Donald Trump argues he deserves immunity from 3 lawsuits over Jan. 6 Capitol attack

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WASHINGTON – Former President Donald Trump argued in a federal appeals court filing Thursday he deserves immunity from three civil lawsuits that seek to blame him for the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021.

Trump's lawyer, Jesse Binnall, told a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals there was no "incitement" in Trump's speech near the White House Jan. 6, 2021, before a mob of supporters stormed the Capitol. Binnall argued Trump's exhortation to "fight" was a reference to political pressure.

"First, President Trump’s speech falls well within the broad scope of absolute immunity suggested by DOJ," Binnall wrote. "Absolute immunity aims to prevent the President from being subjected to the process of civil litigation."

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Trump is a defendant in three civil lawsuits from Democratic House members and Capitol police, who accuse him of inciting the attack. His court filing came two weeks after the Justice Department said he isn’t protected from the lawsuits because of the accusation he incited violence.

"No part of a President’s official responsibilities includes the incitement of imminent private violence," department lawyers said. "By definition, such conduct plainly falls outside the President’s constitutional and statutory duties."

The lawmakers and police officers also filed an argument in the case Thursday, agreeing with the Justice Department but arguing against a sweeping view of presidential immunity other than for inciting violence. The litigants argued Trump was outside his official duties as a "clear and present danger" in urging supporters to block roads to Congress or forge Electoral College ballots.

"Although correct as far as it goes, the position of the United States does not go far enough," lawyers for the lawmakers and police said. Trump doesn't deserve immunity because "a president has no business instructing his supporters at any time to obstruct Congress's efforts to fulfill its certification responsibilities," the litigants added.

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Here is what we know about the cases:

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally Aug. 5, 2022, in Waukesha, Wis.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally Aug. 5, 2022, in Waukesha, Wis.

What are the Jan. 6 lawsuits about?

The three lawsuits each accuse Trump of inciting the riot and seek to hold him responsible for it. Nearly 1,000 people have been charged in the attack and a mob rampaged through the Capitol and temporarily prevented Congress from counting Electoral College votes. One rioter was shot to death outside the House chamber by a police officer. A police officer who was sprayed by chemicals during the attack died the next day from a stroke.

  • Ten House Democrats filed a lawsuit accusing Trump of violating the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, which sought to protect lawmakers from threats or intimidation against carrying out their duties. The lawsuit filed in February 2021 initially named Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani; the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, far-right groups with dozens of members charged criminally in the attack.

  • Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., initially was lead plaintiff in the lawsuit but dropped out when he became head of the House committee that investigated the attack. The remaining litigants are current or former Reps. Bonnie Coleman Watson, D-N.J.; Karen Bass, D-Calif.; Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; Maxine Waters, D-Calif.; Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; Henry Johnson, D-Ga.; Stephen Cohen, D-Tenn.; Barbara Lee, D-Calif.; Veronica Escobar, D-Texas; and Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio.

  • Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., filed a lawsuit in March 2021 accusing Trump of knowing about the conspiracy to attack the Capitol and doing nothing to stop it. His lawsuit also targeted Giuliani; the former president’s son, Donald Trump Jr.; and Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who each spoke at a Trump rally near the White House before the attack.

  • U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta dropped Trump Jr., Giuliani and Brooks from the cases by ruling their speeches at the rally and other actions didn’t make them part of an alleged conspiracy.

  • Two Capitol Police officers, James Blassingame and Sidney Hemby, filed a lawsuit alleging Trump’s conduct incited the riot by urging his followers to try to overturn the election results.

Rioters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington
Rioters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington

What is Trump arguing?

Trump’s lawyers urged the appeals court to dismiss the lawsuits by arguing that contentious speeches such as the one he gave Jan. 6, 2021, are part of a president’s job.

“The underlying question here is simple: is a president immune from civil liability when he or she gives a speech on a matter of public concern?” Trump’s lawyers said. “The answer is undoubtedly, yes.”

Trump’s lawyers have argued he is immune from lawsuits for anything he said at the rally. They also argued he couldn’t be part of any conspiracy to incite the violence because he urged participants to “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard” at the Capitol.

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But in allowing the cases to continue, Mehta, who is also overseeing criminal cases from the Capitol attack, noted Trump urged his supporters to “fight like hell” before his supporters fought police and forced their way into the building.

“At the end of his remarks, he told rally-goers, ‘we fight, we fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,’” Mehta said.

Trump's presidential campaign issued a statement Thursday saying he called repeatedly during the speech for peace, patriotism and respect for law enforcement. The campaign argued federal courts should dismiss what it called frivolous lawsuits.

The E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse in Washington, D.C.
The E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse in Washington, D.C.

Who will decide the case?

The three-judge appeals panel will decide whether to allow the lawsuits to continue. The panel heard oral arguments about whether to dismiss the cases in December, but asked the Justice Department to weigh in.

Chief Judge Sri Srinivasan and Judges George Katsas and Judith Rogers are hearing the case. Srinivasan was appointed to the appeals court by Barack Obama, Katsas by Trump and Rogers by Bill Clinton.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump urges appeals court to dismiss 3 Jan. 6 riot lawsuits