Lawyers for former President Donald Trump kicked off their impeachment defense on Friday by making the absurd claim that the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot was the work of “antifa”—then repeatedly playing context-free clips of Democrats saying the word “fight.”
“A small group who came to engage in violent and menacing behavior hijacked the event for their own purposes. According to publicly available reporting, it is apparent that extremists of various different stripes and political persuasions preplanned and premeditated and attacked on the capitol,” Trump’s lawyer Michael van der Veen said.
“One of the first people arrested was the leader of antifa. Sadly, he was also among the first to be released.”
The unsubstantiated allegation seemed to be a reference to John Earle Sullivan, a self-described Black Lives Matter activist who filmed himself storming the Capitol and egging on rioters.
Sullivan claimed he was an independent journalist documenting historic events but he was seen breaking a window and yelling, “We gotta get this shit burned... it’s our house, motherfuckers!” He was later charged for taking part in the riot. Black Lives Matter organizers in his home state of Utah disavowed him, describing him as “a thorn in our side.”
Van der Veen’s theory is also not supported by any evidence.
There is no “leader of antifa” because, as FBI Director Christopher Wray has previously said, antifa is an ideology, not an organization.
The FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia have also stressed that there is “no indication” that members of left-right movements were involved in the insurrection. Most of the more than 200 people arrested have claimed their deep affinity for the former president—and many said they traveled to D.C. on Jan. 6 at Trump’s behest.
After showing random clips of Democratic lawmakers and liberal commentators seemingly endorsing protests over the summer that were often accompanied by unrest, Van der Veen called the impeachment of Trump a “witch hunt.”
“[This] unprecedented effort is not about Democrats opposing political violence,” he said. “It is about Democrats trying to disqualify their political opposition. It is constitutional cancel culture. History will record this shameful effort as a deliberate attempt by the Democratic Party to smear, censor, and cancel not just President Trump but the 75 million Americans who voted for him.”
Trump’s defense on Friday came after impeachment managers spent two days chronicling the months-long lead up to Jan. 6—from Trump’s refusal back in May to commit to a possible peaceful transfer, to his pre-election claims that the election would be rigged, to his mid-election orders to “stop the count,” to his post-election efforts to threaten officials, ignore court rulings, and attack Vice President Mike Pence.
Going as far back as a 2015 Trump rally, when a Black protester was tackled during his speech, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) argued that “January 6 was not some unexpected radical break from his normal law-abiding and peaceful disposition, this was [Trump’s] state of mind.”
Impeachment managers also played chilling, previously unseen clips of security footage from inside the Capitol and dispatch calls from D.C. cops begging for reinforcements.
While Trump’s legal team acknowledged the visceral impact of the videos, they insisted Trump shouldn’t be held responsible for a chaotic incident that was pre-planned by some participants.
“The hatred that the House managers and others on the left have for President Trump has driven them to skip the basic elements of due process and fairness,” lawyer David Schoen said.
Schoen accused impeachment managers of manipulating evidence and selectively editing footage in their case against Trump.
He then played a selectively edited, context-free montage, accompanied by menacing music, to show that Democrats and celebrities like Madonna and Johnny Depp have used incendiary language about political foes.
One nearly 10-minute highlight reel showed Democrats using the word “fight,” including several appearances by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), to seemingly counter Trump’s Jan. 6 call to “fight like hell.” None of the Democrats’ calls to “fight” were followed by a violent insurrection.
“Every single one of you and every one of you [has used the word ‘fight’],” Shoen said. “That’s OK, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s a word people use, but please stop the hypocrisy.”
Van der Veen added, “This is not ‘whataboutism.’ All robust speech should be protected.”
Bruce Castor Jr., whose rambling argument on constitutionality earlier in the trial was widely ridiculed, quibbled over whether the events of Jan. 6 were an insurrection.
He played old clips of Trump to claim he is “the most pro-police, anti-mob president this country has ever seen,” then argued that there was nothing wrong with pressuring Georgia election officials to “find” votes because there were concerns over the legitimacy of some ballots.
“The only reason the conversation [with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger] is being discussed in this chamber is because, once again, the media and their Democratic allies distort the true conversation to mislead you and the American public,” Castor said.
In the end, Trump’s lawyers used less than three of the 16 hours allotted to them to argue Trump’s case.
“To the Republicans in this chamber, when you are next in the majority, please resist what will be an overwhelming temptation to do this very same thing to the opposing party,” Castor concluded.