Democrats on Wednesday argued Donald Trump planted the seeds for the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol long before Jan. 6 with false claims the election was stolen, and said lawmakers had an obligation to hold the former president accountable.
The House of Representatives has charged Trump, a Republican, with inciting an insurrection by exhorting thousands of supporters to march on the Capitol on the day Congress was gathered to certify Democrat Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
The rioters stormed the building, sending lawmakers into hiding and leaving five people dead, including a police officer.
The nine Democratic House managers prosecuting the case for impeachment, an uphill task in an narrowly divided Senate, said on Wednesday the incitement started long before Jan. 6.
“Trump realized last spring that he could lose the November election and began planting seeds of anger among his supporters by saying he could lose only if it was stolen,” said Representative Joseph Neguse.
“If we are to protect our republic and prevent something like this from ever happening again, he must be convicted.”
The Democratic managers said Trump threatened a hallmark of American democracy, the peaceful transfer of power.
“This case is not about blaming an innocent bystander for the horrific violence and harm that took place on Jan. 6,” Representative Jamie Raskin said as he opened the proceedings. “This is about holding accountable the person singularly responsible for inciting the attack.”
Democrats face long odds to secure a conviction, which could lead to a vote barring Trump from seeking public office again. A two-thirds majority in the Senate must vote to convict, which means at least 17 Republicans would have to defy Trump’s still-potent popularity among Republican voters.
On Tuesday, the Senate voted that the trial could move ahead even though Trump’s term ended on Jan. 20. Six out of 50 Republican senators broke with their caucus to side with Democrats.
The impeachment is not the only probe into Trump’s behavior. Prosecutors in one Georgia county are investigating Trump’s attempts to overturn the state’s election results, according to a letter seen by Reuters. On Monday, the office of Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger opened its own probe into a call made by Trump on Jan. 2 pressuring him to “find” more votes.
Trump’s lawyers argue that the former president’s rhetoric is protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and that the individuals who breached the Capitol, not Trump, were responsible for their own criminal behavior. They also say the trial is only aimed at ending Trump’s political career.
“We are really here because the majority in the House of Representatives does not want to face Donald Trump as a political rival in the future,” Bruce Castor, one of Trump’s lawyers, told senators on Tuesday.
Party leaders have agreed on a fast-moving schedule that could lead to a vote on conviction or acquittal by early next week. It was still not clear whether either side would present witnesses.
Democratic Senator Richard Durbin told CNN on Wednesday: “We have plenty of witnesses. We have 100 witnesses sitting in the chairs and the senators.”
Some Democrats had expressed concern that a prolonged trial could delay progress on Biden’s agenda, including a proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.
Biden was not planning to watch the trial, the White House said, and spent Tuesday meeting business leaders in the Oval Office. Asked about the proceedings, the president said he was focused on his own job.
“The Senate has their job; they’re about to begin it. I’m sure they’re going to conduct themselves well,” he said.
Trump is the first U.S. president to be impeached twice. His first impeachment trial, which stemmed from his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden, ended in an acquittal a year ago in what was then a Republican-controlled Senate.
No U.S. president has ever been removed from office via impeachment. Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 and Andrew Johnson in 1868 but they also were acquitted. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 rather than face impeachment over the Watergate scandal.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan and David Morgan; writing by Sonya Hepinstall; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)