House impeachment brief argues Trump unmistakably responsible for Capitol attack

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UPDATE, 12:45 p.m.: Attorneys for former President Donald Trump on Tuesday denied that their client incited last month’s riot at the U.S. Capitol or sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential race, insisting instead that Trump was merely exercising his First Amendment rights with baseless claims of voter fraud.

"It is denied that President Trump incited the crowd to engage in destructive behavior," Trump’s legal team wrote in a brief filed with the Senate ahead of the impeachment trial that is expected to get underway next week.

The former president "exercised his First Amendment right under the Constitution to express his belief that the election results were suspect," Trump’s lawyers wrote, "since with very few exceptions, under the convenient guise of Covid-19 pandemic ‘safeguards’ states election laws and procedures were changed by local politicians or judges without the necessary approvals from state legislatures."

Trump’s claims of voter fraud in last November’s election, widely credited with inciting the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, have been comprehensively debunked by courts and election experts.

This story will be updated.

Former President Donald Trump bears “unmistakable” responsibility for the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and should be barred from holding federal office, the House’s impeachment managers argued in their opening salvo for the Senate’s upcoming trial.

A week before the Senate is slated to put the ex-president on trial for a second time, the House’s first legal brief outlines a weeks-long campaign by Trump to overturn President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory based on unsubstantiated claims of election fraud — culminating in the insurrection at the Capitol while lawmakers were certifying Biden’s win.

“President Trump’s pursuit of power at all costs is a betrayal of historic proportions,” the House wrote in its opening brief. “It requires his conviction.”

The House impeached Trump a week after the Jan. 6 attack, charging him with inciting the insurrection and writing in Tuesday’s brief that he did so using “incendiary and violent language” that put at grave risk the lives of the same senators now serving as jurors in the case against Trump.

“It is one thing for an official to pursue legal processes for contesting election results,” the House managers wrote. “It is something else entirely for that official to incite violence against the government, and to obstruct the finalization of election results, after judges and election officials conclude that his challenges lack proof and legal merit.”

Trump’s legal team is expected to file its first official response to the impeachment charge later Tuesday.

The House’s legal brief also directly addresses the arguments from Trump’s allies that the Senate has no constitutional right to put a former president on trial. Indeed, 45 out of 50 Republican senators voted last week that trying an ex-president on impeachment charges is unconstitutional, creating a significant hurdle for the House as it seeks to convince at least 17 GOP senators that Trump should be convicted of the charge against him. Conviction requires the support of two-thirds of the chamber, or 67 senators.

Pushing back against this claim, the House managers noted that the Constitution gives the Senate the “sole power to try all impeachments,” and said refusing to put a former president on trial gives future presidents a license to commit impeachable offenses in his or her final days in office and then simply resign in order to evade accountability.

“It is unthinkable that those same Framers left us virtually defenseless against a president’s treachery in his final days, allowing him to misuse power, violate his Oath, and incite insurrection against Congress and our electoral institutions simply because he is a lame duck,” the House managers wrote.

The former president’s allies have also asserted that Trump’s First Amendment rights to free speech shield him from responsibility for his elevated rhetoric leading up to Jan. 6. The House’s brief pushes back on that argument, asserting that “the First Amendment does not apply at all to an impeachment proceeding” because the Senate “must decide whether to safeguard the nation’s constitutional order by disqualifying an official who committed egregious misconduct.”

Central to the House’s argument is that Trump’s public statements and actions threatened American democracy at its core in a way that the U.S. has never seen in modern times. The brief implicitly pushes back against the argument — advanced by some Democrats — that the Senate should not be spending so much of its time on an impeachment trial that appears likely to be headed toward an acquittal.

“Since the dawn of the republic, no enemy — foreign or domestic — had ever obstructed Congress’s counting of the votes,” the brief states. “No president had ever refused to accept an election result or defied the lawful processes for resolving electoral disputes. Until President Trump.”

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