A white supremacist accused of assaulting a young black woman at a Trump campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky filed a defense on Monday claiming that Trump directed the violence, and should therefore be held responsible.
“Defendant herein acted pursuant to the directives and requests of Donald J. Trump and Donald J. Trump for President Inc. and any liability must be shifted to one or both of them,” Matthew Heimbach claimed in his defense, filed on Monday.
Heimbach is a leader of the white supremacist Traditionalist Youth Network. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes him as being widely considered “the face of a new generation of white nationalists.” He was a vocal Trump supporter during the campaign, and was captured on video at the March, 2016 campaign rally shoving and yelling at Kashiya Nwanguma as Trump, in the background, yells “get out!” from the podium.
— Christina Mora (@ChristinaWLKY) March 2, 2016
Nwanguma and two other protesters who were forcibly ejected from the rally filed suit against Heimbach and Alvin Bamberger, another Trump supporter, for the violence. The incident was captured on camera. Heimbach is the man in the red Trump hat. Bamberger the man in the black military hat.
The chief party in the protesters’ suit, however, is Donald Trump himself and his campaign, for inciting the violence — an allegation that Trump’s own supporters are now buttressing.
Heimbach isn’t the only one to claim in his defense that he was only acting on Trump’s orders. His defense mirrors Bamberger’s, which was filed on Friday. In it, Bamburger’s lawyers also pin the blame for his actions on Trump’s rhetoric.
“At the Louisville political rally at issue in this lawsuit, Trump and/or the Trump Campaign urged people attending the rally to remove the protesters…Bamberger would not have acted as he did without Trump and/or the Trump Campaign’s specific urging and inspiration,” Bamberger’s lawyers write. “To the extent that Bamberger acted, he did so in response to — and inspired by — Trump and/or the Trump Campaign’s urging to remove the protesters.”
Both Bamberger and Heimbach deny wrongdoing and contest the claims of assault, though Heimbach also claims that if he did anything, it was in defense of Donald Trump’s First Amendment rights.
But if they are found liable, they say, Trump and his campaign should pay the damages — because Trump was driving force behind their actions, and because Trump himself promised he would.
“I will pay for the legal fees. I promise,” Trump said at an Iowa rally on February 1st, 2016. “They won’t be so much because the courts agree with us too.”
That promise came right after Trump told his supporters to “knock the crap out of” anyone who was “getting ready to throw a tomato.” The week before, a protester had been arrested at a Trump rally for throwing tomatoes at Trump.
Both Heimbach and Bamberger reference this promise in their defense, as well as the other at which Trump mulled over violence against protesters.
There was the Iowa rally, where Trump said he would pay his supporters’ legal fees if they attacked protesters. Then there was the February 22, 2016 rally, where Trump responded to protesters by saying, “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher.”
“The guards are very gentle with him. He’s walking out, like, big high-fives, smiling, laughing,” Trump said at that rally, as a protester was escorted out. “I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell ya.”
Then the Louisville rally, where Heimbach and Bamberger were caught on video shoving the plaintiffs out of the arena.
“Through out the course of the campaign, Trump defendants urged Trump supporters to assist in the removal of so called ‘demonstrators’ and ‘protesters’,” Heimbach wrote.
He also tried to deny promising to pay his supporters legal fees, flip-flopping several times during the campaign. After a man sucker-punched a black protester at a Trump rally, Trump at first said he was looking in to paying the legal fees for his supporter.
Then mere days later, on ABC, Trump told George Stephanopoulos that he “never said I was going to pay for fees.”
“I don’t condone violence,” Trump said. “I didn’t say I would pay for his fees.”
This type of selective memory and avoidance is common pattern for the president.
Throughout his campaign, Trump sent thinly-veiled signals to white supremacists, white nationalists, and anti-Semites — borrowing their rhetoric and memes, and frequently retweeting their Twitter accounts. But Trump has also largely avoided commenting on the rise in hate crimes and hateful rhetoric that accompanied his victory, and has weaseled around condemning the rabid support of white nationalists or their violence.
When he has commented, his standard response is that he “disavows” their actions.
“I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group,” Trump told the New York Times following an “alt-right” conference in Washington, D.C. where supporters were caught on video mimicking the Nazi salute while saying “hail Trump.”
This disavowal, however, was boilerplate and perfunctory, just as was his “disavowal” of former KKK leader David Duke’s support (a disavowal that took Trump days to offer). Trump has never gone into detail on what, exactly, he disavows.
Similarly, as president, Trump has avoided commenting on the spate of violence targeting Jewish community centers, synagogues, and cemeteries, dodging questions on the incidents multiple times before later claiming, despite his record, that he denounces anti-Semitism “wherever I get a chance.”
During Trump’s campaign, the founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, Andrew Anglin, told The Huffington Post that he and others take Trump’s signals, and reluctance to condemn their support, as a winking form of approval.
“We interpret that as an endorsement,” Anglin said.
Now this case, which has been winding through the courts since last year, will put one of Trump’s claims that he doesn’t “condone violence” to a legal test.
Already, a judge has thrown out one defense offered by Trump’s lawyers: That his instruction to “get ’em out of here” was protected by the First Amendment, and that Trump didn’t intend for his supporters to use force. In the early April ruling, US District Judge David Hale ruled that it was plausible that Trump had incited a riot, and that the case could move forward.
In this latest defense, Trump’s lawyers have offered one new claim: that as president, Trump has immunity from all civil lawsuits.
“Mr. Trump is immune from suit because he is President of the United States,” Trump’s attorneys argue, saying, “Mr. Trump is immune from proceedings pursuant to Clinton v. Jones.”
Their defense is odd, however, given that the main point of Clinton v. Jones was exactly the opposite: in that case, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that former President Bill Clinton could be held liable for actions he allegedly took prior to becoming president.
Experts told CNN that while the argument was puzzling, it was possible that Trump’s lawyers were offering a variety of defenses and hoping that one of them would stick.
“I think it’s safe to say it’s an uphill climb, but as lawyers normally do, belt and suspenders approach, when in a suit against a public official or any lawsuit for tort, which is basically what this seems to be, you’re going to put down any defense that you think might be successful,” Alden Abbott, a legal scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told CNN.