The 14th Amendment disqualification trial against Donald Trump began Monday in Colorado with a group of voters tying to use the Civil War-era amendment to remove the former president from the 2024 ballot, citing his role in the January 6, 2021, insurrection.
In a Denver courtroom, Trump’s lawyers clashed with the challengers, bashing their case as an “anti-democratic” end-around to derail Trump’s campaign without giving voters a say. The challengers argued that their litigation was an unfortunate but necessary step to ensure a “fair” 2024 election by keeping an ineligible candidate off the ballot.
In addition to opening statements, a US Capitol Police officer who was on the front lines of the violent assault and Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat who recounted the horrors of running from the pro-Trump mob, testified for the challengers.
The case revolves around Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which says that US officials who take an oath to uphold the Constitution are disqualified from future office if they “engaged in insurrection” or have “given aid or comfort” to insurrectionists. However, the Constitution is vague about how this ban should be enforced, and it has only been used twice since the 19th century.
The trial is expected to last for one week and the judge has said she wants to issue her decision by Thanksgiving, so there is time for appeals before the ballot-printing process begins in January for the GOP primary in Colorado on March 5, 2024.
Here are the highlights from the first day of the historic trial:
Lawyers for the Republican and independent voters who filed the lawsuit said in their opening statements that their goal is to “ensure Colorado has a fair election among eligible candidates.” Their case is backed by left-leaning watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“Our Constitution prevents people who betrayed their solemn oath, as Trump did here, from serving in office again,” said Eric Olson, an attorney for the challengers. “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 our ballots. Trump engaged in insurrection, and therefore cannot appear on the ballot.”
He added, “No person, not even the former president, is above the law.”
The presentation also featured footage from the deadly January 6 attack on the US Capitol and clips from the 2020 campaign in which Trump praised violence by his supporters, including his infamous comment to the right-wing Proud Boys group to “stand back and stand by.”
Connecting Trump to the violence is a key part of the voters’ case, which faces an uphill climb. Citing evidence from the January 6 committee, Olson said Trump “summoned and organized” the mob and “knew” they were “armed and dangerous.”
“Importantly, he helped them out by refusing to mobilize resources to stop the attack,” Olson said.
Trump lawyer Scott Gessler, a former Colorado secretary of state, blasted the proceedings and said the case was “weak,” “anti-democratic” and relied on “fringe” theories. He urged Colorado District Judge Sarah Wallace to not “interfere” with the 2024 election removing Trump from the ballot.
“This court should not interfere with that fundamental value – that rule of democracy. It’s the people who get to decide, and this lawsuit seeks to cancel that principle,” Gessler said.
A key part of Trump’s defense is that the January 6 insurrection was not actually an insurrection, as envisioned by the 14th Amendment, which was ratified in response to the full-blown rebellion that occurred during the Civil War.
“When it comes to decide as to who should lead our nation, it’s the people of the United States of America that gets to make those decisions, not six voters in Colorado,” Gessler said, referring to the plaintiffs.
Congressman describes ‘haunting’ Jan. 6 experience
Testifying for the anti-Trump challengers, Swalwell described the “haunting” experience of sheltering in the House chamber on January 6 while the right-wing mob surrounded the area.
A California Democrat and fiery Trump critic, Swalwell described how he realized in real time that Trump was endangering him and his colleagues by directing his supporters to go to the Capitol. The challengers used Swalwell’s testimony to try to connect Trump’s actions and words to the violent rampage by his supporters.
“(Trump) aimed at the Capitol by saying that he was in solidarity and going to the Capitol with them – that we’re going to go to the Capitol – a lot of us in the cloakroom looked at each other in an ‘Oh God, what does this mean for us?’ kind of feeling,” Swalwell said.
After the rioters violently breached the building, they nearly reached the House chamber. Swalwell described how the chaotic situation became extremely grave – with the Electoral College proceedings halted, police officers ordering members to put on gas masks, the House chaplain praying and a gunshot ringing out in the distance.
He said he prepared for a fight and coordinated with Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and former Marine, who helped lawmakers put on gas masks, sometimes “using his teeth to rip them open.”
“He also handed me a pen that was sitting on the table … and he said … ‘if any of them get near you just put this in their neck,’” Swalwell said.
Outside of court, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said Monday on CNN that she hopes the trial will provide guidance on Trump’s eligibility for the ballot.
“We’ve never had this type of situation occur where a sitting president incites the insurrection and then has the audacity to run again. So there are real questions about whether Section 3 of the 14th Amendment disqualifies him. I look forward to the judge giving guidance on the topic,” Griswold, a Democrat, said on “CNN News Central.”
The defendants sued Trump and Griswold, who hasn’t taken a position on whether the former president is disqualified and has said she’ll do whatever the judge orders her to do.
Griswold said on CNN that she believes Trump incited the January 6 insurrection, but added that it will be up to the judge to decide whether it means he “engaged” in the insurrection and is disqualified from office.
She also brushed off the possibility that the lawsuit could be seen as a political abuse of the legal process by targeting the GOP front-runner.
“It’s an appropriate mechanism to file a lawsuit. What is inappropriate is trying to steal an election from the American people, inciting an insurrection, having a scheme of fake electors, having conversations about stealing or seizing voter equipment,” Griswold said. “Those things are unreasonable. A court case like we’re seeing play out here, I think is just fine.”
CNN’s Avery Lotz and Andi Babineau contributed to this report.