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Democrats Warn Trump Could Whip Up Violence Again. Many Republicans Remain Unmoved

7 minute read

The House impeachment managers finished their opening arguments in the case against Donald Trump on Thursday after two days of wrenching presentations about the deadly riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. They presented Senators — Trump’s jurors — with audio of panicked police calling for backup, footage of angry rioters roaming the halls of the Capitol calling for Nancy Pelosi, and lawmakers escaping the mob by moments.

It does not appear it will convince enough Republicans to convict Trump.

Many Senate Republicans said Thursday they hadn’t changed their minds about the 45th president. Some were openly incensed by the Democrats’ arguments, venting on social media that it had been “offensive and absurd,” as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted. Others acknowledged the House managers had been well-prepared and effective. But many leaned hard on the fact that they had already voted that the trial itself was unconstitutional, rendering any evidence Democrats presented that Trump is responsible for “inciting an insurrection” essentially irrelevant.

Republican Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas claimed he was keeping an “open mind,” but then said he already knows he will vote to acquit because he believes the trial is unconstitutional. And he said he expects most of the other Republicans who believe the same thing will also let Trump off the hook: “They’ll have to work through their mind, but [I] think it’s difficult to vote that it’s unconstitutional and vote to convict,” he said.

Over the course of two days, the House impeachment managers laid out a detailed case against Trump, weaving in video and personal testimony. Their evidence put in context what was happening throughout the Capitol that day and gave new perspective on how the day unfolded, even for Senators who were there. On Wednesday, they showed graphic footage of violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, after hours of establishing Trump’s words and actions leading up to that day. On Thursday, they focused on Trump’s broader history of encouraging violence and the harms caused by the insurrection.

2/11/21, Washington, D.C. Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.V.) speaks to reporters after the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 11, 2021. Gabriella Demczuk / TIME
Republican Sen. Shelly Moore Capito speaks to reporters after the impeachment trial at the Capitol in Washington, on Feb. 11, 2021.Gabriella Demczuk for TIME

Impeachment managers, who need to convince at least 17 Republican Senators to vote with all Democrats in order to garner a conviction, seemed to be tailoring their argument toward Republicans at various points on Thursday. The managers played clips of Republicans in Trump’s own administration blaming him for the Jan. 6 attack, and showed a list of all the administration officials who resigned in its wake, including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao—the wife of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“My dear colleagues, is there any political leader in this room who believes that if he’s ever allowed by the Senate to get back into the Oval Office, Donald Trump would stop inciting violence to get his way?” asked lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland. “Would you bet the lives of more police officers on that? Would you bet the safety of your family on that? Would you bet the future of your democracy on that?”

Many Republican Senators said they weren’t swayed. Thursday’s presentation “was not connecting the dots,” Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford told reporters. “It’s just redundance, the same thing over and over again,” echoed Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe the same day. “The more you hear it, the less credibility there is in it.”

Others fell back on their belief that the trial itself is unconstitutional because Trump is out of office, despite the fact that that question had been settled earlier in the week. The Senate voted on Tuesday 56-44 that the trial is constitutional, with just six Republican Senators joining all Democrats in the upper chamber.

“Yesterday confirmed what I already believed, which is that the attack on January 6 was horrifying,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, said Thursday morning. But when pressed on whether anything changed his views on conviction, Rubio said, “Impeachment exists to remove… Donald Trump is not president anymore.”

House managers argued repeatedly that acquitting Trump would set a dangerous precedent for future presidents to try to hold on to power by force. On Thursday, House impeachment manager Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, warned: “I’m not afraid of Donald Trump running again in four years. I’m afraid he’s going to run again and lose. Because he can do this again.”

But some Republicans focused more on the precedent of the impeachment itself than worries about an acquittal becoming tacit approval for Trump or future politicians to cling to power through violence. “The thing I’m most concerned about is not Trump,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said when asked about Lieu’s comment. “I’m concerned about the precedent and the pattern this will set… This is the fourth trial in our nation’s history and two of them have been in the last 13 months. I’m worried this will become routine.”

Impeachment managers also rebutted the allegation by Trump’s lawyers and Republican lawmakers that this impeachment is just another partisan attack on Trump. “We are not here to punish Donald Trump,” impeachment manager Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado, said Thursday. “We are here to prevent the seeds of hatred that he planted from bearing any more fruit.” DeGette walked through how experts who track extremist groups concluded some fringe groups perceived success in the Capitol breach. She spoke to concern that there would be more to come, and intelligence agencies concluding they would target minority communities.

Trump’s defense team still has to make its case. Trump’s attorney David Schoen on Thursday called the House managers’ presentation “offensive” to “the healing process” because of their reliance on disturbing footage of “the tragedy that happened here that Donald Trump has condemned.”

“I think it tears at the American people, quite frankly,” Schoen said.

After the arguments Thursday, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, one of the Republicans seen as most open to voting for conviction, said she doesn’t want to pre-judge the case before she hears from Trump’s team, but that the House managers had set an impressive standard. “I hope they’ll be as specific as the House managers were,” she said, “who went through the evidence, provided legal arguments, and gave a very thorough presentation.”

Several Republican senators, including Graham, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, met with Trump’s lawyers Wednesday evening, according to CNN. “We were discussing their strategy for tomorrow, and we were sharing our thoughts in terms of where the argument was and where to go,” Cruz told reporters afterwards.

Asked about the appropriateness of meeting with Senators who are jurors in the case, Schoen indicated he believed it was fine. “That’s the practice here with impeachment, there’s nothing about this thing that has any semblance of due process whatsoever,” Schoen told reporters.

2/11/21, Washington, D.C. Riot shields rest by the main entrance to the Rotunda during the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 11, 2021. Gabriella Demczuk / TIME
Riot shields by the main entrance to the Rotunda during the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, on Feb. 11, 2021.Gabriella Demczuk for TIME

At least three of the six Republicans who voted that the trial should go ahead — including Collins, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — could be seen taking attentive notes throughout the Democrats’ presentation. Some Democrats remain hopeful they will be able to convince them and other Republicans to convict. Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware said Wednesday night that based on conversations with Republican Senators, he believes more are also open to a vote of conviction than is publicly known.

Others are less optimistic. “If you can live through that and see the totality of it in one place, and not think that these things are directly connected, that’s hard to imagine,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, said Thursday about the connection between Trump’s actions and the insurrection at the Capitol. But when asked if he thinks minds were changed by the House managers’ presentation, he indicated he didn’t think so: “It’s a pretty clear picture at this point.”

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Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.Rogers@time.com and Lissandra Villa at lissandra.villa@time.com