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Colorado trial: Extremism expert accuses Trump of violent rhetoric that led to Capitol attack

October 31, 2023, 6:47 pm

Former President Donald Trump’s history of violent rhetoric and statements about extremist groups were the subject of continued testimony on Tuesday in a trial seeking to bar him from the 2024 Colorado ballot under a Civil War-era constitutional provision.

It’s a pattern that the plaintiffs in the case and an expert witness say is crucial to establishing Trump’s “role in orchestrating, inciting and preserving the attack on the Capitol” on Jan. 6, 2021. Because of his actions that day and in the preceding weeks, the plaintiffs’ lawsuit argues, Trump is ineligible to run for president under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which prohibits anyone who took an oath to uphold the Constitution and then “engaged in insurrection” from holding office in the United States.

Pete Simi, a Chapman University sociologist who has studied far-right extremism for more than 20 years, testified that in the months after President Joe Biden won the 2020 election, Trump led an effort to influence violent extremist groups that “ultimately resulted in the attack on the Capitol.”

Simi, who said he’d conducted hundreds of interviews with members of extremist groups while researching their communication patterns, pointed to repeated references to “1776” by Trump supporters in the lead-up to Jan. 6. Those references, Simi said, were “a violent call for revolution” and an example of the “doublespeak” that extremist groups and their allies use to urge violence while maintaining deniability.

“It would have a certain meaning to outsiders,” Simi said. “But insiders would understand and interpret that word differently.”

U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Silt Republican who came under scrutiny for her own role in the events of Jan. 6, posted the short message “Today is 1776” on social media hours before the attack.

The 14th Amendment case was brought by six Republican and unaffiliated Colorado voters, with support from the nonprofit Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, who sued Trump and Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold in Denver District Court in September. They argue that Colorado law requires Griswold to deny Trump a place on the 2024 presidential ballot. Trump campaign representatives have described the challenge as “election interference” by “far-left wacko groups.”

In cross-examination, Trump attorney Scott Gessler pressed Simi to acknowledge that conspiracy theories, distrust of institutions and other features of right-wing extremism are “common themes in American politics” and used by “both sides of the political spectrum.” And he challenged Simi’s assertions about the use of “doublespeak” by certain political figures.

“You don’t really know if that speaker is engaging in doublespeak, absent any understanding of their intent,” Gessler said.

‘All about context’

Plaintiffs’ attorneys have repeatedly cited Trump’s Jan. 6 speech near the White House, shortly before the attack, in which he called on supporters to march to the Capitol in order to influence the election certification process taking place there. In that speech, the plaintiffs noted, Trump used a version of the word “fight” more than 20 times, while referring to “peacefully” protesting just once.

Trump’s attorneys have emphasized the former president’s call to protest “peacefully,” characterized the speech’s more combative language as metaphorical, pointing to many other politicians on both sides of the aisle who routinely use such figures of speech. Gessler, during his cross-examination, showed Simi an extended video montage of Democrats using the word “fight” with respect to political issues. But the plaintiffs sought to characterize Trump’s rhetoric as distinct from such everyday usage.

“What differences have you observed between Donald Trump’s use of rhetoric like that, and other political speakers?” asked Eric Olson, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

“This is all about context,” Simi replied. “It has to be understood within a pattern that developed over multiple years.”

Over multiple hours of testimony on Tuesday morning, Olson asked Simi to review repeated instances of Trump’s extreme rhetoric over the years, including his claim that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017; his references to “roughing up” protesters at his campaign rallies; his instruction to the Proud Boys, an extremist group, to “stand back and stand by,” during a 2020 presidential debate; and a social media post calling on supporters to gather in D.C. on Jan. 6, which he said “will be wild.”

Differing views of Jan. 6 violence

Eyewitness and expert testimony during the trial’s first two days has put a spotlight on the widely diverging interpretations of Jan. 6 violence still held by plaintiffs and Trump’s legal team.

As outlined in their opening statement Monday, the plaintiffs’ case hinges on their claims that the Jan. 6 attack constituted an “insurrection,” and that Trump “engaged in” that insurrection. Trump’s attorneys have disputed not only the latter claim, but the former, too.

“There are lots of definitions of what an insurrection is,” Gessler said during his own opening statement. “When there are numerous definition, there might as well be none.”

In cross-examination of witnesses to the events at the Capitol, including two police officers who were assaulted by the crowd, Trump’s attorneys have sought to emphasize that several different pro-Trump protests and events were planned throughout the day on Jan. 6. They pressed both officers to acknowledge they didn’t have “mind-reading” powers and could not say with certainty what motivated the crowd to storm the building. Gessler on Tuesday lodged repeated objections to portions of Simi’s testimony in which he said that some of the Capitol rioters were armed.

Over the last three years, Trump, his allies and other Republican figures have offered a wide-ranging and inconsistent set of interpretations of what transpired on Jan. 6. Unfounded conspiracy theories alleging the attack was staged by left-wing groups, or that federal law enforcement agencies covertly instigated the violence, have been accompanied by claims that the pro-Trump mob resembled a “normal tourist visit” to the Capitol and that alleged and convicted rioters are “political prisoners.”

Shortly before the trial’s start on Monday, plaintiffs and Trump’s attorneys agreed to a joint stipulation of facts, a legal document used to provide the court with a record of factual information that is not disputed by any party to the case. The deep lack of agreement between the parties regarding the Jan. 6 attack is indicated by the filing’s single oblique reference to the day’s events.

“The joint session of Congress convened on January 6, 2021, at or around 1:00 pm, to count the electoral votes,” the document reads. “The Senate recessed at 2:13 p.m. and reconvened at 8:06 p.m. The House recessed at 2:29 p.m. and reconvened at 9:02 p.m.”

As expert testimony continued on Tuesday afternoon, the plaintiffs called William Banks, a Syracuse University law professor, as a witness. Banks is an expert on national security and counterterrorism law and was the founding director of the school’s Institute for Security Policy and Law, and has worked extensively with military officials and law enforcement agencies to simulate and plan for potential security crises.

Banks testified that under federal law, Trump had broad powers to order elements of the National Guard or law enforcement personnel from any of several executive-branch agencies to respond to the mob violence that unfolded in the hours after his speech. In response to questioning from plaintiffs’ attorneys, Banks noted that Trump had done just that in response to protests over police violence that erupted in D.C. and across the country in the summer of 2020, but did not issue any such orders on Jan. 6.

“Who else in the world had all of those authorities at their disposal on Jan. 6?” asked Sean Grimsley, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

“No one,” answered Banks.

Editor’s note: Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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