Impeachment managers unveil dramatic footage of Capitol attack
House Democrats unloaded a trove of horrific footage on the Senate floor Wednesday that showed lawmakers narrowly evading the insurrectionist mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 — rioters they said were incited by Donald Trump’s call for them to descend on Congress and stop the counting of electoral votes.
The clips, some previously public and others drawn from newly disclosed Capitol security footage, showed Vice President Mike Pence’s evacuation from the building and Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman — already a hero for his actions to divert insurrectionists from the Senate chamber — telling Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) to turn around shortly before Goodman confronted the heavily armed pack.
“President Trump put a target on their backs and his mob broke into the Capitol to hunt them down,” said Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-V.I.), one of nine House prosecutors seeking Trump’s conviction in the Senate impeachment trial on a charge of inciting the insurrection.
The video evidence, long foreshadowed by Democrats, was their most powerful attempt to prove that Trump was directly responsible for the violence that unfolded and left five dead — including a Capitol Police officer — and hundreds of other officers seriously injured. Lawmakers spent the morning detailing evidence they said showed that Trump had primed his supporters to commit violence in his name, falsely claiming that the election had been stolen and that they would lose their country if they didn’t “fight like hell.”
The videos showed rioters echoing Trump’s words as they stormed the Capitol, and then adding their own calls to hunt down Pence — whom Trump portrayed as a disappointment for refusing to block the electoral vote count — and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Among the video footage the House managers displayed was a clip of rioters storming Pelosi’s office and pounding on the door of an inner conference room where her staffers were huddled in terror. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) also noted that a mob on the Senate side of the Capitol came within just 58 steps of the senators’ escape route. The violence, while horrific, could have been much worse, they noted.
Senators were visibly shaken when they were viewing and listening to the new materials, which were blaring at a high volume inside the chamber. Stunned senators stood up and leaned forward at certain points, with some appearing to point themselves out in security camera footage showing Capitol Police officers creating a human barricade that allowed them to escape safely.
And Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) appeared distressed when he was watching a video of an officer-involved shooting outside the House chamber. At one point, he was teary-eyed and was consoled by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who was sitting next to him.
Other senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, looked away from the television screens when the footage became too graphic. Several lawmakers were shaking their heads while watching harrowing videos of rioters breaking into the Capitol.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said the House managers were “making a very effective presentation.”
The House managers closed the Wednesday arguments by emphasizing that while the violence was ongoing, Trump took no public steps to quell it. In fact, long after it was clear the Capitol was under siege, they said, Trump exacerbated the situation.
An hour into the assault, he tweeted a video of his speech calling for his supporters to “fight.” Moments after Pence fled the Senate chamber, Trump tweeted that he “didn’t have the courage” to try to overturn the election, a tweet that rioters immediately megaphoned across the Capitol.
Impeachment manager David Cicilline (D-R.I.) noted that Trump, while allies were begging him to call off his supporters, phoned a senator to encourage him to continue objecting to the Electoral College vote. Moments before a rioter was shot dead by police, Trump urged his supporters to “stay peaceful,” which Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), another impeachment manager, said came well after the crowd had turned violent.
Later Trump tweeted a video message in which he urged the rioters to go home but added, “We love you.” Later that evening, Trump tweeted that “These are the things and events that happen” when an election is stolen — a reprise of his months-long false claims. There was no evidence, Castro added, that Trump had actually taken steps to send in the National Guard.
“This was a dereliction of duty, plain and simple,” Castro said.
Though senators typically refrain from speaking during the trial, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) spoke up after the House completed its arguments for the night, contending that they misconstrued comments he made when recounting an episode that occurred in the Senate chamber on Jan. 6. Raskin said the issue wasn’t central to the House’s case and moved to withdraw the statement.
Though the issue was largely inconsequential, it highlighted the unusual nature of the entire trial — one in which senators themselves are both jurors and witnesses cited by the House prosecutors, who were also witnesses and victims of the alleged high crime.
While acknowledging the horrifying nature of the riot footage, Trump’s Republican allies said it still does not justify blaming Trump for inciting the violence.
“They spent a great deal of time focusing on the horrific acts of violence that were played out by the criminals, but the language from the president doesn’t come close to meeting the legal standard for incitement,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said.
The footage was part of the House’s opening arguments in the impeachment trial that began in earnest Wednesday. They will have another eight hours Thursday to continue their arguments if they choose to use it. Trump’s team — which contends he never encouraged violence and that his claims of a stolen election were protected by the First Amendment — will present its defense beginning on Friday.
The House managers sought to push back against those arguments by using Trump’s public statements in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, asserting that Trump provoked his followers, many of whom were widely understood to have violent intentions.
“He told them to fight like hell, and they brought us hell that day,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the lead House impeachment manager.
“This case is not about blaming an innocent bystander. This is about holding accountable the personal singularly responsible for this attack,” Raskin added, referring to Trump as the “inciter-in-chief.”
The arguments kicked off a two-day presentation by Democrats seeking to persuade at least 17 Senate Republicans to join in convicting Trump, a tall task that appears unlikely to succeed in the trial’s early stages.
Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), another impeachment manager, initiated the arguments by laying out a post-election chronology of Trump’s comments and actions seeking to undermine confidence in the 2020 election results. He played a series of clips of Trump vowing to “never surrender” in his fight to flip the election outcome.
“People listened. Armed supporters surrounded election officials’ homes. The secretary of state for Georgia got death threats. Officials warned the president that his rhetoric was dangerous and it was going to result in deadly violence,” Neguse said. “He didn’t stop it. He didn’t condemn the violence. He incited it further.”
Later, the managers addressed Trump’s false claims of voter fraud head-on, debunking some of the central allegations that fueled the riots and outlining Trump’s weeks-long effort to promote a campaign dubbed “stop the steal.” Inside the Senate chamber, several Democratic senators as well as GOP Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska could be seen shaking their heads as clips played of Trump calling the election “stolen” and “fraudulent.”
The managers’ use of video footage underscores a central theme of their trial strategy — to make senators re-live the horrors of Jan. 6 and the raw emotions that come with it.
The Democrats are taking heart from the unexpected decision of Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) to support their case that the trial is constitutional. Cassidy, who praised the House managers’ presentations on Tuesday, was the only senator whose vote was not forecast in advance.
On Tuesday, the trial’s first official day, the managers played a lengthy montage on the Senate floor that intertwined Trump’s words and tweets with the violent actions of the rioters. Even some of the Republicans who voted to declare the trial unconstitutional said they were moved by the videos — an acknowledgment that the trial’s jury pool witnessed and was a victim of the insurrection.
The Senate ultimately voted to uphold its constitutional authority to put a former president on trial, with six Republicans joining all 50 Democrats in the vote. The managers plan to urge Republicans in particular to divorce their concerns about the constitutionality of the trial from the merits of the House’s case against Trump. With the procedural question already settled, House Democrats are hoping that more than six Republicans will agree with them on the substance of their arguments.
The impeachment managers got some timely help Wednesday from Atlanta-area prosecutors who, according to a New York Times report, have decided to launch a criminal investigation of Trump’s effort in December to pressure Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to “find” enough votes to help him win the state’s presidential election.
That episode, captured in an audio recording that was released by the Washington Post last month, figured in the House’s case against Trump– part of what they said was a prolonged effort by Trump to wrest the election from Biden and claim a second term.