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On eve of hearings, Trump lawyers slam impeachment trial as ‘political theater’

In brief filed with Senate, legal team representing former US president says Democrats are exploiting trauma of Capitol storming for political gain

Senator Patrick Leahy, the president pro tempore of the US Senate, who is presiding over the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, swears in members of the Senate for the trial at the US Capitol in Washington, January 26, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)
Senator Patrick Leahy, the president pro tempore of the US Senate, who is presiding over the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, swears in members of the Senate for the trial at the US Capitol in Washington, January 26, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawyers for Donald Trump on Monday blasted the impeachment case against him as an act of “political theater” by Democrats, whom they accused of exploiting for their own party’s gain the chaos and trauma of last month’s riot at the US Capitol.

In a brief filed on the eve of the Senate impeachment trial, lawyers for the former president attacked the case on multiple grounds, foreshadowing legal and constitutional arguments that they intend to present when the trial opens in earnest on Tuesday.

They suggest that Trump was simply exercising his First Amendment rights when he disputed the election results and argue that he explicitly encouraged his supporters to have a peaceful protest and therefore cannot be responsible for the actions of the rioters. They suggest the Senate is not entitled to try Trump now that he has left office, an argument that is contested by even some conservative legal scholars, and they deny that the goal of the case is about pursuing justice.

“Instead, this was only ever a selfish attempt by Democratic leadership in the House to prey upon the feelings of horror and confusion that fell upon all Americans across the entire political spectrum upon seeing the destruction at the Capitol on Jan. 6 by a few hundred people,” the lawyers wrote in a brief obtained by The Associated Press.

“Instead of acting to heal the nation, or at the very least focusing on prosecuting the lawbreakers who stormed the Capitol, the Speaker of the House and her allies have tried to callously harness the chaos of the moment for their own political gain,” they added.

Rioters loyal to US President Donald Trump storm the US Capitol in Washington, January 6, 2020. (AP Photo/ John Minchillo, File)

Scheduled to begin just over a month since the deadly riot, the proceedings are expected to diverge from the lengthy, complicated trial that resulted in Trump’s acquittal a year ago on charges that he privately pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on a Democratic rival, Joe Biden, now the president. This time, Trump’s January 6 rally cry to “fight like hell” and the storming of the Capitol played out for the world to see. While Trump very well could be acquitted again, the trial could be over in half the time.

Under the terms of the trial being negotiated, it would launch first with a debate over its constitutionality, a key argument of the former president’s defense.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., forced a vote on the issue last month, and senators will again be confronted with a debate and vote.

Opening arguments would begin Wednesday at noon, with up to 16 hours per side for presentations.

Details of the proceedings are still being negotiated by the Senate leaders, and whether witnesses are called is up to the House managers

Trump is the first president to be twice impeached, and the only one to face trial after leaving the White House. The Democratic-led House approved a sole charge, “incitement of insurrection,” acting swiftly one week after the riot, the most violent attack on Congress in more than 200 years. Five people died, including a woman shot by police inside the building and a police officer who died of injuries the next day.

There will be no trial proceedings on Friday evening or into Saturday, at the request of the defense team because of the Jewish Sabbath. The trial would reconvene Sunday afternoon, which is Valentine’s Day.

So far, it appears there will be few witnesses called, as the prosecutors and defense attorneys speak directly to senators who have been sworn to deliver “impartial justice” as jurors. Most are also witnesses to the siege, having fled for safety that day as the rioters broke into the Capitol and temporarily halted the electoral count certifying Biden’s victory.

Defense attorneys for Trump declined a request for him to testify. Holed up at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, the former president has been silenced on social media by Twitter without public comments since leaving the White House.

The US President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington, January 12, 2021, (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Instead, House managers prosecuting the case are expected to rely on the trove of videos from the siege, along with Trump’s incendiary rhetoric refusing to concede the election, to make their case. His new defense team has said it plans to counter with its own cache of videos of Democratic politicians making fiery speeches.

“We have the unusual circumstance where, on the very first day of the trial, when those managers walk on the floor of the Senate, there will already be over 100 witnesses present,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who led Trump’s first impeachment. “Whether you need additional witnesses will be a strategic call.”

Democrats argue that it is not only about winning conviction, but holding the former president accountable for his actions, even though he is out of office. For Republicans, the trial will test their political loyalty to Trump and his enduring grip on the GOP.

Initially repulsed by the graphic images of the siege, Republican senators including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell denounced the violence and pointed a finger of blame at Trump. But in recent weeks, GOP senators have rallied around Trump, arguing that his comments do not make him responsible for the violence. They question the legitimacy of even conducting a trial of someone no longer in office.

On Sunday, Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi described Trump’s impeachment trial as a “meaningless messaging partisan exercise.” Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky called the proceedings a farce with “zero chance of conviction,” and described Trump’s language and rally words as “figurative” speech.

Senators were sworn in as jurors late last month, shortly after Biden was inaugurated, but the trial proceedings were delayed as Democrats focused on confirming the new president’s initial Cabinet picks and Republicans sought to put as much distance as possible from the bloody riot.

At the time, Paul forced a vote to set aside the trial as unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office, drawing 44 other Republicans to his argument.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., leaves the chamber after taking an oath and voting on how to proceed on the impeachment against former US president Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, January 26, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A prominent conservative lawyer, Charles Cooper, rejects that view, writing in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece Sunday that the Constitution permits the Senate to try an ex-official, a significant counterpoint to that of Republican senators who have looked toward acquittal by advancing constitutional claims.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Trump’s ardent defenders, said he believes Trump’s actions were wrong and “he’s going to have a place in history for all of this,” but insisted that it is not the Senate’s job to judge.

“It’s not a question of how the trial ends, it’s a question of when it ends,” Graham said. “Republicans are going to view this as an unconstitutional exercise, and the only question is, will they call witnesses, how long does the trial take? But the outcome is really not in doubt.”

The 45 votes in favor of Paul’s measure suggested the near impossibility of reaching a conviction in a Senate where Democrats hold 50 seats, but a two-thirds vote — or 67 senators — would be needed to convict Trump. Only five Republican senators joined with Democrats to reject Paul’s motion: Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

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