In a filing issued last week, lawyers for Donald Trump apparently changed their argument in fighting a lawsuit which claims he incited violence against protesters at a March 2016 campaign rally. Before, his attorneys argued he was immune from lawsuits as president of the United States, but now they seem to have taken a couple of steps back from that tactic. Instead, they said the legal proceedings would interfere with his job.
“Aside from the significant burden and distraction imposed on the President himself, the case would also demand the involvement of other high-ranking government officials in the White House and the Department of Justice due to the vital Executive interests at stake in any discovery fight,” attorney Michael Carvin wrote a Kentucky federal court on Thursday, asking for the claims to be dismissed.
In April, lawyers argued that Trump was immune from litigation as president. That argument was absent from Thursday’s filing.
To be sure, the immunity argument was a probably a losing one. In 1997’s Clinton v. Jones, The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that the president can still get sued for incidents happening before taking office.
From the holding [citation removed]:
Petitioner’s principal submission–that in all but the most exceptional cases, the Constitution affords the President temporary immunity from civil damages litigation arising out of events that occurred before he took office–cannot be sustained on the basis of precedent. The principal rationale for affording Presidents immunity from damages actions based on their official acts–i. e., to enable them to perform their designated functions effectively without fear that a particular decision may give rise to personal liability … Moreover, immunities for acts clearly within official capacity are grounded in the nature of the function performed, not the identity of the actor who performed it.
If Trump’s attorneys ever bring back their immunity argument, they’d have to willingly fight it out before the Supreme Court, and convince Justices the Clinton ruling was incorrect. Even now, their argument threatens to butt up against the decision. Justices at the time scrutinized whether merely allowing a lawsuit violated separation-of-powers between the judiciary and executive branches.
“The Court rejects petitioner’s contention that this case–as well as the potential additional litigation that an affirmance of the Eighth Circuit’s judgment might spawn–may place unacceptable burdens on the President that will hamper the performance of his official duties,” the holding said. “That assertion finds little support either in history, as evidenced by the paucity of suits against sitting Presidents for their private actions, or in the relatively narrow compass of the issues raised in this particular case.”
Protesters sued last year, claiming they got attacked by others at the rally because then-candidate Trump said “Get ’em out of here.” They want the president to sit for a deposition. In Thursday’s filing, the defense also argued that the lawsuit would violate their client’s First Amendment rights because he wasn’t inciting violence against them.
Plaintiffs also seek Trump’s tax returns and the names of mental health providers he spoke to. In another filing last week, the defense said this request was “clearly irrelevant” to the lawsuit.
[Screengrab via NBC]