With an ominous musical track playing in the background, they juxtaposed clips of Trump calling for “law and order” with footage of Democrats offering supportive words for nationwide protests that unfolded last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death — protests that at times turned violent.
And, in the coup de grâce, they offered a nine-minute and eleven-second video montage that spliced together dozens of Hollywood stars and lawmakers vowing to “fight” Republicans and Trump. The word fight, later reports revealed, was uttered 238 times.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Trump attorney David Schoen said. “It’s a word people use, but please stop the hypocrisy.”
It was a Trumpian flourish to a high-stakes trial, one that made clear that the ex-president’s team viewed the matter less as a constitutional debate and more as political fist fight. With Trump’s acquittal all but assured, his team of attorneys used only a fraction of the 16 hours allotted to them to attack critics, rev up the MAGA faithful, and ignore prosecutorial questions about Trump’s role—before, during and after—the deadly Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol.
Trump, according to an aide, “loved” it as Michael van der Veen, one of his defense attorneys, decried his second impeachment trial as “constitutional cancel culture,” and even defended Trump’s claims about voter fraud — an issue his defense initially hoped to sidestep.
“Attorneys did what they needed to do,” said one aide working on Trump’s defense.
The former president’s attorneys spent the bulk of their 2.5-hour defense airing videos that were noticeably absent from their initial presentation on Tuesday — an omission that had infuriated Trump — and to bolster their claim that Trump’s comments at his “Stop the Steal” rally the morning of Jan. 6 were no different from remarks previously made by Democratic lawmakers. Critics of the strategy accused Trump’s attorneys of drawing a false equivalence. But a former Trump aide noted that critics weren’t the intended audience.
“His base will be pleased, he had four hours of free television to pitch [to the public],” the former aide said. “It became defending Trump as much as putting Democrats on trial.”
At one point, Trump attorney David Schoen even introduced footage of the former president’s controversial response to a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., while accusing the House managers of selectively editing Trump soundbites in an unflattering fashion. It was unclear to some of those involved in the president’s defense preparations why Trump’s defense team felt the need to re-litigate one of the lowest points of his presidency. House impeachment manager, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., had mentioned the Charlottesville episode the previous day. And some Trump allies said the president’s team played the footage because they believed many tuning into the trial had likely never heard Trump’s comments in full.
“Charlottesville was shown because it gave free airtime to explain it. Previously nobody in media would run with the excuse. Now it’s out there,” said the former Trump campaign aide.
On the eve of their Friday argument, Trump’s defense team consulted with the former president on plans. Earlier in the day, they also huddled with Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). After a lackluster performance by Trump’s lawyers, Bruce Castor and Schoen, Trump aide Jason Miller promised the team’s defense would “tighten up.” And the early reaction from Trump boosters was satisfaction that they did.
“I thought David Schoen was exceptionally strong,” added former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone. “Finally the president has someone who will fight for him and make the best possible case and get to a vote as soon as possible.”
Whether the truncated defense by Trump’s attorneys will be enough to salvage his political image remains an open question. The former president has maintained a low-profile since leaving the White House and relocating to Florida in January. But he is said to be plotting a comeback that could begin as soon as the Senate determines his fate.
For two straight days, 100 Senate jurors and Americans watching at home were forced to relive the harrowing violence that transpired as a mob of Trump supporters ransacked the halls of Congress, lobbed racist insults at law enforcement officials and threatened to assassinate federal lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence. House managers weaved together a timeline of the riots on Capitol Hill, while simultaneously zeroing in on Trump’s own history of deploying violent rhetoric to rev up his base.
It was a presentation meant to convince senators that Trump was not only guilty of inciting an insurrection, but should be disqualified from holding public office ever again.
But even if the emotional arguments put a fresh stain on Trump’s legacy, they did not appear to alter the position of many Senate Republicans who declared the proceedings unconstitutional from the outset of the trial.
“I think the president’s lawyers just blew the House managers’ case out of the water,” said Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson upon leaving the upper chamber at the conclusion of their dense. Johnson added that Trump’s attorneys “legally eviscerated” the argument put forth by Democratic prosecutors.
The Senate could hold a final vote to convict or acquit Trump as early as Saturday afternoon if the chamber decides to forego a potential motion to call witnesses, or the motion fails on the floor.