A weeklong trial that could bar Donald Trump from appearing on Colorado’s ballot kicked off Monday with dramatic testimony about the U.S. Capitol insurrection and the judge’s rejection of a request from Trump’s lawyers to recuse herself.
Both sides of the ballot-qualification challenge cast the case as putting American democracy at stake — whether by allowing Trump to run again for the country’s highest office or, in the defense’s view, by endorsing a political charade that would rob many voters of their favored candidate.
As the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination faces similar ballot challenges in several states, Colorado’s case is the first to present evidence to a judge as the plaintiffs seek to tie Trump to the siege of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
A group of Colorado Republican and unaffiliated voters, backed by the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed the challenge in Denver District Court. Their lawsuit seeks, based on Trump’s alleged role on Jan. 6, to bar him from the ballot under a provision of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that bars people who engaged in insurrection or rebellion from holding office.
The plaintiffs called police officers who watched the siege unfold to the stand. The first witness, Officer Daniel Hodges of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department, testified about being assaulted by members of the crowd that gathered outside the Capitol. That includes one person who tried to gouge out his eye, Hodges said.
The plaintiffs played body camera footage that showed protestors swarming Hodges and his colleagues and yelling epithets at them. Hodges called the events of Jan. 6 “horrific,” “a terrorist attack” and an assault on democracy.
“(Protestors) told us we were on the wrong side of history when we were defending the United States Capitol and the peaceful transfer of power,” Hodges said.
But Trump’s legal team disputed that the then-president was involved in inciting the event. They argued that he called for peace and, since he didn’t travel to the Capitol, didn’t lead supporters past police barricades. He had led a rally near the White House earlier that morning, ahead of Congress convening to certify now-President Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump in the 2020 election.
Trump’s attorneys argued that, without any legal conviction for insurrection, the lawsuit’s charge is nebulous. Scott Gessler, a former Colorado Secretary of State who’s part of Trump’s team, cited the precedent of Eugene V. Debs, a socialist politician a century ago. Debs was allowed to run for president despite serving time in prison for sedition for publicly discouraging military recruitment during World War I.
“When there are many definitions (of insurrection), that really means there are none,” Gessler said. “… Frankly, they’re making up the standards so it fits the facts of Jan. 6.”
Before the trial began, Trump’s attorneys challenged the impartiality of Judge Sarah B. Wallace. They found a record of a $100 donation she made in 2020 to a political action committee called the Colorado Turnout Project, a pro-Democrat group. That was before her appointment to the bench.
Trump’s team requested her recusal, saying the donation showed bias against their case. Wallace denied the request. She said she did not recall that particular contribution but had intended to donate to an individual.
Wallace also said she did not have an opinion on whether the Jan. 6 attack constituted an insurrection, if Trump was engaged in insurrection or other matters at hand.
She is overseeing a trial that’s expected to unfold over five days. There is no jury, leaving the decision on Trump’s ballot eligibility in Colorado up to the judge. She expects to issue a ruling by the end of November.
The case is unlikely to end there and could head to the state or federal Supreme Court.
The plaintiffs include Norma Anderson, a former Republican majority leader in the state House and Senate; Denver Post columnist Krista Kafer; and Chris Castilian, who served as deputy chief of staff under former Gov. Bill Owens. The lawsuit seeks to compel Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold to bar Trump from the Republican primary election and, if he wins the Republican nomination, from the state’s general election ballot.
On Monday, the plaintiffs’ attorneys sought to demonstrate a pattern of Trump using violent rhetoric and cheering along violence against political opponents. They alleged that he used his Twitter account to draw a crowd to the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Attorney Eric Olson said that when the crowd was “insufficiently violent,” Trump further stoked its rage.
The attorneys played a video from the U.S. House Jan. 6 select committee’s proceedings showing images of a noose, people chanting “Hang Mike Pence” and fights with police.
“That mob tried to hurt and kill our elected leaders,” Olson said during the opening remarks. “We are here because, despite all that, Trump believes he deserves to be president again.”
The plaintiffs also called U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell to testify to his experiences during the assault. That includes fleeing the House floor with a gas mask in hand. The California Democrat was one of the impeachment managers for Trump’s second impeachment, which focused on Jan. 6.
The plaintiffs have sought to introduce the House Jan. 6 committee’s final report as evidence to highlight Trump’s role. Wallace has conditionally agreed to hear segments of the report over objections from Trump’s attorneys.
Gessler called it a political document, “poisoned” by foregone conclusions and made for prime-time TV — not suitable as evidence in court. Trump’s legal team denies any such ties and has asserted that he was exercising his right to free speech. They cast the legal challenge as partisan “lawfare” and an attack on democracy.
“We’re here with a courtroom behind us because they’re trying to put up their ‘steal’ curtain around Colorado,” Jason Miller, a senior adviser with the Trump campaign, said ahead of the trial’s start. “And when I say ‘steal’ curtain, that’s S-T-E-A-L. Democrats are trying to steal this race.”
Trump’s campaign characterized the ballot challenge as being among a series of legal cases that amount to election interference heading into 2024. Trump also faces federal criminal charges and state criminal charges in Georgia related to alleged 2020 election interference, as well as a civil fraud trial in New York.
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