The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

All eyes on Republican senators after strong presentation by House managers

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) speaks to reporters at the end of the third day of former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial Thursday at the Capitol.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) speaks to reporters at the end of the third day of former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial Thursday at the Capitol. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The tightly argued and emotionally raw presentations by House impeachment managers have raised the stakes for Republican senators sitting in judgment of Donald Trump. If the former president’s actions that led to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol are not judged as impeachable, are there any penalties that Republicans are prepared to impose to hold him accountable?

Wednesday’s presentations by the House managers asked everyone in the Senate chamber and beyond to confront anew the horrors of the attack on the Capitol. With fresh security video, the managers were able to highlight the viciousness of the rioters and how close things came to an even worse disaster. Even though everyone in the Senate chamber had lived through the attacks when they happened, the video timeline assembled by the House managers brought the dangers of the day back with unexpected force.

Thursday’s presentations had different purposes. One was to show that what happened on Jan. 6 was not a one-off event, but an almost predictable culmination of years of behavior by a president whose exhortations to attack his rivals were absorbed and then acted upon by his loyalists. A second was to remind everyone of the lingering and lasting effects of the trauma on lawmakers, their staffs, law enforcement officers and Capitol support employees. A third was to anticipate and offer a prebuttal to the defense from Trump’s lawyers.

On Friday, the former president’s legal team had its turn. Based on its performance during Tuesday’s opening statements, Trump and Republicans supporting him had reason to be nervous.

Much of what they offered Friday was repetitive and not directly on point. They used fewer than three of the 16 hours allotted to them. And they stumbled as they tried to answer some of the senators’ questions. But overall, their presentation likely was adequate to satisfy Republicans with a predeliction to acquit the former president.

Still, Trump’s team began and ended its rebuttal on the defensive. House Democrats, led by Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), had stitched together a case that was both legally compelling and viscerally gut-wrenching, befitting the shocking events that brought the former president into the dock of the Senate for the second time in little more than a year.

A guide to the evidence presented in the Senate trial

Nothing was left to the imagination. No ground went unexplored. The managers’ case included a review of Trump’s efforts to poison the ground before the election by claiming that the only way he could lose was by fraud. The managers focused on the days immediately after the election, when Trump lodged the first claims that the election was being stolen, long before all the ballots had been counted.

They focused on the wild claims made by Trump’s lawyers, led by Rudolph W. Giuliani, that included assertions of widespread fraud based on outlandish conspiracy theories for which there was no evidence and flat-out falsehoods about ghost voters and the like. They pointed to his efforts to force Georgia officials to overturn the results there. They made clear that nearly everything Trump and his team said was quickly internalized by supporters — the gospel according to their ultimate leader.

They focused on Trump’s appeals to supporters to rally in Washington on Jan. 6 and on the pressure he applied to Vice President Mike Pence to block the ratification of the electoral college vote that day (though Pence had no constitutional authority to do so). They pointed repeatedly to Trump’s speech on Jan. 6, interspersing his words with the voices of the mob invading the Capitol and shouting, “Fight for Trump,” while claiming they were there because he had asked them to be there.

They showed a president with no remorse as the Capitol was under assault, and who took no action as his vice president and congressional leaders were in hiding in the building as the rioters chanted “Hang Pence” and “Where are you, Nancy?” — a reference to the House speaker. They reiterated again and again that the president did nothing to call off the attack as it was happening and in a video that day continued to claim the election had been stolen.

They focused on the years of rhetoric by the president encouraging supporters at rallies to rough up protesters; on his claim that there were “very fine people on both sides” when white supremacists descended on Charlottesville in 2017 for a rally that ended with the death of Heather Heyer.

They highlighted his repeated attacks on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who had dared to criticized him, as armed protesters descended on the Capitol in Lansing and even after she was the target of an alleged assassination plot.

Follow the Senate trial with live updates from The Post

It was a presentation both of the moment — the events leading up to and including Jan. 6 — and one that showed what the managers described as a pattern and practice of Trump’s behavior that inevitably led to the storming of the Capitol.

Perhaps it won’t matter what kind of defense Trump’s legal team presented. Twice now, 44 Republicans have voted against even proceeding with the trial on the grounds that it is unconstitutional to hold an impeachment trial for a president who is no longer in office. Although six Republican senators voted to go ahead with the trial, it is not known how many of the six are prepared to vote to convict Trump. Even if they all are, the House managers need 11 more Republicans — a high hill to climb.

But do all 44 Republican senators who voted to question the constitutionality of the trial truly believe that a former official cannot be tried? Or were those votes merely signs that they would rather decide the case on a legal debate rather than on squarely facing the conduct of the former president? Were those two procedural votes based on their own reading of the Constitution or on mere party loyalty and fear of a man who still has the capacity to make their lives difficult?

After all, they have seen the swift response by rank-and-file Republicans to any who stray from adherence to Trump — from Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) to Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) and even Sen. Bill Cassidy (La.), who after hearing the two sides argue the constitutionality of the trial found the Trump lawyers’ argument so underwhelming that he voted to go ahead.

The presentation by the House managers made finding exit ramps more difficult for GOP senators, but Trump’s team tried to provide them. They argued that the speech Trump delivered on Jan. 6 is protected by the First Amendment. They said that the House managers failed to prove that what he did meets the definition of inciting an insurrection. They used endless clips of Democrats using the word “fight” to suggest that Trump’s use of the same word had no ominous meaning, though the context was entirely different.

Still, Republicans will have to stretch themselves to conclude that, while those who invaded the Capitol face criminal prosecution, the person who brought them to Washington, stirred them to anger with lies about a stolen election and did nothing to stop the riot while it was underway should pay no price whatsoever. If the price of conviction at trial and possible prohibition from ever running again seems too steep, they have the option of imposing the far lesser penalty of a censure by the Senate once the trial is over.

Trump’s lawyers were in the spotlight on Friday. Now the focus will be on the Republican members of the Senate and the question of what precedent will be set for the actions and behavior of future presidents by the judgments they ultimately reach. The stakes are real.