Protesters forced Trump to testify under oath — a feat Mueller and two impeachments could not achieve
The rule of law has taken a beating in America over the past few years, and continued this week with former President Trump’s ongoing repetition of his big lie that he won the 2020 election and former Trump aide Steve Bannon’s defiance of a valid subpoena from the United States Congress. But in the midst of this flogging, an amazing thing happened on Monday: Trump sat for four hours and answered questions in a deposition taken under oath and under the pain and penalty of perjury.
Take that in for a moment: Trump — who dodged two impeachments and multiple civil and criminal investigations involving his conduct as president and before — failed to outmaneuver the legal system of accountability in a routine civil action for money damages.
The lawsuit was filed in November of 2015 against a number of defendants, including Trump, the Trump Organization and his 2016 campaign for president, by “a group of human rights activists of Mexican origin” who allege that they “were violently attacked by defendant Donald J. Trump’s security guards … and their property destroyed for the express purpose of interfering with their political speech while they were lawfully and peacefully assembled on a public sidewalk” in front of Trump Tower in New York City.
The protests came in the wake of Trump’s infamous press conference on June 16, 2015, in which he announced his candidacy for president and claimed that Mexico and other countries in “South and Latin America” were “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
According to the lawsuit, on the first two days of the protest, July 3 and Aug. 9, 2015, a security guard for the Trump Organization told the protesters “that the sidewalk running along Fifth Avenue was private property” so they must leave. Both times, an officer from the New York City Policy Department informed the Trump employees that the group could legally continue to protest on the sidewalk.
Then, during a third protest on Sept. 3, 2015, the plaintiffs allege that Trump’s security team “used both hands to violently shove” a plaintiff, “propelling him several feet southward on the public sidewalk,” and “forcefully grabbed” another “by the wrist and thrust her down a sidewalk.” The group of protesters was wearing Ku Klux Klan suits during the incident, and further allege that Trump’s team confiscated or destroyed their cardboard signs, which included the slogan “Trump: Make America Racist Again.”
The plaintiffs brought a series of civil claims, a number of which have been resolved against them on threshold legal motions. What remains for trial are their claims for assault and battery, destruction of property and punitive damages. Predictably, Trump called the lawsuit “Just one more example of baseless harassment of your favorite President.”
Keep in mind that because this is a civil case, no jailtime is implicated. But the deposition nonetheless has important implications for the waning rule of law, particularly as Trump floats the idea of running for the presidency again with a supine Republican Party in his grip.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Benjamin Dictor, commented that Trump “answered questions the way you would expect Mr. Trump to answer questions and conducted himself in a manner that you would expect Mr. Trump to conduct himself.” Translation: He was probably rude and obstreperous. But that’s not news — lots of intractable deposition witnesses act that way.
What is newsworthy, as Dictor noted, is that “Trump sat in a chair, put his right hand up and he took an oath, he took an oath to tell the truth. And nothing but the truth.”
This occurred after Trump made over 30,573 false or misleading claims as president with impunity. It came after he oversaw the tear-gassing of peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square so he could have his photo taken holding a bible in front a church near the White House in May of 2020. And the deposition came after his incendiary speech on Jan. 6, 2021, in which he urged supporters to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell” against the certification of Electoral College votes for Joe Biden. Several people died as result of the Capitol insurrection, yet so far, only the actual protesters have been held accountable in the courts.
If the case goes to trial, plaintiffs’ counsel will likely play any portions of the videotaped deposition that bear on Trump’s knowledge of the incident or possible instigation of his security guards to interrupt the protesters in 2015. If they win, Trump could have to pay money damages. If that happens, it would not likely deter Trump from using his signature bullying tactics against others.
Nonetheless, the fact that a handful of protesters of Mexican origin have succeeded in binding Trump to a legal process that included forcing him to testify under oath speaks volumes — it’s something that former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the U.S. Congress in two impeachment trials never even came close to achieving.
With Biden in the White House, it’s high time that government lawyers — most prominently, Attorney General Merrick Garland — take a page from these plaintiffs’ playbook and bring some measure of legal accountability to the former president — who for so long has evaded any meaningful consequences for his behavior.
Kimberly Wehle is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and author of the books “How to Read the Constitution — and Why” and “What You Need to Know About Voting — and Why.” Follow her on Twitter: @kimwehle
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