It remains strange to hear the prosecution hype its case in a trial where the jury is rigged and the outcome ordained. After all, some Republicans aren’t making so much as a pretense of keeping an open mind. “Not a single thing will change,” Tim Scott told Axios yesterday after Raskin and the Democrats cleaned Team Trump’s clock. “The outcome is set.” Scott isn’t some Gaetz-style MAGA robot. If he’s talking like that, the chances of conviction are absolute zero no matter what Democrats uncork today.
But they can still benefit politically by making a strong case. And they’re talking tough about what they have planned for this afternoon:
The footage, which may be drawn from Capitol security cameras and other sources, will shed light on the rioters’ “extreme violence” from a new vantage point, aides to the House impeachment team said. It’s part of what Democrats maintain will be an overwhelming display of evidence that Trump directly fueled the deadly insurrection and committed “the most heinous constitutional crime possible.”
“The easiest trials to try are the trials where you have the goods. We have the goods,” said a senior aide to the House impeachment team.
According to aides, the brand new footage will also underscore the risk that the violence could have spiraled further “but for the brave action of the officers” securing the building even when they were outnumbered by a pro-Trump mob.
They don’t have “the goods.” Having the goods in an incitement trial would mean smoking-gun evidence that Trump was egging on the violence as it was happening. If they’ve got audio of him on the phone with some rioter saying, “Hang Pence,” then they’ve got the goods. And they don’t have that.
But when you remember that the goal here isn’t conviction, which is unattainable, but winning a PR war then having “the goods” makes more sense. Yesterday’s video did brisk business online, drawing many social media comments about how horrendous and the disgraceful the attack was. Even Bruce Castor, Trump’s lawyer, acknowledged that it was more effective than they had expected. Democrats are going to double down on that today with even more graphic footage of how bad things got inside the Capitol, which may come as a surprise to voters who haven’t followed the story closely and believe the mob was a bunch of mostly harmless Instagram weirdos like the “QAnon Shaman” instead of a true insurrectionist riot.
The more Democrats can make Trump politically toxic by turning people against him with their presentation, the more the PR war is won. And the more the PR war is won, the more painful it’ll be for Senate Republicans when they inevitably rubber-stamp his acquittal on flimsy jurisdictional grounds. The more enraged voters are by the evidence of the violence, the worse the blindly partisan lack of accountability for Trump will seem. And since the GOP remains all-in on Trumpism institutionally, Dems get an extra benefit from Republicans having to carry any new public antipathy towards Trump forward with them. It’d be one thing if the Senate GOP were about to acquit Trump as a way of putting Trumpism behind it before clearly pivoting with the rest of the party towards something new. But they’re not doing that. Trump remains the frontrunner for the 2024 nomination. And because he does, Dems want to make him and his party wear the disgrace of January 6 in voters’ eyes as vividly as possible.
Steve Bannon understands the dynamic here. Again, there’s no fear that Trump will be convicted. There *is* real fear after yesterday’s performance that he’ll lose the PR war and lose it badly:
Steve Bannon on Trump defense:
“The strategy is not working…this is asymmetric information warfare: Democrats argue a coherent made-for-TV fantasy that works on an emotional level. Lindsey Graham’s team argues the constitution and nobody cares. Changes needed and needed now”
— Jonathan Lemire (@JonLemire) February 10, 2021
According to the Daily Beast, yesterday went so badly that Trump is considering pulling Bruce Castor from his defense team and letting David Schoen and the lawyers in the background handle things from here. But that would come with a wrinkle too: The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last night that Trump lawyer Michael van der Veen represented someone last year in Pennsylvania who sued Trump for making bogus “voter fraud” claims and allegedly once told another client that Trump was a “f***ing crook.” The Democrats’ oppo researchers waited for just the right moment to call that detail to the media’s attention.
Yesterday’s poor performance by Castor inadvertently worked hand-in-glove with the Democrats’ strategy, which is to make the acquittal vote for Trump seem as indefensible as possible. Graphic video of the attack gets the public angry and then a lame response by the former president’s lawyers utterly fails to counter it. David Frum:
The quality of the speeches won’t make any difference to the outcome of the trial. The senators who will vote to acquit Trump are not voting because they are convinced of his innocence. They are voting because they are scared. And it will take more than an ill-prepared and ill-mannered legal team to unscare them.
But the quality of the speeches makes a difference in another respect. It’s not just Trump—and not even primarily Trump—who is on trial in the Senate this week. The partisans who enabled Trump are facing a trial of their own. What they desperately crave is a face-saving excuse for one final round of enabling.
The stupid slovenliness of the Trump legal team today, though, threatened to deprive senators of that face-saving excuse. As he so often has, Trump is making Republicans in Congress eat dirt, and eat their dirt without even the seasoning of plausible believability. It’s raw, dry dirt—pure in all its dirtiness.
Without a strong defense on the constitutional point about trying a public official who’s left office, Senate Republicans lose their fig leaf for acquittal. The truth, which is that they refuse to convict because most of their voters would let Trump get away with anything up to and including murder, will be laid bare. And that’s not a comfortable truth when your party already can only bank on 46 percent or so of the vote nationally.
I think there’s one other goal Democrats have in putting on a strong case. They’re not going to get 17 Republicans to convict but they would love, love, love to have McConnell’s vote. If you believe Bloomberg, Cocaine Mitch is still in play, having told his caucus that they should vote their conscience and that he remains undecided. (He voted yesterday to find the trial unconstitutional but, having lost on that question, reportedly remains open to conviction on the merits.) I wouldn’t put the odds of him voting to convict higher than 20 percent, knowing how his vote might be used to attack establishment senators in primaries in 2022. But he just won reelection, is probably in his final Senate term now, and clearly has no use for Trump. If Dems could flip him and boast that the leader of the Senate GOP agrees with them that Trump is guilty, it’d be the biggest PR victory they could realistically hope for.
I’ll leave you with this, a reminder that the incitement case is much bigger than what Trump said at the rally on January 6: “The managers plan to argue Wednesday that the riot was the not just the result of Trump’s speech, but was the culmination of Trump’s conduct over several months about the election being stolen that built toward the speech that day, according to the aides.”