The Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security committee accused Donald Trump in a federal lawsuit on Tuesday of inciting the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and of conspiring with his lawyer and extremist groups to try to prevent Congress from certifying the results of the presidential election he lost to Joe Biden.
The lawsuit from Mississippi’s Rep. Bennie Thompson is part of an expected wave of litigation over the Jan. 6 riot and is believed to be the first filed by a member of Congress. It seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.
The case also names as defendants the Republican former president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and groups including the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, extremist organizations that had members charged by the Justice Department with taking part in the siege.
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The suit, filed in federal court in Washington under a Reconstruction-era law known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, comes three days after Trump was acquitted in a Senate impeachment trial that centered on allegations that he incited the riot, in which five people died. That acquittal is likely to open the door to fresh legal scrutiny over Trump’s actions before and during the siege. Additional suits could be brought by other members of Congress or by law enforcement officers injured while responding to the riot.
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Presidents are historically afforded broad immunity from lawsuits for actions they take in their role as commander in chief. But the lawsuit filed Tuesday was brought against Trump in his personal, not official, capacity and alleges that none of the behavior at issue had to do with his responsibilities as president.
“Inciting a riot, or attempting to interfere with the congressional efforts to ratify the results of the election that are commended by the Constitution, could not conceivably be within the scope of ordinary responsibilities of the president,” Joseph Sellers, a lawyer for Thompson, said in an interview.
“In this respect, because of his conduct, he is just like any other private citizen,” he said.
Sellers, a lawyer with the Washington law firm of Cohen Milstein, filed the case along with the NAACP. Several other members of Congress are expected to join.
Though the impeachment case focused squarely on accusations of incitement, the lawsuit more broadly accuses Trump of conspiring to disrupt the constitutional activities of Congress — namely, the certification of election results establishing Biden as the rightful winner — through a months long effort to discredit the outcome and to lean on individual states and his own vice president to overturn the contest.
The case against Trump was brought under a provision of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which was passed in response to KKK violence and prohibits violence or intimidation meant to prevent Congress or other federal officials from carrying out their constitutional duties.
“Fortunately, this hasn’t been used very much,” Sellers said. “But what we see here is so unprecedented that it’s really reminiscent of what gave rise to the enactment of this legislation right after the Civil War.”
The suit cites incendiary comments that Trump and Giuliani made in the weeks leading up to the riot and on the day of it that lawyers say were designed to mobilize supporters to work to overturn the election results and to prevent the congressional certification process. That process was temporarily interrupted when Trump loyalists broke into the Capitol.
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