A federal judge in California yesterday ruled that Donald Trump and one of his legal advisers, former Chapman University law professor John Eastman, probably committed federal felonies when they conspired to reverse the outcome of the 2020 presidential election by pressuring then–Vice President Mike Pence to block or delay congressional ratification of Joe Biden's victory. U.S. District Judge David O. Carter concluded it was "more likely than not" that the scheme violated 18 USC 1512, which prohibits obstruction of "any official proceeding," and 18 USC 371, which criminalizes conspiracies to "defraud the United States."
Carter made that determination while adjudicating a dispute over emails sought by the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters who accepted his stolen-election fantasy and were angry at Pence for refusing to go along with Eastman's plan. While the practical impact of Carter's conclusion is limited to just one disputed document, his analysis amounts to an indictment of conduct that was not just dishonest and reckless but arguably criminal.
"The illegality of the plan was obvious," Carter writes. "Our nation was founded on the peaceful transition of power, epitomized by George Washington laying down his sword to make way for democratic elections. Ignoring this history, President Trump vigorously campaigned for the Vice President to single-handedly determine the results of the 2020 election. As Vice President Pence stated, 'no Vice President in American history has ever asserted such authority.' Every American—and certainly the President of the United States—knows that in a democracy, leaders are elected, not installed….President Trump knowingly tried to subvert this fundamental principle."
Eastman argued that 111 of the documents sought by the January 6 committee's subpoena were protected either by attorney-client privilege, which applies to confidential legal advice, or by the "work product" doctrine, which applies to material prepared in anticipation of litigation. The select committee argued that the disputed emails were not protected, invoking the "crime-fraud exception," which applies to legal advice "in furtherance of" a crime.
Carter concluded that 13 documents qualified as work product and that the crime-fraud exception applied to just one: a memo prepared for Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani recommending that Pence "reject electors from contested states on January 6." Carter says that memo "may have been the first time members of President Trump's team transformed a legal interpretation of the Electoral Count Act into a day-by-day plan of action."
As Carter notes, that plan of action was blatantly illegal. In conversations with Greg Jacob, Pence's counsel, Eastman conceded that the plan violated the Electoral Count Act in several ways. And while Eastman questioned the constitutionality of that law, Carter says, the proper way to resolve those claims would have been to raise them in court rather than unilaterally choosing to ignore the statute.
Eastman likewise acknowledged that it was "100 percent consistent historical practice since the time of the Founding" that the vice president does not have the legal power to do what Eastman and Trump wanted him to do. Eastman also admitted that it was likely the Supreme Court would unanimously agree.
On January 3, 2021, Eastman nevertheless wrote a six-page memo calling for "BOLD" action by Pence to stop Biden from taking office. "The stakes could not be higher," he wrote. "This Election was Stolen by a strategic Democrat plan to systematically flout existing election laws for partisan advantage; we're no longer playing by Queensbury Rules."
The next day, Eastman, at Trump's behest, pushed his plan in a meeting with Pence, Jacob, and Marc Short, the vice president's chief of staff. "During that meeting," Carter notes, "Vice President Pence consistently held that he did not possess the authority to carry out Dr. Eastman's proposal." Eastman met again with Jacob and Short on January 5, saying, "I'm here asking you to reject the electors." Most of that meeting was consumed by an argument in which Jacob disputed the legal merits of Eastman's memo.
"Despite receiving pushback," Carter says, "President Trump and Dr. Eastman continued to urge Vice President Pence to carry out the plan." At 1 a.m. on January 6, Trump tweeted that "if Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency," averring that "Mike can send it back!" Seven hours later, another Trump tweet insisted that "states want to correct their votes," saying "all Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN." He urged Pence to "do it," because "this is a time for extreme courage!"
Trump delivered the same message in a phone call to Pence around 11:20 a.m. that day. According to Pence's national security adviser, who was present during that conversation, Trump castigated the vice president as "not tough enough to make the call." Trump and Eastman reprised the same theme during their speeches at the "Stop the Steal" rally that preceded the Capitol riot. Trump closed his speech by urging his followers to march on the Capitol in the hope of inspiring "the kind of pride and boldness" that "weak" Republicans like Pence needed "to take back our country."
Around noon, Pence publicly rejected Trump and Eastman's appeals, saying, "It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not." After the riot started, Trump condemned Pence on Twitter: "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!"
In an email to Eastman while Trump's enraged supporters were storming the Capitol, Jacob noted that the rioters "believed with all their hearts the theory they were sold about the powers that could legitimately be exercised at the Capitol on this day," and "thanks to your bullshit, we are now under siege." Eastman, who was still trying to change Pence's mind, took a different view: "The 'siege' is because YOU and your boss did not do what was necessary to allow this to be aired in a public way so the American people can see for themselves what happened."
A conviction for obstructing or attempting to obstruct an official proceeding requires proving that the defendant acted "corruptly." According to 9th Circuit precedent, that element does not require "consciousness of wrongdoing." But in this case, Carter says, Trump "likely knew that the plan to disrupt the electoral count was wrongful."
While Trump and Eastman justified their actions by asserting that the election had been stolen through systematic fraud, that claim had been rejected by cybersecurity experts, state officials of both parties, the courts, and "numerous executive branch officials," including Attorney General William Barr. Trump therefore "likely knew the justification was baseless," Carter says, meaning "the entire plan was unlawful." Eastman's concessions about the legal dubiousness of his "BOLD" plan underline that point.
A conviction for conspiracy to defraud the United States requires coordination, the use of "deceitful or dishonest means," and at least one "overt act"—all aimed, in this case, at obstructing "a lawful government function." Carter thinks the same pattern of behavior that implicates Trump and Eastman in obstructing a congressional proceeding probably would satisfy those elements as well.
Carter's conclusions do not necessarily mean that Trump or Eastman could be successfully prosecuted for either of these crimes. The preponderance-of-the-evidence standard for applying the crime-fraud exception is much less demanding than the proof beyond a reasonable doubt required for a criminal conviction. So even if the January 6 committee ends up recommending criminal charges, the Justice Department might sensibly decline to pursue them. But Carter's ruling, which calls Eastman's plan "a coup in search of a legal theory," reminds us of how outrageous and unprecedented Trump's reaction to his electoral defeat was.
"More than a year after the attack on our Capitol, the public is still searching for
accountability," Carter writes. "This case cannot provide it. The Court is tasked only with deciding a dispute over a handful of emails. This is not a criminal prosecution; this is not even a civil liability suit. At most, this case is a warning about the dangers of 'legal theories' gone wrong, the powerful abusing public platforms, and desperation to win at all costs."