WASHINGTON — With hours left to spare, former president Donald Trump’s lawyers concluded their arguments in defense of Trump on Friday afternoon. The defense’s case had a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks quality to it: Lawyers Michael van der Veen, David Schoen, and Bruce Castor contended that the charge leveled against Trump of inciting an insurrection was a “monstrous lie,” that convicting him for that charge violated his speech rights under the First Amendment, that the House of Representatives denied his due process when they voted to impeach him last month, that the House impeachment managers doctored their evidence, and finally that the whole trial was nothing more than political retribution against the 45th president.
In his closing remarks, Castor evoked the notion of “cancel culture,” a favorite cudgel of the reactionary element in the Republican Party, to deny the charges against Trump and discredit the House impeachment prosecutors arguing for convicting Trump and disqualifying him ever holding elected office again.
“Let us be clear: This trial is about far more than President Trump,” attorney Bruce Castor said. “It is about silencing and banning the speech the majority does not agree with. It is about canceling 75 million Trump voters, and criminalizing political viewpoints.” He went on, “It asks for constitutional cancel culture to take over in the United States Senate. Are we going to allow canceling and banning and silencing to be sanction in this body?”
As a legal and constitutional argument, Castor’s argument rang hollow. But as a political argument, it made perfect sense.
With the Senate split 50-50, convicting Trump for the high crime of inciting an insurrection requires at least 17 Republican senators joining all 50 Democrats in voting yes. By evoking cancel culture, Castor was framing his argument in terms that his most important audience, the Republican senators-cum-jurors, would know all too well. This is, after all, the same U.S. Senate that includes Sen. Josh Hawley, who, after a mainstream publisher canceled his book contract, decried “cancel culture” in a front-page op-ed published by the New York Post. (Another publisher picked up his book.) Another senator, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, once said that “cancel culture threatens the very principles of free inquiry and open debate upon which our society is based.” Still another, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, a member eyed as a possible “yes” vote in the trial, recently saw fit to wade into the San Francisco school-naming debate, releasing a video that begins, “Just when you didn’t think the cancel culture could get worse…”
In other words, by framing the impeachment trial as just the latest episode of cancel culture, Castor was dog-whistling at a frequency most Senate Republicans hear all too well, brushing aside the evidence and constitutional arguments in favor of a political stance sure to resonate with the jurors who matter most.
In substance and style, the Trump team’s defense looked and sounded like a political campaign. The defense played and replayed mash-up videos set to ominous background music that were reminiscent of campaign attack ads. The videos showed Democratic officials, including some of the impeachment managers, using the word “fight,” free of context didn’t matter and meant to imply that the very utterance of the word by anyone other than Trump disqualified the prosecution’s argument. The defense lawyers repeated, like a candidate on the stump, a clear set of talking points about how Democrats violated Trump’s right to free speech and due process, as well as how his words at the January 6th rally that preceded the Capitol insurrection were taken out of context.
There was some merit to this last claim (Trump did at one point tell his supporters on the 6th to demonstrate “peacefully and patriotically”) but the defense did little to challenge the notion that Trump’s words that day were the culmination of a year-long campaign to undermine the American democracy and to prime his followers for action if the 2020 election was “stolen” — a Trump-style rebrand of what most people would call “losing by 7 million votes.”
The brevity alone of the Trump defense team’s presentation signaled how uninterested the former president’s lawyers were in fully reckoning with the argument, as lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) put it, that Trump had violated his oath by inciting the insurrection to stop the peaceful transfer of power. Instead, what the defense lawyers offered was a grab bag of grievances and complaints, infused with a righteous indignation, spoken in a tongue the Republican jurors in the Senate would know all too well.
The reactions among Senate Republicans so far seem to indicate the defense’s arguments are resonating. The conviction vote, expected this weekend, will tell the full story.