Former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial was supposed to get underway on Tuesday with dry historical and constitutional arguments about the Senate’s jurisdiction, as the trial addressed Trump’s opening legal argument that the Framers hadn’t intended for impeachment to apply to former officials.
The House impeachment managers, led by Rep. Jamie Raskin, eventually laid out the case that history, precedent, and the text of the Constitution all clearly disagreed with the ex-president’s jurisdictional claim—and with the vast majority of Senate Republicans who had previously signaled their openness to it—and held that it was legal to impeach a former official for their conduct while in office. But first, Raskin did something tactically brilliant to show the true stakes of that conduct.
Raskin opened by describing how Trump’s jurisdictional claim would open impeachment to a “secret January exception” never intended by the Founders, which would “be an invitation to our Founders’ worst nightmare.”
“If we buy this radical argument that President Trump’s lawyers advance, we risk allowing Jan. 6 to become our future. And what will that mean for America?” Raskin asked. “Think about it. What will the January exception mean to future generations if you grant it? I’ll show you.”
Raskin then played this brutal 13-minute video juxtaposing Trump’s words that day with images of the deadly mob attack on the Capitol, including the rioters shouting their agreement with Trump’s message and goals as they attacked:
House managers had made it clear that the trial would feature documentary-style video showing how Trump’s words led directly to the actions at the Capitol, but the video segments weren’t necessarily expected for a number of days.
But playing it right up front as the Senate debates and votes on whether or not to dismiss the trial altogether over lack of jurisdiction—which will require a majority vote and will certainly fail—forces reluctant Republican senators to confront what they would be letting Trump get away with if they duck the merits of this impeachment trial on a jurisdictional basis.
It also showed the absurdity of the president’s argument, which is essentially that the president gets a free pass on all impeachable offenses if he does them late enough in his term or if he resigns before he can be tried. And it demonstrated the dangers of voting to allow future presidents to commit future high crimes or even to again try to steal the election and incite insurrection.
The video is worth watching in full, but key highlights framed the message:
• The video begins with Trump issuing what can be viewed as an exhortation and instruction to his supporters based on his lie that the election was being stolen from him: “We will stop the steal.”
• At that the crowd erupts. It can be viewed—and was viewed by his supporters—as a call to action. Trump then immediately claims he won in a landslide election.
• The clip then cuts to Trump telling his supporters a more explicit instruction: “After this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you. … We’re going walk down to the Capitol.”
• A member of the crowd is shown shouting, “We are going to the Capitol where our problems are, it’s that direction,” and the crowd begins to descend on the Capitol.
• The mob then begins its assault on the police guarding the Capitol, knocking back barricades and overwhelming officers. At this point, Congress attempts to begin its certification of the Electoral College count that would seal Joe Biden’s victory.
• A cop is confronted and told, “We outnumber you a million to one out here.” Other members of the mob shout “Take the building!”
• Trump’s speech continues, seeming to lend permission to his supporters to do whatever is necessary to stop the election theft. “You can’t vote on fraud and fraud breaks up everything, doesn’t it?” Trump said. “When you catch somebody in fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules.” He then urges Vice President Mike Pence to unilaterally declare that the election had been fraudulent and so Trump should be the victor. “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump adds. He again tells the crowd that “we’re going to the Capitol” to give “weak Republicans … the pride and boldness they need to take back our country.”
• As the mob moves on the Capitol, they explicitly call out Pence. They then violently attack police officers with blunt objects and with some sort of gas agents. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell inside the chamber dismisses Trump’s “sweeping conspiracy theories” of election theft, rioters reach the doors of the Capitol. They chant “fight for Trump” as they begin to breach the building.
• The congressional chambers are evacuated, beginning with Pence. Officer Eugene Goodman diverts the mob that is moments away from reaching Pence and congressional officials.
From there, the video tells a story we all know by now: The noose being erected. The desperate screams of crushed Metropolitan Police Officer Daniel Hodges. The mob roaming the halls searching for lawmakers and smashing doors. The invasion of the House and Senate chambers.
Most of the individual pieces of footage had been seen before, some of them widely. But it had never been stitched together in quite this way. After more than a month of Republicans on Capitol Hill slowly sliding toward downplaying and evading the viciousness and seriousness of the attack, Raskin’s video directly confronted the Republican senators who are looking for a way to acquit with exactly what it is they want to exonerate.
“If that’s not an impeachable offense,” Raskin told them, when the video was done, “then there is no such thing.”