Trump lawyers blast impeachment trial as 'political theatre'

Senate trial is set to start on Tuesday and will be clear test of accountability over deadly Capitol riot in January

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 08: Members of the National Guard enter a gate of barbed wire fencing on U.S. Capitol grounds at sunrise on February 8, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Senate is scheduled to begin the second impeachment trial of former U.S. President Donald J. Trump on February 9.   Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images/AFP
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Lawyers for former US president Donald Trump on Monday blasted the impeachment case against him as an act of “political theatre”.

Mr Trump's legal team accused House Democrats on the eve of his trial of exploiting the chaos and trauma of last month’s Capitol riot for their party’s gain.

His brief is a wide-ranging attack on the House case, foreshadowing the claims his lawyers intend to present on the same Senate floor that was invaded by rioters on January 6.

The sharp-tongued statement, with accusations that Democrats are making “patently absurd” arguments and trying to “silence a political opponent", makes it clear that Mr Trump’s lawyers are preparing to challenge the constitutionality of the trial and any suggestion that he was to blame for the insurrection.

“While never willing to allow a ‘good crisis’ to go to waste, the Democratic leadership is incapable of understanding that not everything can always be blamed on their political adversaries, no matter how very badly they may wish to exploit any moment of uncertainty on the part of the American people,” the defence lawyers say.

In their brief, they suggest Mr Trump was simply exercising his First Amendment rights when he disputed the election results.

They say he explicitly encouraged his supporters to have a peaceful protest, and therefore cannot be responsible for the actions of the rioters.

They say the Senate is not entitled to try Mr Trump now that he has left office, an argument contested by even some conservative legal scholars, and they deny that the goal of the Democrats' case is justice.

“Instead, this was only ever a selfish attempt by Democratic leadership in the House to prey upon the feelings of horror and confusion that fell upon all Americans across the entire political spectrum upon seeing the destruction at the Capitol on January 6 by a few hundred people,” his lawyers wrote.

The trial will begin Tuesday with a debate and vote on whether it is constitutional to prosecute the former president.

That could provide an out for Republicans keen on voting to acquit Mr Trump without being seen as condoning his behaviour.

Opening arguments would begin Wednesday at noon, with up to 16 hours a side for presentations.

Under a draft agreement between Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, the proceedings will break on Friday evening for the Jewish Sabbath at the request of Mr Trump’s defence, and resume on Sunday.

There will probably be no witnesses, and the former president has declined a request to give evidence.

Mr Trump's second impeachment trial is opening with a sense of urgency for Democrats who want to hold him accountable for the Capitol siege, and for Republicans who want it over as quickly as possible.

It is expected to diverge from the long, complicated trial that resulted in Mr Trump’s acquittal a year ago on charges that he pressured Ukraine to dig up dirt on his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, who is now the president.

This time, Mr Trump’s rallying cry to “fight like hell” and the storming of the Capitol played out for the world to see.

He could well be acquitted again and the trial could be over in half the time.

Mr Trump is the first president to be twice impeached and the only one to face trial after leaving the White House.

The Democratic-led House approved a sole charge, “incitement of insurrection”, acting a week after the riot, which was the most violent attack on Congress in more than 200 years.

Five people died, including a woman shot by police inside the building and a police officer who died of injuries the next day.

Prosecutors and defence lawyers will speak directly to senators who have been sworn to deliver “impartial justice” as jurors.

Most are also witnesses to the siege, having fled for safety that day as the rioters broke into the Capitol and temporarily halted the electoral count certifying Mr Biden’s victory.

House managers prosecuting the case are expected to rely on videos from the siege, along with Mr Trump’s incendiary speech as he refused to concede the election, to make their case.

His new defence team has said it plans to counter with its own videos of Democratic politicians making fiery speeches.

“We have the unusual circumstance where on the very first day of the trial, when those managers walk on the floor of the Senate, there will already be over 100 witnesses present,” Adam Schiff, the representative who led Mr Trump’s first impeachment, told NBC.

“Whether you need additional witnesses will be a strategic call.”

Democrats say it is all about holding the former president accountable for his actions, even though he is out of office.

For Republicans, the trial will test their political loyalty to Mr Trump and his enduring grip on the party.

Initially repelled by the graphic images of the siege, Republican senators including Mr McConnell denounced the violence and pointed fingers of blame at Mr Trump.

But in recent weeks they have rallied around him, saying his comments did not make him responsible for the violence and questioning the legitimacy of trying someone no longer in office.

Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina and one of Mr Trump’s ardent defenders, told CBS that he believed his actions were wrong and “he’s going to have a place in history for all of this”.

But Mr Graham insisted that it was not the Senate’s job to judge.

Senators were sworn in as jurors late last month, shortly after Mr Biden was inaugurated.

But the trial proceedings were delayed as Democrats focused on confirming the new president’s Cabinet choices and Republicans sought to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the riot.