It’s been almost five years since my colleagues and I sued then-candidate Trump for inciting violence at his campaign rallies on behalf of three protesters who were beaten up by an angry mob of white supremacists. We lost. This article is addressed to the federal judges who tossed out our case without holding the President accountable when you had the chance.
We told you so.
Let’s take a moment to remember what the political landscape in 2016 was like. Back then, American democracy was chronically ill, but not yet looking for a hospice bed to die in. And yet, anyone paying attention knew that an unprecedented brand of American political violence was in the works on Trump’s campaign trail.
• On August 11, 2015, in reaction to a protester seizing a microphone from another candidate, Trump said, “That will never happen with me… I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself, or if other people will.”
• On November 22, 2015 Trump said of protesters, “The third group, I’ll be a little more violent. And the fourth group, I’ll say get the hell out of here!”
• On February 1, 2016, at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Trump instructed those in the crowd to “knock the crap out of” anyone who was “getting ready to throw a tomato.” “Seriously. OK? Just knock the hell…” Trump ensured the crowd that he would cover their legal fees: “I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.”
• On February 22, 2016, at a rally in Las Vegas, Trump responded to a protester by alluding to the fact that protesters had it too easy. “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.” Trump told his supporters that he would like “to punch [the protester] in the face.”
• On March 4, 2016, at a rally in Warren, Michigan, Trump gave the instruction to remove the protester, and promised: “If you do [hurt him], I’ll defend you in court. Don’t worry about it.”
• On March 29, 2016, at a rally in Janesville, Wisconsin, a 15-year-old protester was pepper sprayed in the face and allegedly sexually assaulted by two Trump supporters. As the protester left the rally, Trump’s supporters erupted with “Hell yeah,” name calling, e.g., “goddamn communist, n****r lover,” cries of victory, and an echo of Trump’s usual response to protesters: “Get ’em out of here!”
High-profile legal scholars and journalists were sounding the alarm, knowing that things were going to get very ugly if someone didn’t put a stop to it. Even the worst Republicans knew it, including noted fascist apologist Ted Cruz, who said: “A campaign bears responsibility for creating an environment where the candidate urges supporters to engage in violence.”
Anyone with an ounce of sense knew that Trump was asking for violence at his rallies, and getting it. And on March 1, 2016, he got it in Louisville. Our clients, who included a 17-year-old, a special education teacher, and a Black college student, came to peacefully protest a Trump rally. They got the shit kicked out of them.
Instead of allowing his own security, the Secret Service, or venue security to remove protesters, Trump stopped his half-hour speech five different times to point out individuals and, in most cases, to tell his crowd of supporters to “get ’em out of here.” And that’s what they did. Our Black client, as one might expect, got the worst of this. In a viral video, she was shoved half the length of a convention center by notorious neo-Nazi and mother-in-law fondler Matthew Heimbach. She was also chased and assaulted by Alvin Bamberger, a 75-year-old embodiment of the wacky QAnon papaw that many of us have come to know (and block) in the years since. She was called every slur in the segregationist lexicon.
As our clients were being bounced out by a crowd of seething white nationalists, Trump said on the mic: “In the old days, which isn’t so long ago, when we were less politically correct, that kinda stuff wouldn’t have happened. Today we have to be so nice, so nice. We always have to be so nice.” Then Trump went into a discussion about waterboarding, and how it was “absolutely fine.”
So we sued the son of a bitch. We sued him for inciting a riot and for negligence. We also sued his goon supporters, one of whom was connected with the storming of the Capitol almost five years later, for plain ol’ battery. We presented the court with all the above evidence of violence at campaign rallies. The individuals who did the assaulting also sued Trump. Why? Because, according to them, Trump made them do it.
None of this mattered to the federal courts. The trial judge, to his credit, refused to dismiss the case against Trump for incitement. But at the urging of the Trump’s lapdogs at soulless, amoral megafirm Jones Day, the original judge sent the incitement question to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, where good cases go to die. There, Judge David McKeague, a George W. Bush appointee, held that the “First Amendment demands governmental tolerance of speech, in the name of freedom[.]” According to McKeague, Trump telling supporters — for months — to beat up protesters didn’t necessarily mean he really wanted it to happen in Louisville. After all, reasoned McKeague, he even said “don’t hurt ‘em!” And so Trump did the only thing he does well: slithered away, leaving his followers to clean up his mess without so much as paying the legal fees he promised.
Whether courts condemn bad behavior, or refuse to condemn it, it sends a message. And now, after five years of no real accountability for Trump, we are faced with the inevitable result of the courts’ refusal to send that message. The storming of the Capitol was basically just another Trump rally. The President asked for violence, and he got it — again. The biggest surprise is not that five people were killed, but that it took this long to happen. Anyone could have seen this coming. Anyone, that is, except a federal judge hiding behind a barricade of “free speech.”
So, to the judges of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and every other judge who’s refused to hold this president accountable for stoking mob violence at every opportunity for the last five years: The deaths of those five people in D.C., the deaths of who knows how many more in the coming weeks, and the impending death of American democracy, are all on your hands. We told you so.