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Appeals court rules lawsuits against Trump over January 6 riot can move forward

Rioters appear at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington (John Minchillo/AP, File)
Rioters appear at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington (John Minchillo/AP, File)

Lawsuits against Donald Trump over the US Capitol riot can move forward, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.

The decision marks a rejection of the former president’s bid to dismiss the cases accusing him of inciting the violent mob on January 6, 2021.

The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit court knocked down Mr Trump’s sweeping claims that presidential immunity shields him from liability in the lawsuits brought by Democratic law makers and police officers.

But the three-judge panel said the 2024 Republican presidential primary frontrunner can continue to fight, as the cases proceed, to try to prove that his actions were taken in his official capacity as president.

Mr Trump has said he cannot be sued over the riot that left dozens of police officers injured, arguing that his words during a rally before the storming of the Capitol addressed “matters of public concern” and fall within the scope of absolute presidential immunity.

The decision comes as Mr Trump’s lawyers are arguing he is also immune from prosecution in the separate criminal case brought by special counsel Jack Smith that accuses Mr Trump of illegally plotting to overturn his election loss to President Joe Biden.

Mr Smith’s team has signalled that it will make the case at trial that Mr Trump is responsible for the violence at the Capitol and point to Mr Trump’s continued embrace of the January 6 rioters on the campaign trail to argue that he intended for the chaos that day.

Friday’s ruling underscores the challenges facing Mr Trump as he tries to persuade courts, and potentially juries, that the actions he took in the run-up to the riot were part of his official duties as president.

The judge presiding over his election subversion criminal trial, Tanya Chutkan, also rejected that claim in an order released on Friday night.

While courts have afforded presidents broad immunity for their official acts, the judges made clear that that protection does not cover just any act or speech undertaken by a president.

A president running for a second term, for example, is not carrying out the official duties of the presidency when he is speaking at a rally funded by his re-election campaign or attends a private fundraiser, the appeals court said.

Trump Capitol Riot
Donald Trump could still seek to argue that his actions were protected by the First Amendment (Bryon Houlgrave/AP, File)

“He is acting as office-seeker, not office-holder — no less than are the persons running against him when they take precisely the same actions in their competing campaigns to attain precisely the same office,” Judge Sri Srinivasan wrote for the court.

But the court said its decision is not necessarily the final word on the issue of presidential immunity, leaving the door open for Mr Trump to keep fighting the issue.

And it took pains to note that it was not being asked to evaluate whether Mr Trump was responsible for the riot or should be held to account in court.

It also said Mr Trump could still seek to argue that his actions were protected by the First Amendment — a claim he has also made in his pending criminal case — or covered by other privileges.

“When these cases move forward in the district court, he must be afforded the opportunity to develop his own facts on the immunity question if he desires to show that he took the actions alleged in the complaints in his official capacity as president rather than in his unofficial capacity as a candidate,” the court said.

Mr Trump could ask the full appeals court to take up the matter or go to the US Supreme Court.

A lawyer for Mr Trump, Jesse Binnall, did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment on the ruling. A Trump campaign spokesperson called the decision “limited, narrow and procedural”.