House Democrats opened their first day of arguments in former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial Wednesday with searing video footage and audio from the U.S. Capitol riot as they painted Trump as an “inciter in chief” who systematically riled up his supporters and falsely convinced them the election had been stolen, culminating in the deadly attack.
The lead House prosecutor said Trump encouraged the crowd at his Jan. 6 rally outside the White House to head to the Capitol, then did nothing to stem the violence and watched with “glee” as a mob stormed the iconic building.
“He assembled, inflamed and incited his followers to descend upon the Capitol,” Rep. Jamie Raskin said.
Five people died.
“To us, it may have felt like chaos and madness,” Raskin said, “but there was method to the madness that day.”
This is just surreal footage of officers being attacked while holding back a huge crowd. The hearing has now recessed after the viewing of this video. <a href=”https://t.co/uSTdwwqewr”>pic.twitter.com/uSTdwwqewr</a>
The day’s proceedings unfolded after an emotional start Tuesday that left the former president, who according to a person familiar with his thinking was watching from his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., fuming when his attorneys delivered a meandering defence and failed to halt the trial on constitutional grounds. Some allies called for yet another shakeup to his legal team.
Trump is the first president to face an impeachment trial after leaving office and the first to be twice impeached. Last month’s Capitol riot followed a rally during which Trump urged his supporters to “fight like hell,” words his lawyers say were simply a figure of speech. He is charged with “incitement of insurrection.”
Impeachment manager Rep. Joe Neguse said that Trump “used his speech as a call to arms.”
Security footage not previously released
House Democratic prosecutors sought to link the former Republican president directly to the deadly riot, replaying videos of the rioters trying to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory and Trump’s statements urging them to fight the election results.
“This was, as one of our colleagues put it so cogently on Jan. 6 itself, the greatest betrayal of the presidential oath in the history of the United States. The evidence will show you that he saw it coming and was not remotely surprised by the violence,” Raskin said.
The prosecutors argued that Trump’s words weren’t just free speech but part of “the big lie” — his relentless efforts to sow doubts about the Nov. 3 election results. Those began long before the votes were tabulated, revving up his followers to “stop the steal,” though there was no evidence of the widespread fraud he alleged occurred.
WATCH | Officers overpowered by rioters in newly released police audio:
They pointed to Trump’s own words, playing video clips from his rallies and press conference and pointing to tweets dating from months before the election in which he warned his supporters the vote would be rigged and from the days following it, in which he repeated his messages of “stop the steal” and “stop the count.”
Other video played Wednesday included security footage from inside the Capitol on the day of the riot that hasn’t been seen before.
Senators also heard police audio for the first time that reflected the panic of the far outnumbered Capitol Police officers as the rioters attacked them and eventually breached their security line.
Trump ‘built this mob over many months’: Democrats
Trump knew very well what would happen when he took to the microphone at the outdoor White House rally on Jan. 6, almost to the hour that Congress gavelled in to certify Biden’s win, Neguse said.
“This was not just a speech,” he said.
Trump’s supporters were prepped and armed, ready to descend on the Capitol, Neguse said. “When they heard his speech, they understood his words.”
House impeachment manager Rep. Eric Swalwell detailed how Trump announced the rally on Twitter, writing on Dec. 19: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
Swalwell said that the rally was Trump’s “last chance to stop a peaceful transition of power.” He said Trump’s tweet wasn’t a “casual, one-off reference or a single invitation” and that for the next 18 days, he reminded his supporters “over and over and over” to show up.
“This was never about one speech,” Swalwell said. “He built this mob over many months with repeated messaging until they believed that they’d been robbed of their vote, and they would do anything to stop the certification.”
Romney moved to tears
As violence mounted in the states during the weeks and months before Trump supporters marched to the Capitol, the House managers argued, he could have told loyalists to stand down but didn’t.
The mob “didn’t come out of thin air,” Rep. Joaquin Castro said.
Republican senators Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney said they were deeply disturbed by the evidence presented at the trial.
Speaking to reporters during a break Wednesday evening, Murkowski said the Democrats’ presentation was “pretty damning.”
“I just don’t see how Donald Trump could be re-elected like this to the presidency again,” she said.
Romney said he was brought to tears watching a video shown of Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman directing him away from the mob. He called the video “overwhelmingly distressing and emotional.”
WATCH | In newly released video, Romney is saved by a Capitol Police officer:
Other Republicans unmoved
But during an earlier break in the trial Wednesday afternoon, many Republicans appeared indifferent to the prosecutors’ case and made it clear they were still unlikely to convict.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said the case was “predictable” and included information that was already public.
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, another close ally of Trump, said the trial “is going to be pretty tedious.” He said the two sides would be better served to make their case “in a couple hours, and be done with this.”
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe said Democrats have “put a real good team together” but that he didn’t think anything had been said “by either side that has changed any votes.”
CNN reported that some Republican senators didn’t even appear to be listening to what the prosecutors were laying out.
Vivid footage shows rioters roaming halls
Video footage played during the impeachment managers’ presentations showed rioters screaming and breaking into the Capitol building. Some of the rioters grabbed fire extinguishers from the walls as they stormed through the hallways.
“Where are they counting the votes?” they yell.
In another video, rioters chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” and “Bring out Pence!” as they roamed the halls searching for the former vice-president and other lawmakers. Outside, the mob set up a makeshift gallows on the field near the Capitol.
Rioters managed to get to within 30 metres of Pence. Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman helped guide rioters away from where he was hiding.
House impeachment manager Stacey Plaskett said, “You can hear the mob calling for the death of the vice-president of the United States.”
WATCH | In video not previously made public, Pence is ushered from Senate chamber:
6 of 50 Republicans vote that trial is constitutional
Security remains extremely tight at the Capitol, which is fenced off with razor wire and patrolled by National Guard troops.
Six Republicans joined with Democrats on Tuesday to vote to proceed with the trial in a 56-44 vote. A two-thirds threshold of all senators present (67 votes if all 100 are present when the vote is taken) would be needed for conviction.
It appears unlikely that the House prosecutors will call witnesses, and Trump has declined a request to testify. The trial, which was adjourned until noon on Thursday, is expected to continue at least until the weekend.
WATCH | Highlights from Day 1: