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Trump legal news brief: Appeals court rules Trump can be sued for inciting Jan. 6 violence

A federal appeals court rules that civil lawsuits seeking damages against former President Donald Trump for his role in inciting the U.S. Capitol riot carried out by his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, can proceed. In the Georgia racketeering and election interference case brought by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, Judge Scott McAfee hears arguments on whether the charges against Trump and some of his 14 co-defendants should be dismissed. Here are the latest key developments in the legal cases facing the man who is trying to return to the White House.

Jan. 6 election interference

Immunity claims don’t protect Trump from being sued for inciting Jan. 6 attack, appeals court rules

Key players: D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, special counsel Jack Smith

A three-judge appeals court panel ruled Friday that Trump's claims of absolute immunity did not protect him from being sued for his role in the violent attack by his supporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to block the Electoral College certification of Joe Biden's victory, ABC News reported.

"The sole issue before us is whether President Trump has demonstrated an entitlement to official-act immunity for his actions leading up to and on January 6 as alleged in the complaints," the court said in its ruling. "We answer no, at least at this stage of the proceedings. When a first-term President opts to seek a second term, his campaign to win re-election is not an official presidential act."

Trump’s lawyers had argued that he couldn’t be sued by U.S. Capitol Police officers and Democratic lawmakers because he was acting in his official capacity as president as he fought to contest the 2020 election results and encouraged his supporters to gather in Washington and march to the Capitol building on Jan. 6.

In 2021, Thompson and the NAACP filed suit against Trump and Guiliani, alleging they violated the so-called Ku Klux Klan act which, in 1871, cleared the way for government officials to be sued for alleged civil rights violations. Ten other Democratic lawmakers later joined the lawsuit while Thompson left it to serve as chairman of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.

Several U.S. Capitol Police officers also sued Trump for damages stemming from physical and emotional injuries they incurred during the Jan. 6 riot.

While the appeals court ruling clears the way for those lawsuits to proceed, it left open the possibility that Trump could still seek to use an immunity defense in regards to specific claims brought against him.

Why it matters: If the appeals court had ruled that Trump was immune from lawsuits in the Jan. 6 matter because he was president, that would have not only quashed the two pending civil suits against him. In his own indictment of Trump, Smith also cited the KKK act. With Friday's loss, however, Trump's lawyers will need to prepare to defend the former president in yet more cases.

Georgia election interference

Trump lawyer tells Georgia judge that RICO case ‘violates free speech’

Key players: Trump lawyer Steven Sadow, Judge Scott McAfee, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, Fulton County prosecutor Will Wooten, accused fake elector and former chair of the Georgia GOP David Shafer

Among the motions heard in court Friday to dismiss racketeering and election interference charges brought by Willis against Trump and 14 others, Sadow stuck with the argument that the case violates his First Amendment rights, CNN reported.

“You take the facts as alleged in the indictment, throughout the RICO count, and when you do that, as applied constitutionally with the First Amendment, you’ll find that it violates free speech, freedom of petitioning, all the expressions that the First Amendment is designed to protect, and therefore the indictment needs to be dismissed,” Sadow told McAfee.

McAfee later asked Sadow, “If your client does win election in 2024, could he even be tried in 2025?”

Sadow responded that “this trial would not take place at all until after he left his term of office.”

Earlier in Friday’s hearing, lawyers for Shafer told McAfee that the charges against him should be dropped because the accused “fake electors” were actually “contingent electors” who did not violate the law.

Wooten countered that argument, telling the court: “None of them are presidential electors. They’ve never been presidential electors as it relates to the 2020 election. So those arguments do not apply.”

McAfee said as the proceedings began that he was unlikely to make any substantial rulings on Friday.

Willis, meanwhile, has asked McAfee to set an Aug. 5 start date for the trial.

Why it matters: The bid by Trump and some of his co-defendants to simply have the charges against them dismissed is viewed as a long-shot by many legal experts. Trump's lawyers have unsuccessfully pushed a First Amendment defense for his actions and statements in multiple cases against him as well as in arguments against enforcing gag orders on the former president.

Recommended reading

CNN: Pro-Trump attorney who orchestrated fake electors plot cooperating in Nevada criminal probe

NBC News: Supreme Court to consider hearing Jan. 6 cases that could affect Trump prosecution

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Thursday, Nov. 30

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A New York appeals court reinstates the gag order imposed on former President Donald Trump that prohibits him from making critical comments about Judge Arthur Engoron’s court staff, including his clerk. Upon learning that news, Engoron tells Trump’s lawyers that he intends “to enforce the gag orders rigorously and vigorously.” Here are the latest updates from the legal cases brought against the man looking to return to the White House.

New York financial fraud

Appeals court reinstates Trump gag order

Key players: Judge Arthur Engoron, clerk Allison Greenfield, New York Attorney General Letitia James, Trump lawyer Christopher Kise

On Thursday, a New York state appeals court reinstated the gag order imposed on Trump by Engoron that prevents him from commenting about the judge's staff, Politico reported.

The ruling by the judges states, “upon reading and filing the papers with respect to the motion, and due deliberation having been had thereon, It is ordered that the motion is denied; the interim relief granted by order of a Justice of this Court, dated November 16, 2023, is hereby vacated.”

After Trump spread an unfounded rumor about Greenfield, Engoron issued a gag order that was designed to prevent the former president from attacking his staff. But Trump went on to violate the order, and was fined a total of $15,000 by the judge.

After Engoron's gag order was paused by a justice on the appeals court on Nov. 16, Trump resumed attacking Greenfield and lawyers for James's office told the appeals court that Greenfield received a flood of threats, many of them antisemitic, from Trump's supporters.

Trump regularly criticizes Engoron and has begun attacking his wife in social media posts, accusing the two of being biased against him, but those comments are not prohibited by the gag order.

On Thursday, Engoron responded to the appeals court ruling, saying: “I intend to enforce the gag orders rigorously and vigorously. I want to make sure that counsel informs their clients of the fact that the stay was vacated.”

Kise, who had sought to have the gag order permanently lifted, called its reinstatement “a tragic day for the rule of law.”

Why it matters: Trump's persistent attacks on the witnesses, judges, prosecutors and court staff in the many legal cases against him have created a legal gray area in which appeals courts are having to weigh the former president's First Amendment rights with the safety of those he targets as well as the impact the attacks may have on finding an impartial jury.

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Wednesday, Nov. 29

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In a filing made to the Colorado Supreme Court, lawyers for former President Donald Trump say that he never took an oath “to support the Constitution of the United States’’ and should therefore not be banned from the state’s presidential ballots in 2024 based on Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. In the New York financial fraud civil trial, an executive with Deutsche Bank testifies about the favorable loan rates the bank gave Trump and the decision to part ways with one of its most famous clients. Here are the latest developments in the legal cases involving the man looking to return to the White House.

Jan. 6 election interference

Trump’s lawyers say he never took oath ‘to support the Constitution’

Key players: Colorado Supreme Court, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Colorado District Judge Sarah Wallace

Filings submitted to the Colorado Supreme Court this week from lawyers for Trump and CREW presented opposing views on whether Trump's role in the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol violated his oath of office and, under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, made him ineligible to run again, Truthout reported.

Section 3 bars those found to have engaged in “insurrection or rebellion” and who had previously taken an oath “to support the Constitution” from holding elected office again. But Trump’s attorneys argued it was not applicable due to the stature of the presidency and the wording of the oath.

"Section Three does not apply, because the presidency is not an office 'under the United States,' the president is not an 'officer of the United States,' and President Trump did not take an oath 'to support the Constitution of the United States,'" Trump's lawyers wrote.

Instead, the attorneys noted, Trump swore “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.”

CREW, which is representing six Colorado voters appealing Wallace’s ruling that Trump’s name could remain on state ballots, argued Trump’s argument was merely semantic.

“The Constitution" CREW stated in its brief to the court, "explicitly tells us, over and over, that the Presidency is an ‘office.’ The natural meaning of ‘officer of the United States’ is anyone who holds a federal ‘office.’ And the natural reading of ‘oath to support the Constitution’ includes the stronger Presidential oath to ‘preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.’”

The court has scheduled a hearing to hear arguments in the matter on Dec. 6.

Why it matters: Whatever the Colorado Supreme Court decides, its ruling will likely be appealed and the case will likely make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the heart of the case is the question of what limits the Constitution puts on presidential power.

New York financial fraud

Deutsche Bank executive testifies about ending relationship with Trump

Key players: Former Deutsche Bank managing director Rosemary Vrablic, New York Attorney General Letitia James, Judge Arthur Engoron

In testimony Wednesday the court saw evidence that Vrablic expressed concern about the public nature of Trump's 2012 acquisition of the Old Post Office building in Washington, D.C., fearing the deal might publicize the favorable loan terms offered by the bank,ABC News reported.

"Will our terms and conditions with you be made public? Not a credit issue, but we want to be prepared if 'other clients' see it and ask for the same deal," Vrablic wrote in a 2013 email shown at trial.

"He was president of the United States — going to become president of the United States — and the bank's position was they did not want to increase its exposure at that time," Vrablic testified.

Earlier, however, Vrablic described efforts the bank made to court Trump’s business and disclosed that it made millions off of loans to his business.

Trump’s lawyers argue that there was no crime committed because he kept up payments on the loans and the lenders were happy with the arrangement.

In her $250 million lawsuit, James alleges that Trump reaped more than $1 billion in profits by lying about his financial condition to banks and insurers, who then gave him favorable terms for loans and rates.

Engoron, who has already ruled Trump, his adult sons and their family business committed fraud, said this week that "the mere fact that the lenders were happy doesn't mean the statute wasn't violated."

Why it matters: While the trial will decide what penalties the defendants must pay after being found liable for fraud, Engoron will also rule on James's argument that the Trump Organization should be barred from purchasing New York real estate for five years and that Trump and his adult sons should not be permitted to serve as officers of any company in the state, Politico reported.

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Tuesday, Nov. 28

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In a new court filing, lawyers for former President Donald Trump make their case that former Vice President Mike Pence spoke to special counsel Jack Smith’s team in an effort to “curry favor” and avoid being charged in a Justice Department investigation into Pence’s handling of classified documents. A new report recounts what Pence told Smith, including his decision to oversee the certification of the Electoral College tally showing that Joe Biden won the 2020 election despite his view that doing so would be “hurtful” to Trump. Meanwhile, the judge in the election subversion case denies a Trump motion requesting records from the House Jan. 6 select committee and seeking testimony from its members and witnesses.

Jan. 6 election interference

In a filing, Trump says Pence cooperated with the special counsel to avoid charges in a documents inquiry

Key players: Former Vice President Mike Pence, President Joe Biden, Mar-a-Lago property manager Carlos De Oliveira, Trump valet Walt Nauta

In a Monday court filing, Trump's lawyers accused Pence of trying to "curry favor" with Smith's team "by providing information that is consistent with the Biden Administration's preferred, and false, narrative regarding this case," Rolling Stone reported.

Trump's filing noted that the Justice Department closed its investigation into Pence's handling of classified documents in June without filing any charges against him, implying, without evidence, that the former vice president's testimony had factored into that decision.

In the filing, Trump’s lawyers requested that Smith provide information into the decision not to charge Pence.

Trump is charged with 40 felony counts for his handling of classified documents after leaving the White House, including 32 violations of the Espionage Act and eight charges alleging efforts to obstruct the investigation.

Two Trump employees, Nauta and De Oliveira have also been charged with aiding the efforts to obstruct the recovery of the documents.

Pence and President Joe Biden both cooperated fully with investigators seeking the return of other documents with classified markings.

Why it matters: Smith is likely to call Pence to the witness stand in the election interference case against Trump that is scheduled to begin on March 4, and the former president is attempting to discredit him beforehand.

What Pence told Smith’s team

Key players: former Vice President Mike Pence, special counsel Jack Smith, President Joe Biden

In interviews with Smith's team conducted earlier this year, Pence described the pressure Trump applied to persuade him to refuse to certify the Electoral College votes showing Biden had won the 2020 election, sources told ABC News.

While Pence told Trump in December of 2020 that he saw no evidence that the election was “stolen,” he considered simply not showing up on Jan. 6, 2021, to certify the results because doing so would be “too hurtful to my friend.”

"Not feeling like I should attend electoral count," Pence wrote in notes he wrote to himself obtained by ABC News. "Too many questions, too many doubts, too hurtful to my friend. Therefore I'm not going to participate in certification of election."

But Pence, who will almost certainly be called by Smith as a witness in the election subversion case against the former president, ultimately informed Trump that he would oversee the certification.

"I told him I thought there was no idea more un-American than the idea that any one person could decide what electoral votes to count," Pence allegedly told Smith's team, according to sources. "I made it very plain to him that it was inconsistent with our history and tradition."

Why it matters: Pence is the highest-ranking member of the Trump administration who will testify in the case. He will be able to describe firsthand conversations he had with Trump prior to the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and the efforts to subvert the election results.

Judge denies Trump motion for Jan. 6 committee records

Key players: Judge Tanya Chutkan

On Monday, Chutkan denied a motion filed in October by Trump's lawyers that sought records from the House Jan. 6 select committee's investigation and the issuance of subpoenas for some of its Democratic members and witnesses, BBC News reported.

Trump’s request, Chutkan wrote, provided only a "vague description of their potential relevance" that the records and subpoenas would provide. She also noted that the transcripts of video interviews with witnesses had already been given to Trump’s lawyers.

In their October motion, Trump’s lawyers said they sought “missing materials” relating to the 2020 election. But Chutkan called the request a “fishing expedition.”

Trump is charged with four felony counts relating to his efforts to subvert the 2020 election results.

Why it matters: Trump is seeking to relitigate the handling of the 2020 election to try to show that he had good reason to contest his loss to Joe Biden. Seeking additional records and testimony could also drag the trial out past the 2024 election.

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Monday, Nov. 27

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In a Monday appeals court filing, lawyers for former President Donald Trump argue that hundreds of recent threats made against Judge Arthur Engoron and his law clerk do not justify keeping a gag order in place in the New York financial fraud trial of Trump, his adult sons and their family business. While Trump already faces 91 felony charges, he could yet see even more pending the results of ongoing state investigations in at least four states into the fake elector scheme to keep him in power. Here is the latest legal maneuvering in the criminal and civil cases facing the man seeking to become the next president.

New York financial fraud

Trump lawyers: Threats to judge and his clerk don’t justify gag order

Key players: Judge Arthur Engoron, clerk Allison Greenfield, New York Attorney General Letitia James

On Monday, lawyers for Trump said in a court filing that threats made toward Engoron and Greenfield by Trump's supporters did not justify keeping a gag order put in place by the judge of the financial fraud trial, CNN reported.

“At base, the disturbing behavior engaged in by anonymous, third-party actors towards the judge and Principal Law Clerk publicly presiding over an extremely polarizing and high-profile trial merits appropriate security measures," the filing stated. "However, it does not justify the wholesale abrogation of Petitioners’ First Amendment rights in a proceeding of immense stakes to Petitioners, which has been compromised by the introduction of partisan bias on the bench.”

Engoron’s gag order, which the appeals court has paused until it issues a final ruling on the matter, was designed to prevent Trump from attacking the judge’s staff.

Since the October start of the trial, Engoron and Greenfield have been deluged with threats that have been “serious and credible,” James’s office told the court, with hundreds coming in the past week alone.

Engoron’s clerk receives dozens of messages each day on her personal cellphone, on social media platforms and at her personal email addresses, court papers filed by Engoron’s lawyers stated, about half of them expressing antisemitic views.

Why it matters: Trump has repeatedly criticized Engoron and Greenfield, which James has characterized as a form of intimidation that endangers their safety. Trump's attorneys counter that leaving the gag order in place is a violation of the former president's First Amendment rights.

Jan. 6 election interference

More states could file charges stemming from ‘fake elector’ plot to keep Trump in power

Key players: Pro-Trump lawyers John Eastman, Kenneth Chesebro, Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell, former Georgia GOP chair David Shafer, Georgia state Sen. Shawn Still, Georgia GOP officialKathleen Latham, Georgia bail bondsman Scott Hall

State attorneys general in at least four states are continuing to investigate whether to bring charges stemming from the "fake elector" plot to keep Trump in power following his loss in the 2020 election, The Hill reported.

Officials in Arizona, Nevada, Michigan and Pennsylvania are among those weighing whether to charge more people with crimes in the scheme pushed by Eastman for states to certify an alternate slate of electors to try to block Joe Biden’s victory.

In Georgia, Eastman, Shafer, Still and Latham have all been charged with felonies stemming from those efforts. Chesebro, one of the architects of the fake elector plan, has already pleaded guilty and may yet face charges in other states, as have Ellis, Powell and Hall.

In Michigan, 16 people who posed as "duly elected and qualified electors" are already facing charges.

Why it matters: Trump and his allies held meetings with officials in multiple states in their efforts to overturn his 2020 losses in key swing states. Already charged with 91 felonies heading into the 2024 Republican primary, he could yet be hit with even more.

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