A civil conspiracy, writes Mehta, does not require that the conspirators “have entered into an express or formal agreement, or that they have directly, by spoken word or in writing, declared among themselves what their object or purpose is to be, or the details thereof, or the means by which the object or purpose was to be accomplished. They need not know all the details of a plan or of all those who participate in its execution. It suffices that they had “come together to try to accomplish a common and illegal plan… [the] the general scope of which was known to any person held responsible for its consequences”.
The available evidence, Mehta concluded, suggests that such a plot may have been set up between Trump and members of these far-right groups.
There is no doubt, of course, that Trump encouraged people to be in Washington that day (an encouragement known to have been recognized by members of these extremist groups) and there is no doubt that he led repeatedly the anger of his supporters against Vice President Mike Pence. and members of Congress meeting at the Capitol. There is no indication that Trump had any direct connection to extremist groups (although Mehta noted details like longtime Trump ally Roger Stone having been seen with the Oath Keepers on the morning of January 6″ could turn out to be… important”. ). But by the above standard – a legal standard that does not necessarily correspond to common usage of “conspiracy” – these actions suggest possible guilt.
Mehta’s argument is fleshed out by highlighting a number of lesser-recognized elements from the period before the Capitol was overrun, including the three that struck me.
The first was his mention of previous incidents of violence in Washington. In November and December, Trump supporters came to Washington to protest, and each time scattered incidents of violence erupted afterward as members of the Proud Boys clashed with counter-protesters.
“On the evening of November 14, 2020, several police officers were injured and nearly two dozen arrests were made,” the decision read. “Then on December 12, 2020, supporters of the president clashed with District of Columbia police, injuring eight of them, leading to more than 30 arrests, many for assault. President was aware of these rallies, since he tweeted about them, and he would have been aware of the violence that accompanied them.
In other words, Trump had every reason to believe that a demonstration on his behalf in Washington could attract extremists and that those extremists could then engage in violence. It certainly sheds a different light on White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’ statement that the National Guard would “protect pro-Trumps” on January 6.
The second thing that struck me was Mehta’s repeated isolation of Trump’s plea for his rally attendees to march to the Capitol.
It’s something I’ve written many times. Several events were planned for the day of January 6, including the speech at the Ellipse in front of the White House and a rally on Capitol Hill afterwards. The permission for the rallies said there could be movement between the White House and the Capitol, but a march was not permitted. When Trump explicitly called on rally attendees to march to the Capitol during his speech, he guaranteed (even unwittingly) that there would be a massive imbalance between protesters and law enforcement at the scene, allowing the Capitol to be more easily breached.
Above all, this call to go to the Capitol surprised the other organizers. One of them, Dustin Stockton, told the New York Times that “the plan was to stay at the Ellipse until the counting of state voter rolls is complete.” There had been internal deliberations on the idea, which Stockton said had been resolved to stay close to the White House. When he heard Trump calling on people to come to the Capitol, Stockton worried that he “felt unsafe.” The march, Mehta says, was an addition made by Trump and his campaign.
“[I]It is at least plausible to infer that when he called on protesters to march to the Capitol, the President did so in an effort to disrupt lawmakers’ efforts to certify Electoral College votes,” Mehta writes. In other words, even if he didn’t know this was the specific plan of the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, it could certainly be part of a “mutual understanding” of what the desired outcome of the daytime.
Mehta analyzes at length Trump’s encouragement to the crowd during the speech that morning. While Trump has long emphasized his mention of supporters “peacefully and patriotically” making their voices heard, Mehta notes that this has been offset by his more frequent and angry urgings. (He also set aside Trump’s argument that his speech and broader claims about voter fraud were shielded as part of his duties as president. After all, he wrote, an effort to ” secure or perpetuate the mandate” is not a function of the presidency. )
The third thing that struck me was Mehta’s isolation of Trump’s use of “we” language. Trump did that a lot as president, and still does. This is part of what endears him to his audience; they often see him as fighting for their collective interests more than his own. On the morning of January 6, however, Trump’s incessant use of “we” – “All Mike Pence has to do is send him back to the states to recertify, and we become president”, “we’re going down,” etc. – reinforces the conspiracy issue.
“‘We’ is used repeatedly because this context implies that the president and rally participants would act together towards a common goal,” Mehta writes. “That’s the essence of a civilian conspiracy.”
The ruling includes a host of other information and allegations, most of which will be familiar to those paying close attention to the day’s events. But it is unusual in the way it directly links Trump to the distributed effort to block the electoral vote count.
At one point, Mehta succinctly summarized Trump’s actions.
“For months, the president made his supporters believe that the election was stolen. When some of his supporters threatened state election officials, he refused to condemn them. Rallies in Washington, DC, in November and December 2020 had turned violent, but he invited his supporters to Washington, DC on certification day. They came by the thousands. And, after a 75-minute speech in which he blamed corrupt and weak politicians for the election defeat, he called on them to march on the very spot where certification was taking place.
None of this suggests that Trump will necessarily lose the civil lawsuits that have been filed against him. This does not prove that the civil conspiracy described by Mehta will be proven to the satisfaction of a jury. But it is striking to read a document written by a federal judge in which he finds reason to believe that a sitting president may have conspired with violent extremists to retain power.