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Senate Debates Constitutionality Of Former President Donald Trump's Impeachment

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump began today with an argument about the constitutionality of the trial itself. Democrats, led by Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, immediately dismissed claims from some Republicans that it is unconstitutional to impeach a former president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMIE RASKIN: Their argument is that if you commit an impeachable offense in your last few weeks in office, you do it with constitutional impunity. You get away with it.

SHAPIRO: Democrats made a graphic, emotional argument for their case. Trump's lawyers fought back, saying Trump's speech was protected by the First Amendment. Six Republicans joined all the Democrats in voting to allow the trial to proceed. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following the trial and joins us now. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: Just start with the Democrats. How are they arguing their case?

SNELL: Yeah. Democrats have said for weeks that they're going to focus their argument on being visceral and based on public evidence. And they did that today with a video of Trump revving up the crowd on January 6. He was praising them and telling them to fight like hell. And that speech was interspersed with violent, graphic videos of the mob attacking police. And it had explicit captions and profanities. It was, you know, a video of Capitol police trying to hold back the crowd. And they also cut in a video of Senate - then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denouncing Trump's baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and his false claims that the election was stolen. It was about 13 minutes of footage, and Raskin framed it this way.

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RASKIN: You ask what a high crime and misdemeanor is under our Constitution. That's a high crime and misdemeanor. If that's not an impeachable offense, then there is no such thing.

SNELL: Other managers made dryer arguments about scholarly interpretations of the Constitution and said there's a consensus among scholars that the trial is constitutional. But I think one moment that will stick with many people was Raskin's closing, where he recounted his own story of that day. His voice was cracking, and he choked up while he was explaining that his daughter and son-in-law were in the Capitol with him one day after they buried his son, who took his life days before. Raskin described his family barricaded in an office while members of the House sent messages to loved ones, fearing that they would die.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RASKIN: Senators, this cannot be our future. This cannot be the future of America.

SNELL: Democrats ended their arguments for the day on those remarks from Raskin.

SHAPIRO: Very visceral and emotional, as you said. Who are the Democrats trying to persuade with this approach?

SNELL: They need to reach 17 Republicans. And we have said this many times, but that is a very, very high bar. Many Republicans still think that Trump and his voters are the base of their own re-election prospects. They fear alienating those people. And some of the Republicans I've talked to simply say the rioters are responsible for their own actions, not former President Trump. There are a lot of arguments that Republicans are offering as to why they may vote to not convict the president.

SHAPIRO: So that tees us up to talk about president - former President Trump's lawyers. What was - what did they say?

SNELL: It was a very different tone. The first attorney, Bruce Castor, often strayed from the central question of the constitutionality of this trial. He eventually defended Trump's speech as constitutionally protected in and of itself.

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BRUCE CASTOR: We can't possibly be suggesting that we punish people for political speech in this country. And if people go and commit lawless acts as a result of their beliefs and they cross the line, they should be locked up.

SNELL: Castor ended by saying that Trump was removed from office by voters. Another Trump attorney, David Schoen, offered a more fiery defense. He called the entire trial a political game and said the video Democrats showed was a presentation like a blood sport. And he described it as raw, misguided partisanship. You know, Schoen played his own montage of Democrats calling for impeachment as he argued that impeachment will only serve to divide America further.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell covering the second impeachment of Donald Trump.

Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.