Former President Donald Trump spoke at a rally near the White House on Jan. 6.Jim Bourg/Reuters
The Trumpian style
Donald Trump has long used a speaking style that seems deliberately murky. His supporters hear him delivering a clear message even when he stops short of explicitly delivering that message.
A classic example came during his first debate with Joe Biden last year, when Trump told the Proud Boys, a violent far-right group, to “stand back and stand by” — and then quickly added that “somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.” The Proud Boys celebrated the message as an endorsement, while Trump could claim he was not encouraging violence.
Today, the Senate will begin Trump’s second impeachment trial, and his speaking style will be at the heart of the legal arguments.
The House members prosecuting the case against Trump will say that he is responsible for the message that his supporters heard from him. Trump’s lawyers will argue that he cannot be held accountable for anything he did not say.
“Notably absent from his speech. Was any reference to or encouragement of an insurrection, a riot, criminal action, or any acts of physical violence whatsoever.
the lawyers wrote in a pretrial filing, referring to a Jan. 6 rally near the White House shortly before many of the attendees stormed the Capitol.
(They will also claim that the Senate cannot try a former officeholder, a position mostly at odds with history.)
The key dispute will be about the Jan 6. rally, where Trump spoke for more than an hour, telling repeated lies about the election and urging the crowd to “fight much harder” to prevent Biden from becoming president.
Trump praised Rudy Giuliani, his lawyer, for being tougher than many other Republicans. (A few minutes earlier, Giuliani had urged the crowd to conduct a “trial by combat” to resolve the election.) Trump went on to describe congressional Republicans who were objecting to the results as “warriors.”
“Republicans are constantly fighting like a boxer with his hands tied behind his back. And we’re going to have to fight much harder.”
What is a president’s responsibility?
If you watch the rally again now, it seems clear that Trump was urging his supporters to fight in some tough, new way that they had not yet tried. That’s clearly how many of them heard him — and they violently attacked the Capitol about an hour later, threatening physical harm to members of Congress and killing a police officer.
“Videos of the crowd eliminate any doubt that President Trump’s words in fact incited the crowd to commit violence,”
the House impeachment managers wrote in their legal filing.
“Immediately after President Trump told the crowd that ‘you’ll never take back our country with weakness,’ and that ‘[y]ou have to show strength,’ supporters can be heard loudly shouting ‘take the Capitol right now!’ and ‘invade the Capitol building!’”
Still, Trump did not tell them to attack the Capitol. He was ambiguous about what exactly they should do.
“You’ll never take back our country with weakness.”
One moment, he said,
“I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”
The next, he said,
Once the attack was underway, he continued to use the same indirect style of communication. At 2:24 p.m., when television networks were showing rioters in the Capitol, Trump sent out a tweet in which he said nothing — positively or negatively — about the violence but continued stoking the crowd’s anger.
“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”
When a president’s supporters are attacking the Capitol — and believe they are carrying out his wishes — should he discourage them? Or has he defended the Constitution merely by not issuing an explicit call for violence? That’s the issue before the Senate.
More on impeachment
Debate will start around noon today. Here’s what to watch for.
Who are David Schoen and Bruce Castor, Trump’s impeachment trial lawyers?
Senators will vote again today on whether it is constitutional to try a former president. Some of the 45 Republicans who voted no last month have said they are open to debating the question.