The pros and cons of charging Trump with incitement to violence

Donald Trump in 2016. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) America, is concerned that the second impeachment of Donald Trump could be used to weaken the legal standard for convicting someone of incitement to violence. I differ with her New York Times op-ed, and in fact I think criminal charges could be brought against Trump without doing any harm to the First Amendment.

Nossel, a lawyer, rightly differentiates between the impeachment proceedings, which are based on a layperson’s definition of incitement, and the legal definition. By any reasonable measure, Trump whipped a mob into a frenzy on Jan. 6 and pointed it in the direction of Capitol Hill, a reckless action that led to five deaths, including that of a police officer.

The legal standard, as Nossel explains, is much more narrow, based on the 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, in which a Ku Klux Klan leader, Clarence Brandenburg, was convicted of incitement under Ohio state law after telling those attending a rally that they should take “revengeance” upon Black and Jews. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction, ruling that Brandenburg’s threat wasn’t imminent or specific enough.

The Brandenburg decision was the culmination of a series of court rulings going back to Schenck v. United States (1919), in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. offered his famous metaphor that the law does not protect falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. The standard the court arrived at was that speech could be banned if it presented a “clear and present danger.”

The Schenck decision is often reviled as repressive today, but it was a step forward at the time. For the next 40 years, the court sought to refine and narrow what was meant by a clear and present danger, finally arriving the Brandenburg standard. As Nossel explains, the legal definition of incitement is based on the idea that the language in question was intended to cause violence; that the threat of violence must be imminent; and that the language must be likely to result in violence.

I read the transcript of Trump’s remarks, and it seems to me that they could support an incitement conviction. First of all, there is the context. Trump lies, at great length and in fine detail, about the outcome of the election. You’ve heard it all before, but right near the beginning he says this:

All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical left Democrats, which is what they’re doing and stolen by the fake news media. That’s what they’ve done and what they’re doing. We will never give up. We will never concede, it doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.

Now you might say Trump actually believes this. But over the weekend it was reported that Trump, in the White House, has railed about his defeat with associates. According to Axios, he has gone so far as to say, “Can you believe I lost to that fucking guy? That fucking corpse?” So he knows. He’s lying. And though that lie doesn’t amount to incitement, it prepares the crowd for what follows.

The most incendiary language comes at about the 18-minute mark:

After this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you. We’re going to walk down. We’re going to walk down any one you want, but I think right here. We’re going 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. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated, lawfully slated.

Trump immediately follows up with what could be considered exculpatory language: “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” But we’ve heard him do this many times over the years. If you’re on the jury, would you let him off the hook because, in course of an hour-long speech aimed at stirring up a frenzy, he used the word “peacefully” — once?

Later in his speech, he says, “We got to get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world, we got to get rid of them. We got to get rid of them.” Again, maybe there’s just enough ambiguity here — that sentence is preceded by “a year from now, you’re going to start working on Congress.” That sounds like he could be referring to primary challenges. But Cheney and other Republicans who voted for impeachment are receiving death threats, The Daily Beast reports, and it’s hard to make the case that Trump’s words didn’t have more than a little something to do with it.

I think we also need to keep in mind that Trump took part in a rally at which his son Donald Trump Jr. and one of his lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, spoke even more recklessly than he did. Giuliani spoke of a “trial by combat,” which he ludicrously claimed later was a reference to “Game of Thrones.” Trump Jr., among other things, said:

It [the gathering on the National Mall] should be a message to all the Republicans who have not been willing to actually fight, the people who did nothing to stop the steal. This gathering should send a message to them: This isn’t their Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

Again, Junior could, at least in theory, have been referring to primary challenges. But he was speaking to an angry mob, not a gathering of precinct captains. We have to look at what he had to know the effect of his words would be. There’s no reason we have to interpret what he said in a light most favorable to him.

In other words, it’s possible that Giuliani and Trump Jr. could be in legal jeopardy. And it’s also possible that a jury could use what they said to clarify the president’s own statements.

Would it be wise to prosecute Trump for incitement once he’s out of office? Probably not. This is a close enough call that there’s a good chance he’d be acquitted, which would make the case against him look like a politically motivated attack by his enemies. The best route, it seems, is to hope that the Senate convicts him by the necessary two-thirds vote followed by banning him from holding office in the future, which only requires a majority.

In any case, a possible incitement prosecution is likely to be the least of Trump’s concerns once the clock hits 12:01 p.m. on Wednesday. He faces financial ruin and endless legal problems, both civil and criminal. If he pardons himself, that will be challenged in court. If he prevails, he still faces trouble in a number states, which are not bound by a federal pardon.

But an incitement prosecution is an interesting thought exercise. It could well be that Trump went further than Clarence Brandenburg, sheets and all, in unleashing mob violence. That’s quite a distinction.

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5 thoughts on “The pros and cons of charging Trump with incitement to violence

  1. Video released yesterday showed a rioter telling a Capitol Police officer specifically “we are listening to Trump, your boss.” Clear and present danger? You bet. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and incites like a duck…..” Margie Arons-Barron

  2. nahantjim

    Yours is an excellent assessment of the arguments, Dan. I know that to be true because it is consistent with my own.

    I would just underline that the 14th Amendment option should NOT be exercised unless the Article 1 impeachment process is completed with a conviction.

  3. pauljbass

    I am concerned that “our side” is twisting ourselves in knots to make a legal case about free and not-free speech that might feel uncomfortable when applied to political actors espousing views we embrace.

    To me this is the key paragraph in Dan’s thoughtful piece:

    “In any case, a possible incitement prosecution is likely to be the least of Trump’s concerns once the clock hits 12:01 p.m. on Wednesday. He faces financial ruin and endless legal problems, both civil and criminal. If he pardons himself, that will be challenged in court. If he prevails, he still faces trouble in a number states, which are not bound by a federal pardon.”

    The guy’s deep in endless financial trouble, strong cases (especially in civil litigation involving financial issues that don’t make for sensational headlines that give him more attention, not to mention the sexual harassment/assault cases, plus the potential vote-tampering offenses) that will tie him up in endless court proceedings and drain all those donations he accumulated since the election. I agree with letting that play out, let him fade from view and sink in the consequences of his lifetime of ultimately boring bad-faith dealings, without making him a martyr and the continued focus of political and media attention in less clear-cut cases that potentially call our own values and consistency into question. Stick with low-profile slam dunks.

  4. Charging Trump with trying to overthrow the constitutional order of the US should not be limited to his words at the Jan 6 rally. His campaign against the expressed will of the people started on (or before) Election Day, and I’m not sure we’ve seen the end of it. Why is DC an armed camp right now?

    One huge downside of NOT prosecuting this is that it was a dress rehearsal for a real coup. Should we just flush it down the memory hole?

  5. If not litigated now, then when? What are the implications for some future iteration of Donald Trump if this is just allowed to fade away? Widening the notion of impunity for some future authoritarian President? Good grief!

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