Trump challenges suits over US Capitol riot, argues fiery speech was official act

Trump's lawyers say he was acting within the scope of his official presidential duties, while the lawsuits say the attack on the US Capitol was a direct consequence of Trump's actions.

 Former US President Donald Trump reacts during his speech during a rally at the Iowa States Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, US, October 9, 2021. (photo credit: RACHEL MUMMEY/REUTERS)
Former US President Donald Trump reacts during his speech during a rally at the Iowa States Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, US, October 9, 2021.
(photo credit: RACHEL MUMMEY/REUTERS)

Donald Trump's lawyer argued in court on Monday that the former president cannot be sued over his fiery speech preceding the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol because he was acting within the scope of his official presidential duties.

Trump's lawyer, Jesse Binnall, said during a court hearing that Trump was "immune," or shielded, from three lawsuits by Democratic members of Congress and two police officers.

"Executive immunity must be broad," Binnall said.

The lawsuits, filed by plaintiffs including Democratic US representatives Eric Swalwell and Jerry Nadler, argue that Trump is liable for injuries to police and lawmakers.

Looming large in the case is a Supreme Court case from 1982 holding that presidents are immune from lawsuits over their official acts.

US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris depart after delivering speeches to mark the first anniversary of the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, US., January 6, 2022. (credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/POOL/REUTERS)US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris depart after delivering speeches to mark the first anniversary of the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, US., January 6, 2022. (credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/POOL/REUTERS)

During a court hearing, which was ongoing, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta repeatedly pressed lawyers for both sides about the limits of this presidential immunity.

Plaintiffs lawyer Joseph Sellers countered that Trump's speech was a campaign event, not an official act and said it was "inconceivable" that the Supreme Court intended to shield presidents from lawsuits over this sort of conduct.

"There is no legitimate role for fomenting an insurrection aimed at Congress," Sellers said.

The Democratic lawmakers have invoked an 1871 law passed to fight the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan that prohibits political intimidation.

The lawsuits charge that the worst attack on the US Capitol since the War of 1812 was a direct consequence of Trump's actions, including the speech to thousands of supporters who then stormed the building to try to overturn President Joe Biden's election.

Mehta was unlikely to issue a ruling on Monday, but the hearing may shed light on whether Trump and allies can be held liable in a civil court for the deadly Capitol siege.

Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives and acquitted by the Senate on a charge of inciting the riot, which is also under investigation by a House select committee.

Swalwell's lawsuit includes similar claims against Trump allies who also spoke at the Jan. 6 rally, including campaign lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr., and Republican congressman Mo Brooks.

Brooks has sought to dismiss Swalwell's claims, arguing his remarks at the Jan. 6 rally were within the scope of his duties as a House member. A law called the Westfall Act protects federal employees from being sued for actions taken as part of their jobs.

Trump and his co-defendants have argued that their remarks preceding the Jan. 6 attack were political speech protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

The two Capitol Police officers who sued Trump are James Blassingame and Sidney Hemby.