Former President Donald Trump’s impeachment defense began Friday with a history lesson. But the lesson only partially conveyed the relevant details surrounding the defense’s attempted analogy and, therefore, avoided a core argument of House impeachment managers about Trump’s alleged incitement of violence in the wake of the 2020 election.
“The article of impeachment now before the Senate is an unjust and blatantly unconstitutional act of political vengeance,” said Trump attorney Michael van der Veen while kicking off the defense’s case in chief. “This appalling abuse of the constitution only further divides our nation when we should be trying to come together around shared priorities.”
He called Trump’s second impeachment a “politically motivated witch hunt.”
“No thinking person could seriously believe that the president’s January 6th speech on The Ellipse was in any way an incitement to violence or insurrection,” he continued. “The suggestion is patently absurd on its face. Nothing in the text could ever be construed as encouraging, condoning, or enticing unlawful activity of any kind.”
Van der Veen characterized Trump’s comments as mere encouragements toward his supporters to engage in “peaceful and patriotic” protests.
Then came the history lesson — which sorely lacked critical context.
“Many Democrats even attempted to persuade electoral college delegates to overturn the 2016 results,” Trump’s attorney said. “You’ll remember it was Joe Biden who had to gavel them down.”
Van der Veen then rolled an edited video of then-Vice President Biden gaveling down a chain of objections in 2016 by then-assembled lawmakers who tried to object to Trump’s victory. One of the clips showed lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) lodging an objection.
Van der Veen appeared to be attempting to chastise Democrats for challenging the 2016 results in favor of Trump the same way Republicans challenged the 2020 results in favor of Biden. He seemed to relish in the moment — as video played showing Biden pounding his own seemingly ravenous party back into the yoke of submission over Trump’s victory. Biden, in the video from the aftermath of the 2016 election, deftly cited the applicable laws and rules of debate governing a joint session of Congress while, in essence, telling his fellow Democrats to clam up.
Van der Veen briefly noted that an even more distant election — in the year 2000 — was litigated to the Supreme Court; he then went on to wax about the need for the country’s democratic system to work properly.
Van der Veen did not contemporaneously acknowledge — and, in the moment, completely ignored — the long wails and stinging rebukes Donald Trump issued against Mike Pence while Pence was doing in 2020 what Biden did in 2016.
Pence, like Biden, told Republicans they didn’t have enough proof that the election had been rigged or was otherwise deficient. He ordered them to stand down and refused to hear objections which were not properly signed. When they were, debate ensued, but it did not advance due to a lack of votes. Biden, in the end, was certified as president with Mike Pence presiding.
Trump’s lamenting and blasting of Pence is well-documented.
“I hope Mike Pence comes through for us, I have to tell you,” Trump said shortly before the Jan. 6 certification of the election. “Of course, if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much,” he added.
The two men reportedly discussed Pence’s role in the Jan. 6 process ahead of time, but the details weren’t then public.
It is clear, however, that Trump kept pressuring Pence. On Jan. 6, Trump said “it will be a sad day for the country” if Pence didn’t act to keep him (Trump) in office.
Trump’s tweets carried the same temper tantrum-like logic.
“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,” Trump tweeted at 2:44 p.m. on Jan. 6. “USA demands the truth!”
Earlier that same day, at 8:17 a.m., he said as follows:
States want to correct their votes, which they now know were based on irregularities and fraud, plus corrupt process never received legislative approval. All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!
We all know what was happening outside and inside the Capitol as Trump and Giuliani issued these tweets and calls.
As the siege on the Capitol started to quiet down, Trump tweeted, then deleted, the following at 6:01 p.m.:
These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!
An opinion columnist proclaimed that “Trump’s ego nearly got Mike Pence killed.”
Van der Veen, Trump’s impeachment attorney, raised none of these salient and relevant points while playing the video of Joe Biden gaveling down Democrats’ objections to Trump’s 2016 victory. Nor did he try to refute them. He tried to rationalize Trump’s behavior in 2020 as similar to that of Democrats in 2016; it was not.
Rather, van der Veen pivoted.
“To claim that the president in any way wished, desired, or encouraged lawless or violent behavior is a preposterous and monstrous lie,” he said. “In fact, the first two messages the president sent via Twitter once the incursion of the capitol began were ‘stay peaceful, and no violence, because we are the party of law and order.’ The gathering on January 6th was supposed to be a peaceful event — make no mistake about that — and the overwhelming majority of those in attendance remained peaceful.”
Eventually, van der Veen rolled a video of Trump calling for “peaceful” protests and “justice” edited up against calls by Democrats for “uprisings” and “unrest in the streets” — some of which were uttered in response to George Floyd’s death or to comments about the possibility of the Supreme Court gutting its current abortion rights jurisprudence. (Many of those comments were widely panned by conservatives as dangerous in the moment.)
Van der Veen then said the “extremists of various different stripes and political persuasions” who stormed the capitol “hikacjed the event” Trump envisioned “for their own purposes.”
“One of the first people arrested was a leader of Antifa. Sadly, he was also among the first to be released.”
As of the date of this writing, the phrase Antifa appears only three times in court documents contained on the Department of Justice’s website related to the Jan. 6 siege. All three times (here, here, and here), Antifa was referred to as an enemy of the Trump supporters who were arrested and charged.
“I believe we will have to get violent to stop this, especially the Antifa maggots who are sure to come out en masse even if we get the Prez for 4 more years,” the first document quotes a Trump supporter as saying. The second says the crowd at the capitol was chanting “fuck Antifa.” The third contains the same quote as the first.
Many claims of Antifa activity at the capitol have been debunked and denounced. For instance, the highly conservative Manchester, N.H. Union Leader injected “anti-fascist” into a headline about the siege — only to walk back later in its article that the so-called “anti-fascist” individual to which the paper referred “denied that he was associated with antifa.”
Watch van der Veen play the Biden video below.
[image via screen capture from U.S. Senate live video feed]
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