Anyone who still believes that Donald Trump has no responsibility for what happened on January 6 must now come to terms with reality. During his impeachment trial in the Senate, videos of the riot in the Capitol were shown by the House prosecution team to the senators who act as judge and jury. All were in the building that day; in security footage now seen for the first time, senior senators, such as Mitt Romney and Chuck Schumer, are shown running for their lives.
It is unusual, to say the least, for members of the jury to witness themselves in danger from a mob as part of the evidence. For the defendant to be accused of inciting that mob, thereby putting the jury in harm’s way, must be unique. Trump is relying on the fact that half the Senate is Republican and conviction requires a two-thirds majority. In any ordinary trial, jurors who were partisan, for or against the accused, would be disqualified. But this is no ordinary trial. Impeachment has medieval origins in the idea that an official must be tried by his peers. Trump enjoys that privilege, but he may be hoist by his own petard. When they come to vote next week, senators who came close to being victims of what he said and did that day may set aside partisanship or personal loyalty. At the very least, they are being forced to think very hard about the consequences of finding Trump not guilty.
And yet so much that is emerging in the course of this impeachment trial is unprecedented. Never before has a President enjoyed the means, via Twitter, of influencing his supporters remotely and in real time. He did not need to be present at the siege on Capitol Hill to have an impact on events there. How did Trump deploy that power? He was furious with his Vice President for refusing to obey his order to overturn the election result that day — an order and a course of action that Mike Pence knew were unconstitutional. Soon after the rioters had broken into the building, Trump tweeted: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what he should have been done to protect our Country and the Constitution…” Senators were shown footage of the Vice President, his family and staff scuttling down a staircase to escape the mob. Outside the Capitol, a gallows had been erected and the crowd chanted: “Hang Mike Pence.” Did they know what the President was tweeting? They did. Senators were shown footage of a rioter reading out his words. Another of their targets was Nancy Pelosi. Rioters were shown roaming the corridors, looking for her and calling out her name. A lynch mob was trying to hunt down the Vice President and the House Speaker, second and third in seniority after the President himself. And what did Trump do? Did he call them off? No, Trump denounced Pence for doing his patriotic duty. The former President stands condemned by his own words.
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That was not all. Unspeakable violence against the police officers was shown. Senators had ringside seats to witness what might have happened to any one of them if the mob had got lucky. They were armed with an array of macabre weapons: guns, of course, but also baseball bats and bear spray. The man who had himself photographed lounging in Speaker Pelosi’s office, his feet on her desk, was armed with an electric walking stick capable of delivering a charge of 950,000 volts. One rioter later said: “We were looking for Nancy [Pelosi] to shoot her in the friggin’ brain but we didn’t find her.” When Trump issued his “call to arms”, they took him at his word. And it requires little imagination to guess what would have happened to Pelosi or Pence if they had indeed been found by the mob.