Trial in Colorado proves a Trump return would be America’s demise

The former president’s defense team in Denver takes a page out of Donald Trump’s own gaslight playbook

November 2, 2023 12:29 pm

Scott Gessler, attorney for Donald Trump, looks on during a hearing for a lawsuit to keep former President Donald Trump off the Colorado ballot in court Monday, Oct. 30, 2023, in Denver. (AP, pool/Jack Dempsey)

At one point during the trial in Denver over whether former President Donald Trump is disqualified from the Colorado presidential ballot next year, Trump’s attorney quibbled with a witness’s characterization of a confrontation during the violent 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Depicted in a photo, a person uses a flagpole to assault a counter-protester. The witness, Pete Simi, a scholar of far-right extremism, was asked by a plaintiffs’ attorney to discuss the photo as part of a line of questioning about the role of violence in right-wing extremism of the sort Trump enlisted in his effort to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 election win.

Trump’s attorney, Scott Gessler, a former Republican Colorado secretary of state, took a page out of Trump’s own gaslight playbook, and during cross-examination he advanced implausible interpretations of the photo. The attacker could have been trying to pull the flagpole away, Gessler asserted, and there was nothing about the attacker’s attire that indicated he was “a member of a far-right extreme group.”

It takes all of 10 seconds on Google to determine that the photo indeed depicts a right-wing extremist attacker. ABC News’ own caption for the photo, taken by Samuel Corum, is, “A white supremacist tries to strike a counter-protester with a flagpole.” And other photos of the same flagpole-wielding man reveal the scale of his extremism and aggression — they show that his helmet bears the number 1488, a Hitler-supporting hate symbol, and the flag is the neo-Nazi Vanguard America-Texas banner.

Discussion of the photo was a minor moment in the trial, but it exemplified the core meaning of the testimony so far. Whatever the legal outcome of the trial, it has already proved before the American people that Trump’s behavior is morally indefensible and politically intolerable.


The trial is part of a lawsuit filed in Denver District Court in September by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington on behalf of six Colorado voters, who argue Trump is disqualified under a provision of the 14th Amendment. Section 3 of the amendment says no person who took an oath to support the Constitution then “engaged in insurrection” can hold any office in the United States.

Trump, the plaintiffs correctly argue, engaged in insurrection when as part of his lie that he won the 2020 election, he incited his followers to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and violently disrupt the certification of Biden’s victory. The landmark case is seen as the first major test of the 14th Amendment’s disqualification clause since the Civil War era. 

Trump and his allies rely on dishonesty, misdirection and both-sidesism to deflect blame for the insurrection and avoid accountability, and his defense team has leaned on those same tactics in court this week. But unlike lies shouted at a rally or broadcast unchallenged on One America News, baseless assertions are subject in a courtroom to exacting scrutiny, and Trump’s team is incapable of credibly defending their client.

Fabricate. Obfuscate. Make counter accusations. Assert little falsehoods about a photo, tell big lies about a national election. This is how the autocrat operates.

As reported by Newsline’s Chase Woodruff, who has covered the trial from the courtroom, the plaintiffs have set out to demonstrate that the Jan. 6 attack was an “insurrection” and that Trump “engaged in” that insurrection.

Gessler in his opening statement attempted to muddy the “insurrection” question by saying, basically, that words have no meaning.

“There are lots of definitions of what an insurrection is,” Gessler said. “When there are numerous definitions, there might as well be none.”

As any layperson grasps, what occurred on Jan. 6 was an insurrection. But more significantly for the trial, “insurrection” has a very distinct meaning in relation to Section 3, as scholarly study and expert testimony this week makes plain.

Trump during his incendiary speech at The Ellipse on Jan. 6, exhorted rallygoers to “fight like hell” before they violently overran Capitol defenses, and MAGA apologists often cite instances when Democratic leaders have also used such phrases in public settings. Gessler did the same during the trial. During cross-examination of Simi, who testified about Trump’s influence on violent extremist groups in the run-up to Jan. 6, Gessler played video clips of Biden, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and other Democrats calling on listeners to “fight” for this or that cause. The implication was that the hallmarks of extreme enmity for political opponents “fits both sides of the political spectrum,” as Gessler put it.

But no matter how much the Trump team tries to scramble the English language or obscure facts, Trump committed a grave betrayal of the Constitution out in the open, and we all saw it. Many politicians call on followers to “fight” for a cause, yes, but this rhetorical style in most cases serves a legitimate political goal, whereas Trump sought actual violence in pursuit of a lie. This was made clear in the years since Jan. 6, most substantially in the final report of the Jan. 6 House committee, and testimony during the trial only adds to our understanding of Trump’s treachery.

In his opening statement Monday, Gessler protested that the lawsuit constitutes “a number of historical firsts,” such as asking the court to be the first in American history to disqualify a presidential candidate under the 14th Amendment. The answer to this complaint, of course, is firsts beget firsts. Trump is the first traitor president, and the nation’s response therefore must be unprecedented.

But it was another passage in Gessler’s remarks that exposed the depths of MAGA depravity — he lectured the court about the sanctity of elections, admonishing that “this court should not interfere with that fundamental value, that rule of democracy.” He declared, apparently without shame, though he argued on behalf of a man who attempted a coup from the Oval Office, “this is election interference.” 

Fabricate. Obfuscate. Make counter accusations. Assert little falsehoods about a photo, tell big lies about a national election. This is how the autocrat operates. These are the values that Trump and his defenders want to make national norms. But, as the trial forces us to accept, they are incompatible with democracy.

With Trump’s one term in office, America dipped its toe into the foul waters of authoritarianism. Testimony in the trial this week, if it serves any purpose, is notice that if Trump returns to the White House, the United States as envisioned by the framers of the Constitution would effectively be over. It shows, therefore, that if Section 3 of the 14th Amendment is inadequate to disqualify Trump, the country urgently needs a mechanism that would.


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