WASHINGTON — Democrats and liberal groups, determined to find a way to bar former President Donald Trump from returning to office, are preparing a variety of ways to disqualify him, including drafting new legislation and readying a flurry of lawsuits seeking to use an obscure clause in the Constitution to brand him an insurrectionist.
The plans amount to an extraordinarily longshot effort to accomplish what multiple investigations of Trump have failed to do: foreclose any chance that the former president could regain power, whether voters want him to or not. They reflect the growing concern among Democrats and liberal activists seeking to find a way to end the political careers of the former president and the officials who helped him try to cling to the presidency, including through several new and in some cases arcane strategies.
Democrats and some anti-Trump Republicans have grown fearful that Attorney General Merrick Garland will not pursue criminal action against Trump for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, culminating in the violent storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Even if Trump were indicted and convicted of a crime, there is no law barring even an imprisoned felon from becoming president.
At the same time, Trump is the widely presumed front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. His popularity with his party’s base appears undiminished by the high-profile set of House hearings this year revealing the breadth of his efforts to upend a democratic election.
Some of the efforts to block his return are taking place in the states where the nonprofit organization Free Speech For People and other groups such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics have been filing lawsuits against lawmakers who were involved in Trump’s attempts to reverse his 2020 defeat.
The push gained momentum this week when a judge in New Mexico removed Couy Griffin from his post as commissioner of New Mexico’s Otero County, branding him an insurrectionist for his participation in the Jan. 6 riot and for helping to spread the election lies that inspired it. The judge’s action against Griffin, the founder of Cowboys for Trump who was convicted earlier this year of trespassing when he breached barricades outside the Capitol during the attack, was the first time in more than a century that a public official has been barred from serving under the Constitution’s ban on insurrectionists holding office.
Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, the nonpartisan watchdog organization that filed suit against Griffin, said the judge’s ruling sent a clear message that the events of Jan. 6 qualified as an insurrection and that those involved in the “planning, mobilization and incitement” of the violence that day, including Trump, could be barred from office.
He said his group was taking a “hard look” at how to pursue such challenges against the former president.
“There is a tremendous body of evidence about Donald Trump’s role in the efforts to overturn the election and inciting the attack of Jan. 6,” Bookbinder said. “It seems like there’s a serious case to be made that it could have application to Donald Trump.”
Progressive activists have also been meeting with secretaries of state and sending letters to officials who oversee elections to try to persuade them to use their authority to keep anyone involved in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol off the ballot in 2024. Election officials in all 50 states and the District of Columbia have already received letters urging them to block Trump from the ballot.
And there is work underway on Capitol Hill, where Democrats have drafted legislation aimed at enforcing the 14th Amendment’s ban.
“If he does choose to run for office, we stand ready to challenge his eligibility under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment in multiple states,” Ron Fein, a lawyer for Free Speech For People, which is planning a legal offensive, said of Trump. “It’s hard to come to any conclusion other than that he is disqualified from public office under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.”
A year and a half after Trump left office, Democrats continue to see him as a grave danger to the country and — even after a special counsel investigation, two impeachments, a large electoral victory in 2020 and a revelatory congressional inquiry into Trump’s efforts to overturn the election — many are increasingly concerned that he could return to power.
A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment, but Trump’s lawyers are aware that they could have to overcome such challenges to keep him on the ballot in multiple states, according to people with knowledge of their talks. They have been closely watching the state-level lawsuits against other public officials.
In recent weeks, some high-profile Democrats in Congress have filed legislation that would make it easier for such suits to be successful against Trump and other politicians involved in the events of Jan. 6, although it has no chance of advancing.
Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a member of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, have filed legislation that would declare the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol an insurrection and authorize the attorney general to investigate and bring civil action against anyone suspected of violating their oaths of office. The bill would also authorize any citizen to file a civil action to disqualify an officeholder.
Raskin said he was discussing with other members of the Jan. 6 committee whether to include the measure among the panel’s recommendations — along with overhauls of the Electoral Count Act and other potential changes — which are expected to garner significant attention when they are released in the coming weeks.