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Impeachment prosecutors: Trump's insurrection was months in the making

Then-Vice President Mike Pence's evacuation in the Jan.

Then-Vice President Mike Pence's evacuation in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol siege is seen in new security video presented Wednesday at Trump's second impeachment trial. Credit: Senate Television via AP

A long, steady drip of lies

Long before he told rage-filled supporters at a morning rally on Jan. 6 to "fight like hell," Donald Trump began laying the groundwork for the deadly U.S. Capitol insurrection by telling his faithful there was no way he could lose the election unless it was rigged, according to Democratic impeachment trial prosecutors.

"Just like to build a fire, it doesn’t just start with the flames," Rep. Eric Swalwell of California said Wednesday, the second day of Trump's second impeachment trial. "Donald Trump for months and months assembled the tinder, the kindling, threw on logs for fuel to have his supporters believe that the only way their victory would be lost was if it was stolen — so that way President Trump was ready, if he lost the election, to light the match."

Trump die-hards had converged on Washington, another of the House impeachment managers reminded the Senate, because the defeated president summoned them there. "He didn't just tell them to ‘fight like hell,’ " said Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado. "He told them how, where and when. He made sure they had advanced notice, 18 days advance notice. He sent his save-the-date for Jan. 6." He also promised them: "Will be wild."

Trump had already "deliberately encouraged violence," when he cheered a MAGA caravan that appeared to try to run a bus from Joe Biden's campaign off the road in Texas and when he told the street-brawling far-right Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by," said Delegate Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands, a House impeachment manager.

When the mob launched its deadly assault on the Capitol, perhaps no one was less shocked than Trump, suggested the lead impeachment manager, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland.

"To us, it may have felt like chaos and madness, but there was method to the madness that day," Raskin said. "And when his mob overran and occupied the Senate and attacked the House and assaulted law enforcement, he watched it on TV like a reality show. He reveled in it." Trump tweeted an attack on then-Vice President Mike Pence for refusing to block Congress' affirmation of the election results as the Secret Service was hustling him and his family to safety.

Perhaps worst of all, they said, Trump for hours did nothing to stop it. When he finally told the mob in late-in-the-day tweets and video to stand down and go home, he told the insurrectionists that "we love you, you're very special" and they should celebrate the day. Said Neguse: "Ask yourself if, as soon as this had started, President Trump had simply gone on TV, just logged on to Twitter and said ‘Stop the attack’ — if he had done so with even half as much force as he said ‘stop the steal’ — how many lives would we have saved?"

Crime scenes

Impeachment prosecutors unveiled chilling, previously unseen security videos at the trial, showing how close the rioters calling for blood came to the senators, House members and Pence as the mob rampaged through the Capitol and overwhelmed officers begging on their radios for help. Senators watched the presentation silently, riveted, some shaken.

In the new footage, Pence is shown being rushed to safety on the afternoon of Jan. 6 from the Senate chamber, where the trial is now being held. He sheltered in an office with his family just 100 feet from the rioters, then was evacuated to a safer, undisclosed location while insurrectionists shouted, "Hang Mike Pence."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is seen being whisked from the complex before the mob — taunting, "Where are you, Nancy?" — prowls her suite of offices after her terrified staff hide behind barricaded doors.

The new videos revealed another act of heroism by Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman — already hailed for luring a group of marauders away from a Senate chamber entrance. As Sen. Mitt Romney unwittingly exits toward approaching rioters, Goodman intercepts and sends him in the other direction. (See the video.) Romney was unaware of how close a call it was until Wednesday's presentation. "It tears your — your heart and brings tears to your eyes," said the Utah Republican, who later thanked Goodman personally.

Some senators acknowledged it was the first time they were grasping how close U.S. democracy came to grave peril. "When you see all the pieces come together, just the total awareness of that, the enormity of this threat, not just to us as people, as lawmakers, but the threat to the institution and what Congress represents, it’s disturbing," said Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of a handful of Republicans seen as a likely vote to convict.

Republicans moved, but not moving

The impeachment managers pointed out that along with Pence, Capitol Hill Republicans that Trump deemed a "surrender caucus" were targets of the mob's wrath. But as searing as the video presentation was, there were scant signs of a Republican shift away from likely acquittal of the former president.

"Who wouldn’t be" shaken, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said in response to a reporter's question. But he added that he blames the rioters — not Trump. "I’ve continued to say that it is not constitutional to impeach and convict a former president," said Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota.

North Dakota's Sen. Kevin Cramer, like many of the Republicans, heaped praise on the quality of the House managers’ presentation — shortly before stressing that it would not change his mind. "It doesn’t affect me in terms of how I feel about the president’s culpability. That’s what’s on trial," Cramer said. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the "language" from Trump "doesn't come close to meeting the legal standard for incitement."

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri offered a whataboutism argument for acquittal by suggesting that unrest last year in Seattle and Portland, Oregon, was somehow comparable to the assault on the Capitol. "You know, you have a summer where people all over the country are doing similar kinds of things. … you're going to see similar kinds of tragedies there as well," he said.

Speech as arson

Trump's lawyers on Tuesday argued that Trump never went beyond the bounds of free speech in the run-up to the riot. Raskin rejected that interpretation of the First Amendment on Wednesday.

Quoting the well-known phrase from the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. — "you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater" — Raskin asserted that what Trump did was worse.

"It’s more like a case where the town fire chief, who is paid to put out fires, sends a mob — not to yell fire in a crowded theater — but to actually set the theater on fire," Raskin told the Senate. "And who then, when the fire alarms go off and the calls start flooding into the fire department, does nothing but sit back, encourage the mob to continue its rampage and watch the fire spread on TV."

On that and more from the trial's second day, see the takeaways by Newsday's Tom Brune.

Janison: Leftover Trump scandals

Scandalous fallout from the failed Trump presidency may just be revving up with this second impeachment trial, including unsettled dust from his first impeachment, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

A close adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Time magazine he's willing to help a federal probe of Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani as well as a separate effort to strip the ex-mayor of his license to practice law. The adviser, Igor Novikov, released a transcript of Giuliani in a 40-minute phone call pressuring Ukraine's top officials to "get someone to investigate" a web of contrived charges against Biden, his son Hunter and other Democrats for Trump's political benefit.

There's more to be explored. According to Politico, President Joe Biden's national security team has access to the records of the dozen or so casual phone calls and meetings Trump had while in office with Russian President Vladimir Putin. What was discussed long has been a subject of mystery in political and diplomatic circles. Did Trump make untoward back-channel commitments to the strongman he always seemed to court?

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance has been exploring the Trump Organization's business transactions. Trump's efforts to strong-arm Georgia officials to flip the election result there is under new scrutiny.

Trump under criminal probe in Georgia

In the Peach State, the district attorney of Fulton County has opened a criminal investigation of Trump's Jan. 2 phone call pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" votes for him.

A letter from Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis to several top Georgia government officials asked them to preserve records related to the administration of the 2020 election, "with particular care being given to set aside and preserve those that may be evidence of attempts to influence the actions of persons who were administering that election."

She indicated a grand jury would convene in March to look into the case. While the letter does not mention Trump by name, it is related to his intervention in Georgia’s election, a state official with knowledge of the matter told The New York Times. Willis' letter said her office has no reason to believe "any Georgia official" is a target of the investigation.

Senior Trump adviser Jason Miller accused Willis of a "witch hunt."

Proud Boy: Trump duped me

A court plea for a Proud Boy member arrested in the riot said he was duped by Trump's "deception" and "acted out of the delusional belief" that he was responding patriotically to the commander in chief.

Dominic Pezzola of Rochester, New York, allegedly knocked over barriers outside the Capitol, seized a riot shield from a Capitol Police officer, and then used the shield to smash a window that provided entry to a wave of rioters, according to records. Indicted last month and charged with conspiracy, he asked a federal court in Washington to grant his release, pending trial. The FBI said Pezzola and the group with him declared they wanted to kill Pence and Pelosi.

The "defendant acted out of the delusional belief that he was a 'patriot' protecting his country," Pezzola's lawyer argued in the filing. "The president maintained that the election had been stolen and it was the duty of loyal citizens to ‘stop the steal.’ Admittedly there was no rational basis for the claim, but it is apparent defendant was one of millions of Americans who were misled by the President’s deception."

Pezzola's federal public defender, Jonathan Zucker, said of his client: "Hopefully, as a result of this experience he has learned not be so gullible and will not be so easily duped again."

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments on Long Island and beyond by Newsday's Bart Jones and Candice Ferrette. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Trump will not be permitted back on Twitter even if he runs again for office and wins, the company's chief financial officer Ned Segal told CNBC. "Our policies are designed to make sure that people are not inciting violence, and if anybody does that, we have to remove them from the service and our policies don't allow people to come back," Segal said.
  • On his first visit to the Pentagon as commander in chief, Biden cited the "growing challenges" posed by China in announcing Wednesday that the Department of Defense will launch a review of the U.S. national security approach toward Beijing. Biden also pledged his support for U.S. troops, vowing, "I will never, ever dishonor you. I will never disrespect you. I will never politicize the work you do." See Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez.
  • Biden had pledged to reopen the majority of elementary and middle schools for in-person learning in the first 100 days of his administration. Now there's an asterisk. The White House said Tuesday that it considers a school open if it offers students in-person instruction at least one day a week during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was released from a Saudi prison after nearly three years. The move was seen as a sign that the kingdom is taking steps to blunt criticism of its human rights record by Biden administration officials, according to The Washington Post.
  • A day after Republicans roasted Biden's nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget for her mean tweets about them, Sen. Bernie Sanders got in his licks at another confirmation hearing. "There were vicious attacks against progressives, people who I have worked with — me personally," Sanders, who chairs the Budget Committee, said Wednesday to Neera Tanden, who leads a center-left think tank. She expressed regret and pledged that from now on, "my approach will be radically different."
  • Biden on Wednesday announced a series of steps in response to last week's military coup in Myanmar, including withholding "$1 billion in Burmese government funds" in U.S. financial institutions and imposing sanctions against the military leaders behind the coup.
  • In the final months of the Trump administration, senior Justice Department officials repeatedly sought to block federal prosecutors in Manhattan from taking a crucial step in their investigation into Trump lawyer Giuliani’s dealings in Ukraine, delaying a search warrant for some of Giuliani’s electronic records, The New York Times reported.

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