Sociology professor Peter Simi testified as an expert witness in the case alleging that former President Donald Trump engaged in an “insurrection,” thus disqualifying him from running for office under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.
Mr. Simi specializes in studying political violence and political extremism. In his 27-year career, he said, he has spent thousands of hours interviewing gang members and political extremists and has testified as an expert witness in other cases.
In his view, the Proud Boys, 3 Percenters, and Oathkeepers are the key groups responsible for the Jan. 6, 2021, breach of the U.S. Capitol. He characterized them as far-right extremist groups, with a tendency to rely on “conspiracy theories,” pinning blame on “shadowy figures,” and an “us versus them” belief where the “them” is an “existential threat.”
“Another central tenet is an anti-democratic impulse” and support for “authoritarian” methods, Mr. Simi said.
These “extremists” on Jan. 6 used language like “a type of doublespeak” that only makes sense to “insiders” to call for “violence,” he said, adding that the “deceptive speech” provides plausible deniability.
He claimed that “1776” was a coded call for violence and the people wearing helmets and carrying flagpoles on Jan. 6 would likely be “violence implementers” prepared to use violence that day.
“Far-right extremists view ‘fight’ in literal terms … including violence,” he said, claiming that extremists received President Trump’s Jan. 6 rally invitation as a call to violence.
He was “very confident” that President Trump led the “attacks” on Jan. 6, 2021, because extremists saw him as “one of them.”
It seemed “pretty clear to me” that President Trump was aware of his effect on extremists, he said, attributing his confidence in interpreting these strategies and speech to his 27 years of study.
Colorado District Court Judge Sarah Wallace posed a question.
“You don’t have any evidence that President Trump was trained in this kind of communication, correct?”
“That’s correct,” Mr. Simi replied.
Defense attorneys rejected the idea that President Trump promoted violence, pointing to the fact that the evidence used to establish a “pattern” of speech promoting violence did not result in violence.
The trial underway in Colorado stems from one of the many lawsuits brought against election officials and President Trump, arguing that he is ineligible for office under the 14th Amendment.
The 14th Amendment was ratified after the Civil War, conferring citizenship and equal rights to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, with the intention of protecting the rights of all former slaves. It included a section that barred those who had engaged in “insurrections” or “rebellions” against the nation from holding office unless they had two-thirds approval from Congress.
The left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sued on behalf of six Colorado voters, arguing that the events of Jan. 6, 2021, constituted a violent insurrection, and that the former president had engaged in it.
On Monday, the court heard testimony from two police officers who tried to prevent the Capitol breach, along with Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who described the day’s events and eventual evacuation.
Judge Wallace has said she hopes to issue a ruling by Thanksgiving. Whatever the decision, it is likely to be appealed in a higher court.
On Thursday, a trial for a similar case will begin in Minnesota.
Mr. Simi testified that the far-right would generally view a national leader with skepticism, but their view of President Trump was atypical because they supported him and “saw him as speaking their language and addressing their grievances.”
Among the examples he cited were how right-leaning people picked up on President Trump’s questioning President Barack Obama’s citizenship, and how the former president’s calling illegal immigrants “rapists” was aligned with “Western chauvinism,” or the belief that Western civilization is superior.
The idea that the 2020 elections were “marked by a substantial amount of fraud” constituted a “conspiracy theory,” said Mr. Simi, and “Stop the Steal” rallies were attended by “armed militia anti-government types.”
The attorneys played clips of President Trump condemning violence and extremists, but Mr. Simi claimed that extremists understand that a little bit of condemnation is “necessary” and, therefore, did not see President Trump’s remarks as true condemnation.
He said the “contextual cues” in President Trump’s ask that people “march peacefully” made it so that extremists would have still “read” it as a call for violence.
Judge Wallace asked Mr. Simi whether he had watched the speech in real-time or whether his expert testimony was due to hindsight.
Mr. Simi said he had not seen the speech in real-time but had already had concerns about violence, and his testimony would be the same.
On cross examination, responding to a question from the defense attorney, Mr. Simi, he said he was not aware of having interviewed anyone who was at the Jan. 6 rally before it occurred and did not interview them afterwards.
He did not attend the Jan. 6, 2021, events, nor did he survey participants of the rally. He said he relied largely on social media posts, other expert opinions, and the Jan. 6 report produced by a House committee, which the defense sought to prevent from being entered into evidence. Afterward, he authored a report on the events of Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol.
Referring back to what Mr. Simi had called coded language, defense attorneys asked whether, if, as a politician, he went to two different Fourth of July events—one with extremists in attendance and one without—and gave the same speech referencing “1776,” that would constitute “doublespeak.” Mr. Simi said yes because extremists in the audience of one event would have understood it to reference violence, even if the politician didn’t know it.
Defense attorneys played clips of several politicians, including some identified as Democrats, encouraging their supporters to “fight like hell.”
Mr. Simi agreed that he could not determine whether these speeches were coded for extremists, because his area of study requires one to observe patterns and see if there has been a relationship established between the politicians and extremists.
He was shown a clip of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaking after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, wherein he referred to the situation as a “war” and that women and people supporting abortion were “under attack.” Mr. Simi testified that he could not make a judgment based solely on words, but needed to see whether there was observational evidence that the speaker believed there was really a war, and was not speaking “figuratively.”
Mr. Simi repeated that his opinion is based only on observation, and he has no evidence of President Trump’s intentions.