IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump conviction rests on Republicans' instinct for self-preservation

Analysis: The Democrats' case asks GOP senators to think of their own interests, as well as the republic's.
Image: President Trump Departs The White House En Route To Army v Navy Football Game
President Donald Trump pumps his fist as he departs on the South Lawn of the White House on Dec. 12.Al Drago / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — If Republican senators will not put the republic over their party, House impeachment trial managers suggested Wednesday, they should convict former President Donald Trump because of the personal threats he posed to their safety.

And by implication, their suggestion went further. Unless the Senate finishes off Trump with a conviction, their argument went, Trump will remain a threat to his party and the senators' political futures.

It was a fragile shield of outnumbered cops and fortune that protected elected officials' lives and the Constitution during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, according to video and audio recordings played publicly for the first time during the Senate trial Wednesday.

Trump incited that riot, where some invaders aimed to kill the first- and second-in-line to the presidency, Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., according to the House prosecutors. The managers brought receipts — in the form of video and audio clips — to bolster their case.

"President Trump put a target on their backs, and his mob broke into the Capitol to hunt them down," one of the House Democrats' trial managers, Stacey Plaskett, the Virgin Islands' nonvoting delegate to Congress, said as she played video and audio recordings. "They were within 100 feet of where the vice president was sheltering with his family. ... If they had found Speaker Pelosi, they would have killed her."

One video showed a Trump supporter walking through the halls of the Capitol calling out: "Nancy! Where are you, Nancy? We're looking for you."

But House Democratic prosecutors did not limit their arguments to the risk to the republic, no doubt because that line of argument has not proved persuasive with Republican senators so far. Their daylong presentation of the case against Trump tilted heavily toward reminding Republican senators that Trump targeted them for years — showing the actual tweets that did so — and making it clear if he is not convicted and disqualified from holding future federal office, he will continue to dominate them politically and potentially with violence.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., reminded senators that "you were just 58 steps from where the mob was amassing." He played a recording of House members' telling one another to "take your [member] pins off" after a gunshot a few feet away could be heard inside the House chamber.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Wednesday that the House managers' case was "very compelling."

The audience is completely on the Republican side of the Senate chamber. It would take a two-thirds majority of the Senate to convict Trump, meaning at least 17 GOP senators would have to join all 50 Democrats. So far, only six Republican senators have indicated in procedural votes that they are open to voting to convict.

Unmoved by the prosecution, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., called the trial a "waste of time" Wednesday. "It's not doing anything to help American families. It's not helping people get jobs. It's not helping get the vaccine out. ... It's vindictive."

To secure those six votes and find 11 more, House prosecutors are clearly banking on the instinct for self-preservation to sway other Republicans toward conviction.

At least two of the prosecutors referred to a Trump tweet that tagged Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sens. Thune and John Cornyn, R-Texas.

"I hope the Democrats, and even more importantly, the weak and ineffective RINO section of the Republican Party, are looking at the thousands of people pouring into D.C.," Trump wrote. "They won't stand for a landslide election victory to be stolen."

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., raised Trump's remarks about the "surrender caucus" of the GOP; Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., noted Trump's threats to Republican state elected officials who confirmed election results; and prosecutors showed video of a pro-Trump demonstration at which rallygoers chanted "Destroy the GOP."

Several of the House managers fought back their emotions as they played dispatch audio from Washington Metropolitan Police, showed Capitol security video images of police officers' being attacked by rioters and spoke of their own harrowing experiences during the chaos. And they showed videos of senators and Pence racing through the Capitol to escape danger.

Swalwell said he texted his wife to say that he loved her "and the babies" — his young children — and wanted her to hug them.

Early in the day, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the lead trial manager, told senators that the political ideology of the rioters "makes no difference" because a president's encouraging violence against Congress would be impeachable no matter the president or party.

His remark was the harbinger of a case that point by point showed how Trump imperiled Republicans, in particular, over months of pummeling them publicly before and after the election. Pence was the primary exhibit in that case. It was Pence who suffered the wrath of the president most poignantly after he refused to try to overturn the results.

Lieu recalled that Trump had told Pence that he could go down in history as "a patriot" or "a p---y" based on whether he tried to stop the House's count of electoral votes and send them back to the states.

And Plaskett praised Pence.

"Vice President Pence had the courage to stand against the president, tell the American people the truth and uphold the Constitution," she said. "That is patriotism."