Former President Donald Trump's lawyers on Friday began their defense in his Senate impeachment trial, with attorney Michael van der Veen calling it an "unjust and blatantly unconstitutional act of political vengeance" and a "politically motivated witch hunt."
Van der Veen, a Pennsylvania trial attorney, defended Trump's Jan. 6 speech outside the White House in which Trump exhorted a crowd of supporters that "if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore."
Many of those supporters went on to storm the U.S. Capitol.
"No thinking person," van der Veen said, "could seriously believe" that the speech "was in any way an incitement to violence or insurrection," as Democratic House impeachment managers have charged. "Nothing in the text could remotely be construed as encouraging, condoning or enticing unlawful activity of any kind."
Trump, he said, "explicitly encouraged those in attendance to exercise their rights peacefully and patriotically."
Van der Veen said evidence shown by the House managers that the attacks on the Capitol were premeditated "demonstrates the ludicrousness" of the charge that Trump incited the mob.
"You can't incite what was already going to happen," van der Veen said.
He characterized the impeachment by the House as "constitutional cancel culture" and a deliberate attempt by the "Democrat Party to smear, censor and cancel not just President Trump but the 75 million Americans who voted for him." (About 74 million voted for Trump in last year's election.)
Setting the tone for the defense, van der Veen asserted that Trump was entitled to dispute the 2020 election results. Van der Veen showed video clips of House members, including lead impeachment manager Jamie Raskin, D-Md., objecting to the certification of Trump's 2016 election victory as then-Vice President Joe Biden gaveled the lawmakers out of order.
Van der Veen said this was not a time for retribution but for "unity and healing." He called on the Senate "to reject this divisive and unconstitutional effort and allow the nation to move forward."