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Leaving Aside Trump’s Role in Provoking the Capitol Riot, His Reaction to It Was Enough To Justify Impeachment

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After last month’s assault on the U.S. Capitol began, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins reported, “White House officials were shaken by Trump’s reaction.” She said they described him as “borderline enthusiastic because it meant the certification [of Joe Biden’s election] was being derailed.” Sen. Ben Sasse (R–Neb.), in an interview two days after the riot with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, likewise said “senior White House officials” had told him Trump was “walking around the White House confused about why other people on his team weren’t as excited as he was as you had rioters pushing against Capitol Police trying to get into the building.” Sasse described Trump as “delighted” by the violence.

You may not credit these second- and third-hand accounts of Trump’s mood as his followers, outraged by his fantasy of a stolen election, stormed the Capitol to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s victory. CNN is not exactly friendly toward Trump, and Sasse is a longtime critic. Their reports were based on information from unnamed officials who cannot be asked to confirm or deny making the comments attributed to them. Yet as the House members who are prosecuting Trump for inciting the Capitol riot emphasize, these accounts are consistent with Trump’s public behavior after the protest he convened to “stop the steal” turned violent.

The question of whether Trump intended to provoke a riot would be crucial if he were criminally prosecuted for his conduct on January 6. It matters less in an impeachment for “high crimes or misdemeanors,” which are not limited to statutory violations. But regardless of his intent before the riot started, Trump was strikingly reluctant to intervene after it began, and his irresponsibility at that point is independent grounds for impeachment. His reaction betrayed his duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” as well as his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.”

The rioters started fighting with police and breaching the security barriers around the Capitol at 12:53 p.m., nearly an hour into Trump’s inflammatory speech at Ellipse Park, where he urged his supporters at the “Save America” rally to “show strength” against an “egregious assault on our democracy” by marching to the building where Congress was about to anoint “an illegitimate president,” warning that “our country will be destroyed” should Biden be allowed to take office. About an hour after Trump supporters acting on his imaginary grievance began their attack, he tweeted a video of his speech. Why not? After all, as he later told reporters, his remarks were “totally appropriate” and had nothing to do with the riot.

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Half an hour later, after Vice President Mike Pence had been rushed from the Senate floor to save him from rioters who wanted to “hang” him because he had refused to reject electoral votes for Biden, Trump took the time to tweet this: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.” He was referring to the erroneous belief that Pence had the unilateral authority to overturn the election results, a claim Trump had repeatedly made in his speech at the rally.

“Once we found out Pence turned on us and that they had stolen the election, like, officially, the crowd went crazy,” a man charged in connection with the riot said in a YouTube video. “I mean, it became a mob.” Far from urging calm, Trump chose this moment to egg on the mob by reinforcing the rioters’ ire at the man they were threatening to kill. And he did that after he was informed that Pence had been forced to flee.

Even after members of Congress had been ushered out to protect them from Trump’s enraged supporters, he was still focused on challenging Biden’s electoral votes. Around 2 p.m., he mistakenly called Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah) while trying to reach Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R–Ala.), one of the senators who had backed objections to electoral votes from battleground states. Lee handed his cellphone to Tuberville, who spoke to the president for about 10 minutes. Trump was “trying to convince him to make additional objections to the Electoral College vote,” CNN reported, but “the call was cut off because senators were asked to move to a secure location.”

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As that incident suggests, Trump was remarkably blasé about his supporters’ violent invasion of the Capitol. “There is no evidence that President Trump called Vice President Pence, Speaker Pelosi or Senator Chuck Grassley—the first three in the line of succession—or anyone else in the Capitol to check on their safety during the attack,” the House impeachment managers note. Although “members of the House and Senate from both parties,” including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.), “urged the President to intervene,” Trump did nothing until 2:38 p.m., an hour and 45 minutes after the riot started.

“Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement,” he tweeted. “They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!” He reiterated that message 35 minutes later: “I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order—respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue. Thank you!”

As the House managers note, “these tweets were, obviously, totally ineffectual at stopping the violence.” They argue that Trump’s belated calls for peace “did not reflect any substantial effort on the part of the President of the United States to protect the Congress.”

Finally, more than three hours after the riot had started, Trump posted a short video in which he said this:

I know your pain. I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order. We have to respect our great people in law and order. This was a fraudulent election, but we can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. We love you. You’re very special. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil, but go home and go home in peace.

Trump thus reinforced the delusion that motivated the riot even as he called for peace, which he did not because violence was morally wrong but because it was a tactical mistake that “play[ed] into the hands of these people.” The Capitol was declared secure about 15 minutes after that video went up, nearly four hours after the riot started. The joint session of Congress resumed around 8 p.m., completing its ratification of Biden’s election early the next morning.

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Trump summed up his feelings about the riot in a tweet he posted at 6:01 p.m. on January 6: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”

Trump’s considered view, in other words, was that his supporters’ deadly violence, while perhaps regrettable, was an understandable response to a terrible injustice that he invented. To Trump, the ardor his supporters had demonstrated was something to be remembered with pride. Instead of unambiguously condemning the riot, as he finally did a week later in a written speech he recorded after he was impeached, Trump expressed his love and appreciation for the criminals who had invaded and vandalized the Capitol, assaulted the officers defending it, killing one of them and injuring many others; threatened to murder his own vice president; forced members of Congress to run for their lives; and caused an unprecedented interruption of the Electoral College vote tally, committing an “egregious assault on our democracy” in the name of stopping one.

Given his attitude, it is not surprising that Trump hesitated for so long and ultimately did nothing meaningful to stop the violence or protect the Capitol. These were his people. While they may have gotten carried away, they were motivated by their dedication to him, which is the noblest cause Trump can imagine.

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