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Police officers who responded to Jan. 6 riot testify at first day of trial in lawsuit aiming to block Trump from Colorado’s primary ballot

U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, also testified in Denver District Court in a case that is part of a national effort to block the former president form running for reelection
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a rally protesting the Electoral College certification of Joe Biden as President in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. Court arguments have begun in the efforts to use an insurrection clause in the U.S. Constitution to bar former President Donald Trump from running for his old job again. Testimony on Monday is focusing on whether the violent Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol was an insurrection as defined by the 14th Amendment and whether Trump’s role in it meets the provision’s threshold for being barred from public office. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

A police officer whose harrowing screams were recorded on video as he was crushed by a violent mob during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol was the first witness to testify Monday at a Denver trial that will determine whether Donald Trump should be blocked from appearing on the Republican presidential primary ballot in Colorado next year under the so-called insurrection clause in the U.S. Constitution.

“It was a terrorist attack on the United States of America, an assault on democracy and an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power,” said Daniel Hodges, a Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer.

Hodges was one of two officers who, along with a congressman, testified Monday in a case that is likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is part of a national attempt in several states to block Trump from running for reelection in 2024.

The Denver bench trial, which is expected to last all week, stems from a lawsuit filed in September on behalf of a group of Republican and unaffiliated Colorado voters, including a former state lawmaker, by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a liberal Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. The suit argues that Trump’s role in the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, riot disqualifies him from running for president under the 14th Amendment.

The Civil War-era amendment bars people who took an “oath … to support the Constitution of the United States” and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof” from holding federal or state office.

The lawsuit was filed against Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat and the state’s top election official, who isn’t fighting the legal action.

In opening arguments Monday, Scott Gessler, who is representing the Trump campaign, said the lawsuit “looks to extinguish the opportunity – extinguish it – for millions of Coloradans, Colorado Republicans and unaffiliated voters, to be able to choose and vote for the presidential candidate they want.”

“The petitioners ask this court to be the first state court in American history to disqualify a presidential candidate,” said Gessler, a Republican who previously served as Colorado’s secretary of state.

Gessler argued that even if Trump was the reason for the Jan. 6 riot, he didn’t “engage” in it.

“He didn’t carry a pitchfork to the Capitol grounds,” Gessler said. “He didn’t lead a charge. He didn’t get into a fistfight with legislators. He didn’t goad President Biden (into) having a fight. He gave a speech in which he asked people to peacefully and patriotically go to the Capitol to protest.”

Eric Olson, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, argued that in a speech near the Capitol before the riot began, Trump clearly directed his supporters to “fight” and “assembled a violent mob that tried to prevent the constitutional transfer – and did in fact stop that transfer – of power.”

“Our constitution prevents people who betrayed their solemn oath, as Trump did here, from serving in office again,” Olson said. “Colorado law gives these voters the right to make sure their votes will count by coming to this court and ensuring that only eligible candidates appear on the ballot.”

Officers and congressman recount what happened on Jan. 6

Hodges, the officer injured in the Jan. 6 riot, testified that his gas mask was ripped off by the crowd and that one demonstrator tried to gouge out his eye.

“The crowd attacked me in a variety of ways,” said Hodges, who has since left his policing job. “Punching, kicking, pushing. Chemical irritants, such as OC spray or pepper spray. I was beaten in the head with blunt instruments, including my own baton. I was pinned and crushed with a police shield. I can’t remember all the different ways.”

U.S. Capitol Police Officer Winston Pingeon testified that a rioter nearly stabbed him in the head with a sharpened flagpole. He said it came within 2 inches of his ear. He also said that rioters were wearing helmets, goggles and other military-style protective gear.

“I had not seen that before,” said Pingeon, who has since left the Capitol Police force. “We don’t typically face people who appear to me to be prepared for physical altercations or violence.”

Trump’s lawyers tried to distance the former president from the rioters, asking the officers how they knew the demonstrators were the same people who attended Trump’s speech near the White House earlier in the day during which he urged supporters to march to the Capitol.

U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, also testified on Monday, explaining what it was like for members of Congress during the riot. He said he had no idea how to use the gas masks provided to him and others when rioters approached the House chamber. He relied on colleagues who were veterans to help.

Swalwell said he and other members of Congress were following Trump’s tweets as they hid from rioters.

“In the weeks before, the President had fired up his supporters with claims that the election was rigged,” Swalwell said.

The plaintiffs in the case also presented photos and video evidence on Monday, including of Trump’s remarks leading up to the riot and of the riot itself. The president’s social media posts on the day of the attack were also highlighted in court.

The first part of the trial is aimed at determining whether the Jan. 6 riot constituted an insurrection and whether Trump played a role in it. Later on, both sides are expected to present evidence around the meaning of the Constitution’s insurrection clause.

Denver judge denied recusal request

Before testimony began Monday, lawyers representing Trump in the lawsuit asked Denver District Court Judge Sarah B. Wallace to recuse herself because she made a $100 donation in October 2022 to the Colorado Turnout Project, a federal super PAC that opposes Republican candidates.

Wallace, who was appointed to the bench in August 2022 by Gov. Jared Polis, denied the request, saying she didn’t remember making the donation and “was not cognizant of this organization or its mission” prior to Trump’s recusal motion being filed.

“I can assure all of the litigants in this litigation that prior to the start of this litigation, and to this day, I have formed no opinion whether the events of Jan. 6 constituted an insurrection, or whether … Trump engaged in an insurrection,” Wallace said.

Wallace, who warned that she wouldn’t let the proceedings “turn into a circus,” will ultimately rule on whether Trump should appear on Colorado’s ballot. A jury is not considering the case.

Background on the lawsuit

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are:

  • Krista Kafer, a Republican activist and political commentator
  • Norma Anderson, a Republican who was formerly the majority leader in the Colorado Senate
  • Michelle Priola, the wife of state Sen. Kevin Priola, who switched his party affiliation to Democratic from Republican in 2022. Michelle Priola is registered as a Republican.
  • Chris Castilian, chief of staff for then-Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican. Castilian is also a former executive director of Great Outdoors Colorado. Castilian is registered as an unaffiliated voter
  • Kathi Wright, a former Loveland city councilwoman who is registered as an unaffiliated voter
  • Claudine Cmarada, a Republican voter who lives in Boulder and formerly served as a congresswoman from Rhode Island. Her married name is Claudine Schneider, but she is listed as Claudine Cmarada in the lawsuit.

Mario Nicolais, a Colorado Sun columnist, is one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the case. Another attorney representing the plaintiffs is Martha Tierney, who often represents the Colorado Democratic Party in campaign matters.

The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, helped ensure civil rights for freed slaves – and eventually for all people in the United States. But it also was used to prevent former Confederate officials from becoming members of Congress after the Civil War and taking over the government against which they had just rebelled.

The 14th Amendment was used last year to remove from office a New Mexico county commissioner who entered the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. That was the first time it was used in 100 years. In 1919, Congress refused to seat a socialist, contending he gave aid and comfort to the country’s enemies during World War I.

Another liberal group, Free Speech For People, unsuccessfully tried to use the provision to prevent Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina from running for reelection last year.

The judge overseeing Greene’s case ruled in her favor. Cawthorn’s case became moot after he was defeated in his primary.

Colorado’s presidential primary will be held on March 5. The ballot must be certified by the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office in January, meaning the lawsuit will have to move quickly for the plaintiffs to be successful.

The Colorado case is one of two lawsuits that could end up reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. On Thursday, the Minnesota Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a similar case.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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