In early November, a guy named Noah Bookbinder wrote a letter to Donald Trump. Bookbinder is president of the DC watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, and he had a message for the ex-President: Don’t run. Bookbinder wasn’t just expressing a preference. He and his group believe that Trump and other politicians who participated in various ways in the January 6 attack on the Capitol are legally ineligible for elected office, and they plan to press the issue, possibly via the courts.
Recently, we dropped by CREW’s office near the White House to learn more about how it’s trying to block insurrection-adjacent politicians from future roles in government. The organization, which formed in 2003, has a long record of watchdog actions that address malfeasance in both parties, though GOP politicians have vacuumed up most of its attention—a trend that ballooned during the Trump administration.
Donald Sherman, CREW’s senior vice president and chief counsel, explained their approach. The argument is based on Section 3 of the 14th Amendment—a Reconstruction-era provision meant to snuff out the public-service careers of former Confederates. No one can hold any office in the US, it reads, if they have “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.” CREW believes that applies to January 6 supporters, including the previous President.
So far, the argument hasn’t troubled Trump, who announced his 2024 candidacy not long after CREW sent its letter. “He has a long track record of not listening to us,” Sherman said with a shrug. But CREW’s reasoning seems to have been borne out by a test case that the group supported in New Mexico in September. A judge barred a county commissioner who had taken part in the Capitol siege from holding office for life after plaintiffs used CREW’s 14th Amendment approach.
BREAKING: We won! For the first time since 1869, a public official has been ordered removed from office under the 14th Amendment for participating in the January 6th insurrection. Much more to come very soon.
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) September 6, 2022
Don’t expect a similar Trump lawsuit anytime soon, Sherman cautioned, for the mundane reason that Trump has a ways to go before he’s officially added to any state’s ballot. For now, the group has contacted secretaries of state to remind them that people who have violated the Constitution can be nixed from ballots.
Will any of this work? Alan B. Morrison, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University, thinks Trump is “certainly guilty of an insurrection” but says it’s unclear who might have the standing to sue. For constitutional lawyers, he adds, the former President’s eligibility for office is “just another problem that Donald Trump has produced for all of us.”
That doesn’t exactly sound like a slam dunk. As Sherman noted, “nobody gets into government ethics if they aren’t prepared for some disappointment.”
This article appears in the January 2023 issue of Washingtonian.