WASHINGTON — A member of Congress and the NAACP filed a civil rights lawsuit on Tuesday that accuses former president Donald Trump, Trump's longtime lawyer and ally Rudy Giuliani, and two extremist groups of conspiring to incite the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, is pressing a claim under what's known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, a Reconstruction-era law that includes a section that makes it illegal to conspire to prevent public officials from "discharging any duties." Thompson is alleging that Trump and Giuliani incited the mob that descended on the Capitol to prevent Congress from certifying the Electoral College vote, while leaders of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers "acted in concert to spearhead the assault."
It's the first civil lawsuit seeking to hold Trump and his supporters accountable for the violence at the Capitol, but it's not the first lawsuit that Trump faces under the Ku Klux Klan Act. Trump is a defendant in a separate case pending in federal court that accuses him of conspiring with the Republican National Committee to interfere with the rights of Black voters after the election. Other cases to invoke the law include an ongoing lawsuit against white supremacist groups involved in organizing the August 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in dozens of injuries and the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Thompson's lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Washington, DC, comes just two days after the US Senate voted over the weekend to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial on the charge that he incited the insurrection. In announcing the lawsuit, Thompson put out a statement saying that because Senate Republicans had "abdicated their responsibility to hold the President accountable, we must hold him accountable for the insurrection that he so blatantly planned." The lawsuit also quoted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted to acquit Trump, but then said Trump was responsible for the insurrection and referenced "civil litigation" as a way that he could be held liable.
As Congress met in a joint session on Jan. 6 to officially certify the results of the election, hundreds of people crossed security perimeters around the Capitol; some assaulted US Capitol Police officers trying to hold the line to get through, according to charging papers. The assault took place shortly after Trump had spoken at a rally a few blocks away and urged his supporters to go to the Capitol, telling them, "Something is wrong here, something is really wrong, can’t have happened and we fight, we fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore."
Federal prosecutors have highlighted how some people charged in the insurrection described themselves as following Trump's direction. Some defendants that the government has tried to keep behind bars have also argued to judges that they shouldn't be considered a danger to the community because they were taking instructions from the then president and commander in chief.
Thompson's lawsuit described Trump's refusal to accept the election results in the weeks after Nov. 3 and efforts by the former president and Giuliani to repeatedly attack the integrity of the election process and falsely claim that there was widespread voter fraud. Election officials in states where Trump focused his attacks, including Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, found no evidence to support his allegations of fraudulent activity. Dozens of states and federal judges across the country rejected lawsuits brought by Trump and his allies challenging election results as either procedurally deficient or meritless.
As evidence of coordination with the Proud Boys, a far-right group that has described its members as "Western Chauvinists," Thompson quoted Trump's response at a presidential debate in late September when asked if he would condemn violence committed by white supremacists and extremist groups. Then-candidate Joe Biden had chimed in, asking Trump to condemn the Proud Boys as an example and Trump replied, "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by." Shortly after that remark, Enrique Tarrio, a leader and public face of the Proud Boys organization, tweeted, "Standing by sir." The quote became a kind of motto for the group.
Tarrio was arrested as he tried to enter DC prior to the Jan. 6 insurrection, but of the 200-plus people charged to date a small number have been identified as members of the Proud Boys. Thompson's lawsuit cites the involvement of Joseph Biggs, who has been charged and identified as a Proud Boys leader.
Several people identified by prosecutors as members of the Oath Keepers. a militia organization that is focused on recruiting current and former service members and police, have been criminally charged with conspiring to interfere with Congress's certification of the Electoral College votes. Members of that alleged conspiracy are charged with spending the weeks leading up to Jan. 6 actively planning for violence and of carrying out an organized attack on the Capitol. Prosecutors recently presented evidence in court papers that one of these defendants, Thomas Caldwell, sent a message about trying to arrange for guns to be ferried across the Potomac River to Washington.
Thompson was in the House Gallery when the rioters entered the Capitol, and the lawsuit states that he could hear people "trying to break into the chamber refer to Speaker Pelosi as a 'bitch,' saying they wanted to get their hands on her and refer to Vice President Pence as having betrayed President Trump." The lawsuit notes that the 72-year-old lawmaker couldn't observe social distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while he took shelter in a room with several hundred other people, including two other members of Congress who later tested positive for the disease.
"During this entire time, Plaintiff Thompson reasonably feared for his physical
safety. While trapped in the building, during the siege by the rioters that Defendants unleashed on the Capitol, Plaintiff Thompson feared for his life and worried that he might never see his family again," lawyers from the NAACP and a private law firm involved in bringing the case, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, wrote in the complaint.
Thompson is seeking an unspecified amount of money damages from Trump and his codefendants "to punish the Defendants for engaging in a concerted and continuing course of unlawful conduct and to deter the Defendants and others from engaging in similar unlawful conduct in the future."
Giuliani, a representative of the Oath Keepers, and a lawyer representing Trump in the civil rights lawsuit previously filed on behalf of Black voters did not immediately return requests for comment.