The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP closes out the Trump era replaying all of his greatest rhetorical hits

President Donald Trump listens as the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel speaks during a campaign rally in 2018 in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
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No one is under any serious misconception that former president Donald Trump will be convicted by the Senate at the conclusion of his second impeachment trial. It's likely that the trial will result in a historic rebuke from his party — a low bar requiring only that two Republicans join the Democratic majority in holding Trump responsible for inciting an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. But there's no real chance that 17 Republicans will similarly risk crossing the former president and his enthusiastic base of supporters.

Instead, the central struggle over Trump's culpability will play out in the public sphere. This itself isn't some novel insight; impeachments are political acts and political acts are about public perceptions. But it is worth remembering that the importance of what happens in the Senate chamber is more about how it is received outside of that building than inside.

The Republican Party is quite aware of this. Having spent five years coupled to a president who didn't reciprocate its loyalty, the GOP must now convince the American public that the former president many of them wish would simply go away isn't the person that the House impeachment managers will assert. They will need to cast Trump in terms favorable enough to keep his supporters happy and to maintain the party's legitimacy in the face of questions about Trump's behavior.

To do that, it seems, they will pull out every trick from Trump's own rhetorical playbook.

The Post’s Josh Dawsey obtained a copy of talking points distributed by party officials intended to offer a response to the impeachment trial and the evidence they expect to have presented. It’s a mishmash of debunked legal claims, false allegations and whataboutism — all of which will seem awfully familiar to those who’ve tuned in to American politics over the past five years.

For example, one line of argument holds that the Democratic managers presenting the case against Trump had “glorified violence” by showing a video of what happened when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol. It's a lazy charge, leveraging a visceral, nebulously defined phrase to describe something which was obviously in no way seeking to “glorify” what occurred on that day.

“In doing so, the Democrats set a horrible precedent for the rest of the impeachment trial,” the talking points read, “by making clear they will selectively edit — which is a polite way of saying 'lying' — everything from video footage to remarks from legal scholars to the Constitution itself.”

That’s quite a charge! Any edited quote or video is now a lie? Should the House impeachment managers have instead, say, shown multiple live feeds of the entire takeover of the Capitol? That’s “true"?

One goal here is to do what Trump's actual attorneys proved so inept at on Tuesday: cast the citations of legal experts offered by Democrats in defense of the idea that one could constitutionally try a former president as being inherently questionable simply because they were excerpts of longer texts. Never mind that the Democrats also called out Trump's attorneys for pulling the writing of Michigan State legal professor Brian Kalt out of context, prompting Kalt to publicly note that they'd gotten his point entirely backward. As the old saying goes, if the facts are against you, say that any excerpted quote is a lie.

If you're wondering if the Republican talking points themselves selectively edited anything, if there could possibly have been such an ironic occurrence in so short a document: reader, you're ahead of us a bit.

“Nothing President Trump said on January 6th was inciteful, let alone impeachable,” the talking points read four paragraphs later, referring to a speech Trump gave that morning, “and in fact, President Trump urged supporters to exercise their rights 'peacefully and patriotically.'"

“Republicans are constantly fighting like a boxer with his hands tied behind his back. It's like a boxer. And we want to be so nice,” Trump also said that morning. “We want to be so respectful of everybody, including bad people. And we're going to have to fight much harder.”

He then attacked his vice president, Mike Pence, who he'd falsely claimed could simply reject the electoral votes which had been cast. A bit later, some of those in the crowd at the Capitol up the street would chant, “hang Mike Pence!”

That's not all those people said, presumably. We've selectively edited their comments that day, which means we're lying. Our apologies.

It's on this point that the talking points also dig into the whataboutism: What about Democrats who also called on their supporters to fight? Aren't they just as guilty of incitement under the terms of the article of impeachment passed by the House?

We probably don't need to spend much time articulating the difference between a member of Congress encouraging supporters to take political action in the abstract with a president who'd spent months lying about his election loss then encouraging attendance at an event where he repeated those lies and demanded that his supporters fight, leading to a riot in which five people died.

On Sean Hannity's Fox News program Tuesday evening, Trump's attorney David Schoen offered a theory for why those Democratic calls for action didn't result in equivalent violence.

“They're using rhetoric that's just as inflammatory, or more so,” he said. “The problem is, they don’t really have followers, you know, their dedicated followers and so — you know, when they give their speeches.”

Interesting strategy to claim that the guy you're defending on charges of incitement had a singular ability to whip up fury among his supporters.

This is also why the defense that Trump has a First Amendment right to say what he wants, offered in the talking points, falls short. A group of more than 100 legal experts described this defense as “legally frivolous” because the question isn't legality — for which free speech serves as a defense — but instead whether Trump had violated his oath of office. This, too, is a standard Trump defensive tactic, delineating the bound of acceptable action for a president as something equivalent to a guy who works at a mattress store in Poughkeepsie.

Trump's defenders have focused on the speech on Jan. 6 for the same reason that the defense in Trump's first impeachment trial focused on his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: in isolation, what occurred could perhaps be waved away. Then as now, the fuller context of the moment undercuts that idea. Just as Trump's team was at that point otherwise pressuring Ukraine to do what Trump wanted, Trump's efforts to enrage his base had been a months-long effort that only culminated on that day.

On Tuesday, Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), one of the House impeachment managers, dismissed the argument that Democrats too had engaged in fiery rhetoric.

“Like so much of what President Trump's lawyers might say today, that's a gimmick,” he said. “It's a parlor game meant to inflame partisan hostility and play on our divisions.”

But, then, this was also the David Cicilline who, according to the Republican talking points “said the quiet part out loud”: " … the impeachment trial is about destroying President Trump and casting his more than 74 million supporters as violent insurrectionists.”

Cicilline said nothing remotely close to that, as you might expect. One would be hard-pressed to find anything in his comments even approximating that sentiment.

But that claim immediately followed the RNC’s hand-wringing over the lies that result from selective editing, so we’ll just assume that he said this in full and explicitly at some point. After all, a party desperate to reframe the actions of its most prominent political voice certainly wouldn’t intentionally seek to mislead the public.

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