Trump’s formal impeachment defense is even worse than you imagined

The lawyers defending the former president have made it their mission to deliver a masterpiece of whataboutism and intellectual dishonesty

Griffin Connolly
Washington DC
Friday 12 February 2021 20:33
Trump’s impeachment an ‘unjust and blatantly’ unconstitutional ‘witch-hunt’, ex-president’s lawyers say

Donald Trump attorney Michael van der Veen opened the ex-president’s formal impeachment defense on Friday by spraying 25 minutes of partisan acid rain on the Senate, dropping virtually every Trump-era conservative buzzword known to man.

An X’s-and-O’s masterpiece of whataboutism and intellectual dishonesty, Van der Veen’s presentation pelted Senators with classic conservative insults against Democratic politicians. For good measure, it also included outright falsehoods concerning both the makeup of the mob that attacked the US Capitol on January 6 and the nature of Trump’s speeches denouncing the 2020 election — both on the day of the insurrection and well before.

He falsely claimed, for instance, that the “first rioter” arrested by law enforcement in the wake of the Capitol riot was an “Antifa leader, not a Trump backer”. This was part of a broader (and factually preposterous) effort to mischaracterize the pro-Trump mob as consisting of “extremists of various different stripes and political persuasions.”

Not only has no alleged insurrectionist arrested so far been accused by authorities of having ties to Antifa, but nearly every defendant has cited support for Trump’s months-in-the-making “stop the steal” movement as their reason for storming the legislature.

To boot, Democratic lawmakers across the board (including Joe Biden) have denounced the far-left anarchist group Antifa — something Trump has refused to do when it comes to radical right-wing movements such as the “Proud Boys” and QAnon. Many of those who profess themselves sympathizers withthose two groups have been charged.

Van der Veen also had the shamelessness on Friday to claim that Trump, in his speech on the Ellipse, “encouraged supporters to respect the Electoral College count” as they marched to the Capitol where that count was being certified in a joint session of Congress.

That is, of course, the opposite of what the ex-president urged his supporters and then-Vice President Mike Pence to do, as the House impeachment managers explained over 12 hours this week.

Exhorting the crowd gathered on the National Mall to the Capitol, Trump commanded them more than 20 times to “fight” for their country against the imaginary scourge of election fraud. All the while, he was putting the public squeeze on Pence — both on Twitter and in multiple speeches leading up to the insurrection — to defy the US Constitution by unilaterally rejecting Congress’s electoral certification.

Either Van der Veen hasn’t read Trump’s speech or couldn’t be bothered to tell the truth about what his client actually said.

Liberal “pwnage” of a pettier flavor abounded. Van der Veen mispronounced the names of both Vice President Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Democratic Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (whom he misidentified as “Anya”) while arguing that they had aided and encouraged rioters during racial justice protests in the summer of 2020.

Harris and Pressley, neither of whose names are difficult to pronounce, are two of the most prominent women of color in the Democratic Party. It’s worth also noting that this is the party which Van der Veen repeatedly referred to as the “Democrat Party,” a childish epithet GOP lawmakers have used against their colleagues on the other side for decades.

Van der Veen dusted off other popular Trumpisms to describe the impeachment proceedings: it was a “witch hunt”; it was nothing more and nothing less than “constitutional cancel culture!” Oratorial genius this was not.

For anyone who has studied the American political landscape — or this trial — with an ounce of critical analysis and intellectual depth, Van der Veen’s speech was, on its face, ludicrous. But for the average Fox News/Newsmax/One America News disciple who has been spoon-fed a steady spiritual diet of whataboutism, false equivalence, and manufactured outrage over the last five years, it was devastatingly effective. And that’s all the former president and his allies in the Senate really need: the political cover for acquittal.

In a criminal trial, all it takes is one sucker to hang a jury that otherwise unanimously agrees on a defendant’s guilt. An impeachment trial is not a criminal trial, as GOP Senators Mike Lee, Lindsey Graham, and Ted Cruz — technically “jurors” in our current case — so ably demonstrated on Thursday evening when they met for a strategy session with Trump’s defense counsel. But the conviction threshold for an impeachment is similarly onerous in that Trump needs just 34 of the 100-member Senate to vote in his favor to waddle away to Florida without consequence.

As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes astutely pointed out on Thursday, that’s not a difficult bar to clear with the majority of Republican Party voters (i.e. the people responsible for sending the likes of Lee, Graham and Cruz to Washington) devoted to Trump’s cause and professing his innocence.

Missouri GOP Senator Josh Hawley on Thursday explained his decision to acquit Trump as a matter of loyalty to the voters of his own party, not as the representative voice of the broad range of people — Democrats, Republicans, Independents — in his state.

“The Republican Party — if it belongs to anybody — it belongs to the voters, the people who sent us here,” Hawley said. “That’s who I’m accountable to.”

Such nakedly partisan statements should disqualify any politicians who utter them from receiving any rhetorical purchase when they simultaneously issue calls for “unity” and “healing.” At the very least, they should prompt us to ask: Unity and healing for whom?

As Hayes pointed out, Trump was unprecedentedly candid about his interest in governing solely for the minority of Americans who voted for him during his presidency. And like other hardline Trump loyalists, Hawley has made it clear that “he sees himself fundamentally as a party functionary, not a member of the representative government,” Hayes wrote.

As long as that’s the case, Van der Veen’s surface-level, partisan vapidity from Friday will continue to be enough to exonerate Trump politically — both for his behavior surrounding the January 6 Capitol insurrection and whatever nonsense he pulls moving forward.

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