Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN- CNN.COM
(CNN)Impeachment prosecutors took senators on a wrenching journey inside the horror of the US Capitol insurrection, making a devastating case that Donald Trump had plotted, incited and celebrated a vile crime against the United States.
Their previously unseen video evidence showed a bloodthirsty mob defiling Congress, heroism from overpowered police officers pleading for backup, high-profile lawmakers running for their lives and staffers hiding behind locked doors.
Surveillance footage depicted then-Vice President Mike Pence being hustled away with rioters calling for him to be hanged only yards away. A police officer screamed in pain, trapped between a door and an invading crowd. In a horrific scene, Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt tried to climb through a window smashed by rioters before falling back, shot dead by a Capitol Police officer.
“When his mob overran and occupied the Senate and attacked the House and assaulted law enforcement, (Trump) watched it on TV like a reality show,” lead House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin said Wednesday. “He reveled in it. And he did nothing to help us as commander in chief. Instead, he served as the inciter in chief, sending tweets that only further incited the rampaging mob.”
What we expect today
- This is the second day of Trump’s second impeachment trial
- House impeachment managers have up to 8 hours to make their case today and tomorrow
- Democrats plan to use video to press their argument and retell the harrowing attack on the Capitol
The stunningly powerful presentation painted the most complete narrative yet of the assault on the Congress as it met to certify Joe Biden’s election win on January 6.
Their explicit and unsettling case made clear that the terror inside the corridors of power was even more frightening than it had first appeared. It’s now apparent that only good luck, and the bravery of police, prevented senior members of Congress injured or killed.
A day of clear legal arguments left a grave question hanging in the air: How could anyone with an open mind not process the almost unbelievable scenes of US democracy under assault and not vote to convict the ex-President?
Trump spent months inciting the insurrection
The managers built a methodical case, juxtaposing Trump’s inflammatory behavior over months with the frightful looting and violence inside the Capitol to make a cause-and-effect argument of the ex-President’s culpability.
They showed how Trump had set out to undermine the election in the minds of his supporters weeks before votes were cast and demonstrated how his lies about fraud had acted like a fuse on the primed fury of his supporters after he lost.
The managers showed how Trump had organized the rally in Washington on January 6, and how his demands that his supporters go to Capitol Hill to “fight” to save their country had been interpreted as an order to go to war. And the House prosecutors laid out timelines that showed how the President had done nothing to stop the insurrection of a mob he referred to as “special people.”
“Donald Trump sent them here on this mission,” said Virgin Islands Del. Stacey Plaskett, one of the impeachment managers. She said Trump had effectively tasked his mob with tracking down Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who were presiding over the counting of electoral votes.
“President Trump put a target on their backs and his mob broke into the Capitol to hunt them down,” Plaskett said.
One of her colleagues, Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado, handled the evidence on how Trump had rebuffed calls, even from Republicans, to intervene in his role as President to protect another branch of government under assault.
“They were following the President. He alone, our commander in chief, had the power to stop it. And he didn’t,” Neguse said.
Of course, impeachment is a political process, not a judicial one, so even the most compelling evidence will have little impact if jurors — the 100 senators — have already made up their minds. And most GOP members of the chamber want to avoid falling afoul of Trump’s personality cult, after spending four years abetting his abuses of power in the most unchained presidency in history.
That means there is unlikely to be a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict the ex-President, even if the harrowing nature of the evidence left many Republican senators deeply shocked and facing private battles between their consciences and political expediency.
One video showed Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, being saved from running into the mob by Capitol Police Office Eugene Goodman, who has previously been hailed as a hero for directing rioters away from the Senate chamber.
“I was very fortunate indeed that Officer Goodman was there to get me in the right direction,” Romney said, adding that Wednesday’s evidence “tears at your heart.”
As the only Republican senator to vote to convict Trump in his first impeachment trial, Romney would have been in mortal danger had he encountered the Trump mob. Another video showed now-Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, hurriedly reversing course with his security detail and running from the crowd.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said the Democratic impeachment managers were “very effective,” adding: “They had a strong presentation put together in a way that I think makes it pretty compelling,”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the Republicans seen as a possible vote to convict Trump, remarked on how the evidence brought home the “total awareness of that, the enormity of this, this threat, not just to us as people, as lawmakers, but the threat to the institution and what Congress represents. It’s disturbing. Greatly disturbing.”
‘Five or six’ votes to convict
But political pressures bearing down on other Republicans were obvious. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana was rebuked by his own state party for voting on Tuesday to allow the trial to proceed on constitutional grounds.
And Sen. Roy Blunt, who unlike Cassidy faces reelection in 2024, appeared to be among those searching for a way to justify a vote to spare Trump — the first-ever twice-impeached President.
The Missouri Republican used a familiar talking point, drawing comparisons between the Trump-incited coup attempt and protests in cities last year that the ex-President misleadingly blamed on left-wing terrorists.
“Well, you know, you have a summer where people all over the country are doing similar kinds of things. I don’t know what the other side will show from Seattle and Portland and other places, but you’re going to see similar kinds of tragedies there as well,” Blunt said, drawing a comparison that stands up to serious scrutiny only in the fevered swamps of conservative media.
GOP Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina told reporters that “probably five and maybe six” Republicans will vote to convict the former President. His Palmetto State colleague Lindsey Graham said the legal theory behind the impeachment was “absurd” — “that somehow that Trump’s a secret member of the Proud Boys” — and added that he thinks acquittal is even more likely now.
“Because hypocrisy is pretty large for these people, standing up to, you know, rioters when they came to my house, Susan Collins’ house, I think this is a very hypocritical presentation by the House,” Graham said.
Many Republican senators are adopting the questionable argument that it is not constitutional to try a president who was impeached while he was in office, once he has reverted to being a private citizen after his term ends.
That construct spares them from having to cast judgment on the behavior of an ex-President who remains wildly popular among the Republican base and has the power to back primary challenges against them. But it also leaves unanswered the question of what consequences there should be for a President who incited an assault against Congress, the election and America’s democratic foundation in one of the most notorious abuses of power in US history.
Raskin addressed that very question in his opening remarks on Wednesday’s second day of the trial as he identified a “moment of truth” for America.
“The question before all of you in this trial: Is this America?” the Maryland Democrat asked the senators seated in a chamber that was a crime scene on January 6.
“Can our country and our democracy ever be the same if we don’t hold accountable the person responsible for inciting the violent attack against our country?”
As court hearings — and impeachment trials — progress, there are often moments when the evidentiary case built by one side appears overwhelming. But so far, senators have heard only one side of the story and fair legal process requires the ex-President to have a robust defense. So it will be up to Trump’s lawyers, probably starting on Friday, to try to unpick the convincing link made by impeachment managers between Trump’s intent and the violence on the Hill.
But their widely criticized and confusing opening statements on Tuesday, which infuriated the former President, did not suggest they have the evidentiary case or presentational skills of the House managers.