Defending the horrific: How some can cheer for an angry man who falsely shouts “fire” in a crowded theater
“This case is much worse than someone who falsely shouts fire in a crowded theater. It’s more like a case where the town fire chief, who’s paid to put out fires, sends a mob not to yell fire in a crowded theater, but to actually set the theater on fire.”
This was how lead House impeachment manager Jamie Raskin (D-MD) explained Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection to the senators trying the former president Trump for inciting that insurrection.
Over the course of February 10, the House impeachment managers laid out a devastating timeline of the former president’s effort, beginning even before the 2020 election, to prime his supporters to believe the only way he could lose was if the Democrats cheated. Manager Joseph Neguse (D-CO) used the rioters’ own words to show that they were responding to Trump’s calls to fight for his reelection.
Manager Eric Swalwell (D-CA) pointed out that the Trump camp spent $50 million on national “STOP THE STEAL!” ads that ran until the planned “big protest” on January 6. That presentation alone was powerful, as the managers put videos of rally speeches and tweets together to let the story tell itself.
But the tale grew riveting when impeachment manager Stacey Plaskett, a Democratic delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands, took the story into the Capitol building itself. She followed the rioters using footage from their own cellphones and the cameras of journalists who recorded their actions. But she had more than those videos.
Plaskett used previously unseen video from security cameras to illustrate just how close the rioters came to capturing Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, both of whom they were searching for specifically, as well as lawmakers in general. In some cases, the congress members and their staffs were within seconds of being caught.
The mocking, singsong, drawn out calls for “Nancy” from a rioter searching for the House Speaker as if he were a monster stalking a victim in a horror movie, and the angry chants to “Hang Mike Pence!” from rioters who had hung a noose from a gallows they constructed outside the Capitol, left little doubt the rioters were deadly. Richard Barnett, the man photographed with his feet on Pelosi’s desk, carried a 950,000-volt stun gun.
Impeachment manager David Cicilline (D-RI) took the baton from Plaskett, hammering home that Trump had continued to stoke the crowd’s anger against Pence even as the vice president was in lockdown at the Capitol, and that he refused to stop the riot despite pleading from his aides and allies. Manager Joaquin Castro (D-TX) brought the argument home: “On January 6, President Trump left everyone in this Capitol for dead.”
It was a riveting, damning presentation, showing just how close we came to an event even worse than the day turned out to be. In one particularly dramatic new scene from the security cameras, we saw Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, who later lured the rioters away from the Senate chamber to give the lawmakers enough time—barely—to get to safety, prevent Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) from walking into the mob, likely saving his life.
The story the managers told set out quite clearly that the insurrection was not only planned, it was timed to disrupt the counting of the electoral votes that would make Joe Biden president. As impeachment manager Ted Lieu (D-CA) put it, Trump “ran out of nonviolent options to maintain power…. What you saw was a man so desperate to try to cling to power that he tried everything he could to keep it, and when he ran out of nonviolent measures, he turned to the violent mob that attacked your Senate chamber on January 6.”
The House managers tried to make it possible for Republican senators to convict Trump. They focused on him alone, leaving untouched the fact that some of the senators in the chamber had themselves spread the lie that the election had been marred by massive fraud. (The one apparently in deepest, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, refused to watch the presentation.)
They held up Vice President Pence as a principled leader attacked while trying to do his constitutional duty, offering Republican senators a choice not between their party and the Democrats, but rather between Trump and Pence, Republicans both. They also detailed the attack on Capitol police officers, offering the chance for Republicans to side against Trump and with the officers.
In their defense of Pence, the impeachment managers made clear a curious thing: the popular anger at Pence was entirely manufactured. Pence’s role on January 6 was largely ceremonial; he could not challenge the counting of the electoral votes, and he said so, both in person and in writing, as Trump continued to pressure him to.
Trump’s deliberate stoking of fury at the vice president meant the crowd was actively hunting for Vice President Pence and House Speaker Pelosi, the next two people in line for the presidency should Trump be removed from office.
And yet, there are signs that none of this matters to the Republican senators who have already decided to acquit the president. On Twitter, Senator Lindsey Graham tonight called the day’s presentation “offensive and absurd.”
Still others say that, even if what happened is horrific, the trial is unconstitutional because Trump is no longer president, although the fact the Senate voted that it is constitutional should mean that point is settled. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) told CNN correspondent Ryan Nobles, “I’m learning things. But, again, my basic point is we shouldn’t have having this trial.”
It seems likely that they are contemplating the experience of Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), whose state Republican Party pounced on his vote on February 9 in favor of the constitutionality of the trial, saying it was “profoundly disappointed.”
But those doubling down on Trump’s leadership of the party have their own troubles. In the 25 states that have accessible data, nearly 140,000 Republicans have left the party since January 6, and Reuters broke the story that “former elected Republicans, former officials in the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Trump, ex-Republican ambassadors and Republican strategists,” are in talks to form a new center-right political party.
While Trump spokesman Jason Miller called the people involved “losers,” they are savvy enough at political strategy to plan to make their influence felt not necessarily by running third-party candidates, but by endorsing the non-Trump candidate in a race, regardless of party.
On February 11, the House impeachment managers wrapped their case against former president Donald Trump. Using the words of the insurgents themselves, the managers argued that he incited the insurrection of January 6, spurring an armed and violent mob to storm the Capitol while Congress was counting the certified electoral votes that awarded the 2020 presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden.
After the dramatic illustrated timeline on February 10 of the insurrection itself, the managers used their time establishing that Trump was responsible for sparking that insurrection. They showed the insurrectionists repeating his words—one man read one of his tweets through a bullhorn at the Capitol riot—and insisting that they were acting according to the former president’s instructions.
The managers’ case was reinforced by the fact that the Department of Justice this morning filed a memorandum establishing that Jessica Watkins, a member of the right-wing Oath Keepers paramilitary group, delayed her planned assault on Washington, D.C., until she was certain Trump was behind it. “I am concerned this is an elaborate trap,” she texted on November 9, 2020. “Unless the POTUS himself activates us, it’s not legit. The POTUS has the right to activate units too. If Trump asks me to come, I will. Otherwise, I can’t trust it.”
Again and again, the managers tried to distinguish between Trump and his violent supporters, on the one hand, and the lawmakers of both parties who were their prey, on the other. Again and again, they focused on Trump as the perpetrator of the big lie that the election had been rigged and that he, not Biden, was the rightful victor.
They warned that Trump’s attack on our democracy is not over. Even after all that has happened, he has still not conceded that he lost the election. This refusal to abandon the big lie keeps it potent, enabling him to rally supporters with the argument that fighting for Trump means defending American democracy. It is a deadly inversion of reality.
The House impeachment managers have given Republican senators multiple ways to justify a vote for conviction to their constituents. They have shown how Trump began to incite violence even before the election, in plain sight, and how that led to an assault on the Capitol that came close to costing the lives of our elected officials, including Vice President Mike Pence—a Republican—and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the two people next in line for the presidency if Trump were to be removed from office.
The riot threatened the representatives and senators—including them!—their staffers, and many of their family members who were at the Capitol that day. And yet, even as lawmakers begged Trump to call the rioters off, he did the opposite. He attacked Pence in a tweet even as the vice president was being rushed to safety from the mob.
The managers focused, too, on the terrible toll the attack took on Capitol police. Three of them are now dead, with more than 100 wounded physically and others wounded mentally. Senators could vote to convict out of a determination to protect law enforcement officers, something their constituents say is important to them.
The managers emphasized the many Republican lawmakers who condemned Trump in the wake of the insurrection, including the Cabinet members who resigned their posts, the state governors who called him out, and fellow lawmakers who expressed dismay at his incitement of the rioters.
Finally, the managers warned that, unless Trump is stopped, he will absolutely do such a thing again. They pointed out that the riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, after which the president condoned the white supremacists who killed Heather Heyer, was a rehearsal for the attack on the Michigan state house this summer. That, in turn, was a rehearsal for the attack on the Capitol. As manager Diana DeGette (D-CO) said: “In 2017, it was unfathomable to most of us to think that Charlottesville could happen, just as it was unfathomable to most of us that the Capitol could have been breached on January 6…. Frankly, what unfathomable horrors await us if we do not stand up now and say, no, this is not America.”
Senators were apparently shocked to see how close they came to falling into the hands of the rioters, and yet, although many Republican senators concede that the House managers mounted a compelling case, they continue to say that they do not believe they have the power to convict a former president. This suggests they are looking for an excuse, since the Senate’s vote on this question, which should be definitive, passed on February 9 by a vote of 56-44. At one point on February 11, at least 18 Republican senators were absent from their desks as the managers were making their case.
It is unlikely that any of the senators want to acquit Trump because they want him to stay in the political scene. Some of them want his voters, but that itself cuts against wanting him to stay around: they want his voters to elect them, not to reelect him or elect his chosen successor. It’s likely they simply hoped he would fade away as he lost his social media presence and became occupied with the financial and legal troubles that are already piling up.
After all, bankers have distanced themselves from the former president, his businesses appear to be losing money, and a $100 million tax dispute with the IRS is now likely to come to a conclusion after being put on hold for four years. On February 10, District Attorney Fani Willis, Fulton County, Georgia’s top prosecutor, announced that she is launching a wide-ranging criminal investigation into Trump’s January 2 phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a call that lawyers have suggested broke election laws.
But the Senate trial has shown that maybe he is not going to fade away. The House impeachment managers have laid out a damning case. The scenes from the insurrection were shocking, and they established a pretty strong sense that Trump is deeply involved in an ongoing attempt to overturn our democracy. It looks possible that the Department of Justice might, in fact, go after the former president and perhaps others with the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
Senators who were planning to let Trump off the hook might be worrying they will have to answer to constituents furious that they didn’t do their jobs and instead associated the entire party with a criminal president and the rioters that attacked the Capitol. Already the editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has lambasted Missouri Senators Josh Hawley and Roy Blunt: “There is no way to credibly argue that Trump protected and defended the Constitution when video evidence shows him directing a mob to storm the Capitol and interrupt constitutionally mandated proceedings to certify the Electoral College result.”
The senators need Trump’s lawyers to do a good enough job tomorrow to give them cover to acquit, and it seems likely those lawyers are not skilled enough to do so. Tonight, Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) visited Trump’s defense team. Cruz said they were “sharing our thoughts” about their legal strategy: it is of note that Cruz was the Solicitor General of Texas before being elected to the Senate, and Lee was an assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah. Also a lawyer, Graham is the former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Republican senators who will vote either to convict or acquit the former president must do so knowing that trials associated with the insurrection between now and the next election will keep the story in the news. The question is whether the American people will interpret the story as the impeachment team has framed it, or whether Trump’s lawyers and later Trump himself, if he regains a political foothold, can somehow knock that interpretation aside.
Lead impeachment manager Jamie Raskin (D-MD), who was a constitutional law professor before he went to Congress, seems to understand their dilemma. “Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered,” he told the senators on February 11, quoting political theorist Thomas Paine, “but we have this saving consolation: The more difficult the struggle, the more glorious … our victory.”
Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics