Impeachment Trial May Hinge on Meaning of ‘Incitement’

WASHINGTON — When Donald J. Trump was running for president in 2016, he pointed to some protesters at one of his rallies and told the crowd to “get ’em out of here.” The protesters, who said they were then viciously assaulted, sued him for inciting a riot.

Mr. Trump won the suit. A federal appeals court, relying on a case concerning the Ku Klux Klan, ruled that his exhortation was protected by the First Amendment. And now his lawyers are making the same argument at his impeachment trial, where he stands accused of inciting an insurrection.

But Democrats say that argument misses two key points. An impeachment trial, they contend, is concerned with abuses of official power, meaning that statements that may be legally defensible when uttered by a private individual can nonetheless be grounds for impeachment.

Equally important, they say that Mr. Trump’s statements on Jan. 6 should not be considered in isolation but as the final effort of a calculated, monthslong campaign to violate his oath of office in an effort to retain power.

Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland and the lead impeachment manager, said on Wednesday that Mr. Trump’s words that day met any conceivable standard for incitement.

“Donald Trump surrendered his role as commander in chief and became the inciter in chief of a dangerous insurrection,” Mr. Raskin said, adding that Mr. Trump’s actions were “the greatest betrayal of the presidential oath in the history of the United States.”

The Trump Impeachment ›

What You Need to Know

    • A trial is being held to decide whether former President Donald J. Trump is guilty of inciting a deadly mob of his supporters when they stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, violently breaching security measures and sending lawmakers into hiding as they met to certify President Biden’s victory.
    • The House voted 232 to 197 to approve a single article of impeachment, accusing Mr. Trump of “inciting violence against the government of the United States” in his quest to overturn the election results. Ten Republicans joined the Democrats in voting to impeach him.
    • To convict Mr. Trump, the Senate would need a two-thirds majority to be in agreement. This means at least 17 Republican senators would have to vote with Senate Democrats to convict.
    • A conviction seems unlikely. Last month, only five Republicans in the Senate sided with Democrats in beating back a Republican attempt to dismiss the charges because Mr. Trump is no longer in office. Only 27 senators say they are undecided about whether to convict Mr. Trump.
    • If the Senate convicts Mr. Trump, finding him guilty of “inciting violence against the government of the United States,” senators could then vote on whether to bar him from holding future office. That vote would only require a simple majority, and if it came down to party lines, Democrats would prevail with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote.
    • If the Senate does not convict Mr. Trump, the former president could be eligible to run for public office once again. Public opinion surveys show that he remains by far the most popular national figure in the Republican Party.

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