A risk exists that the Senate impeachment trial will focus too narrowly on the events of January 6, which culminated in the attack on the Capitol. As horrific as that day was, the broader picture cannot be allowed to slip from view: Donald Trump’s sustained, relentless efforts to propagate the myth that the election was stolen, including his attempts to recruit state and federal officials to embrace that myth and take action based on it.
For at least four reasons, this broader focus is important. First, if the trial centers on whether Trump incited the attack on the Capitol, the process is likely to get mired in hairsplitting debates, such as parsing his language at the rally to argue over whether he was urging peaceful protest or an actual attack, or what he meant by the word “fight.”
But in contrast with possible uncertainty about the express or implied meaning of his words on January 6, there can be no question that Trump used the bully pulpit of the presidency day after day to try to delegitimize the election—even for nearly a month after the Electoral College had voted. The entire country is fully aware of his relentless assertions about voting machines being rigged, ballots mysteriously showing up, dead people voting, and the like. Nor is there any dispute about the numerous concrete steps he took to persuade state and federal officials to act on his assertions, or even about exactly what he said to at least some of them. At a minimum, the public already has access to the recorded phone call between Trump and Georgia’s secretary of state, and to Trump’s many efforts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to refuse the votes from some states. Similar efforts to pressure other state officials have been reported, but less publicly documented, and the trial could help further bring them to light.