A federal judge appeared skeptical at a hearing Monday that former President Donald Trump can’t be held liable for the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta heard oral arguments over five hours in his Washington, D.C., courtroom to consider whether to grant the request from Trump’s lawyers to dismiss three civil lawsuits seeking to hold the former president accountable for the attack on the Capitol. One of the suits was filed by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), one by two U.S. Capitol Police officers and one by a group of House Democrats led by Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.
Trump has claimed “absolute immunity” from any liability that day — even though he told supporters at a “Stop the Steal” rally near the White House to march on the Capitol and to “fight like hell” after he fed the crowd lies about the 2020 election being stolen from him. Trump did nothing about the ensuing violence for hours, even though he watched the melee on television from the White House.
“We are dead center on immunity … giving a speech is something presidents do,” Jesse Binnall, Trump’s attorney, told Mehta.
When Mehta asked Binnall if he could envision any scenario in which immunity would not protect a president, the attorney couldn’t think of a single example.
But attorney Joseph Sellers, who argued on behalf of the Democratic lawmakers and Capitol Police officers, told Mehta that Trump was engaged in “purely private actions” on Jan. 6 for his own benefit and that “there is no legitimate role absolutely for fomenting an insurrection directed at Congress.”
As for any role Trump played in inciting violence, Mehta himself quoted Trump at the rally before the Capitol breach.
“His last words were ‘Go to the Capitol,’ and before that it was ‘show strength’ and ‘fight.’ Why isn’t that a plausible invitation to do exactly what the rioters ended up doing?” Mehta asked. ”Those words are hard to walk back.”
The judge also pointed to the former president’s silence and lack of action while the pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol as both houses of Congress were meeting to certify the Electoral College count.
“What do I do about the fact the president didn’t denounce the conduct immediately … and sent a tweet that arguably exacerbated things?” he asked.
Mehta questioned if that was enough to “at least plausibly infer that the president agreed with the conduct of the people that were inside the Capitol that day.”
He asked: “If my words had been misconstrued … and they led to violence, wouldn’t somebody, the reasonable person, just come out and say, ’Wait a second, stop’?”
Mehta also referred to evidence recently released by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. He noted that Donald Trump Jr. had pleaded in a message to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to press his father to immediately issue a statement denouncing the violence, which Trump failed to do. Trump didn’t tell the rioters to go home for more than three hours after the violence erupted, according to investigators from the House committee.
Mehta did not issue a ruling at the end of the day.