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‘It was inciting,’ ‘provoked by the president’: What GOP senators said before about Trump’s culpability for the Capitol riot

On Feb. 9, the Senate voted 56 to 44 to proceed with the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Republican senators sent their latest signal Tuesday that former president Donald Trump is headed for acquittal in his impeachment trial, with 44 out of 50 of them voting that the Senate doesn’t have jurisdiction to try him. The Republican National Committee followed that up by distributing talking points from Trump’s legal team.

“Nothing the president said on January 6 was inciteful, let alone impeachable,” one of them read, “and in fact, President Trump urged supporters to exercise their rights ‘peacefully and patriotically.' ”

That first part might be news to some of the party’s top leaders, though. Although the GOP has rallied around Trump lately, even many GOP senators who appear likely to acquit him have said Trump bore at least some blame for the events of Jan. 6. And that poses problems as Trump’s defense moves beyond constitutionality and into culpability.

Whether they think Trump’s actions rose to the level of incitement is a valid question, but they clearly pointed a finger at him playing a role. And their comments are worth parsing in light of the emerging party line that Trump is effectively blameless.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), before voting twice that the trial was unconstitutional, expressed an openness to convicting Trump. He said Trump “provoked” the Capitol rioters.

“The mob was fed lies,” McConnell said on the Senate floor nearly two weeks after Jan. 6. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people. And they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.”

If McConnell did vote to acquit — and it bears noting that he’s reportedly still open to conviction — it would be interesting to see how he squares his statement that Trump provoked the riot with the idea that Trump didn’t incite it. Indeed, Merriam-Webster lists “provoke” as a synonym for “incite.” Incitement does carry a more specific meaning in a legal context, but experts generally agree that an impeachment need not prove or even involve a statutory crime. (Despite Trump lawyer Bruce Castor’s claim Tuesday that “high crime” means “felony,” that is not at all the case.)

McConnell wasn’t the only one to walk right up to that line of saying Trump incited. In fact, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) actually used that word, and connected it directly to the Jan. 6 speech the Trump talking points now say contained “nothing” inciteful.

The call to march down the Capitol — it was inciting,” Cramer said. He also noted that Trump had praised his lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, who had just called for a “trial by combat” at the same rally. “It was pouring fuel on a spark,” Cramer added. “So, no, he does bear some responsibility.”

Cramer then quickly argued, in the same breath, that “it’s not his fault” that people took the actions they did. But he’s now in a position of voting that Trump didn’t incite after literally saying Trump’s speech was “inciting.”

Others pointed a finger at Trump in ways that might also be difficult to explain, but didn’t necessarily come so close to saying he incited the mob.

“I think it was a tragic day, and he was part of it,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the No. 4-ranking Senate Republican.

The Senate GOP’s No. 2, John Thune (S.D.), added that Trump’s rhetoric “sure didn’t help.”

“Certainly encouraging people to go to the Capitol and some of the sort of implied suggestions I think are, you know … they just encourage the wrong behavior,” Thune said.

“If anything he urged, in a very emotional situation, very inappropriate action by people that appear to be his supporters,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).

So he “urged … very inappropriate action” by his supporters. “Implied suggestions.” “Encourage the wrong behavior.” Again, we’re talking about things that sound a lot like incitement and, at the very least, don’t line up with the position that Trump is blameless. And many of these comments specifically cite Trump’s Jan. 6 speech.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) also seemed to point a finger at Trump, albeit more indirectly.

“It’s past time for the president to accept the results of the election, quit misleading the American people and repudiate mob violence,” he said on the night of Jan. 6. He also cited “the senators and representatives who fanned the flames by encouraging the president.”

A day later, in a Fox News interview, Cotton again blamed some of his colleagues and said, “What happened yesterday is in part a result of the misleading claims in recent weeks.”

Cotton was careful to blame his colleagues more than Trump, but if they encouraged Trump and all of these misleading claims (which Trump was first in line in promoting) led to what happened, that would seem to suggest culpability for Trump far beyond what the Trump legal team now says.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) was perhaps the most direct.

“We witnessed today the damage that can result when men in power and responsibility refuse to acknowledge the truth,” he said on Jan. 6. “We saw bloodshed because a demagogue chose to spread falsehoods and sow distrust of his own fellow Americans. Let’s not abet such deception.”

Of the men listed above, only Toomey voted to proceed with the trial. Some of them could still vote to convict, as Blunt suggested Tuesday. And perhaps some of the others will vote to acquit on procedural grounds (i.e. that the trial is unconstitutional) rather than saying they’re absolving Trump altogether.

But their comments sure make this argument by Trump’s lawyers far less potent.