The Slatest

Do Even Donald Trump’s Defense Lawyers Believe Him?

Bernie Sanders asks a pointed impeachment question.

Sanders walks through the halls of Congress with a mask.
Senator Bernie Sanders leaves after the conclusion of the second day of the second impeachment trial of former US President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill February 10, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

On Friday, Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial headed toward its close with a perfunctory defense case, followed by questions and answers from Senators for the House managers and defense counsel.

The defense team focused its presentation mostly on claiming Trump’s “fight” language was protected First Amendment speech and playing rapid-cut, repetitive videos of Democrats using similarly aggressive political language. The videos, though, of course did not show the Democrats lying incessantly for two months that an election was stolen, assembling a mob within miles of the Capitol to “stop the steal” of that election, and then directing that roused mob straight at the Capitol, which they subsequently invaded.

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That was not the point of this defense, though. Rather, it was to give Republican senators a plausible path towards exonerating Trump by being able to point at the other side and grunt Democrats bad too, see. It seemed to work out, with multiple Republican senators firming in their position to acquit Trump. Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, for instance, praised the defense counsel presentation as “the best of what I’ve heard so far” because it was “succinct” and demonstrated that House managers had showed edited clips of Trump rather than his whole speech (which of course would have harmed the succinctness of their own presentation). Even Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has repeatedly signaled that she might vote to convict the former president, lauded the defense counsel’s performance as “very organized.”

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The Olympic-level exhibition of whataboutism had its intended effect as the question-and-answer session got underway, with most Republican senators asking red-blue questions defending Trump and attacking the House impeachment managers and various Democrats, such as Vice President Kamala Harris.

One moment cut through the noise, though, and it came from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who asked the most simple and critical question of the day:

“Prosecutors have stated over and over again that President Trump was perpetrating a big lie when he repeatedly claimed that the election was stolen from him and that he actually won the election by a landslide. Are the prosecutors right when they claim that Trump was telling a big lie, or in your judgment did Trump actually win the election?”

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After a day of Trump’s attorneys pandering to the ex-president with belligerent and self-pitying messaging on his behalf, Sanders was pointing at his sorest spot. Would Trump’s team endorse the ex-president’s message that led to the violent storming of the Capitol, the deaths of four participants, the killing of a police officer, the suicide of two other officers, and the injuries of more than 100 others, and which nearly led to a bloodbath of elected officials and journalists?

Trump attorney Michael van der Veen reacted by indignantly wondering who had asked the question, getting into a back-and-forth with Sanders, and refusing to answer.

Here’s video of the Senate clerk asking Sanders’ question and van der Veen confronting Sanders:

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“My judgment here is irrelevant to this proceeding,” van der Veen said, refusing to acknowledge Trump’s defeat. After an uproar in the Senate gallery over van der Veen’s non-answer, Sen. Pat Leahy, the presiding officer, restored order and allowed the defense counsel to continue.

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Van der Veen went on to again state that his opinion of whether or not Trump’s repeated lie about the stolen election was true or not was “irrelevant.”

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“In my judgment it’s irrelevant to the question before this body,” Van der Veen repeated. “What’s relevant in this impeachment article is: Were Mr. Trump’s words inciteful to the point of violence and riot. That’s the charge, that’s the question, and the answer is no, he did not have speech that was inciteful to violence and riot.”

Trump’s big lie—a claim that he had won the election in a landslide, and the Republic was going to be stolen from his followers unless they acted—is directly relevant to whether or not he incited the attack on the Capitol. Stacey Plaskett, the House manager and delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands, made this precise point near the end of the proceedings. As she said: “This is all connected. We’re talking about free speech? This was a pattern and practice of months of activity. That is the incitement. That is the incitement. The activity he was engaged in for months before Jan. 6, not just the speech he gave on Jan. 6. All of it in its totality is a dereliction of duty of the president of the United States against the people who elected him. All of the people of this country.”

Trump’s attorneys insisted on focusing on the question of whether the text of his remarks the day of the attack—to the mob he had recruited and invited—can be proven to have incited them. They refused to answer for the months of lies and exhortations to supporters to “stop the steal” that culminated in the violent invasion of the Capitol. Trump refused to show up to testify in his own defense of those months of repeating the big lie. And Republican senators remain on course to ensure that Trump is exonerated for the violence he caused.

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