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Trump's impeachment defense team rests, arguing his words before riot were 'ordinary political rhetoric'

Photo courtesy of MGN

Senators are now questioning both sides. A final vote on whether to convict the ex-president for inciting the Capitol riot could happen this weekend.

Posted: Feb 12, 2021 4:48 PM

NBC News- Lawyers for former President Donald Trump’s defense rested their case Friday after less than three hours of arguments in which they called the impeachment case built by Democratic House managers an act of "political vengeance" and alleged that Trump's speech preceding the Capitol riot was merely "ordinary political rhetoric."

The defense lawyers said that Trump's words at the Jan. 6 "Stop the Steal" rally that preceded the violent storming of the Capitol was protected free speech that was "virtually indistinguishable from language that has been used by people across the political spectrum" over decades.

Senators are now posing written questions for representatives of both sides for four hours. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Senate president pro tempore, who is presiding over the trial, will read the questions aloud.

The defense focused mainly on process and lawyerly arguments about the Senate trial and the prosecution's case, along with political arguments they insisted were not "what-about-ism," rather than presenting a comprehensive defense of Trump's actions surrounding the riot.

They did not, for instance, address some of the prosecution's core arguments, such as offering a complete explanation of Trump's actions during the violence at the Capitol and a defense of why he didn't do more to stop it once it was underway.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska — who are both seen as swing votes — asked Trump's lawyers when exactly the former president learned of the Capitol breach and what actions he took to stop it, adding, "please be as detailed as possible."

Michael van der Veen, one of Trump's lawyer, said he could not answer the question about his own client's actions, blaming Democrats and saying he could only "piece together a timeline" from Trump's tweets.

"With the rush to bring this impeachment, there's been absolutely no investigation into that," he said.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, another potential Republican vote for conviction, asked if Trump was aware former Vice President Mike Pence was in danger before he sent a tweet saying Pence "didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution."

Van der Veen said no, and that the question was "not really relevant," but Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville told reporters Thursday night he told Trump that Pence had been evacuated from the Senate Chamber and was in danger moments before Trump's tweet was posted.

They briefly revisited Trump's false conspiracy theories about the election being stolen from him and played on familiar conservative themes about free speech and "cancel culture."

"This trial is about far more than President Trump. It is about silencing and banning the speech the majority does not agree with," said Bruce Castor, one of Trump's lawyers. "It is about cancelling 75 million Trump voters and criminalizing political viewpoints. It's the only existential issue before us. It asks for constitutional cancel culture to take over in the United States Senate."

His lawyers also argued that Trump could not have incited an assault on the Capitol because it had been preplanned by extremists. And they attempted to equate the influence that Democrats argued Trump has with right-wing extremist groups to the support by some Democrats for largely peaceful racial justice protesters over the summer.

Echoing language that was once frequently used by his client, Trump defense lawyer van der Veen blasted the Democrats' impeachment case against Trump as an "unjust and blatantly unconstitutional act of political vengeance" and a divisive "politically motivated witch hunt."

And he repeatedly argued Trump was merely encouraging supporters to make sure their lawmakers were faithfully conducting a proper certification of the Electoral College Vote count.

"Far from promoting insurrection," Van der Veen said, "the president’s remarks...explicitly encouraged those in attendance (at the rally) to exercise their rights peacefully and patriotically."

He noted that in 2016 several Democratic House members raised objections to the results of Trump’s victory, including lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

Castor said Trump's pugilistic rhetoric about members of Congress was merely about encouraging primary challenges to Republican lawmakers who didn't "fight" the way Trump wanted.

"Nobody in this chamber is anxious to have a primary challenge. That is one truism I think I can say with some certainty. But that's the way we operate in this country," Castor said.

Building on Van der Veen's claim that Trump's Jan. 6 words were no worse than other political rhetoric, defense lawyer David Schoen played a dizzying and lengthy video montage of various Democratic lawmakers, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, urging their supporters to "fight." He argued that no one had ever construed those words as literal encouragement to physically fight as Democrats have done with Trump.

At the start of the lengthy montage, Democratic senators in the chamber were mostly stone faced. But that changed quickly, as more clips played. There were constant murmurs in the chamber, lots of whispering, some laughing and note passing.

Later, Van der Veen, played another montage that featured many of the same clips, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., saying, "I don't know why there aren't uprisings all the time."

He said he wasn't trying to exercise "what-about-ism," but rather, that he was making the case that "all political speech should be protected."

"And it should be protected evenly for all of us," he said.

At another point, Van der Veen went on to argue that Trump could have not incited the mob that stormed the Capitol because, he said, they’d been planning their attack for weeks prior to the Jan. 6 rally. "You can't incite what was already going to happen," he said.

Van der Veen also said that extremists "of various different persuasions" had "pre-planned the attack on the Capitol" and "hijacked the event for their own purposes," including members of Antifa. Multiple news outlets, including NBC News, have said there is no evidence that any members of Antifa were involved in the riots. On the contrary, as Democratic House managers said during their arguments, rioters were overwhelmingly tied to right-wing extremist groups like the Proud Boys.

Later, Schoen argued that Trump had been denied due process in the House's speedy impeachment vote and accused the managers of manipulating some of the evidence they presented during the arguments over the last two days.

The lawyers repeatedly said the impeachment fell short of the high legal standards expected in a criminal case, even though impeachment is a political process, not a legal one, and the Senate is not a court of law.

The short allotment used by Trump's legal team means the trial is likely headed to a quick conclusion.

And because neither side is expected to request witnesses, closing arguments — and a final vote on conviction — could happen before the weekend is over.

Both sides are eager to move on, with Democrats needing Senate floor time to advance their Covid-19 relief bill and Republicans eager to put the trial and the uncomfortable questions it raises behind them.

Trump's defense came one day after Democratic House impeachment managers concluded their case against Trump by focusing on the damage his supporters caused at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and that he could incite further violence if he is not convicted.

That marked the end of two days of methodical and at times emotionally wrenching presentations from Democrats that included the showing of graphic and devastating never-before-seen footage from inside the Capitol during the riot.

It would take 67 senators — including at least 17 Republicans — to convict Trump.

Already this week, 44 of the 50 Republicans in the Senate have voted to declare the entire proceedings unconstitutional because Trump is no longer president, making it unlikely that any evidence would persuade them.

However, the question-and-answer phase of the trial later Friday could indicate more clearly what some Republican senators are thinking.

Trump is the first president to have been impeached twice by the House, and he is the first former president to be put on trial in the Senate. He was impeached Jan. 13 on an article charging him with "incitement of insurrection" for his role in the riot.

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