WASHINGTON – A federal judge has rejected efforts by former President Donald Trump to toss out conspiracy lawsuits filed by lawmakers and two Capitol police officers, saying in his ruling that the former president's words “plausibly” led to the riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta said in his Friday ruling that Trump's words during a rally before the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol were likely “words of incitement not protected by the First Amendment."
“Only in the most extraordinary circumstances could a court not recognize that the First Amendment protects a President’s speech,” Mehta wrote. “But the court believes this is that case.”
The order is the latest example of growing legal peril for the former president. Just hours earlier, the National Archives said records found at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort contained classified information and that it had notified the Justice Department.
On Thursday, a judge in New York ruled that Trump and two of his children must answer questions under oath in New York state’s civil investigation into his business practices. Another judge ordered that his company’s financial chief be subjected to questioning in another probe by the District of Columbia attorney general’s office. And earlier this week, the firm that prepared Trump’s annual financial statements said the documents, used to secure lucrative loans and burnish Trump’s image as a wealthy businessman, “should no longer be relied upon.”
During a planned rally on the Ellipse just hours before Congress was to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election, Trump told his supporters to “Fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” He said, “(We’re) going to try to and give (weak Republicans) the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country,” and then told the crowd to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Mehta said Trump's speech could have directed people to break the law. But the judge dismissed similar charges made against Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. and lawyer Rudy Giuliani, saying their speech was protected by the First Amendment. Mehta did not yet rule on another motion to dismiss from Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, also named in the suits.
The lawsuits, filed by Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., officers James Blassingame and Sidney Hemby, and initially Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and later joined by other House Democrats, argued that Trump, Trump Jr., Giuliani and Brooks made “false and incendiary allegations of fraud and theft, and in direct response to the Defendant’s express calls for violence at the rally, a violent mob attacked the U.S. Capitol.”
Thompson later dropped out of the suit when he was named to lead the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Lawyer Joseph Sellers, who along with the NAACP is representing that group of House Democrats, said the ruling was “a major victory for the rule of law, and demonstrates just how important the courts are for ensuring accountability.”
The suits cite a federal civil rights law that was enacted to counter the Ku Klux Klan’s intimidation of officials. They spell out in detail how the Trumps, Giuliani and Brooks spread baseless claims of election fraud, both before and after the 2020 presidential election was declared, and charged that they helped to spin up the thousands of rioters before they stormed the Capitol. Five people died as a result of the violence on Jan. 6, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer.
They have all denied the allegations.
Mehta said Trump's efforts to dismiss the case ignored the theory that his words sparked what followed, but that argument was plausible.
“In this one-of-a-kind case, the First Amendment does not shield the President from liability,” Mehta wrote.