Questions were raised in the Senate impeachment trial by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about when former President Donald Trump knew about the severity of the U.S. Capitol riots that occurred on Jan. 6. Some seemed to highlight Trump’s response to the fracas as indicating his alleged intent to incite the violent demonstration. However, proceedings ended before they got a definitive answer.
What Did Trump Know and When?
According to The Hill, “four of the six GOP senators viewed as potential swing votes tried to gain new insight about when Trump found out the Capitol had been breached and how he had responded.” The former president’s attorneys could not pinpoint the exact moment Trump was informed that rioters had forced their way into the Capitol building but indicated that it was before 2:38 p.m. based on his tweets. They argued that he did not yet know that former Vice President Mike Pence had been in a precarious position.
“The answer is no,” Trump lawyer Michael Van Der Veen asserted on the Senate floor. “At no point was the president informed the vice president was in any danger.” Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) were not satisfied with the explanation put forth by Trump’s attorneys.
“It was like, ‘Wait a minute that wasn’t very responsive,'” Murkowski said. “I thought it was a better attempt a second time, but, yeah, I didn’t really feel like it was responsive to our question.”
Collins said, “I didn’t really feel that I got a response, but I’m not sure that that was the fault of the counsel.” She continued, saying “it’s difficult to answer a question like that” after the House declined to hold hearings to establish facts regarding the unfolding events that day. “I was hoping that one side or the other would have, because I think it’s a very important question of when did the president know that the barricades were breached,” she said.
Democrats and establishment Republicans not friendly to Trump were intent on determining Trump’s knowledge of the riots in order to strengthen the argument that he is responsible for the violence. Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) noted that these questions could have cast light on the former president’s intentions. “The real issue is what was the president’s intent, right?” he said. “Only the president could answer that, and the president chose not to testify.”
Interest in Trump’s knowledge of the violence arose after Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), who spoke with the former president as the riots ensued, affirmed that he told him that Pence had been removed from the chamber over safety concerns. “Senator Tuberville reports that he spoke to President Trump at 2:15 p.m. He told the president that the vice president has just been evacuated. I presumed it was understood at the time that rioters had entered the Capitol and threatened the safety of senators and the vice president,” Cassidy wrote in his question.
The lawmaker also pointed out that the former president subsequently tweeted that Pence “lacked courage” and had not yet called for backup from law enforcement. “The tweet and lack of response suggests President Trump did not care that Vice President Pence was endangered or that law enforcement was overwhelmed,” Cassidy speculated. Trump’s lawyers responded by arguing that Cassidy’s questions were based on “hearsay” from Tuberville.
While he was not sure about the exact timing of the phone call with Trump, Tuberville stood by his account of the conversation. “[I] answered it [and] it was the president. He said a few things. I said, ‘Mr. President, they’ve taken the vice president out. They want me to get off the phone, I gotta go,'” he said.
How Much Does This Matter?
Trump was pilloried by leaders on both sides of the aisle for his response – or lack thereof – as the riots were in full swing. Some complained about the fact that then President-elect Joe Biden addressed the nation on camera before Trump did. When the former president finally spoke, his message for the rioters — in which he said they were “special” and that “we love you” — was widely panned as inept.
But in the end, Trump’s response to the riots wasn’t as significant as the Democrats had hoped. They based their entire case for conviction on the premise that Trump had incited violence during his speech at the Stop the Steal Rally on Jan. 6. And the fact that investigators determined much of the violence was planned before Trump’s speech diluted the Dems’ accusations.
It’s not that an inquiry into Trump’s knowledge about the assault was irrelevant. But the Democrats were so eager to convict Trump that they rushed to the impeachment vote without investigations and hearings that could have provided more insight into the chaotic events of that day. Perhaps their refusal to take these due process steps doomed their effort to convict Trump.
Read more from Jeff Charles.
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