The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion That wrenching video alone makes an utterly damning case against Trump

House impeachment managers played a video sequence of events at the beginning of the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump on Feb. 9. (Video: The Washington Post)

The trial of former president Donald Trump began with a powerful video presentation from the House impeachment managers that continually juxtaposed Trump’s haranguing of the mob with footage of their assault on the Capitol. This video alone made a damning case against Trump, and to understand why, let’s revisit another proceeding against him that you might have forgotten about.

I’m talking about former Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress back in Feb. 2019. In it, Cohen explained with great clarity exactly how Trump communicates corrupt direction to underlings in mob-boss vernacular while maintaining plausible deniability about doing so.

What’s amazing about the current moment is that once again, Trump’s lawyers are defending him by relying on comments made for exactly the same purpose: to incite the mob to disrupt the conclusion of the election with intimidation and violence, while giving him plausible deniability.

The video, however, conclusively blows up this line of argumentation. And that, I think, is one of the main sources of its power.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Cohen spent many years carrying out Trump’s corrupt designs. He knew exactly how Trump operated. And Cohen’s description anticipated what was perhaps Trump’s biggest crime against our democracy.

Here’s what Cohen said at the time, in testimony about his lying to Congress about Trump’s pursuit of a real estate deal in Russia while campaigning for the presidency:

Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates.
In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing.
In his way, he was telling me to lie.

Trump’s lawyers are now making the positively comical argument that Trump didn’t “direct anyone” to carry out the attack, largely due to his use of the word “peacefully” during that Jan. 6 harangue. They claim Trump could not have incited the rally because it was “preplanned by a small group of criminals.”

The video demolishes this argument. It shows Trump telling the crowd that he and they will “stop the steal” together, repeating the lie that the election was stolen from him and then telling the crowd explicitly to go to the Capitol to set things right. Many in the mob then went to the Capitol.

The mob listened to Trump.

The video then shows the mob breaching the Capitol while lawmakers were carrying out constitutional processes designating the conclusion of that election, which the invaders then disrupted.

That’s juxtaposed with Trump telling the crowd, “When you catch someone in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules.” This continues to go underappreciated, but Trump told his supporters that overturning the election would be a restoration of justice, one that justified “very different rules.”

The mob listened to Trump.

Then the video shows the mob-speak. “I hope Mike has the courage to do what he has to do,” Trump says of then-Vice Mike President Pence, whom Trump had expressly called on to stop the counting of electoral votes.

“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not gonna have a country anymore,” Trump declares. And then he directs the mob to the Capitol to give “weak” Republicans the “boldness that they need to take back our country.”

This is a straight-up exhortation to intimidation: The country is lost if the election is not overturned; the mob should go to the Capitol and put some spine into Republicans who are too “weak” to play “by very different rules,” which are now justified to carry out that mission.

The mob listened to Trump.

The video then shows lawmakers in the Capitol being spirited away to safety, avoiding potential execution at the hands of the mob, which is shown unleashing destruction throughout the building.

Two hours into the rampage, Trump finally released his own video calling for calm while again claiming the election was “taken away” from his supporters — again, the core justification for going by “different rules.” And as the video shows, he concluded it all with a tweet:

These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!

That last line is important. As experts in right-wing extremism have noted, the rioters saw the breaching of the Capitol as a watershed event that would inspire them to keep up their struggle. Trump told them to understand it in exactly this way.

The mob listened to Trump.

Trump told them exactly what to do. The idea that his use of the word “peacefully” is exonerating requires pretending not to understand (as Cohen told us) what Trump has been doing for years.

All this is only a partial recounting. Trump also spent months encouraging his supporters to prepare for a sustained war over the election results, telling them — and again, this is important — that this struggle would constitute a righteous correction of a grievous injustice.

Trump’s lawyers say he cannot have incited the riot because it was “pre-planned” by “criminals.” But Trump preplanned it with them.

All that backstory aside, here’s the simple story the video told:

  • Trump ordered the mob to disrupt the election’s conclusion.
  • The mob listened to him very carefully, particularly his exhortation that desperate times call for “different rules,” and carried out his directive.
  • And then, after this understanding of “different rules” produced hours of destructive and deadly violence, Trump hailed the insurrectionists as heroes and great patriots for doing so.

Case closed.

Watch Opinions videos:

Early on Jan. 6, The Post's Kate Woodsome saw signs of violence hours before thousands of President Trump's loyalists besieged the Capitol. (Video: Joy Yi, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post, Photo: John Minchillo/AP/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Jamie Raskin won the impeachment trial before it began

Greg Sargent: Trump’s weak defense will expose the depravity of GOP senators who acquit him

Henry Olsen: Why Republicans should convict Donald Trump

Max Boot: Sadly, Fox News can’t be impeached

Eugene Robinson: Why progressives should be celebrating Liz Cheney and Ben Sasse right now

Colbert I. King: The only question facing senators in Trump’s impeachment trial