The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats have one big weapon left against Trump. Will they use it?

On the third day of former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial on Feb. 11, Democrats made clear their intent to prevent future violence. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)
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Evidence is mounting that Donald Trump knew Mike Pence was in grave danger from the mob rampaging into the Capitol when the then-president sent out a tweet blasting his vice president.

During the Jan. 6 assault, Trump tweet-slammed Pence for lacking the “courage” to overturn the election, which further infuriated the insurrectionists. Trump essentially pointed the mob like a loaded gun at Pence — and newly unearthed facts suggest Trump may have understood what he was doing in exactly these terms.

These new circumstances hand Democrats one last big weapon to wield against Trump at his impeachment trial. They also impose on them an obligation.

Specifically, the impeachment managers can still call witnesses. And the case for this has gotten stronger, now that we are so close to showing that Trump may have knowingly endangered Pence’s life.

A new Post report fills in crucial details on the chronology, and they look increasingly damning:

Trump’s tweet came at 2:24 p.m. that day — only 11 minutes after live television coverage showed Pence being hustled from the Senate floor because rioters were streaming into the building one floor below. The Senate then abruptly went into recess.
Trump was watching news coverage of the session after he returned from his rally at the Ellipse, according to a person familiar with the events of the day who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe what was happening behind the scenes.

Trump may have seen live TV footage showing that Pence had been pulled from the chamber (at 2:13 p.m.) and was in danger more than 10 minutes before he attacked Pence.

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Trump then tweeted that Pence “didn’t have the courage” to “protect our Country and our Constitution.” To the rioters, this meant Pence didn’t subvert the results (he couldn’t) to keep Trump in power, to the benefit of MAGA Nation. As the impeachment managers demonstrated, an insurrectionist read aloud the tweet from a bullhorn, and it galvanized rioters to go after Pence.

We’re also learning that just after Pence was taken away, Trump called Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) for more help in subverting the results (showing what was foremost on Trump’s mind). Tuberville told him what had happened to Pence. It’s unclear whether this happened before Trump’s tweet, but it’s certainly possible.

What Democrats can do now

Democrats can try to call witnesses to nail down exactly what Trump knew when he again directed the rampaging mob toward Pence. The trial rules stipulate that after senators question the impeachment managers and Trump’s lawyers, there can be debate over whether to subpoena witnesses. That means the managers can subpoena witnesses if they want to.

Such witnesses could include people inside the White House, who could potentially detail that Trump was perfectly aware that Pence had been hurriedly removed from the path of the mob — to save his life — when Trump again whipped it up against him.

The Post also reports that Pence’s Secret Service detail typically informs the White House about any significant movements involving him.

Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent, tells me there are several pathways by which Trump might have been informed of the level of danger Pence faced. Pence’s Secret Service detail might have communicated with Trump’s, or the military aides to both men might have been in touch. White House aides might know what Trump learned from this.

Wackrow notes that the managers might at least try to subpoena people who could reconstruct these communications, and Trump’s understanding of Pence’s plight, though the Secret Service would challenge this.

“Knowing that these pathways are out there, a reasonable person might make the deduction that the White House wasn’t doing all they could to understand the situation and in turn provide the support that was necessary,” Wackrow told me. “We need to know more about that.”

Given that Trump’s lawyers will argue that he sprang into action to do something about the rioters, Wackrow noted, such a line of inquiry could confirm how true that is, which (you’d think) is something his lawyers would want.

Witnesses could also shed more light on what Trump was told by the lawmakers under siege inside the Capitol who were pleading with him by phone to call off the mob, and what Trump said as he refused. Heck, as Andy Kroll suggests, what about calling Pence himself?

Remember, many of these damning facts about the chronology are new — they’ve been shaken loose by the investigative process. It would be entirely appropriate to call witnesses now that these facts have raised urgent new questions.

We need a full accounting

You might think there are risks. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has threatened to call witnesses in retaliation. But this is empty bluster. It might send out imperceptible high-pitched frequencies that thrill Fox News and QAnon audiences, but that would be white noise to ordinary voters.

It’s also possible trying to pin down more details might fail to produce a silver bullet. But that’s okay: The known facts are already comprehensively damning to Trump. And the mere fact that there are risks isn’t a reason to refrain from developing a full picture of something this important.

We all know the vast majority of Republican senators won’t vote based on the evidence. This is all about creating a full reckoning into the most comprehensive effort to overturn U.S. democracy in modern times — including through deliberately cultivated mob intimidation and violence — not for Republicans, who are beyond reach, but for the American people, and for history.

How can such a reckoning not include a full accounting into Trump’s true intentions, given that we now know that he may have directed his mob at Pence while knowing it could put his life in greater danger?

Read more:

Alexandra Petri: Sorry, President Biden is much too busy to notice there’s an impeachment going on!

George F. Will: Will Senate Republicans allow their louts to rule the party?

Jennifer Rubin: Stop trying to save the GOP. It’s hopeless.

Michael Gerson: The stakes of the impeachment trial are bigger than Trump

Max Boot: Once again, Republicans put tribalism over patriotism