The attorneys attempting to paint former President Trump as an insurrectionist in order to get him banned from the ballot in Colorado in 2024 focused their case Tuesday on signals he sent to extremist groups who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Attorney Eric Olson, representing the plaintiffs, relied on expert testimony from an extremism expert during the second day of a trial that centers on whether Trump should be disqualified from running for president in the state, citing the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
Chapman University professor Pete Simi, who studies political violence and extremism, argued that Trump cultivated a far-right following for years even before running for president, creating a relationship he took advantage of in his attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss. He said he was “very confident” that Trump led the events of Jan. 6.
“From my years of studying how far-right extremists perceive communication, the relationship that they developed with Donald Trump over multiple years, the various signals … promoting or endorsing violence, things done over social media … that aligned with many of the things that Trump said over the years,” Simi said.
“That relationship that was established and built, I think, really underscores how much influence he has for far-right extremists, and how much they perceive him as essentially one on their side or one of them,” he continued.
Simi argued that Trump’s far-right courting began in the 2012 election cycle with his promotion of the birtherism conspiracy theory that centered on former President Obama. That gave Trump clout in far-right spaces, Simi said, which he reinforced when he launched his 2016 presidential campaign with inflammatory rhetoric about Mexican people, which also aligned with far-right views.
Simi also pointed to Trump’s reaction to the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., white supremacist rally where he said there were good people on “both sides.” Then, during a debate with now-President Biden during the 2020 election cycle, Trump told the right-wing group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” when asked to denounce such extremist groups.
Even on Jan. 6, Simi argued, Trump’s preriot speech calling on “patriots” to “fight” and repeated fears over “losing your country,” despite requests for them to be “peaceful,” should be considered as true calls to violence.
“For extremists there was a clear understanding that fighting is the real message, not peaceful,” Simi said of Trump’s Jan. 6 speech on the Ellipse in Washington right before the storming of the Capitol.
Under cross-examination, Simi was asked if Trump had any intent to signal to the extremist groups.
“I can say he expressed a consistent pattern of messages over time that encouraged violence. He expressed messages over time that endorsed violence. And that’s very, I think in clear terms, part of this pattern,” he responded.
One question that the trial will likely center on is whether Trump was aware of or intentionally signaled to the far-right extremists to be violent or attempt to overturn the election violently. Simi believes the former president was aware.
“Seems pretty pretty clear to me,” Simi said. “I mean, I’m not in Donald Trump’s mind, obviously, but in terms of observable patterns, in terms of the repeated nature of the things we’ve been discussing, that’s all pretty apparent.”
Olson has argued the Colorado case has four basic components: Trump took an oath as an officer of the U.S., the Capitol attack was an insurrection, Trump engaged in that insurrection and Colorado’s secretary of state can be ordered by the court to keep him off the state’s ballot because of it.
In the case’s opening arguments Monday, the attorneys representing the Colorado Republican Party and Trump’s lawyers argued that the former president was simply exercising his free speech rights to warn about election results he did not believe were legitimate.
They also claimed that the specific 14th Amendment clause was untried in more than 150 years for this purpose and is being misread.
“This is a legal Hail Mary by the Democrats,” said Mike Davis, an attorney who appeared with representatives of the Trump campaign outside court before the trial began. “This case is going to fail.”
Similar cases are being considered in Minnesota and Michigan — the latter of which is notably a key swing state. It is likely one of these cases will land before the Supreme Court, which has never ruled on the 14th Amendment’s “insurrection clause.” Three of the current sitting justices were appointed by Trump during his first term.