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Trump Loses Bid for Immunity in Capitol Attack Civil Lawsuits

A federal appeals court has ruled against former President Donald Trump, stating that he is not currently entitled to absolute immunity in civil lawsuits related to the January 6th attack on the US Capitol. The decision marks a significant setback for Trump, who is facing criminal charges related to efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

Trump’s Argument Rejected

NEW YORK, USA – Sep 21, 2017: Meeting of the President of the United States Donald Trump with the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko in New York — Photo by palinchak

The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit rejected Trump’s argument that his status as president at the time shielded him from civil lawsuits concerning his actions leading up to the January 6, 2021, riot and his comments to supporters on that fateful morning. The court stated that Trump could potentially claim immunity at a later stage in the case but not at this early point.

Criminal Charges Loom

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The ruling poses a challenge for Trump as he faces criminal charges related to his alleged involvement in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. His defense team contends that he is also entitled to executive immunity in the criminal case, setting the stage for a similar legal battle over the scope of his official duties as president.

Read More: US Responds to Attack on Ship in Red Sea

Civil vs. Criminal Immunity

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The appeals court clarified that its decision focused on civil claims and did not address the issue of immunity in the context of criminal prosecution. 

Analysis of Immunity Criteria

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Chief Judge Sri Srinivasan, writing for the three-judge panel, stated that Trump would not be entitled to immunity in civil suits if he were acting as a candidate for reelection during the events in question. The court rejected Trump’s lawyers’ assertion that any time a sitting president spoke on matters of public concern, it qualified as an official act, calling it a “sweeping proposition.”

Potential for Future Immunity Claim

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The court ruled against Trump’s immunity claim at this stage because he argued that his status as a candidate did not matter as long as he was also the president. However, the judges left open the possibility that Trump could revive the immunity argument by presenting evidence that the actions cited in the lawsuits, such as his January 6 rally speech, were “official actions.”

Also Read: Kavanaugh’s Stance on Presidential Immunity Challenged in Trump Cases 

Trump’s Reaction

NEW YORK, USA – Sep 21, 2017: President of the United States Donald Trump during a meeting with the president of Ukraine in New York — Photo by palinchak

A spokesperson for Trump, Steven Cheung, described the ruling as “limited, narrow, and procedural.” Cheung asserted that the facts indicated Trump was acting on behalf of the American people on January 6, carrying out his duties as president.

Plaintiffs’ Response

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Lead attorney for the plaintiffs who sued Trump, Joe Sellers, expressed satisfaction with the ruling, stating that it brings them closer to holding the former president accountable for the harm caused during the January 6 attack.

Potential Legal Avenues

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Trump’s legal team now has the option to petition the full DC Circuit bench for reconsideration of the ruling or seek intervention from the US Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Trump is expected to continue his legal battles in the civil cases brought by police officers and Democratic members of Congress if they proceed to trial.

Read More: Watchdog Reveals Misleading Information on Capitol Attack

Court’s Focus

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Chief Judge Srinivasan emphasized that the court’s decision did not address Trump’s responsibility for the January 6 attack. It also hinted at potential future legal disputes, including Trump’s claim that his post-election activities were protected under the First Amendment.

Trump’s Indictment and Trial Date

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Trump faces election interference charges, indicted in August by Special Counsel John “Jack” Smith’s office. While he is not directly accused of inciting the January 6 attack, prosecutors have attributed blame to him for promoting false election fraud claims and directing supporters to the Capitol. Trump has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is scheduled for March 4.

Previous Ruling

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In the civil cases, US District Judge Amit Mehta had previously rejected Trump’s immunity claim in a February 2022 decision. Mehta found that Trump’s post-election actions and speech were part of an effort to retain power and were not considered presidential functions.

Also Read: Federal Judge Rules Against Oregon Senators Seeking Reelection After Boycotting Session

Justice Department’s Position

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The Justice Department argued that incitement of “imminent private violence” was not protected under the First Amendment and did not fall within a president’s duties, thereby denying Trump immunity.

Complexity of the Issue

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Chief Judge Srinivasan explained that the court did not adopt the government’s approach because it would involve delving into First Amendment questions that had not yet been addressed. He also noted that tying a president’s immunity to constitutionally protected speech was a challenging fit.

Potential Consequences

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The government’s stance could potentially allow a president to avoid lawsuits over constitutionally protected speech outside their official duties, while, conversely, it could open the door to lawsuits over speech delivered in an official capacity, such as during a State of the Union address.

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