A fear that he had already seen his family for the last time gripped Congressman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, as he sheltered in the U.S. House chamber while an angry, riotous mob pounded on the locked door, which security guards were hurriedly blockading with furniture.
As the guards drew their guns to protect the lawmakers in their stead, the Magnolia State’s lone Black representative in Washington, D.C., watched from the gallery. He could hear the insurrectionists in the hallway shouting threats of violence against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling her a “bitch,” and Vice President Mike Pence, whom they cried had “betrayed” then-President Donald Trump.
Thompson also heard the mob make clear that they would take violent action against any member of Congress who dared move forward with their constitutionally mandated duty that day—certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election and Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump.
A lawsuit the NAACP and New York law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Thompson’s behalf today recounts his story from the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. The lawsuit charges that Donald Trump and his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, “conspired” with two violent groups, Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, “to incite an assembled crowd to march upon and enter the Capitol of the United States” to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s electoral college victory.
This, the lawsuit contends, constitutes a violation of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, which the complaint explained “was intended to protect against conspiracies, through violence and intimidation, that sought to prevent Members of Congress from discharging their official duties.”
“The Defendants conspired to prevent, by force, intimidation and threats, the Plaintiff, as a Member of Congress, from discharging his official duties to approve the count of votes cast by members of the Electoral College following the presidential election held in November 2020,” the complaint in Thompson v. Trump reads, calling the Capitol insurrection “a direct and foreseeable result of the Defendants’ unlawful conspiracy.”
McConnell: Trump ‘Liable for Everything He Did’
Thompson’s lawsuit is the first filed against Trump for the violence he unleashed on the Capitol in January as he whipped supporters up into a frenzy with baseless lies as he insisted that Republican and Democratic election officials around the country had conspired to “steal” the election from him.
It also comes three days after the U.S. Senate acquitted Trump in his impeachment trial for incitement of insurrection. Although a 57-43 majority found the former president guilty, including seven Republicans, the vote did not meet the two-thirds threshold required for conviction. Dozens of Republicans, while not defending Trump’s actions, justified voting “not guilty” on the basis that they believed it was unconstitutional to hold an impeachment trial for a former official—despite the fact that the U.S. Senate has done so in the past.
Minutes after voting to acquit Trump, though, Republican House Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke on the House floor, insisting that the ex-president “is still liable for everything he did while he was in office.”
“There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day. The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president,” McConnell, the Kentucky senator who led the Senate throughout Trump’s presidency and also voted to acquit him during his first impeachment trial last year, said on Feb. 14. “And their having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated President kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet earth.”
Thompson’s complaint with the NAACP cites McConnell’s words, including his inference that Trump could face consequences in civil and criminal courts.
“We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one,” the former Senate Majority Leader said after the trial concluded on Saturday.
‘Proud Boys, Stand Back and Stand By’
Thompson’s complaint asks the federal court to declare that Trump, Giuliani, the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers all violated the Ku Klux Klan Act; to issue an injunction barring them from future violations of the act; and to award the congressman for punitive damages.
The 32-page lawsuit makes its case by laying out a series of public remarks, private communications, and actions the defendants took over a series of months before and after the election, including Trump’s comments at the Sept. 28 presidential debate with Joe Biden. On that evening, Trump’s Democratic opponent and the debate’s moderator, Chris Wallace, asked him if he would denounce the Texas-based Proud Boys organization, which had a reputation for committing acts of violence—including at Trump rallies.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” the Republican president said defiantly.
“Standing by sir,” Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys chairman, tweeted that evening.
The complaint points to the “caravan of Trump supporters (that) swarmed a Biden campaign bus” two days before the 2020 election, which almost caused a collision and resulted in the Biden campaign cancelling a planned rally. Instead of discouraging the violence, Trump “praised the mob,” the lawsuit notes.
“These patriots did nothing wrong,” Trump tweeted.
‘Someone’s Going to Get Killed’
After Biden defeated Trump in November, earning 7 million more votes nationwide and securing a 306-232 electoral college victory, Trump refused to concede. He repeatedly declared across social-media platforms, on television and at campaign rally-like events that he had won, not Biden, whipping up crowds of supporters with fabricated claims of voter fraud.
In swing states that secured Biden’s victory, Republican and Democratic election officials alike dealt with threats of violence and angry throngs of pro-Trump supporters who protested as they finished counting ballots or engaged in a mandatory recounts.
Giuliani, Trump’s attorney and the former Republican mayor of New York City, also spread lies about the election, singling out majority-Black areas in swing states like Pennsylvania with evidence-free claims that they were bastions of “voter fraud” and calling for the ejection of all ballots in some majority Black counties.
Trump’s team filed dozens of evidence-free federal lawsuits attempting to overturn the election, but judges in courts nationwide, including some Trump himself had appointed, repeatedly dismissed them. Still, Trump and Giuliani continued pushing claims of a stolen election, and Republican officials in states around the country echoed him.
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out a Texas lawsuit that hundreds of Republican officials across the country had signed onto, including Mississippi’s Republican House representatives and Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, in an attempt to get the nation’s highest court to invalidate the election results in several swing states Biden won. In response, Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West suggested that pro-Trump states should consider secession.
“Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution,” said West, who traveled to Mississippi in 2019 to lobby for a bill declaring the Magnolia State’s intent to support a new convention of states to revise the Constitution.
Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Frank Bordeaux would later tweet a photo posing with West at a Republican National Committee event on Jan. 7—one day after the storming of the Capitol.
Had an incredible opportunity to meet two great Americans today.
— Frank Bordeaux (@BordeauxFrank) January 8, 2021
Rep. Thompson’s lawsuit notes that, as Trump’s rhetoric continued to heat up in December 2020, numerous voices warned that his words could incite violence, including Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling, a Repbulican.
“This all has to stop,” Sterling said in a televised speech on Dec. 1. “All of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this. … What you don’t have the ability to do—and you need to step up and say this—is stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone is going to get hurt. Someone is going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed. And it’s not right. It’s not right.”
With Trump’s blessing, supporters held “Stop the Steal” rallies across the country on Dec. 12, including in downtown Jackson, where several state Republican lawmakers spoke to supporters.
‘He Tweets. He Incites It.’
After electoral-college members cast their ballots as part of the process of formalizing the election results, Trump and his supporters set their sights on Jan. 6 as the last opportunity to stop Biden from taking office.
“Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election,” Trump falsely claimed in a Dec. 19 tweet. “Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
On the right-wing Parler social-media network and in pro-Trump Facebook groups across the country, including some in Mississippi, supporters began making plans to travel to the nation’s Capitol on the day Congress was set to certify the election results—a normally little noticed formality after elections.
The Republican Attorneys General Association, of which Mississippi Attorney General Fitch is a member, paid for and dispatched robocalls, urging Trump supporters around the country to travel to the nation’s capital on Jan. 6. The group’s executive director, Adam Piper, resigned days later. Fitch issued a statement condemning the riot, but did not address RAGA’s role in it.
“Peaceful protests are a cornerstone of our democracy, but violence and destruction of property are unacceptable. We must continue to support our law enforcement as they protect us. Prayers for unity and peace,” Fitch said in a short statement several hours after the riots began.
But a cross-partisan group of officials, including Sterling in Georgia, had already been warning about the potential for violence Trump’s rhetoric was unleashing weeks earlier—while Fitch was still joining Republican lawsuits aimed at overturning the election results in court.
On Dec. 28, 2020, Olivia Troye, a former Trump White House official who served as a top aide to then-Vice President Mike Pence, told MSNBC that she was afraid “that there will be violence on January 6th because the president himself encourages it.”
“This is what he does. He tweets. He incites it. He gets his followers and supporters to behave in this manner, and these people think that they’re being patriotic because they are supporting Donald Trump,” Troye said.
‘Victory or Death’
On Jan. 1, the complaint notes, Thomas Caldwell, a leader of the Nevada-based Oath Keepers militia group, sent a Facebook message to other members of the group, telling them about a hotel in Washington, D.C., that would serve as “a good location” that “would allow us to hunt at night if we wanted to” on Jan. 6. It described the upcoming assembly in the Capitol as “a call to arms.”
Those close to Trump continued fanning the flames, the lawsuit says, pointing out that Donald Trump Jr. fired up a crowd in Georgia on Jan. 4, declaring, “They’re not taking this White House. We’re going to fight like hell.”
On Dec. 5, at a pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” event on the eve of the insurrection, the leader of the Trump-backed rally led thousands of his supporters in chants of, “Victory or death!”
The lawsuit recounts how, the next day, on Jan. 6, Rudy Giuliani took the stage at the pro-Trump “Save America” rally at the Ellipse, a park less than two miles from the U.S. Capitol, where he claimed that he would find “proof this election was stolen.”
“If we’re right, a lot of them will go to jail,” Giuliani said. “So let’s have trial by combat. … I’ll be darned if they’re going to take our free and fair vote.”
Donald Trump took the stage immediately after his attorney, telling the crowd that “emboldened radical left Democrats” were trying to steal the election.
“We will never give up. We will never concede, it doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved,” he said, despite dozens of courts shooting his arguments down.
“Defendant Trump then began stoking the crowd’s anger and urging them to take action to forcibly seize control of the process for counting and approving the electoral college ballots, stating: ‘Republicans are constantly fighting like a boxer with his hands tied behind his back. It’s like a boxer, and we want to be so nice,’” the complaint quotes Trump saying.
The president then reminded the crowd that he had been pressuring Vice President Mike Pence, who as vice president was constitutionally obligated to preside as Congress certified the electoral college votes, to refuse to perform his duty.
“If he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country because you’re sworn to uphold our Constitution. Now it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy,” Trump told the masses. “After this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you. … We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave Senators, and Congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
The crowd responded with chants and shouts.
“Storm the Capitol”; “Invade the Capitol Building”; and “Take Back the Capitol Now,” the Trump faithful cried.
Then-President Trump continued as he directed the crowd to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. “Something is wrong here, something is really wrong, can’t have happened and we fight, we fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he said.
Once Trump’s speech concluded, the crowd began marching to the Capitol Building.
‘Trump Acted in Concert With the Proud Boys’
“By the time the thousands of demonstrators arrived at the Capitol, the Proud Boys had already begun compromising protections erected by the Capitol Police and barricades established as the last line of defense outside the Capitol building,” Thompson’s complaint says.
The lawsuit alleges that Trump “delayed delivering his incendiary remarks to the crowd at the Ellipse in order to afford the Defendant Proud Boys an opportunity to arrive at the Capitol and overcome its initial defenses” and that “Trump acted in concert with the Proud Boys, allowing them to clear the way for the arriving riotous crowd to descend on, and ultimately enter, the Capitol.”
The Proud Boys had begun their march to the Capitol at 12:50 p.m. while Trump was still speaking, the lawsuit says, and the Proud Boys immediately began “comprising the protections erected by the Capitol Police.”
Not long after 2 p.m., the throng of pro-Trump supporters breached the Capitol building, storming through broken windows and doors and violently clashing with police as hundreds began rampaging through the halls of Congress, with members of the Proud Boys chanting, “Fight for Trump.”
The Proud Boys used walkie-talkies and earpieces “in order to communicate with each other and coordinate their attack on the Capitol,” the complaint says, and some carried plastic handcuffs for detaining members of Congress. Some members of the pro-Trump mob carried Confederate flags.
Inside the House chamber, Rep. Thompson heard the sound of gunfire, and Capitol Security guards immediately instructed him and other lawmakers to lie on the floor and to replace the face masks they were wearing to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus with gas masks; tear gas was filling the Capitol rotunda as police clashed with the insurrectionists.
Thompson would later learn that the gunshot he heard was the sound of a Capitol Police Officer firing on and killing Ashli Babbit, a Trump supporter who was attempting to breach the House floor. Three other Trump supporters would lose their lives amid the violent assault on the Capitol that day, as well as Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick. More than 50 officers were hospitalized after Trump supporters beat them with an array of weapons, including the pole of an American flag.
‘Seal Them In. Turn on the Gas’
After lying on the floor of the House gallery for “an extended period of time” while the mob rampaged in the hallways, the complaint says, Capitol security moved the lawmakers out of the chamber, leading them through a tunnel out of the Capitol to the Longworth House Office Building to shelter with hundreds of other lawmakers, congressional staff and members’ relatives.
Some among the mob were sharing intelligence with one another about “the location of Members of Congress whom they were hunting,” the complaint says.
“All members are in the tunnels under capital (sic) seal them in. Turn on gas,” one member of the Oath Keepers told others in a Facebook message.
“Tom, all legislators are down in the Tunnels 3 floors down. Go through back house chamber doors facing N left down hallway down steps,” another wrote in a message to Oath Keepers leader Thomas Caldwell.
Thompson’s complaint also cites another message from an Oath Keepers member that declared, “We have a good group.”
“We have about 30-40 of us. We are sticking together and sticking to the plan,” the message said.
The Oath Keepers “and its leadership have routinely stated that it is preparing for or engaged in a civil war,” the lawsuit says.
Thompson’s complaint also describes instances in which Trump supporters at the Capitol appealed to his higher authority as they clashed with and refused to comply with police orders.
“You’re outnumbered. There’s a f-cking million of us out there. And we are listening to Trump—your boss,” the complaint quotes one insurrectionist saying, also citing another who declared, “We were invited here by the president of the United States.”
Outside, Trump supporters erected a wooden gallows with a hangman’s noose. While the chaos unfolded at the Capitol, Trump watched on television in the White House, where he tweeted attacks on then-Vice President Mike Pence for attempting to certify the election, writing that he “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.” That prompted the mob inside the Capitol to break into chants of, “Hang Mike Pence” soon after.
“Notwithstanding that Republican Members of Congress trapped in the Capitol transmitted appeals to the White House to take immediate action to stop the insurrection, no action was forthcoming as the President continued to watch the insurrection unfold in live televised reports,” Thompson’s complaint says.
At one point, Rep. Thompson’s complaint says, he “personally witnessed rioters who had gotten far into the building and were lying face down on the floor and restrained after being arrested by security.”
“All these events took place during a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic,” it says. “Plaintiff Thompson was 72 years old at the time and therefore within the age group for which the virus posed the greatest risk to his health. By being forced to occupy in place, Plaintiff Thompson and other members of Congress were forced to occupy space that did not allow for the social distancing measures that minimized the risk of transmission of the virus. Shortly after the siege on the Capitol ended, at least two other Members of Congress who shared the confined space with Plaintiff Thompson tested positive for COVID-19.”
‘Remember This Day Forever’
After hours of silence, Trump made a short video statement directed at the insurrectionists.
“Go home. We love you. You’re very special. … I know how you feel,” Trump said.
Today’s complaint cites a tweet Trump sent at 6:01 p.m.—four hours after the mob began storming the Capitol.
“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!” he wrote.
Throughout the siege, Thompson’s complaint says, he “reasonably feared for his physical safety.”
“While trapped in the building during the siege by the rioters that Defendants unleashed on the Capitol, Plaintiff Thompson feared for his life and worried that he might never see his family again.”
The events of today are the inevitable result of the tyrannical and idiotic leadership of Donald Trump. It is domestic terrorism and armed insurrection. This possibly would not have happened if Senate Republicans stepped up to the plate and removed their despicable leader. pic.twitter.com/ZHNsCbOhES
— Bennie G. Thompson (@BennieGThompson) January 7, 2021
The day after the bloody assault, Thompson called for Trump’s impeachment.
“Never in my life did I ever expect to see a sitting president incite violent extremists at a rally and, after they stormed both the House and Senate chambers, raised the Confederate flag and erected a noose, tell them in a video that he loved them,” he said in a statement on Jan. 7.
For the second time in a year, Thompson became the only member of Mississippi’s congressional delegation who backed Trump’s impeachment; all five Mississippi Republicans in Congress opposed the impeachment.