By Jacqueline Thomsen
(Reuters) -The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday urged an appeals court to reject former President Donald Trump’s claim that he is automatically immune from lawsuits over his supporters’ assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had asked for the Justice Department’s view as it weighs whether to allow civil lawsuits against Trump over the riot.
Trump has argued that he was acting in his official capacity as president when he told a crowd of supporters he would never concede the 2020 election and to “fight like hell” ahead of the congressional certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
The appeals court heard arguments in the case in December.
The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1982 that presidents cannot be sued over their official acts. But U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta ruled last February that Trump’s fiery speech on Jan. 6 did not fall within his official scope of duties, allowing the lawsuits to move forward. Trump is appealing that ruling.
The Justice Department said in Thursday’s filing that it was not taking a stance on whether Trump’s speech encouraged the Capitol riots. However, it told the court that “incitement of imminent private violence” would not fall within the scope of a president’s official duties.
Patrick Malone, a lawyer for two Capitol police officers suing Trump, said they were “pleased” that the Justice Department asked the appeals court to uphold the earlier ruling on Trump’s immunity.
A Trump spokesperson said the courts “should rule in favor of President Trump in short order and dismiss these frivolous lawsuits.”
Democrats in Congress and police officers have filed several civil lawsuits over the Capitol riots, with some alleging that Trump conspired with others to block the certification of Biden’s 2020 election win.
The Justice Department has weighed in before on litigation targeting U.S. officials’ Jan. 6 conduct.
In July 2021, it rejected a request by Mo Brooks, who was a Republican Congressman at the time, to defend him from a lawsuit by Democratic House member Eric Swalwell. The department said allegedly inciting an attack on the U.S. Capitol would not fall “within the scope of employment of a representative – or any federal employee.”
At the same time, the Justice Department is defending Trump in a defamation case from the writer E. Jean Carroll, who has accused the former president of raping her in the mid-1990s, over statements he made while in office disparaging Carroll and her claims.
Justice Department lawyers have said Trump is immune from the defamation lawsuit. A different Washington appeals court in January heard arguments on whether Trump was acting as president under local law when he made the comments and is expected to rule on the immunity question.
(Reporting by Jacqueline ThomsenEditing by David Bario and Bill Berkrot)