The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee has sued former President Donald Trump, his attorney Rudy Giuliani and two violent right-wing groups over the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, alleging a conspiracy to interfere with his official duties as a congressman.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) asserts that Trump, Giuliani, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 — the law passed in the years following the Civil War to combat white supremacist terrorism from the Klan.
The act includes language criminalizing two or more people conspiring to prevent public office-holders from discharging their official duties — in this case, the certification of President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.
“The Defendants acted in concert to incite and then carry out a riot at the Capitol by promoting an assembly of persons to engage in tumultuous and violent conduct or the threat of it that created grave danger of harm to the Plaintiff and to other Members of Congress,” the suit, which was filed on Thompson’s behalf by the NAACP, reads.
In addition to a judgement that the defendants violated the post-Civil War law, the suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial.
The Klan Act of 1871 has been at the center of several prominent civil complaints in recent years. A 2018 lawsuit against a member of Trump’s bogus voter fraud panel alleged the panelist, J. Christian Adams, had violated specific voters’ rights under the law by levying false claims of voter fraud. (The suit was ultimately settled.)
A lawsuit set for trial in October against organizers of the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia also centers on the Klan Act. Ruling against defendants’ motion to dismiss the case in 2018, a federal judge cited the plausible allegation that the organizers had formed “a conspiracy to commit the racial violence that led to the Plaintiffs’ varied Injuries.”
The law “is having a resurgence because of rising far-right extremism that, as we saw in Charlottesville, fits squarely within the scope of what the statue was meant to protect against,” Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, told TPM. The group is spearheading the Charlottesville lawsuit.
Trump and Giuliani didn’t have to be physically involved with the Jan. 6 attack in order to be involved with the conspiracy, the suit alleges. It asserts that the riot was the “natural foreseeable and intended” consequence of their months’ long campaign of “intimidation, harassment and threats” aimed at preventing the Electoral College certification.
Thompson’s suit cites examples of Trump cheering on violence and sowing misinformation about the 2020 election results — a “mounting campaign of misinformation and anger-laden rhetoric to challenge the validity of the election results” — and lays out similar narrative as that presented by the prosecution in Trump’s recent impeachment trial. The suit cites among other things Trump’s tweet on Dec. 19, promising that the Jan. 6 rally “will be wild!”
A Trump spokesperson used the former president’s acquittal in the Senate as a blanket defense to the civil suit. “President Trump has been acquitted in the Democrats’ latest Impeachment Witch Hunt, and the facts are irrefutable,” Jason Miller said.
The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, two far-right groups whose members have been accused of conspiring to attack the Capitol, played a crucial role in the ultimate interruption of Congress, the suit alleges.
Multiple Proud Boys, including leader Joe Biggs, have been charged criminally over their alleged actions on Jan. 6. Prosecutors say members of the group worked together to attack the building and obstruct the law enforcement response.
In a September debate, rather than denouncing the Proud Boys, Trump told the group to “stand back and stand by.” Enrique Tarrio, the group’s chairman, responded in an online post, “Standing by sir.”
The suit also quotes the alleged communications of several members of the Oath Keepers who face conspiracy charges, including Jessica Watkins, who prosecutors say bragged on social media about her role in the attack. “Pushed our way into the Rotunda,” she purportedly said, posting a picture of herself inside the Capitol.
The complaint also describes Thompson’s own experience of the Capitol attack, including him hearing “rioters pounding on the door of the House chamber” and hearing threats aimed at lawmakers certifying the Electoral College count.
Thompson, 72 years old at the time of the attack, also notes how the insurrection forced hundreds of lawmakers to shelter in a room without enough space to socially distance.
“During this entire time, Plaintiff Thompson reasonably feared for his physical safety,” the suit reads. “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.”
Interestingly, the suit concludes by quoting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). McConnell voted against convicting Trump on the impeachment article against him, but noted in a speech following the trial that “former presidents are not immune” from civil or criminal litigation.
This post has been updated.