On Friday, Trump’s team of lawyers—over the course of just a few hours—laundered many of his pet grievances and some of preferred conspiracy theories through their official legal strategy at his second Senate impeachment trial.
Early on in his presentation, Michael van der Veen, one of the Trump lawyers, insinuated that it was left-wing anarchists or “Antifa” that had been behind much of the Jan. 6 mob violence, mirroring Trump’s own embrace of a baseless internet theory that Antifa had “framed” Trump supporters. The legal team railed against “cancel culture”—they dubbed “constitutional cancel culture,” presumably for the occasion—reflecting one of the whinier closing messages of the 2020 Trump campaign. At the trial, in a montage of Democratic lawmakers, a clip of pop-music icon Madonna—yes, Madonna—being nasty to Trump popped up, matching the 45th U.S. president’s obsession with A-list celebrities. And though his legal team did not make Trump’s lies about 2020 election “fraud” conspiracies the centerpiece of their arguments (as Trump had wanted), they were sure to suggest there was nothing particularly wrongheaded about Trump promulgating those lies, alleging that it is Democrats who really spread “Big Lies” about American elections.
And before all this, it wasn’t like the team was in such great shape, anyway. Up until Friday, the former president’s legal team was trying to pull itself together, with Trump privately complaining since Tuesday that attorney Bruce Castor ought to be benched following his disastrous opening performance. Since the opening day of the trial, GOP lawmakers had publicly grumbled about the shoddiness of the Trump team’s work, scratching their heads about why the Trump lawyers hadn’t delivered what they said was a simple layup. On Friday morning, senior Trump adviser Jason Miller openly said on Newsmax TV that Republican senators (and trial jurors) Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham had huddled with Trump attorneys the day prior and gave “us some additional ideas.”
But ultimately, none of this was likely to matter. Republicans were still signaling that they had the numbers to let Trump off scot-free, yet again. It did not matter that the arguments were transparently lazy or hollow. It didn’t matter that GOP lawmakers felt insulted by the apparent lack of effort. It didn’t matter that trial jurors had offered the Trump side counsel in the middle of the Senate proceedings. And it certainly didn’t matter that then-President Trump had instigated the deadly Jan. 6 MAGA attack on the U.S. Capitol that endangered the lives and safety of several of those Republicans, or that he’d led a months-long, anti-democratic crusade to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.
As of Friday afternoon, Trump—relaxing at his private Mar-a-Lago club and his new Florida home base—was on track for a speedy and easy acquittal. In fact, he was on that track the entire week. Throughout the day, the ex-president fielded calls and messages from friends and allies who assured him that it was even clearer than it had been before that he’d get acquitted, according to two people familiar with the matter. Some of the Trump allies preemptively congratulated the former president, who agreed with them that the Democrats didn’t have a chance. Another person with knowledge of the situation said that Trump had said this week he was looking forward to throwing a little “party” to celebrate after this all was over: to yet again mark an occasion in which his political enemies failed to punish him how they’d wanted.
And by the end of Friday, Trump’s lawyers had successfully given many GOP lawmakers the fig leaf that they desired, to let him off the hook for the bloody riot and to cement his continued vast influence and grip on the party. And the lawyers didn’t have to try all that hard, and they did so in the Trumpian language of petty gripes and culture-warrior ethos.
“The defense team did what it had to do today what they should have done Tuesday: They showed enough holes in the House manager’s case. If there were any Republicans today who were undecided, who needed something to hang their hats on to acquit, the defense team provided that today,” Steven Groves, who worked as a lawyer, and then as a spokesman, in the Trump White House, said on Friday afternoon.
“They did their job,” Groves added.
That’s not to say that GOP senators were overjoyed at the Trump team’s defense. Though their concentrated dose of MAGA-tinged pandering will undoubtedly please their most important audience—their client—many of the actual jurors who will decide the outcome were tepid on how well they argued the actual merits of the case.
Republican senators, who largely panned the string of meandering non sequiturs and general yelling that opened the Trump attorneys’ defense on Tuesday, said that they had improved on the low bar they previously set.
“They are putting on a good defense today,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who is seen as one of the most likely GOP votes to convict. On Tuesday, Murkowski said she was “really stunned” with how ineffective Castor’s argument was.
Trump’s most ardent supporters in the chamber, meanwhile, gave high marks to the video-heavy presentation. Some were spotted by reporters in the gallery nodding as the Trump lawyers drew an equivalence between Jan. 6 and the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, echoing arguments that some GOP senators have been making for weeks.
“The president's lawyers blew the House managers' case out of the water,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). “They just legally eviscerated their case.”
If the Trump case seemed designed to trigger Democrats, it did. When those sitting on the floor saw their own likenesses in the Trump team’s videos, with their own words being used against them, they scoffed and laughed. Many left the floor steaming at the display: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said Trump was guilty of a “heinous crime” and his lawyers were “trying to draw a false, dangerous, and distorted equivalence” with Democrats’ past remarks.
One lawmaker, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), whose words objecting to the 2016 election were shown by the Trump attorneys, pushed back on Twitter. “I and other Members of Congress spent all of 8 whole minutes putting into the record our concerns about Russian interference in the election. We did not try to change the results. We did not force a vote. We did not incite a violent insurrection when we lost,” said McGovern.
“Any comparison is beyond false equivalence,” McGovern continued. “It's BS.”
The intention of the display, said Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), was clear. “It seemed to be directed mostly at Donald Trump watching,” he said, “or as a way to really get his base voters energized.”
The Trump team, all told, used less than a third of the time that the Democrats did to make their arguments—they finished after having presented for about three hours. They could have spoken for even less time, in the eyes of some: Johnson said at the first break, taken at around 2 o’clock, that they should just rest the case.
A final vote could happen as soon as Saturday. Only a handful of senators’ votes are in doubt, with just a few Republicans seen as possibly joining Democrats in supporting a conviction and a lifetime ban on Trump holding office.
Friday’s session wrapped with a question-and-answer period that gave senators the opportunity to interrogate each side. Some, like Trump’s lawyers, might have had different audiences in mind. “Isn’t this simply a political show-trial that is designed to discredit President Trump and his policies,” asked Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN), “and shame the 74 million Americans who voted for him?”
Not all questions were performative. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), a surprise swing vote, asked Trump’s defense team about Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-AL) recollection that he made Trump aware that Vice President Mike Pence was in danger at the Capitol on Jan. 6, shortly before Trump sent out a tweet pressuring the vice president to overturn the election.
"The tweet and lack of response suggests President Trump didn't care that Mike Pence was in danger,” asked Cassidy. “Does this show Trump was tolerant of the intimidation of Vice President Pence?"
Van der Veen then disputed the facts in Cassidy’s question, arguing he had “no idea” and added he was “sure” that Trump was concerned with Pence’s wellbeing as the mob closed in on him. Again, the Trump counsel attacked Democrats for allegedly failing to investigate questions that their client has the answer to and declined to provide.
At that point, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), the lead Democratic impeachment manager, had enough."Rather than yelling at us and screaming about, 'we didn't have time to get all of the facts about what your client did,' bring your client up here,” said Raskin, “and have him testify under oath."