The chairperson of the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit accusing former president Donald Trump, attorney Rudy Giuliani and two extremist groups whose members have been charged in the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol with illegally conspiring to intimidate and block Congress’s certification of the 2020 election.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., alleged in federal court in Washington that Trump’s and Giuliani’s false claims that the election was stolen fomented a raid that violated the Ku Klux Klan Act, an 1871 law enacted after the Civil War to bar violent interference in Congress’s constitutional duties.
The lawsuit alleges that Trump, Giuliani, and members of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys far-right groups sought to harass and impede lawmakers, and temporarily succeeded, forcing Thompson and others to don gas masks and take cover on the House gallery floor before being evacuated to shelter in the Longworth House Office Building with more than 200 other representatives, staffers and relatives.
Trump’s “gleeful support of violent white supremacists” instigated the assault, gravely endangered lawmakers and encouraged future authoritarianism, Thompson said in a statement. “While the majority of Republicans in the Senate abdicated their responsibility to hold the President accountable, we must hold him accountable for the insurrection that he so blatantly planned.”
Trump was acquitted Saturday in his second impeachment trial as 57 senators — seven Republicans and all 50 Democrats — voted to convict him of inciting the mob’s attack, 10 votes short of two-thirds majority needed. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., voted for acquittal but said afterward that there was “no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible.” McConnell also said Trump was not immune from civil liability for the event, which left five dead, resulted in 139 assaults on police officers and obstructed the electoral vote certification of president-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
In a statement, Trump spokesman Jason Miller said that “President Trump has been acquitted in the Democrats’ latest Impeachment Witch Hunt, and the facts are irrefutable. President Trump did not plan, produce or organize the Jan. 6th rally on the Ellipse. President Trump did not incite or conspire to incite any violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6th. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser must answer questions as to why they rejected additional security and National Guard assistance in the run-up to Jan. 6th.”
The lawsuit named as defendants Trump solely in his personal capacity, Giuliani, Proud Boys International LLC, and the Oath Keepers, addressed to founder Stewart Rhodes. Giuliani, his attorney and Rhodes did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.
Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio called the lawsuit frivolous and doubted it would be allowed to proceed in federal court. He said he had nothing to do with the breach.
“Was there Proud Boys that went in? Yes, and they’re idiots. They shouldn’t have gone in. But I’m going to support them because they are my brothers,” Tarrio said in a telephone interview. “But there was no plan to go into the Capitol. Unfortunately, one of my guys broke a window. Others trespassed. But there was no plan to even interrupt Congress.”
On cusp of impeachment trial, court documents point to how Trump’s rhetoric fueled rioters who attacked Capitol
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., chairperson of the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts, and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., chairperson of the Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation, expect to join the suit, said Thompson, who is being represented by the NAACP and Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.
“Donald Trump has tried to destroy the nation, and we will not let him get away with it,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said.
The lawsuit tests rarely litigated and long-unvisited areas of law.
The 1871 law was requested and signed during Reconstruction by President Ulysses S. Grant, who invoked it that October to suppress violence in the South, including in nine South Carolina counties in rebellion. The law helped break the power of the Klan and other groups terrorizing Black voters, and marauding lawmakers elected to Congress from readmitted former Confederate states, but it has not been used as Tuesday’s lawsuit contemplates in modern times.
The Supreme Court also has ruled that presidents enjoy absolute immunity for actions undertaken in their official capacity, a term that courts have interpreted generously.
Thompson’s attorneys argue that directing an assault on a coequal branch of government in no way qualifies as protecting and defending the U.S. Constitution. Even if Trump were generously considered to be “electioneering,” politicking is a political function, not a presidential one, they said.
Likewise, whether a court someday decides that Trump incited violence or engaged in First Amendment-protected political speech, the question is not whether his remarks were lawful, attorney Joseph Sellers said, but “whether he conspired with others to seek to prevent Congress from completing the ratification of the electoral process, and inciting a riot to take over the Capitol was a means to that end.”
“This lawsuit is very simple. It relies on this protection which every member of Congress is entitled to, that they be free of threats of violence and intimidation and free that day to certify results of the election of President [Joe] Biden and Vice President [Kamala] Harris,” Sellers said.
Trump and Giuliani exhorted listeners at a rally near the White House before the Jan. 6 insurrection, with Giuliani calling for “trial by combat” and Trump saying he would join marchers down Pennsylvania Avenue to give lawmakers “the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.” Trump had repeatedly promoted the rally, posting on Twitter that it “will be wild!”
He heaped praise on participants afterward, tweeting: “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for any plaintiffs who join it and were harmed in the assault, as well as attorneys’ fees, meaning a guilty verdict could represent not only a judicial judgment against Trump’s actions but also a financial sting.
The lawsuit is the latest in a rush of civil and criminal actions challenging Trump and his political future.
An Atlanta-area prosecutor last week opened a criminal investigation into whether Trump’s or others’ “attempts to influence” state officials to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election result in favor of Biden were unlawful.
Dominion Voting Systems has filed $1.3 billion defamation lawsuits against both Giuliani and Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, alleging that they made dozens of statements promoting the “false preconceived narrative” that the election was stolen from Trump and blaming the company’s counting machines without any evidence.
In his speech just before the Capitol was stormed, Giuliani spoke of “crooked Dominion machines” that he claimed were used to steal the election.
Christopher Krebs, the former top U.S. cybersecurity official responsible for securing November’s presidential election, also has sued the Trump campaign, lawyer Joseph diGenova and Newsmax for defamation, asserting that they conspired to falsely claim the election was stolen and fraudulently reap political donations.
Sellers said litigants in the Thompson suit have not been in touch with those bringing the other lawsuits.
Prosecutors have federally charged at least 212 people in the Capitol breach, and acting U.S. attorney Michael Sherwin of Washington has not ruled out investigating Trump rally speakers, saying Jan. 7: “We are looking at all actors here … We will look at every actor and all criminal charges.”
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The Washington Post’s Ann E. Marimow, Keith L. Alexander and Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.