The first moments of a trial are often the most important. It is when the lawyer prosecuting the case has the jury’s complete attention. It is the moment when that lawyer has the best opportunity the prosecution will ever have to make an impression that conveys what the case is about.
A year ago, in President Trump’s first impeachment trial over the Ukraine kerfuffle, the beginning of the trial was consumed with dry, abstruse legal argument. Much of America tuned out.
Today’s second impeachment trial was also slated to begin with dry, abstruse legal argument on a constitutional issue of the Senate’s jurisdiction to conduct the trial. After a few seconds of throat clearing on that topic, though, Representative Jamie Raskin (D., Md.), the chief House impeachment manager, cut to a very powerful video, illustrating hair-raising images of rioters storming the Capitol after marching on it at Trump’s urging.
The images starkly showed that the violence went on for hours. Interspersed with portions of Trump’s incendiary speech, we were shown security forces being brutally assaulted; the constitutionally required joint session of Congress being disrupted and halted; endangered lawmakers taking cover as the vice president was whisked to safety; the frantic seconds before a Trump supporter was shot and killed in the melee; rioters demanding that congressional proceedings halt and flooding through the hall seeking out lawmakers and ransacking offices. The video also elucidated that, hours after his speech exhorting the crowd to pressure weak Republicans and Vice President Pence to refuse to count the states’ electoral votes, while mayhem was still going on at the Capitol, President Trump finally released a video calling for peace. But even as he asked supporters to go home, he continued to fan the flames by insisting that the election had been stolen. As the video showed, the rioters expressly purported to have stormed the Capitol to stop the election from being stolen.
The video had utterly nothing to do with the stated purpose for which Congressman Raskin had been recognized — namely, to address the Senate regarding a disputed point of constitutional law. And you know what? It was an extremely effective way to begin.
It won’t change the outcome. Former President Trump is going to be acquitted. But Democrats are not actually going through this exercise with real hope of having Trump convicted and disqualified. They are doing it for the political purpose of portraying Republicans who stand up at the end of the trial and vote “not guilty” as, in effect, endorsing what we saw on the video. That is why they came out of the starting gate with it.
The House managers would like to call witnesses, present lots more video evidence, and present their case like a real prosecution. To the contrary, the Democratic administration and congressional leadership have apparently decided to streamline the trial to just a few days. Either way, starting with the video was good trial strategy and good political strategy.