An unrepentant Donald Trump on Tuesday denied inciting an insurrection at the US Capitol, in an attempt to shift blame Democrats rejected as “despicable”, as a number of senior Republicans began publicly turning against their president.
The president spoke to reporters for the first time since a pro-Trump mob rampaged through the Capitol last week, leaving five people dead. Democrats accuse him of stoking violence and are expected vote to impeach him on Wednesday.
“So if you read my speech … people thought that what I said was totally appropriate,” Trump insisted as he headed to Texas to tour parts of the barrier he ordered constructed on the US-Mexico border as part of his hardline immigration policies.
The president then sought to draw a false equivalence with last summer’s mostly peaceful protests against racial injustice. He said: “If you look at what other people have said – politicians at a high level – about the riots during the summer, the horrible riots in Portland and Seattle, in various other places, that was a real problem – what they said.”
Last Wednesday Trump gave an incendiary speech to a raucous crowd near the White House, insisting his election defeat by Joe Biden could be overturned and urging them to march to the Capitol and “fight much harder” against “bad people”.
He said: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength.”
Democrats have directly linked the speech, and previous Trump comments, to the carnage that unfolded when rioters, some carrying Confederate flags, fought with police and looted congressional offices. House Democrats have led demands that Trump be removed or face a historic second impeachment.
A handful of senior Republicans in recent days joined calls for Trump to go. And, crucially, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, indicated to associates that he believes Trump deserves to be impeached, the New York Times reported on Tuesday, with the Kentucky Republican thinking it will make it easier for the party to purge him, as a liability.
The outlet further reported that the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, has toyed variously with asking Trump to resign, supporting impeachment and considering a vote to censure the president.
And the senior House Republican Liz Cheney said she would vote to impeach Trump.
“The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the president,” said Cheney, of Wyoming. “I will vote to impeach the president.”
As he left the White House on Tuesday, Trump said: “The impeachment is really a continuation of the greatest witch-hunt in the history of politics. It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous. This impeachment is causing tremendous anger and it’s really a terrible thing that they’re doing.”
Democrats gave short shrift to Trump’s denial of responsibility. Speaking to reporters in New York, Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said: “What Trump did today, blaming others for what he caused, is a pathological technique used by the worst of dictators.
“Trump causes the anger, he causes the divisiveness, he foments the violence and blames others for it. That is despicable. The technique Trump is using is used by the worst dictators the globe has ever seen. Donald Trump should not hold office one day longer and what we saw in his statements today is proof positive of that.”
Federal investigators are warning of additional potential security threats around the inauguration of Biden next week. NBC News reported that extremists are using Telegram, an encrypted communication app, to urge violence and even share knowledge of how to make guns and bombs.
Multiple media outlets also confirmed an ABC News report that the FBI expects armed pro-Trump protests in all 50 state capitals and Washington before inauguration day.
Trump’s potential to fuel further unrest is a source of anxiety. Behind the scenes, he has reportedly continued his retreat into paranoia and unreality, repeating in a conversation with the House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, the lie that so-called “antifa” leftwing activists, not his supporters, were responsible for death and destruction inside the Capitol.
“It’s not antifa,” McCarthy reportedly replied. “It’s Maga. I know. I was there.” Maga refers to the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again”.
The House was due to vote on Tuesday night on a resolution seeking the use of the 25th amendment, which provides for the removal of a president deemed unfit for office, although it has never been used. Dependent on the vice-president, Mike Pence, the gambit seemed sure to fail.
After days of silence between the pair, Trump and Pence held a “good conversation” at the White House on Monday evening, an unnamed official told Reuters.
Some who responded to Trump’s call to storm the Capitol, prompting clashes in which a police officer was killed, a rioter was shot dead and three others died, were caught on video chanting “Hang Mike Pence” after he withstood demands by the president that he engineer overturning the election result, which is not in his power.
A House vote to impeach Trump on one article, for incitement of insurrection, could occur on Wednesday. The timetable for an ensuing Senate trial is uncertain.
Unlike Trump’s first impeachment in December 2019, a sizable number of Republicans in the House and a handful in the Senate have signaled support. Those lawmakers included Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican. Republicans expect up to 20 GOP lawmakers to vote for impeachment, Punchbowl reported.
Ted Lieu, a Democratic congressman, told the MSNBC network: “We don’t actually need a lot of evidence here because it’s all out in the open. There’s no dispute Donald Trump gave a speech. No dispute there was an attack on the Capitol. No dispute that multiple people died.”
Last week’s huge security failure is under growing scrutiny. The Washington Post said it had obtained an internal FBI document from the day before the attack warning extremists were preparing to commit violence and “war”. The report undermined previous claims that the FBI had no intelligence about an imminent attack.
The FBI and the Department of Justice (DoJ) on Tuesday held the first press conference by any part of the federal government since the Capitol attack.
Michael Sherwin, federal prosecutor for the District of Columbia, indicated that many amid the hundreds of pro-Trump rioters who violently invaded the US Capitol last Wednesday are suspected in a “mind-blowing” range of crimes including felony murder and sedition and conspiracy.
Neither the DoJ nor the FBI has explained how the security failures came about at the Capitol but Sherwin said rioters were being pursued across the country.
“The range of criminal conduct was unmatched,” Sherwin said, and warned lawbreakers: “You will be charged and you will be found.”
The former federal cybersecurity chief Chris Krebs, whom Trump fired for saying the election was secure, told CNN: “This is the equivalent of ignoring that pain in your chest for a couple weeks and then all of a sudden you have a catastrophic heart attack.
“We are on the verge of what I fear to be a pretty significant breakdown in democracy and civil society here.”