There’s a basic principle taught in the first days of law school: When someone acts in a negligent way, that person can and should be held legally accountable for the injuries that negligent act causes others — even when that person is the most powerful person in America.
This week, two of the police officers who were viciously attacked by the insurrectionists who stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6 filed suit in an exercise of that tenet of American legal justice. And the sole defendant in the case is Donald J. Trump.
While the idea of justice being delivered under the law makes most people think of criminal courts, it is the civil law system that could be the key to Trump and the others responsible for that brutal attack being held accountable.
So far, Trump has evaded responsibility, despite an impeachment trial. House lawmakers detailed his actions in calling supporters to Washington for a “wild” protest, holding a rally within walking distance of the Capitol, and directing the crowd to go “to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones . . . the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.” They also detailed his failure to call off the rioters after they stormed in — despite pleas from lawmakers inside the building for him to do so. But his acquittal by a Republican-controlled Senate — much like Justice Department policy that prevents sitting presidents from facing criminal charges — made justice seem out of reach as far as Trump was concerned.
But now, civil lawsuits like the one filed by Capitol Police Officers James Blassingame and Sidney Hemby could not only provide a way to bring a sense of justice but also serve another important purpose: bringing to light the necessary facts and evidence to allow the truth of that day to prevail over the lies and disinformation that Trump and his allies continue to spew.
While Trump continues to claim that the insurrectionists posed “zero threat,” the six-count lawsuit filed in federal district court paints a different picture. In it, the officers detail how they were confronted by a growing mob of Trump supporters, how they watched as the rioters approached and breached barriers around the Capitol, how they were crushed against the Capitol doors and assaulted by the rioters’ fists, bottles, and whatever objects were in reach. It underscores that the riot not only left one officer dead, but also that two others committed suicide shortly thereafter.
It is one of several civil suits Trump faces arising out of the Jan. 6 insurrection, including those filed against Trump and his associates by Representatives Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Eric Swalwell of California.
But the complaint by Blassingame and Hemby stands apart from the other civil claims in a few important ways.
First, the plaintiffs here are the very people Trump claimed to champion: law enforcement. Since his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump used police as a political weapon against Democrats, the Black Lives Matter movement, and anyone else who demanded justice for Black Americans killed by police. Trump railed against protesters, from those gathered near the White House who faced tear gas from federal authorities to kneeling NFL players he insulted and slurred, making them all pawns in the culture wars he stoked, where he painted himself on the side of law enforcement. The complaint by Blassingame and Hemby details the verbal and physical abuse Trump’s supporters inflicted on the police in his name, calling officers “traitors” and telling them: “We are listening to Trump — your boss.”
Second, Trump is the only defendant named in the suit. As the case moves toward discovery — the phase where testimonial and documentary evidence is gathered — it will be laser-focused on the former president’s actions in a way Trump has avoided until now even in the flurry of civil and criminal investigations he’s a party to. And that evidence, once gathered, can be used against him, in criminal court as well as in other civil matters, and it will become part of the historical record of his legacy.
Lawsuits, of course, cannot make entirely whole what was broken that day. No judgment can undo the physical and emotional suffering that Hemby continues to endure from being crushed against the Capitol’s eastern doors by an angry mob who proclaimed to be engaged in the “fight for Trump.” No ruling in the case will erase the searing imprint on Blassingame’s memory of the racial epithets hurled at him as he was being slammed against one of the Capitol’s stone columns. No judicial ruling can reverse the damage done to our democracy that day at the urging of an American president.
But these suits can be a way of finally showing that no one, not even a former president, is above the law.