Lawyers representing the Capitol insurrectionists are building a damning case against Trump

Business Insider
Jan 23 · 6 min read

Defense attorneys for some insurrections say their clients were acting on the orders of former President Trump in storming the Capitol.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the “Stop The Steal” Rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at the “Stop The Steal” Rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at the “Stop The Steal” Rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

By Sonam Sheth

The rioters were adamant when they stormed the US Capitol: Joe Biden and the Democrats had stolen the 2020 election from Donald Trump. Congress wasn’t doing anything to stop it, so it was up to patriotic Americans like themselves to save the country.

Now, facing a multitude of federal charges and lacking the protection of a presidential pardon, many of the insurrectionists are changing their tune and laying the blame for their actions squarely at the former president’s feet. It’s an inconvenient development for Trump, who is not only staring down a looming Senate impeachment trial but may also face criminal liability for his actions.

“Let’s roll the tape,” said Al Watkins, the defense attorney representing one of the defendants, Jacob Chansley. Chansley is more widely known as the “QAnon Shaman” and made headlines for roaming the halls of Congress while wearing a fur hat, carrying a spear, and covered in face paint. He was later arrested and charged with multiple felony counts including unlawfully entering the Capitol and engaging in disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds.

“Let’s roll the months of lies, and misrepresentations and horrific innuendo and hyperbolic speech by our president designed to inflame, enrage, motivate,” Watkins told a local NBC affiliate in Missouri.

Read more: How the Senate could vote to bar Trump from ever holding federal office again and kill any chances of a 2024 run now that the House has impeached him

Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the Justice Department, didn’t mince words when addressing the allegation.

“This goes directly to Trump’s impeachment trial” and any potential criminal case against him, Cramer said. “His words and actions for months directly led to an armed and deadly insurrection at the Capitol. He can’t argue that nobody took him seriously or that his words didn’t provoke violence.”

A lawyer representing Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

‘Wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for the president’

Watkins also alluded to Trump’s repeated assertion at a rally preceding the deadly siege that he would join his supporters as they marched to the Capitol that day (which he didn’t do).

“What’s really curious is the reality that our president, as a matter of public record, invited these individuals, as President, to walk down to the Capitol with him,” Watkins said, adding that his client “regrets very very much having not just been duped by the President, but by being in a position where he allowed that duping to put him in a position to make decisions he should not have made.”

“You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” Trump told his fanatics at the January 6 rally, which took place as Congress was convening to finalize Biden’s victory. “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong. We’re going to have to fight much harder. After this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you. We’re going to walk down — we’re going to walk down.”

At the end of the 70-minute speech that was riddled with grievances and falsehoods about the election, Trump said: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

And then he unleashed the mob.

Read more: Trump’s incitement of the deadly US Capitol riot adds to an already massive tsunami of legal peril he’s facing upon leaving the White House. Here’s what awaits him.

One woman who was arrested and charged after participating in the riot told a reporter that she and her friends traveled to Washington, DC, from Texas specifically because the president “asked us to go.”

“He said, ‘Be there,’” Jennifer Ryan told a local news outlet in Texas. “So I went and I answered the call of my president.”

Days after the failed coup, the House of Representatives charged Trump with “incitement of insurrection.” The single article of impeachment accused Trump of having “repeatedly issued false statements asserting that the Presidential election results were the product of widespread fraud and should not be accepted by the American people or certified by State of Federal officials.”

It also accused him of having “willfully made statements that, in context, encouraged — and foreseeably resulted in — lawless action at the Capitol.”

Trump supporters occupy the West Front of the Capitol and the inauguration stands on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump supporters occupy the West Front of the Capitol and the inauguration stands on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump supporters occupy the West Front of the Capitol and the inauguration stands on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

Lori Ulrich, the defense attorney representing 22-year-old Riley Williams, struck a similar chord in a court appearance Thursday.

Williams was arrested and charged with entering a restricted building, disorderly conduct, theft of government property, and obstruction. She has also been accused of helping to steal a laptop from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office during the siege, and a person who claimed to be her former romantic partner told the FBI she “intended to send the computer device to a friend in Russia, who then planned to sell the device to SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service,” court filings said.

At Thursday’s federal court hearing, Ulrich acknowledged that Williams had participated in the insurrection but said, “It is regrettable that Ms. Williams took the president’s bait and went inside the Capitol.” She went on to say that the charges against her client were “overstated.”

Enrique Latoison, a lawyer representing another man charged in connection to the siege, told The New York Times his client wouldn’t have been at the Capitol at all if not for the president’s words.

The Justice Department’s statement of facts accompanying its criminal complaint against Latoison’s client, Robert Sanford, also indicated that he believed he was acting on the president’s orders. In addition to participating in the siege itself, Sanford is accused of “hurling” a fire extinguisher at a group of police officers and injuring three of them.

“The group had gone to the White House and listened to President Donald J. Trump’s speech and then had followed the President’s instructions and gone to the Capitol,” the document said.

‘Hard for him to argue that nobody would listen to his words and riot’

The multitude of court filings stemming from the insurrection and recent allegations from the defendants’ lawyers will likely play a pivotal role in Trump’s upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate. The House will transmit the article of impeachment to the Senate on Monday, and according to the Constitution, the upper chamber must begin its impeachment trial by 1 p.m. the day after the article is submitted.

For Trump, however, an impeachment trial is the least of his worries. Democrats hold a slim majority in the Senate — 51 votes including that of the vice president — and it’s highly unlikely that enough Republicans will break ranks to reach the two-thirds majority that’s required to convict and remove a president from office, and to bar him from ever holding public office again.

Trump’s bigger concern may lie in whether or not he’ll face criminal prosecution over his actions.

“The fact that the rioters are saying all they did was follow the urging of POTUS goes to whether or not Trump’s words incited a riot,” Cramer said, though he added the defense likely won’t help the rioters in their own cases. “Hard for him to argue that nobody would listen to his words and riot.”

Michael Sherwin, the acting US attorney in Washington, DC, said earlier this month that federal prosecutors aren’t ruling out anything or anyone as they investigate the deadly riot — and that includes the now-former president.

When asked if prosecutors will examine statements Trump made at the rally before the siege, Sherwin replied, “Yes, we are looking at all actors here, not only the people that went into the building, but … were there others that maybe assisted or facilitated or played some ancillary role in this.”

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