Democrats hope harrowing audio and video from Capitol attack will make plain what no legal argument might deny

Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol in January. Impeachment managers are expected to draw previously unseen footage from police, from the media, and from live-streams captured by the insurrectionists themselves,
Impeachment managers are expected to draw previously unseen footage from police, from the media and from live streams captured by the insurrectionists themselves,
Photograph: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The lethal Capitol invasion by Donald Trump supporters that is at the heart of the former president’s second impeachment trial happened more than a month ago. But Democrats leading the prosecution of Trump are counting on an element of surprise.

Surprise, the impeachment prosecutors are calculating, because while most Americans understand the broad outlines of what happened during the 6 January attack on the Capitol, relatively few have come to grips with the shocking audio and video footage from that day – portraying a cauldron of violence, vandalism, bloodlust and fear.

A police officer crushed in a doorway. A woman wearing a Trump flag shot in the neck. Mobs in Trump gear breaking doors and smashing glass, and hunting the halls of legislature for members to tear “into little pieces”. Staffers for the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, huddled under a conference table, sending texts for help, as rioters pound on the doors. A woman trampled to death as her friend begs for space.

And the chants: “The steal is real!”, “Hang Mike Pence!” and “USA! USA! USA!”

A Senate split 50-50 will act as jury at the trial, and Trump is expected to retain enough Republican support to avoid conviction and a ban on his holding future office.

But the prosecutors’ case as previewed this week is not principally directed at lawmakers. Instead, it is unmistakably pitched to the public.

Impeachment managers led by Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland are expected to draw on hours of previously unseen footage from body cameras worn by police, from the media and from live streams captured by the insurrectionists themselves to produce what is shaping up as a shocking inside account of the Capitol attack.

With unique access to evidence gathered by law enforcement officers in nearly 140 cases related to the invasion so far, the prosecutors will try to break through calcifying versions on both sides of the political aisle of what happened, and to provoke a new reckoning with how close the country came to an act of mass violence inside the halls of government.

That realization, they think, could jolt a reconsideration of Trump’s guilt for the article of impeachment with which he has been charged: incitement of insurrection.

The Huffington Post politics reporter Igor Bobic was inside the Capitol that day – but outside either legislative chamber – and captured some of the most notable footage of the invasion.

“One month since the attack and I’m still learning harrowing details about the day,” he tweeted at the weekend. “Staffers I haven’t seen since recalling how they barricaded themselves in offices in terror. Members telling me how they followed my feed on their phone while in the chamber in disbelief. Reporters still trying to make sense of it all. All of us still coping.”

Last month Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was forced into hiding during the invasion, described hearing threats from insurrectionists and told thousands of followers on Instagram Live: “I thought I was going to die.”

Trump’s defense team seemed to sense the danger to their case that the video scenes represented, and in a brief submitted on Monday they floated multiple pre-emptive responses.

Heatedly condemning the attack on the Capitol and denying Trump’s complicity, the defense accused Democrats of “a brazen attempt to further glorify violence” by presenting the facts of the case. In a footnote, the lawyers went so far as to suggest that the crowd was a mix of pro-Trump and anti-Trump elements.

But the footage may make plain what no legal argument might deny. The crowd proceeded from a rally at which Trump spoke and arrived at the Capitol wearing red hats and Trump 2020 flags, mixed in with militia patches, white supremacy group insignia, Confederate flags and illegal firearms and knives.

In an initial brief submitted last week, the impeachment managers described Trump’s “singular responsibility for the assault”, mustering dozens of quotations in which the former president spread the falsehood of a stolen election, demanded intervention, then “summoned a mob to Washington, exhorted them into a frenzy, and aimed them like a loaded cannon down Pennsylvania Avenue”.

Trump’s quotes were expected to be juxtaposed with scenes of violence at the Capitol, as prosecutors hope to make a case that will drive home their charges against the former president.

“We cannot, for a moment, treat the attack of 1/6 as something normal that happened,” tweeted Andy Kim, a Democratic representative from New Jersey. “It was a truly dark day in our nation’s history and it deserves a response of that magnitude.”

It may be history’s first made-for-TV impeachment. But as for President Joe Biden, his press secretary, Jen Psaki, said his attention would be elsewhere: “He will not spend too much time watching the proceedings.”