Arnett Thomas never thought he would be battling Donald Trump in court.
After all, Thomas is a convicted murderer. He spent two decades in a variety of New Jersey prisons before his release in 2000.
Trump is, well, confined to a prison of his own in Florida, banned from Twitter and other social media platforms but nevertheless threatening to run again for the White House.
But sometimes it takes a guy who knows something about wrong-doing to understand when something is wrong.
This is how Thomas, now 71, disabled and living in a government-sponsored housing complex in Orange came to file a lawsuit in federal court in Newark that blames Trump for America’s massive — and growing — COVID-19 death toll.
“The former president literally became the very domestic enemy to the Constitution he swore to defend,” Thomas wrote in his 29-page class-action lawsuit that now includes more than 75 co-plaintiffs.
So far, Trump has not responded.
But Thomas is talking.
For starters, Thomas says he’s looking for $1 trillion from Trump as a punishment for the nearly 570,000 deaths in America from COVID-related causes, as well as the ancillary economic and psychological problems for many others who lost jobs or fell into a deep depression from too much home confinement.
“The point of all of this is how Trump dealt with the pandemic,” Thomas said in an interview. “He drove people to dying.”
‘Trump allowed the disease to spread’
On one level, Thomas’s legal joust with the former president is little more than a quixotic pipe dream that seems more suited to a skit on Saturday Night Live. Thomas is not an attorney. He’s trying to entice one to take the case. He wrote the lawsuit himself, citing all manner of federal statutes and the U.S. Constitution.
It’s not exactly the kind of track record that usually succeeds in the heady atmosphere of a federal courtroom — or, for that matter, even in the more pedestrian setting of a local traffic court.
But Thomas’ legal crusade is significant nonetheless. It reflects the deep-seeded anger at Trump’s behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic — especially in Thomas’ African-American community in Orange and Newark.
“Everything Trump has done since he’s been in office has been really shady and all backwards and messed up,” said one of lawsuit’s co-plaintiffs, Kyani Robinson, 21, a landscaper who lives in Roselle and happens to be one of Thomas’ nephews.
“Trump allowed the disease to spread,” Thomas said. “What he did was politically motivated. If Trump would have handled this pandemic in a proper way he would have been elected [again]. Trump got kicked out because of the way he handled it.”
American history is riddled with all manner of unpopular presidents who left behind a small army of critics and reservoirs of hatred from various corners of America after they left office. Exhibit A is Richard Nixon. But the list of unpopular ex-presidents also runs from Herbert Hoover to Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.
Now there is Trump.
While the former president can still point to numerous admirers, especially on America’s right flank, he has nevertheless inflamed a whole new spirit of distaste, especially among moderates and progressives. At the same time, Trump is also being targeted by prosecutors in New York (for his business activities) and in Washington for his possible role in the deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol by mobs of followers on Jan. 6.
Now comes the lawsuit by Thomas.
A law degree earned behind bars
This story begins in prison.
When you’re doing time for murder, you have, well, lots of time on your hands. Thomas, who was convicted in a drug-related murder in the 1980s, headed to the prison library and started reading law books.
He became so adept at understanding legal principles that he filed a lawsuit on behalf of New Jersey prison inmates in 1985 that resulted in changes in rules on solitary confinement.
Fast forward to 2020.
Thomas had left his prison life far behind. After he was paroled in 2000, he worked a number of jobs, including a stint as a mechanic for New Jersey Transit and as a utilities inspector. Finally, he cobbled together enough money to start his own contracting firm in Asbury Park.
Then came the accident at a hardware store.
Thomas needed to pick up bricks, cement and other supplies for a home remodeling job in Asbury Park. But as he perused a hardware store, a shelf of bricks fell on his head. He was officially classified as disabled, diagnosed with permanent post-concussion syndrome.
With his girlfriend of 40 years, Helene Robinson, Thomas moved into Housing Authority apartments in Orange.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thomas lost friends. He watched others lose jobs. Then he fell into a deep depression.
But with his lawsuit, he’s already gained numerous fans.
“Arnett Thomas is on the money,” said Ronald “Cowboy” Wright, 81, a retired horse trainer at the Meadowlands Race Track who lives in Newark and signed on to the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff. “Arnett is a living brain.”
In his lawsuit, Thomas calls Trump “the domestic enemy to the United States Constitution.” Along with “an unprecedented partisan relationship” with “Republican legislators and Republican supporters,” Thomas goes on to accuse Trump of creating a “three-pronged Faustian deal with the devil.” As a result, Thomas describes Trump’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic as “criminal.”
Thomas points to what he calls Trump’s openness to a medical concept known as “herd immunity” as especially troubling. Thomas claims that Trump and his advisors were open to letting the disease spread in the belief that as more Americans became infected before a vaccine was developed that people would develop a “herd immunity” to the virus.
The problem here, as Thomas points out, is that the disease also killed people, too. Yes, those who contracted the virus and survived developed immunity. But as this “herd” of immune survivors grew, many also perished.
Trump “is is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people across the expanse of America, by deploying and unleashing a natural herd immunity experiment which would contribute to five million reported COVID-19 cases and five hundred thousand deaths,” Thomas wrote in his lawsuit.
It’s never been conclusively proven that Trump authorized any sort of “herd immunity” policy by his Administration. But Trump mentioned the theory enough that critics began to wonder whether his administration was secretly hoping that COVID-19 might be defeated if a large segment of the American population became infected.
The debate became so intense last year that one of the key voices in Trump’s anti-COVID-19 task force, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar made a point of denying in his own congressional testimony last fall that “herd immunity is not the strategy of the U.S. government.”
But Azar’s denials seemed moot when Trump began to rely on advice of Dr. Scott Atlas, who reportedly pushed for a herd immunity policy until America could develop a vaccine to stop the pandemic.
‘You got to be true’
If Thomas lawsuit ever becomes a federal trial, the science — or lack thereof — behind herd immunity, as well as Trump’s own disorganized efforts to battle COVID-19, would likely become a centerpiece of the case.
That’s just fine with Thomas and his co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
“When you go down this road,” Thomas said, “you got to be true.”
Thomas’ girlfriend, Robinson, 67, agreed.
By advocating herd immunity, Robinson said that Trump essentially reduced her and others to a “human experiment.
“That was unfair to me as a citizen,” she said.
Another co-plaintiff, Kevin Williams, signed on to the lawsuit soon after Thomas called him and described what he was planning to do.
Williams, 61, a psychotherapist for a Philadelphia-based non-profit, said the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard on Black and other minority communities.
As for Trump, Williams said he would like to see him in court.
“At some point, I believe that public officials need to be held accountable,” Williams said. “I don’t know what Trump thought he was doing, but what I can say is that it’s been a disaster.”
That trial — if it happens — may take years to resolve.
For now, Thomas is sure of one true thing.
“Trump is a gamer,” he said. “Some people can see it and some people can’t.”
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Donald Trump is facing yet another new lawsuit — this one from a NJ parolee | Kelly