Millions will watch the presidential debate. Prosecutors in Trump’s Jan. 6 case may be tuning in, too

Republican nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton looks on during the final presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of the University of Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Oct. 19, 2016. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) — When former President Donald Trump takes the debate stage against President Joe Biden Thursday night, among those monitoring his performance could be the federal prosecutors seeking to take Trump to trial on criminal charges of attempting to subvert the last presidential election.

In previous filings in their case against Trump — which remains stalled as the Supreme Court weighs his claim of presidential immunity — prosecutors have singled out comments Trump made in presidential debates in both 2016 and 2020 that they said could be introduced at an eventual trial.

The exchanges, prosecutors claim, would be used to help them prove to a jury Trump’s intent and state of mind as he engaged in his alleged criminal effort to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden.

“To ensure the destabilizing impact of his widespread election fraud claims, in the run-up to the 2020 election, the defendant repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transition of presidential power if he lost the election,” prosecutors said in a December court filing. “The Government will offer proof of this refusal as intrinsic evidence of the defendant’s criminal conspiracies because it shows his plan to remain in power at any cost — even in the face of potential violence.”

Specifically, prosecutors said they planned to use Trump’s exchange in his debate against Hillary Clinton in October of 2016 where he repeatedly refused to accept the results of the upcoming election — saying that Trump then “pursued the same strategy” four years later.

In that debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump, “You’ve been warning at rallies recently that this election is rigged and that Hillary Clinton is in the process of trying to steal it from you. Your running mate Governor Pence pledged on Sunday that he and you, his words, will absolutely accept the result of this election … I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you’ll absolutely accept the result of the election?”

“I will look at it at the time,” Trump replied.

Prosecutors said in their filing, “The defendant’s consistent refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power, dating back to the 2016 presidential campaign, is admissible evidence of his plan to undermine the integrity of the presidential transition process when faced with the possibility of an election result that he would not like, as well as his motive, intent, and plan to interfere with the implementation of an election result with which he was not satisfied.”

In the same filing, prosecutors separately pointed to Trump’s exchange during his September 2020 debate against Biden where he was pressed to denounce the extremist group the Proud Boys.

Wallace, again the moderator, asked Trump, “You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out antifa and other left-wing extremist groups. But are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland?”

“Sure, I’m willing to do that,” Trump replied, saying, “Give me a name, go ahead, who would you like me to condemn?”

“Proud Boys,” said Biden, to which Trump, addressing the camera, said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”

Prosecutors, in their filing, said that “Members of the group embraced the defendant’s words as an endorsement and printed merchandise with them as a rallying cry.”

Three days after the debate, Trump told Fox News in an interview, “Let me be clear, I condemn the KKK, white supremacists and the Proud Boys.”

In their filing, prosecutors said Trump’s debate remark demonstrates his “encouragement of violence,” further noting that, “after the Proud Boys and other extremist groups participated in obstructing the congressional certification on January 6, the defendant made clear that they were acting consistent with his intent and direction in doing so.”

Trump and his attorneys have pushed back on accusations that his rhetoric sparked the Capitol attack, stressing that Trump told the crowd at his rally that morning, “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”

But prosecutors have made clear in other filings that, should the Jan. 6 case make it to trial, they would also introduce other public remarks made by Trump.

For instance, prosecutors said in a filing last November that they would plan to cite public statements Trump has made supporting defendants charged in the Capitol attack in an effort to establish his “criminal intent” to a jury.

Arguing that Trump “has never wavered in his support of January 6 offenders,” prosecutors said his statements in recent years calling Jan. 6 “a beautiful day” and stating his intentions to pardon many rioters would be submitted as evidence at trial.

Trump last year pleaded not guilty to charges of undertaking a “criminal scheme” to overturn the results of the 2020 election by enlisting a slate of so-called “fake electors,” using the Justice Department to conduct “sham election crime investigations,” trying to enlist the vice president to “alter the election results,” and promoting false claims of a stolen election as the Jan. 6 riot raged — all in an effort to subvert democracy and remain in power.

The former president has denied all wrongdoing and denounced the charges as “a persecution of a political opponent.”

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