There has always been one small hole in the prosecution’s case for Donald Trump’s second impeachment. Trump encouraged a public demonstration, promised in advance it would be “wild,” instructed his supporters that extraordinary measures were needed to save the republic from his “landslide” election being stolen, and repeatedly urged them to take off the gloves and fight dirtier. But there’s been no evidence that Trump knew beforehand that his supporters would actually break into the Capitol building.
Last night CNN added a key new piece of evidence: In an angry phone call with then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy during the insurrection, Trump refused to call off his supporters, and praised them for their commitment to his cause.
According to CNN, and confirmed by Republican representative Jaime Herrera Beutler, a witness to the call, McCarthy pleaded with the president to make a public statement to end the riot. Trump at first told McCarthy the rioters were “antifa.” (This is in keeping with his habit of privately repeating lines to his supporters that both know are lies, like the way he instructed Michael Cohen to testify “there’s no business with Russia” when both were perfectly aware there had been.) When McCarthy insisted on correcting him, Trump switched to a new line: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
This is extraordinarily incriminating. Not only was Trump taking sides with the rioters after they had violently sacked the Capitol, he was leveraging the violent threat they posed to pressure McCarthy to work more energetically to defend him.
Indeed, Trump continued his attempts to pressure Republicans to support his attempt to overturn the election results after this call with McCarthy. One of those attempts is known, because he mistakenly called Senator Mike Lee when he meant to reach Senator Tommy Tuberville. Rather than stop the attack, Herrera Beutler writes, “[Trump] and his lawyer were busy making calls to senators who were still in lockdown, seeking their support to further delay the Electoral College certification.”
Yesterday, Michael van der Veen, Trump’s impeachment lawyer, claimed that “at no point” was Trump aware that Mike Pence was in physical danger on January 6. A source close to Pence tells CNN that is false.
Trump created the conditions for his most deranged supporters to commit violence. It was not inevitable that his incendiary rhetoric would lead them to a physical invasion, nor was it inevitable that the invasion would overwhelm the Capitol’s defenses, though he bears responsibility for elevating the risks.
But his behavior afterward is what truly damns him. When the demonstration took a violent turn and the violence overwhelmed law enforcement, Trump had a choice. He could have seen it as a tragic turn of events. Or he could have seen it as a lucky break. He saw it as a lucky break, and set out to use the violent threat as the final effort to overturn the results and install himself in office for a second, unelected term.