The appellate court was asked to decide whether Trump's false claims of election fraud and rallying cry for supporters to gather at the Capitol and "fight like hell" was outside his presidential responsibilities, meaning he could be held liable for it under U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
A three-judge panel affirmed unanimously that Trump's post-election efforts to subvert the 2020 election results were done in his capacity as a presidential candidate — not a president.
"When a first-term President opts to seek a second term, his campaign to win re-election is not an official presidential act," Chief Judge Sri Srinivasan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia wrote in an opinion.
The appeals panel noted that Trump himself recognized his campaign to win re-election was in his personal capacity, citing a motion Trump filed "in his personal capacity as candidate for reelection to the office of President" with the Supreme Court when challenging election administration in several battleground states. Presidents can carry out their official duties without exposure to civil liabilities, but when they are not acting in that capacity, the protection doesn't carry over, the panel ruled.
"The President...does not spend every minute of every day exercising official responsibilities. And when he acts outside the functions of his office, he does not continue to enjoy immunity from damages liability just because he happens to be the President."Trump was sued in 2021 by two U.S. Capitol police officers and several Democratic lawmakers under a century-old law barring the use of force, threats or intimidation to prevent government officials from carrying out their duties. The law, designed to beat back Ku Klux Klan violence after the Civil War, allows those injured by such actions to sue for damages.
The plaintiffs say Trump violated the statute by urging his supporters to defend his presidency and conspiring with far-right leaders to stop the certification of the 2020 election results.
The extremist groups Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, several members of which were convicted of seditious conspiracy in connection with the Capitol attack, were sued alongside Trump and longtime Trump ally Rudy Giuliani.
The appeals court heard arguments from the plaintiffs and Trump's counsel nearly a year ago, in December 2022. Trump's counsel argued that he was acting as president when issuing fiery remarks to his supporters from the "bully pulpit."
The Justice Department in March declined to back Trump's position that he should be immune from civil suits seeking to hold him responsible for his conduct on Jan. 6, 2021.
The ruling means that the lawsuits seeking damages for emotional distress and physical injury tied to the riot can move forward.