Democratic House impeachment managers on Wednesday made never-before-seen security footage from the Jan. 6 Capitol breach the highlight of their first day of substantive arguments during the Senate impeachment trial.
But the videos, while they pulled on senators’ heartstrings, may do little to support the ultimate argument that former President Donald Trump is guilty of the House’s “incitement of insurrection” charge.
Lead House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin opened the day hitting at the crux of one Republican argument, that Trump did not incite the Capitol mob because his statements are protected under the First Amendment.
“This case is much worse than someone yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” said Raskin, formerly a constitutional law professor. “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” and then “does nothing but sit back, encourage the mob to continue its rampage, and watch the fire spread on TV with glee and delight.”
Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, another impeachment manager, outlined the structure of their case against Trump: presenting the provocation of the mob attack by Trump, an examination of the attack itself, and the harm it caused. The provocation, Neguse said, started with Trump’s “big lie” that the election was stolen and then morphed into a call on his supporters to “fight like hell” to “stop the steal.”
“It’s not just one speech. It didn’t just happen. It was part of a monthslong effort with a specific instruction: Show up on Jan. 6,” Neguse said.
Impeachment managers Reps. Joaquin Castro of Texas, Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, Eric Swalwell of California, and Ted Lieu of California made presentations, which included Trump asking Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find enough votes to make him win the state over President Biden.
Virgin Islands Del. Stacey Plaskett attempted to demonstrate that Trump’s words affect how his supporters act and that Trump knew that, referencing his comment that the far-right Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by,” followed by members of the group wearing T-shirts with the phrase, and a Biden-Harris campaign van in Texas being surrounded by a caravan of Trump supporters.
But it was the new security footage from inside the Capitol building that stole the show.
The harrowing footage included an interior view of the first intruders breaking into the Capitol, Vice President Mike Pence being evacuated after intruders were close to him, senators evacuating the Senate chamber, and Republican Sen. Mitt Romney being told to turn around away from the mob.
Romney told reporters after seeing the footage that he had no idea the intruders were so close.
Impeachment managers presented the footage alongside already-public videos from the Jan. 6 breach that were previously made public, which boomed through the Senate chamber so loud that it could be heard from the hallways outside through closed doors.
The new footage, together with the old, created a timeline that shook some senators.
“We didn’t realize it at the time, but until they walked us through ‘here’s what Trump is saying, here’s what he’s tweeting, here’s what the mob is doing outside, here’s what we’re doing inside the chamber’ and put it on the same timeline, I don’t think most of us really grasped that,” said Democratic Delaware Sen. Chris Coons.
The footage did little to convince Republicans that Trump is responsible for the mob, however.
“Today’s presentation was powerful and emotional, reliving a terrorist attack on our nation’s capital, but there was very little said about how specific conduct of the president satisfies the legal standard ,” Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz told the press pool.
Castro also cited a New York Times report that asserted, based on an unnamed source, that Trump “initially rebuffed requests to mobilize the National Guard.”
In arguing that Trump knew what his supporters were planing online, Plaskett cited an Independent story also based on an unnamed source that did not even have direct knowledge of the clam: An “ex-White House and campaign insider, who has known both Scavino and the president for years, said there was no way that Scavino and the Trump social media operation would not have been aware of plans circulating online to storm the Capitol.”
Due in part to the tight timeline of impeachment and the decision to not call any witnesses so far, some of the points brought up by impeachment managers rely on press reports rather than indisputable fact. That issue caused confusion and ruckus on the House floor when Republican Utah Sen. Mike Lee objected to one point of the presentation.
Impeachment manager Rep. David Cicilline cited news stories that said Trump called Lee during the Capitol invasion on accident, meaning to reach Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville. Cicilline said that Trump reportedly asked Tuberville to make more objections to delay certification of Electoral College results, painting a picture of a president indifferent to the Capitol attack.
Lee later objected to that anecdote being included in the record, saying that the statements “were not made by me, they’re not accurate.” Raskin later said they would work on withdrawing it, saying it was “not critical to our case.”