Impeachment prosecutors cite Trump attacks on Whitmer during trial

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The lead House impeachment manager on Thursday used examples from Michigan last year to argue that President Donald Trump had demonstrated a pattern of inciting violence to get his way, culminating in the Jan. 6 attack by his followers on the U.S. Capitol. 

Maryland U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, who is heading the impeachment prosecution of Trump in the Senate, laid out a timeline starting with the former president's attacks on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in March in the early days of the pandemic.

The Democrat also highlighted the Republican former president's later cry on Twitter for his supporters to “liberate" Michigan and, ultimately, the alleged plot to kidnap the governor and make her stand trial in Wisconsin.

"Trump knew exactly what he was doing in inciting the Jan. 6 mob. Exactly. He had just seen how easily his words and actions inspired violence in Michigan," Raskin told senators during the third day of the impeachment trial.

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"He sent a clear message to his supporters. He encouraged planning and conspiracies to take over Capitol buildings and threaten public officials who refuse to bow down to his political will." 

In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., speaks during the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.

Raskin played a video clip during the trial of the angry armed protesters who packed into the state Capitol in Lansing on April 30, criticizing Whitmer's coronavirus restrictions and chanting “lock her up.”

"The siege of the statehouse in Michigan was essentially a dress rehearsal for the siege of the U.S. Capitol that Trump incited on January 6," Raskin said. "It was a preview of the coming insurrection." 

He went on to compare Trump's responses to both events as "strikingly similar," by refusing to condemn the acts, while upholding the "righteousness of the cause," Raskin said. 

Trump, who was impeached by the House last month, is charged with inciting the angry mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. The rioters battled police officers, ransacked offices and forced lawmakers into hiding in an effort to stop Congress from affirming President Joe Biden's Electoral College victory in the Nov. 3 election.

Trump's defense is expected to center on the argument that Trump's speech at a rally prior to the Capitol attack is protected political speech under the First Amendment.

Whitmer's office said Thursday that Raskin's presentation was a "powerful reminder" that leaders' words and actions have consequences.

"There is no question that former President Trump's heated rhetoric was a call to action for the violent extremists who plotted to kidnap and kill the governor," spokesman Bobby Leddy said.

"It's time for Republicans from Washington to Lansing to forcefully reject these violent extremist groups, bring down the temperature on their rhetoric, and get focused on ending the pandemic and jumpstarting our economy."

An unnamed protester carries a sign that says, "Tyrants get the rope," outside the Michigan Capitol during a demonstration on Thursday,  April 30, 2020.

Raskin spent about 12 minutes of his oral argument in Thursday's proceeding recounting a series of events in Michigan that he said "cast a harsh light on Trump’s obvious intent" and knowledge of the consequences of his incitement, arguing that Trump could foresee "the violent harm that he unleashed" on Jan. 6.

"He knew that — egged on by tweets, his lies, his promise of a 'wild time' in Washington to guarantee his grip on power — his most extreme followers would show up bright and early, ready to attack, ready to engage in violence, ready to 'fight like hell' for their hero," Raskin said. "Just like they'd answered his call in Michigan."

The congressman noted that, the day after armed protesters occupied the Capitol building in Lansing, Trump took to Twitter to tell Whitmer to negotiate with the  protesters, tweeting that she should “give a little” and "put out the fire" and calling the demonstrators "very good people."

Raskin recounted how during the following months, Trump would continue to "assail" Whitmer in public at campaign rallies and whip up the crowd over her performance as governor, showing images of Trump tweets attacking the Democratic governor.

Raskin then turned to the foiled alleged kidnapping plot of Whitmer in which 14 conspirators were charged last fall. Authorities say the scheme involved training and planning by a militia-style group known as the Wolverine Watchmen to kidnap the governor and storm Michigan's Capitol in Lansing.

Raskin quoted from the FBI affidavit in which one of the conspirators, Adam Fox, is quoted saying he needed 200 men to storm the Capitol and take political hostages, including Whitmer, calling it a "snatch-and-grab" job.

"'When the time comes, there will be no need to strike fear through presence, the fear will be manifested through bullets,'" said Raskin, reading from the affidavit a post attributed to alleged conspirator Brandon Caserta.

The congressman noted one of the alleged conspirators, Ty Garbin, pleaded guilty last month. 

"The plot was well-organized, just like the one that was coming on Jan. the 6th," Raskin said. 

Raskin also told the senators how the accused plotters in Michigan had considered building Molotov cocktails to disarm and distract police vehicles who would respond to the scene at Whitmer's summer home — similar to how investigators say conspirators tried to draw police away from the Capitol building on Jan. 6 by planting devices off-site near political party headquarters.

After the alleged plot was foiled, Trump did not condemn the threat of violence against Whitmer but tweeted that she owed him thanks for his federal law enforcement preventing the scheme "that had been encouraged by his rhetoric," Raskin said. 

In this image from video, a Tweet is displayed as evidence to senators, as House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., speaks, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.

He also played video clips of Trump rallies in Muskegon and Lansing last fall where the boisterous crowds chant “lock her up” when Trump levels attacks on the governor.

"Hey, hey, hey, hey, I'm the one — it was our people that helped her out with her problem. I mean, we'll have to see if it was a problem," Trump said in Lansing. "Maybe it was a problem, maybe it wasn't."

Raskin appeared incredulous that Trump would suggest the Whitmer kidnapping conspiracy was "maybe" not a problem.

"The president of the United States of America. He could not bring himself to publicly oppose a kidnapping and potential assassination conspiracy against a sitting governor of one of our 50 states?" Raskin said.

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, said when Raskin started on the "Michigan stuff," his gut reaction was, 'OK, come on, like, let's focus.'"

"By the end of it, I'm like, that's really powerful: That it essentially was a dress rehearsal, that it gave real clear evidence that Trump knew and understood that he could say certain things that his supporters would act on them, and that the consequences for Whitmer, damn near deadly," Coons told reporters at the Capitol. "That to me was powerful and chilling."

But several Republican senators indicated that Thursday's arguments had not changed their minds that it's unconstitutional to impeach a former president.

“There’s a lot of political theater it feels like, right now. Made-for-TV presentations. Very political today," GOP U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas told reporters.

Trump's impeachment trial is expected to continue into the weekend after the House impeachment managers rested their case Thursday. Trump's defense team is set to begin their arguments Friday.