What We Learned About the Capitol Riots From the Impeachment Trial

The pure savagery of the mob that rampaged through the Capitol that day was breathtaking, as cataloged by the injuries inflicted on those who tried to guard the nation’s elected lawmakers. One police officer lost an eye, another the tip of his finger. Still another was shocked so many times with a Taser gun that he had a heart attack.

They suffered cracked ribs, two smashed spinal disks and multiple concussions. At least 81 members of the Capitol force and 65 members of the Metropolitan Police Department were injured, not even counting the officer killed that day or two others who later died by suicide. Some officers described it as worse than when they served in combat in Iraq.

And through it all, President Donald J. Trump served as the inspiration if not the catalyst. Even as he addressed a rally beforehand, supporters could be heard on the video responding to him by shouting, “Take the Capitol!” Then they talked about calling the president at the White House to report on what they had done. And at least one of his supporters read over a bullhorn one of the president’s angry tweets to charge up the crowd.

Though Mr. Trump escaped conviction, the Senate impeachment trial has served at least one purpose: It stitched together the most comprehensive and chilling account to date of last month’s deadly assault on the Capitol, ensuring that the former president’s name will be inextricably associated with a violent attempt to subvert the peaceful transfer of power, the first in American history. In the new details it revealed and the methodical, minute-by-minute assembly of known facts it presented, the trial proved revelatory for many Americans — and even for some who lived through the events.

There were close calls and near misses as the invaders, some wearing military-style tactical gear, some carrying baseball bats or flagpoles or shields seized from the police, came just several dozen steps from the vice president and members of Congress. There was almost medieval-level physical combat captured in body-cam footage and the panicked voices of officers on police dispatch tapes calling for help. There were more overt signs about the coming violence from social media in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6 than many lawmakers had understood.

“Until we were preparing for this trial, I didn’t know the extent of many of these facts,” Representative Madeleine Dean, Democrat of Pennsylvania and one of the managers, told senators on Saturday. “I witnessed the horror, but I didn’t know. I didn’t know how deliberate the president’s planning was, how he had invested in it, how many times he incited his supporters with these lies, how carefully and consistently he incited them to violence on January the 6th.”

Yet for all the heart-pounding narrative of that day and the weeks leading up to it presented on the Senate floor, what was also striking after it was all over was how many questions remained unanswered on issues like the financing and leadership of the mob, the extent of the coordination with extremist groups, the breakdown in security and the failure in various quarters of the government to heed intelligence warnings of pending violence.

And then, most especially, what the president was doing in the hours that the Capitol was being ransacked, a point that several wavering Republican senators tried to home in on through questions to the prosecution and defense and that briefly blew up the trial on Saturday.

The House managers were able to introduce a statement from a Republican congresswoman, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, describing what she was told about a profanity-laden telephone call that Representative Kevin McCarthy of California had with Mr. Trump in the middle of the attack.

Ms. Herrera Buetler said Mr. McCarthy, the House Republican leader, had told her that when he pleaded with the president for help on the call, Mr. Trump seemed to side with the rioters disrupting the counting of the Electoral College votes ratifying his defeat. “I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Mr. Trump told the House Republican leader in this telling.

The Trump camp has never provided a definitive and official account of the former president’s knowledge or actions during the attack. But advisers speaking on the condition of anonymity have told reporters that he was initially pleased, not disturbed, that his supporters had disrupted the election count and that he never reached out to Vice President Mike Pence to check on his safety even after Mr. Pence was evacuated from the Senate chamber.

Resisting pleas from Republican allies like Mr. McCarthy to explicitly call off the attack, Mr. Trump delivered a mixed message that day, embracing the rioters and endorsing their cause even as he called for peace and told them to go home. While one of his lawyers told the Senate on Friday that “at no point” was Mr. Trump informed that the vice president was in danger, that was contradicted by a phone call described by Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama.

Despite conflicting and sometimes fragmentary accounts, the House decided to proceed with impeachment and the trial without conducting a real investigation or calling witnesses, eager to get the constitutional showdown over with expeditiously so that President Biden could get on with his agenda.

The managers concluded that the available record was compelling enough to make a judgment, but they have conceded gaps in their knowledge. “There’s a lot we don’t know yet about what happened that day,” Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas, acknowledged at one point during the presentations.

The Trump defense team sought to use that against the managers, arguing that they irresponsibly relied on unverified news reports and social media postings. “The House managers did zero investigation,” Michael T. van der Veen, one of the former president’s lawyers, said. “The American people deserve a lot better than coming in here with no evidence, hearsay on top of hearsay on top of reports that are of hearsay.”

But the Trump lawyers evidently did little if any inquiry into their own client either since they were unable to respond to specific questions from senators about what the president knew and did during the rampage. And Mr. Trump rebuffed an invitation from the House managers to testify and clear up any confusion.

Even so, incomplete as they were, the presentations over the past five days clarified and framed the events of Jan. 6. The managers played never-before-released Capitol security camera footage and police dispatch recordings while harvesting the enormous volume of videos and photographs posted on social media and other accounts by reporters, police officers, rioters, and members of Congress and their staffs.

Some of the senators learned for the first time just how close the attackers came to them. Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, did not realize until the tape was played on the Senate floor that the officer who saved him from running straight into the rioters that day was Officer Eugene Goodman, famous for facing the surging mob all alone.

“It was obviously very troubling to see the great violence that our Capitol Police and others were subjected to,” Mr. Romney told reporters. “It tears at your heart and brings tears to your eyes. That was overwhelmingly distressing and emotional.”

After the trial recessed, Mr. Romney sought out Officer Goodman to thank him and to hear the officer’s own account of the day, including breathing in bear spray and tear gas while trying to drive the crowd away from the lawmakers in their chamber.

Perhaps the most searing new details were audio and video recordings from other police officers trying — and failing — to protect the Capitol. The radio communication became increasingly frantic, with one officer saying against a din in the background: “We have been outflanked and we’ve lost the line.” Another said: “They’re throwing metal poles at us.” They were attacked with bear spray and some sort of fireworks. One officer was dragged down a set of stairs; another was beaten after falling to the ground.

Managers documented as well the sheer scale of the desecration of the building itself. One worker had to clean feces off a wall. Another had to wipe up blood. And as with a revolution in a far-off country, it was the sounds of that day that some remembered most vividly: the pounding on the door of the building, the crash as glass was smashed, the whispers of staff aides hiding from the crowd. “The sound of those window panes popping, I won’t forget that sound,” one congressional aide was quoted saying in audio.

How much Mr. Trump was to blame for the onslaught documented in such painful detail was left to the Senate to decide. The defense team decried the House managers prosecuting the case for inflaming the senator-jurors with “manipulated video” that it argued proved only that the rioters committed crimes, not that the former president did.

But even then, the managers’ presentation brought home in emphatic fashion just how much some of the rioters thought they were acting on Mr. Trump’s behalf or even instruction, whether he knew it or not. In one video they took of themselves, an intruder even picked up a telephone in a seized Capitol office and laughingly talked about calling the president to report what they had done.

“Let’s call Trump, yes!” the man yelled. “Dude, dude, let’s tell Trump’s what’s up.” When a compatriot suggested Mr. Trump would be displeased, the first man disagreed. “No, just say we love him. ‘We love you, bro!’ He’ll be happy — what do you mean? We’re fighting for Trump!”

In a riveting juxtaposition of the message that was delivered and how it was received, the managers showed video taken from the crowd’s point of view as Mr. Trump addressed supporters at a rally on the Ellipse shortly before they marched to the Capitol and laid siege to the building.

When Mr. Trump declared that they should “take back our country” and “show strength,” some in the back of the crowd, presumably out of his earshot, began shouting, “Storm the Capitol,” “Invade the Capitol building” and “Take the Capitol!” Mr. Trump went on to say that when they headed to the Capitol, they should “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard,” but the word “peacefully” clearly did not sink in with the crowd and was overwhelmed by the many times he said they should “fight” or “fight like hell.”

Another video played by Mr. Castro showed a Trump supporter at the Capitol later using a bullhorn to read to the crowd a tweet from the president attacking Mr. Pence for lack of “courage,” enraging the mob. Some of the rioters that day searched for the vice president in the Capitol, chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” even as a gallows was erected outside.

But what really struck some senators, particularly the handful of Republicans open to conviction, is what Mr. Trump did next — or what he did not do. Despite pleas from Mr. McCarthy, other allies, key aides and his daughter Ivanka Trump, the president was still more focused on pressing his effort to block the election than coming to the aid of his vice president and Congress.

When he called Mr. Tuberville, according to the House managers, he was not checking to see if he could help, but to reiterate his objections to the election vote process.

Mr. Tuberville, one of the former president’s strongest allies, told reporters that he had no time for that because the mob was coming. “Mr. President, they’ve taken the vice president out,” he recalled saying. “They want me to get off the phone. I’ve got to go.”

Matthew Rosenberg, Mark Mazzetti and Michael S. Schmidt contributed reporting.

Source: NYT > U.S. > Politics

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