WASHINGTON (AP) - Donald Trump endangered the lives of all members of Congress when he aimed a mob of supporters "like a loaded cannon" at the U.S. Capitol, House Democrats said Tuesday in making their most detailed case yet for why the former president should be convicted and permanently barred from office. Trump denied the allegations through his lawyers and called the trial unconstitutional.
The Democratic legal brief forcefully linked Trump's baseless efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election to the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, saying he bears "unmistakable" blame for actions that threatened the foundation of American democracy. It argued that he must be found guilty when his impeachment trial opens before the Senate next week on a charge of inciting the siege. And it used evocative language to conjure the day's chaos, when "terrified members were trapped in the chamber" and called loved ones "for fear they would not survive."
"His conduct endangered the life of every single member of Congress, jeopardized the peaceful transition of power and line of succession, and compromised our national security," the Democratic managers of the impeachment case wrote. "This is precisely the sort of constitutional offense that warrants disqualification from federal office."
Trump's lawyers responded with their own filing that denied that he had incited the riot by disputing the election results or by exhorting his followers to "fight like hell." In any event, they said, the trial was unconstitutional now that Trump has left the White House.
The dueling filings offer the first public glimpse of the arguments that both sides intend to present at the impeachment trial, Trump's second. They show how Democrats will look to explicitly fault Trump for his role in the riot and to also make the case that his behavior was so egregious as to require permanent disqualification from office. On the other side will be challenges to the trial's constitutionality and claims that Trump's speech was protected by the First Amendment.
"It is denied that President Trump ever endangered the security of the United States and its institutions of Government," defense lawyers wrote in a 14-page brief.
The Constitution specifies that disqualification from office can be a punishment for an impeachment conviction.
"This is not a case where elections alone are a sufficient safeguard against future abuse; it is the electoral process itself that President Trump attacked and that must be protected from him and anyone else who would seek to mimic his behavior," the Democrats wrote.
The Democrats drew heavily on the words of prominent Republicans who have criticized the former president. Among them are Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted for Trump's impeachment and said there has never been a "greater betrayal" by a president, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who said Trump "provoked" the rioters.
"The only honorable path at that point was for President Trump to accept the results and concede his electoral defeat. Instead, he summoned a mob to Washington, exhorted them into a frenzy, and aimed them like a loaded cannon down Pennsylvania Avenue," the Democrats wrote in their 77-page brief.
Still, Republicans have signaled that acquittal is likely, with many saying they think Congress should move on and questioning the constitutionality of an impeachment trial — Trump's second — now that he has left office. In a test vote in the Senate last week, 45 Republicans, including McConnell, voted in favor of an effort to dismiss the trial over those constitutional concerns.
Though no president has been tried after departing the White House, Democrats say there is precedent, pointing to an 1876 impeachment of a secretary of war who resigned his office in a last-ditch attempt to avoid an impeachment trial. The Senate held it anyway.
The Democrats wrote that the framers of the Constitution would not have wanted to leave the country 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 leaving office. Setting that precedent now would "horrify the Framers," the brief said.
"There is no ‘January Exception’ to impeachment or any other provision of the Constitution," the Democrats wrote. "A president must answer comprehensively for his conduct in office from his first day in office through his last."
Trump was impeached by the House while still in office, they noted, forcing a Senate trial. And there are precedents for trying former officials.
"Trump is personally responsible for a violent attack on the Capitol," they wrote. "He was impeached while still in office. The case for trying him after he has left office is stronger than any of the precedents."
The brief also traced Trump’s efforts to subvert democracy back to the summer of 2020, when he first declined to say he would accept the election results, through the election and his many failed attempts to challenge the results in court. When those efforts failed, the Democrats wrote, "he turned to improper and abusive means of staying in power," specifically by launching a pressure campaign aimed at state election officials, the Justice Department and Congress.
The Democrats cited his unsuccessful efforts to sway Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and former Attorney General William Barr. Trump then became "fixated" on Jan. 6, the managers wrote. They note that many of his supporters, including the Proud Boys — who Trump told to "stand back and stand by" at a September debate — were already primed for violence.
"Given all that, the crowd which assembled on January 6 unsurprisingly included many who were armed, angry, and dangerous—and poised on a hair trigger for President Trump to confirm that they indeed had to "fight" to save America from an imagined conspiracy," the Democrats wrote.