Trump acquitted in historic second impeachment trial

After becoming the first American president to be impeached twice, Donald Trump again made history Saturday after the U.S. Senate acquitted him on a single impeachment charge of inciting an insurrection.

In late 2019, the Democrat-led U.S. House impeached Trump on two charges: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The GOP-led Senate acquitted Trump on both charges in February 2020. Prior to Trump, only Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton had been impeached. Both were also acquitted by the Senate.

The latest impeachment charge — authored by U.S. Reps. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Ted Lieu of California — alleged Trump incited the violence that led to a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. One Capitol Police officer, Brian David Sicknick, died from injuries suffered in the riot. One protester — Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt, 35, who was a 14-year U.S. Air Force veteran — was shot to death during the protest.

The Senate voted 57 guilty and 43 not guilty, with Trump acquitted because two-thirds didn’t find him guilty. Seven Republicans joined with Democrats to convict the former president, but that still fell short of the 67 votes needed to convict.

The riot began when Trump supporters descended on the nation’s capital the same day as Congress began certifying the Electoral College vote, which assured Democrat Joe Biden the presidency. More Americans in history cast their ballot before and during the Nov. 3 presidential election, and Biden secured an overwhelming majority of the popular vote — more than 80 million — and electoral votes, 306. A total of 270 Electoral College votes are needed to win the White House.

However, before and after the election, Trump continued to make widespread allegations about the integrity of the electoral process and claimed massive voter fraud. His legal teams filed numerous lawsuits in several battleground states, all of which have been dismissed by those respective judges.

Before the riot, Trump addressed his supporters, thousands of whom then marched to the U.S. Capitol and breached the building. Congress and staff evacuated the building and went into recess until the violence could be contained. Later that evening and stretching into the next day, Congress officially certified the Electoral College totals, ensuring Biden’s win as the nation’s 46th president.

Approving one impeachment charge of “incitement of insurrection,” the Democrat-led House impeached Trump on Jan. 13, one week before his term was to have ended anyway. The unprecedented second impeachment of an American president came without hearings, witnesses or testimony.

Democrats, who concluded their case Thursday, used the rioters’ own videos and words from Jan. 6 to try to pin responsibility on Trump. “We were invited here,” said one Capitol invader. “Trump sent us,” said another. “He’ll be happy. We’re fighting for Trump.”

The prosecutors’ goal was to cast Trump not as a bystander but rather as the “inciter in chief” who spread election falsehoods, then encouraged supporters to come challenge the results in Washington and fanned the discontent with rhetoric about fighting and taking back the country.

Democrats also demanded that he be barred from holding future federal office.

“This attack never would have happened but for Donald Trump,” U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, one of the impeachment managers, said Thursday. “And so they came, draped in Trump’s flag, and used our flag, the American flag, to batter and to bludgeon.”

With little hope of conviction by the required two-thirds of the Senate, Democrats delivered a graphic case to the American public, describing in stark, personal terms the terror faced that day — some of it in the very Senate chamber where senators were sitting as jurors. They used security video of rioters searching menacingly for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence, smashing into the building and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with police.

They displayed the many public and explicit instructions Trump gave his supporters — long before the White House rally that unleashed the deadly Capitol attack as Congress was certifying Biden’s victory. Five people died in the chaos and its aftermath.

“What makes you think the nightmare with Donald Trump and his law-breaking and violent mobs is over?” asked Raskin, the lead prosecutor. He said earlier, “When Donald Trump tells the crowd, as he did on Jan. 6, ‘Fight like hell, or you won’t have a country anymore,’ he meant for them to ‘fight like hell.’”

Trump’s defense team wrapped up its arguments Friday, taking far less time to make its case than House Democrats did earlier in the week. His lawyers opened his impeachment Friday by strenuously denying he played any role in inciting the deadly riot at the Capitol, blasting the case against him as politically motivated “hatred” and part of a yearslong Democratic “witch hunt.”

Lawyers for the former president told senators Trump was entitled to dispute the 2020 election results and that his doing so, including in a speech that preceded the assault on the Capitol, did not amount to inciting the violence that followed. They sought to turn the tables on prosecutors by likening the Democrats’ questioning of the legitimacy of Trump’s 2016 win to his challenge of his election loss. When Trump implored supporters to “fight like hell” on Jan. 6, they said, that was no different from the Democrats’ own charged rhetoric that risks precipitating violence.

“This is ordinarily political rhetoric that is virtually indistinguishable from the language that has been used by people across the political spectrum for hundreds of years,” said Michael van der Veen, one of Trump’s lawyers. “Countless politicians have spoken of fighting for our principles.”

Trump’s lawyers made a fundamental concession: The violence was every bit as traumatic, unacceptable and illegal as Democrats say, but Trump didn’t order it. Van der Veen said the siege was carried out by people who had “hijacked” for their own purposes what was supposed to be a peaceful event and had made plans for violence before Trump had even spoken.

“They haven’t in any way tied it to Trump,” David Schoen, one of the president’s lawyers, told reporters on Thursday. “They don’t need to show you movies to show you that the riot happened here. We will stipulate that it happened, and you know all about it.”

In legal filings and in arguments this past week, Trump’s lawyers have made clear their position that the people responsible for the riot are the ones who actually stormed the building and who are now being prosecuted by the Justice Department.

They note that Trump in the same speech encouraged the crowd to behave “peacefully,” and they contend that his remarks — and his general distrust of the election results — are all protected under the First Amendment. Democrats resisted that assertion, saying his words weren’t political speech but rather amounted to direct incitement of violence.

The defense lawyers also returned to arguments made Tuesday that the trial itself is unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office. The Senate rejected that contention as it voted to proceed with the trial.

The two sides reiterated their points in the closing arguments held Saturday afternoon before the historic decision in the Senate.