WASHINGTON — Editor's note: The videos shown during Trump's impeachment trial may include graphic violence and explicit language.
House Democrats prosecuting Donald Trump's impeachment said Thursday the Capitol invaders believed they were are acting on "the president's orders” to stop Joe Biden's election, arguing it was the culmination of the defeated president's pattern of spreading false and violent rhetoric that will continue to vex American politics if left unchecked.
The prosecutors described in stark, personal terms the horror faced that day, some of it in the very Senate chamber where Trump's trial is underway. They displayed the many public and explicit instructions Trump gave his supporters — long before the White House rally that unleashed the deadly Capitol attack as Congress was certifying Biden's victory. Five people died in the chaos and its aftermath, a domestic attack unparalleled in U.S. history.
Videos of rioters, some posted to social medial by themselves, talked about how they were doing it all for Trump.
“What makes you think the nightmare with Donald Trump and his law-breaking and violent mobs is over?” asked Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the lead prosecutor. He said earlier, “When Donald Trump tells the crowd as he did on Jan. 6, 'Fight like hell, or you won’t have a country anymore,' he meant for them to ‘fight like hell.’"
Prosecutors wrapped up an emotional two days of opening arguments, with Trump’s defense to take the floor on Friday. The proceedings could wind up with a vote this weekend. The Democrats, with little hope of conviction by two-thirds of the Senate, are making their most graphic case to the American public, while Trump’s lawyers are focused on legal rather than emotional or historic questions, hoping to get it all behind him as quickly as possible.
This second impeachment trial, on the charge of incitement of insurrection, has echoes of last year’s impeachment and acquittal over the Ukraine matter, as prosecutors warn senators that Trump has shown no bounds and will do it again, posing a danger to the civic order unless he is convicted and banned from future office. Even out of the White House, the former president holds influence over large swaths of voters.
The prosecutors on Thursday drew a direct line from his repeated comments condoning and even celebrating violence — praising “both sides” after the 2017 outbreak at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — and urging his rally crowd last month to go to the Capitol and fight for his presidency. He spread false claims about election fraud, even there has been no evidence of it, and urged his supporters to “stop the steal” of the presidency.
Prosecutors used the rioters' own videos from that day to pin responsibility on Trump. “We were invited here,” said one. “Trump sent us,” said another. “He’ll be happy. We’re fighting for Trump.”
“They truly believed that the whole intrusion was at the president’s orders,” said Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado. “The president told them to be there.”
At the White House, President Joe Biden said he believed “some minds may be changed” after senators saw chilling security video Wednesday of the deadly insurrection at the Capitol, including of rioters searching menacingly for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence.
Biden said he didn’t watch any of the previous day’s proceedings live but later saw news coverage.
Though most of the Senate jurors seem to have made up their minds, making Trump’s acquittal likely, the never-before-seen audio and video released Wednesday is now a key exhibit as lawmakers prosecuting the case argue he should be convicted of inciting the siege.
Senators sat riveted as the jarring video played in the chamber on Wednesday. Senators shook their heads, folded their arms and furrowed their brows. Screams from the audio and video filled the Senate chamber. Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma bent his head at one point, another GOP colleague putting his hand on his arm in comfort.
Videos of the siege have been circulating since the day of the riot, but the graphic compilation offered a moment-by-moment retelling of one of the nation’s most alarming days. And it underscored how dangerously close the rioters came to the nation’s leaders, shifting the focus of the trial from an academic debate about the Constitution to a raw retelling of the assault.
The footage showed the mob smashing into the building, rioters engaging in hand-to-hand combat with police and audio of Capitol police officers pleading for back-up. Rioters were seen roaming the halls chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” and eerily singing out “Where's Nancy?” in search for Pelosi.
Trump attorney David Schoen said the presentation was “offensive” and that they “haven’t tied it in any way to Trump.”
He told reporters Thursday at the Capitol he believed Democrats were making the public relive the tragedy in a way that “tears at the American people” and impedes efforts at unity in the country.
Senators sitting through a second full day of arguments appeared somewhat fatigued on Thursday, slouching in their chairs, crossing their arms and walking around to stretch.
One Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said during a break: “To me, they’re losing credibility the longer they talk.”
The goal of the two-day presentation by prosecutors from the House, which impeached the outgoing president last month a week after the siege, was to cast Trump not as an innocent bystander but rather as the “inciter in chief” who spent months spreading falsehoods and revving up supporters to challenge the election.
“This attack never would have happened but for Donald Trump,” Rep. Madeleine Dean, one of the impeachment managers, said as she choked back emotion. “And so they came, draped in Trump’s flag, and used our flag, the American flag, to batter and to bludgeon.”
Trump's lawyers are likely to blame the rioters themselves for the violence.
The first president to face an impeachment trial after leaving office, Trump is also the first to be twice impeached.
His lawyers also say he cannot be convicted because he is already gone from the White House. Even though the Senate rejected that argument in Tuesday's vote to proceed to the trial, the legal issue could resonate with Senate Republicans eager to acquit Trump without being seen as condoning his behavior.
While six Republicans joined with Democrats to vote to proceed with the trial on Tuesday, the 56-44 vote was far from the two-thirds threshold of 67 votes needed for conviction.
Were any Republicans' minds changed?
Minds did not seem to be changing Wednesday, even after senators watched the graphic video.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who was among those leading the effort to challenge the Electoral College tally, said, “The president’s rhetoric is at times overheated, but this is not a referendum on whether you agree with everything the president says or tweets.”
Trump's second impeachment trial is expected to diverge from the lengthy, complicated affair of a year ago. In that case, Trump was charged with having privately pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden, then a Democratic rival for the presidency.
The Democratic-led House impeached the president swiftly, one week after the attack.
How many Senate votes needed to convict on impeachment?
To convict former president Donald Trump during his impeachment trial in the Senate, it would take a supermajority. Assuming all 100 Senators are present for the vote, that would mean 67 votes to convict. Any other scenario would lead to Trump's acquittal. And neither verdict would be eligible for appeal in any court. That would mean 17 Republican Senators would need to join all 50 Senate Democrats to convict former president Trump on the impeachment charge of "incitement of insurrection."
It appears to be highly unlikely that a conviction will happen, especially when you consider that all but six Republican Senators voted Tuesday that they felt the impeachment trial itself was unconstitutional.
Could Trump serve in office if convicted?
If Trump is convicted by the Senate, the lawmakers could move to hold an additional vote that would aim to disqualify the former president from ever being able to hold a national office again. In order for that follow-up vote to pass, a simple majority of 51 votes would be needed.
Travis Pittman contributed to this report.