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Feb. 12 updates for impeachment trial Day 4: Defense team rests their case

The House impeached Trump last month for his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Image: Illustration shows former President Donald Trump on a teal background with a red paper tear showing the Capitol and words like "insurrection" and "high crimes."
Watch live: full coverage of Trump's second impeachment trial on NBC News NOW.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Former President Donald Trump's defense team rested their case Friday after making less than three hours of arguments in his Senate impeachment trial. House Democrats took up two days, including presentations of harrowing footage of last month's Capitol riot.

The trial then moved into the question and answer phase, with members of the Senate submitted questions for both sides.

Trump's lawyers are arguing that an impeachment trial of a former president is unconstitutional — a point legal experts dispute. They also say the former president's speech at a rally that preceded the violence at the Capitol, in which he riled up the crowd with repeated false claims of election fraud, is protected by the First Amendment.

Democratic House impeachment managers made the case Thursday that the mob of Trump supporters who ransacked the Capitol believed they were doing so at his direction. The managers methodically documented how rioters echoed the exact words of Trump while they stormed the building, and how, once inside, many of them said they were acting at his behest.

Managers went on to play a series of clips of times Trump explicitly called on his supporters to commit violent acts, or expressed support for violent groups, which they said showed a "pattern and practice of inciting violence."

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Defense lawyer fails to answer GOP question about when Trump learned of Capitol breach

Moderate GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine asked Trump's defense team: "Exactly when did President Trump learn of the breach at the Capitol? What specific actions did he take to end the rioting, and when did he take them? Please be as specific as possible."

Lawyer Michael van der Veen came the podium and didn't answer the question. Instead, he claimed House managers didn't present any evidence about that, saying there was "absolutely no investigation into that." 

"That's the problem with this entire proceeding," he claimed. "The House managers did zero investigation and the American people deserve a lot better." 

Before walking away from the podium, van der Veen said that Trump was denied due process — but he never answered the question. Afterward, Democratic Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois repeated the question.

Senators' takeaways are split along party lines

The opinions of senators Friday about what they've seen from Trump's defense team, as well as House managers the day before, are adhering to party lines.

Mike Braun, R-Ind., praised the defense team's presentation: "I thought it was excellent. I thought it showed the contrast between what we've seen before. It exposed some of the editing that occurred and, you know, made the other side's point of view easier to understand."

Braun said he's waiting until tomorrow to decide how he will vote.

Ron Johnson, R- Wis., said in a tweet, "President’s lawyers blew the House Manager’s case out of the water. Legally eviscerated them."

Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., similarly praised the House managers: "The evidence is so much more graphic and powerful, the crime so, so much easier to understand."

Republican Georgia election official disputes Trump's impeachment defense

Gabriel Sterling, who serves as a top Georgia election official, disputed a claim made by one of President Trump's defense lawyers during the impeachment trial regarding the infamous call between the former president and Georgia's secretary of state. 

Trump's attorney Bruce Castor claimed that the president's call with Brad Raffensperger was misconstrued by the media. Castor said the president was concerned about the drop in rejection rates of ballots during the 2020 election. In the call, Trump also appeared to pressure Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, to “find” him enough votes to overturn his election loss to Joe Biden. That call is cited in the impeachment article and now part of a criminal probe in Georgia. 

However, Sterling said in a tweet on Friday that Castor had it wrong. 

"OK...piecing this together. The initial absentee rejection rate for signature issue was about double in 2020 as 2018. There is a cure period now and the final rate was 0.15% in both years. So...shockingly, the disinformation continues...," he wrote. 

Question-and-answer period of trial begins

The Senate is beginning the question-and-answer period of the trial, in which senators can submit written questions to either side. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said that answers would be limited to 5 minutes and if the question is posed to both parties, the time will be equally divided. Questions will alternate between each side. 

Fact check: Trump attorney says call to Georgia's Raffensperger was totally proper

Castor spent a lengthy chunk of time talking about Trump’s phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (who Castor inaccurately referred to as “Ben Roeffensperger") in which he demanded proof of widespread voter fraud. 

The call, Castor said, couldn’t possibly be part of the former president’s attempt to incite violence because he didn’t release it. But Castor nonetheless spent ample time discussing the call and Georgia’s election broadly. He repeated Trump’s false and baseless claims that there was fraud, and seemingly attempting to justify his phone call as entirely proper.

Democrats, meanwhile, have cited the call as proof that Trump tried to overturn the election, not as proof of incitement.

Castor also suggested that the rejection rate for absentee ballots in Georgia should have been higher, as it had been in the past; he did not acknowledge that the state standardized their process and trained election workers in proper signature-matching techniques before the election.

And the ultimate rejection rate in 2020 was the same as it was in 2018, according to Georgia's election systems manager, Gabriel Sterling.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud in Georgia, despite numerous investigations and inquires by state officials.

Trump's defense team trips up repeatedly during presentations

The president's legal team fumbled a number of words and other aspects of their presentations on Friday.

Van der Veen at one point confused "resurrection" with "insurrection," called Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., "Anya," and mispronounced Vice President Kamala Harris' name. He also made an accusation about a tweet from one of the House managers, though he said, "I forget which one."

And in one flub that caught some attention on social media, Castor seemed to confuse Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, reading his name as "Ben Roeffensberger."

Castor at one point also wondered allowed about whether the participants in the trial were under oath.

"I don't know if we're under oath here," Castor said, adding, "But I sure as hell felt I was under oath" in the chamber.

Trump’s lawyers keep talking criminal standards. That’s not how impeachment works.

Trump’s attorneys repeatedly applied the standards of a courtroom to the Senate trial, failing to acknowledge that impeachment is not a criminal sanction — it’s a political one.

In his defense, van der Veen claimed Trump’s rhetoric was not incitement because it was free speech protected by the First Amendment. He went on to say it did not satisfy the Brandenburg test, a legal precedent that reviews if inflammatory speech is protected free speech or can be criminally punished as incitement to violence.

This is misleading, because these are all criminal standards and precedents; impeachment is not a criminal sanction, governed by the Bill of Rights. 

Van der Veen also argued that Trump's team was being victimized by criticisms that their First Amendment argument was frivolous, because attorneys can be sanctioned by a judge for advancing frivolous lawsuits in a court of law.

The Senate is a political court, however, where historically there has always been room for frivolous arguments.

Trump defense team finishes arguments after less than 3 hours

Trump's defense team finished its arguments at 3:16 p.m. ET. They used just 2 hours and 32 minutes of speaking time, leaving behind the vast majority of the 16 hours that had been allotted to them.

After a 15-minute break, the next part of the trial allows senators to ask both sides questions about their arguments and evidence. 

Both sides will eventually have the opportunity to deliver closing arguments. 

A 'primary' consideration during the trial?

Who chose that music?