far."

Writes Cillizza:

That this interview comes out just after the House impeachment managers concluded their case in the Senate impeachment trial -- laying out a damning presentation detailing Trump's long stoking of the resentment, victimhood and hate that bubbled over on January 6 -- seems like more than a coincidence. (My general rule is that there are no coincidences in politics at this level.)

This is the moment where Trump is, arguably, as low as he has ever been politically. He's not out. But he's definitely down. And Haley is making her move to knock him out once and for all. (The student has become the master -- and all that.) Haley knows that, within the Republican Party Trump created, she is one of the very few who could deliver that sort of knockout blow.

Contradictory hot take. I agree with Cillizza that this is Haley putting space between herself and Trump. I don't think she has the ability to do much more than ride the wave here, however. She's a good politician. But she does not lead a base movement of Republicans. Trump does.

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