Editor’s Note: Elie Honig is a CNN legal analyst and former federal and state prosecutor. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN. Watch Honig answer readers’ questions on “CNN Newsroom with Ana Cabrera” on weekends.
At the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, there is no real dispute about what actually happened. Trump’s effort to undermine the legitimacy of the November election, his inflammatory words to the crowd on the Ellipse in Washington, DC, on January 6, and the violent attack on the Capitol by many of his most ardent supporters – they’re all memorialized, on video, for the world to see.
Trump’s lawyers can’t change what happened on that day, or before. Instead, they are trying to make the case all about Trump’s subjective intent, which can be less tangible and more difficult to discern. Trump’s lawyers have argued that he did not intend for the attack to occur and, they claim in their pretrial brief, he was “horrified” at what he saw his supporters doing inside the Capitol.
But House impeachment managers have one devastating piece of evidence that decisively refutes Trump’s attorneys’ claim about their client’s state of mind: Trump’s tweet January 6 at around 6 p.m.
In the tweet – sent hours after the Capitol insurrection had occurred and since deleted by Twitter – Trump wrote: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
Ask yourself: Are those the words of a person who was genuinely “horrified” by what he saw, to quote Trump’s attorneys? To the contrary, in my view, the tweet establishes beyond any real doubt that Trump was pleased at what his supporters had done. He called them “great patriots,” and urged them to “(r)emember this day forever!” Those are unequivocal words of empathy with the mob – even exultation – not regret.
In his tweet, Trump also reiterated the fundamental lie that the election was stolen from him. For months leading up to the January 6 riot, he promoted and amplified this absurd claim. And that lie ultimately fueled the dangerously misguided anger that motivated Trump’s followers to ransack the Capitol. Yet, even in the immediate wake of the attack – the Capitol badly damaged, members of Congress sent into hiding, lives lost – Trump continued to promote the same fundamental lie that had sparked the riot in the first place.
House managers have rightly seized on Trump’s January 6 tweet as telltale evidence of his intent. They featured the tweet as a capstone on the compelling, 13-minute video they played to kick off the constitutional argument on the opening day of the impeachment trial. And lead House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin used the January 6 tweet to powerfully conclude his opening argument in Wednesday’s floor proceedings.
In short, the January 6 tweet proves that the Capitol insurrectionists did exactly as Trump hoped and intended. And the tweet came directly from Trump himself. There can be no claim that his words were twisted or distorted. They’re as clear as the letters that Trump typed into his own Twitter feed.
Prosecutors yearn for evidence like this. It is simply devastating and almost certainly would ensure a conviction if this case were a criminal trial (though, of course, this impeachment trial is a different procedure altogether, guided more by politics than pure merit). And House impeachment managers have done an effective job thus far featuring Trump’s January 6 tweet as decisive proof of his intent.
We’ll soon see whether Trump’s attorneys have any defense to his January 6 tweet. I suspect they won’t, and that they’ll simply ignore it. All things considered, that might be the most prudent course. Because there simply is no credible way to defend against this telling glimpse into Trump’s mind.