How Trump changed speech that could be critical for prosecutions
On the morning of January 6, 2021, former President Donald Trump’s aides had done everything they could to prepare him for what would become the most important day of his presidency.
Scheduled to speak in front of thousands of his most loyal supporters, Trump had been warned of the potential for violence and the weapons some potentially carried.
He remained convinced of a plot to rig the election against him, although some in his inner circle said there was little evidence to back it up. Nor could anything be done to overturn the election he had lost, which his attorney general, William Barr, had told him before the day the vote was to be certified.
Trump, however, could not be deterred.
Stepping onto the stage, Trump was given a carefully crafted script to air his grievances and speak to a crowd of protesters who believed his demands on the election — and his presidency — had been stolen from them.
His script urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully, acknowledging that they had already planned to march on the US Capitol. He had to ask them to be nice. And he had to avoid criticizing specific officials, the only names mentioned being people he had to thank for defending him.
But as documents released this week show, Trump paid little heed to those words.
According to transcripts released by the House Select Committee on Jan. 6 over the weekend, Trump deviated significantly from that script, adding thousands of words in an address to the masses.
He railed against his enemies. He turned pre-written and misleading talking points about the validity of the election into blatant lies. And, in off-the-cuff comments, he told his supporters to “fight like hell” to prevent an essential function of American democracy from taking place.
The transcript of his speech and the edits he made to the remarks prepared for him have since become a central aspect of the case against Trump, raising new questions about whether he deliberately sought to incite a mob against the United States government.
Although Trump and his attorneys have said his comments that day were just a metaphor, evidence of what Trump knew before his speech, coupled with his unscripted remarks, could help build a Trump case not only knew of the potential for violence, but actively pursued it.
“Outrageous political speech is an American tradition, fully protected by the First Amendment,” said Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University and former editor of USA todayTold Newsweek in an email.
“The key to the prosecution is whether Trump ordered the crowd to engage in imminent violent conduct. The committee’s January 6 findings provide considerable evidence that he did so,” Paulson wrote.
Namely, in the reveal Trump urging the crowd to “fight like hell” was spontaneous and not part of the original script – and it came after Trump was initially told of the likelihood of violence.
“It happened after the Secret Service informed him that a lot of people in the crowd were armed and didn’t want to go through the magnetometers,” Paulson added. “He knew he was telling an angry, armed audience that they had to go to the Capitol, intended to join them there, and when it didn’t happen, he refused for hours. to do anything to curb the violence.
“It’s far from just fiery speech. Words aren’t protected as free speech if they’re part of a criminal act.”
Before the script was released, some argued that prosecuting Trump for what he might have meant by his remarks could set an awkward precedent for Americans’ First Amendment protections.
Attorney Jonathan Turley – who had served as a witness in two separate impeachment trials – warned of the dangers of using Trump’s comments from the dais as the basis for incitement charges shortly after the events of 6 January, writing for The hill in February 2021 that Trump’s remarks did not meet the test set in the landmark free speech case Brandenburg vs. Ohiowhere the Supreme Court has declared that “incitement to the use of force or violation of the law” is protected unless it is imminent.
“Trump did not call for the use of force,” Turley wrote. “He told his supporters to go ‘peacefully’ and ‘encourage’ his allies in Congress. He repeated this after the violence broke out and told the crowd to respect and obey the police. “
His own words – rather than those his assistants wrote for him – support the opposite. Transcripts released over the weekend, Paulson argued, demonstrated that Trump set aside most of his prepared and largely extemporaneous remarks, apparently deriding advice from his own aides to remain peaceful.
“We want to be so nice,” Trump said at the time. “We want to be so respectful of everyone, including the wrong people. And we’re going to have to fight a lot harder.”
“We fight like hell,” he concluded. “And if you don’t fight like hell, you won’t have a country.”
The case may still not open and close. But given the evidence provided by the Jan. 6 committee, prosecutions now seem more realistic — if the Biden administration’s Justice Department were able to prosecute them under a Republican Congress.
“Yes, Trump delivered prepared remarks urging the crowd to march ‘peacefully and patriotically,’ but that’s literally not a get out of jail card if the prosecution elements are proven,” Paulson wrote. “Where prosecution once seemed impractical, if not impossible, the January 6 revelations have now made it at least plausible.”