WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former President Donald Trump told a top congressional Republican during the deadly assault by his supporters on the Capitol last month that the mob was “more upset” about his election defeat than lawmakers, a fellow Republican said.
News of the phone call came hours before Trump’s impeachment trial was due to reconvene in the Senate on Saturday, leaving the divided chamber to decide whether to convict him on a charge he incited insurrection. At least three Democratic senators urged the House of Representatives Democrats serving as prosecutors to call witnesses who could provide details on the call.
Much of this week’s trial focused on how much Trump knew about the rioters’ actions as they rampaged through Congress on Jan. 6 seeking to prevent lawmakers from certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the November election.
Herrera Beutler, one of 10 in her party who voted last month in the House of Representatives to impeach Trump, recounted in a statement late Friday the details of a call between Trump and the top House Republican, Kevin McCarthy.
“‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,’” Beutler quoted Trump as saying. She said Trump initially denied his supporters were involved in the attack, claiming the mob were members of the left-leaning Antifa movement, a false claim that McCarthy rejected.
Trump, who left office on Jan. 20, is the first U.S. president to be impeached twice and the first to face trial after leaving office. If convicted, the Senate could then vote to bar him from running for office again.
Conviction is seen as unlikely, however, as at least 17 Republicans in the 100-seat chamber would have to join all 50 Democrats to find the former president guilty. Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell will vote to acquit Trump, a source familiar with the situation said on Saturday.
The Senate is expected to convene at 10 a.m. (1500 GMT), and a final vote could come as early as Saturday afternoon, though a call for witnesses could delay that.
The trial has highlighted the extraordinary danger lawmakers faced on Jan. 6, when Trump urged his followers to march on the Capitol and “get wild” in an effort to overturn his election loss. Then-Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers had to be rushed into hiding for safety. Five people died in the chaos.
Trump’s words that day followed months in which he repeated false claims that Biden’s victory was the result of widespread fraud.
“Trump’s lawyers are likely under ethics obligation to clean this up,” said Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. “One way to clear it up? Suspend trial to depose McCarthy and (Republican Senator Tommy) Tuberville under oath and get the facts.”
Fellow Democrats Jeff Merkley and Ed Markey told reporters they too wanted to hear from witnesses.
“Trump’s call with McCarthy is another powerful piece of evidence that Trump was on the side of the rioters attacking the Capitol,” Merkley said on Twitter. “He utterly failed his oath to protect and defend our nation.”
McCarthy enraged Trump by saying he bore responsibility for the Capitol riot shortly after the violence, but he later backtracked, saying he did not believe Trump provoked the assault.
LAWMAKERS IN PERIL
When the impeachment article reached the Senate, only six Republicans voted with Democrats to move forward with the trial, rejecting an argument made by other Republican senators that the Constitution does not allow Congress to impeach a president who has already left office.
Security-camera footage shown at the trial showed rioters came perilously close to lawmakers as they were evacuated from the Senate and House.
Among those targeted was Pence, who had refused Trump’s entreaties to interfere with the certification proceedings earlier that day. The crowd at times chanted “hang Mike Pence” and had erected a gallows outside.
Trump criticized Pence on Twitter as lacking “courage” shortly after Tuberville told Trump that the vice president was being evacuated for his own safety.
Trump’s lawyers gave conflicting answers on Friday when asked whether Trump knew Pence was in danger when he issued his tweet. Several Republican senators said they still had questions about Trump’s role.
“The issue is what was the president’s intent, right? Only the president could answer. And the president chose not to,” Republican Senator Bill Cassidy told reporters. He said he had not made up his mind on how to vote.
Trump refused to testify in the trial.
House Democrats making the case for conviction have argued that Trump set the stage for violence through his repeated baseless claims of election fraud. They say he summoned the mob to Washington, gave the crowd its marching orders and did nothing to stop the violence as it played out on television.
Trump’s defense lawyers have argued that Trump’s activity was allowable under constitutional free-speech protections.
“I don’t know, at this point, how many minds get changed,” Senator John Thune, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, told reporters on Friday.
Trump’s first impeachment trial, which stemmed from his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden, ended in an acquittal a year ago in what was then a Republican-controlled Senate.
Lawmakers from both parties have said they would like to wrap up the trial quickly so they can get on with other business, such as confirmation votes on senior Biden administration officials and a $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package.
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