Former President Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 likely constitute attempted obstruction of Congress, a federal judge ruled on Monday.
“Based on the evidence, the Court finds it more likely than not that President Trump corruptly attempted to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021,” U.S. District Judge David Carter for the Central District of California wrote.
Carter ruled in the opinion that John Eastman, an influential conservative attorney who argued in favor of Trump’s efforts to subvert the election, had to turn over more than 100 emails to the House Jan. 6 Committee.
Eastman was responsible for crafting legal arguments that would have subverted the formalization of Biden’s win on Jan. 6. According to a December 2020 memo that Eastman wrote, then-Vice President Mike Pence would reject electoral vote slates from seven swing states that Trump lost, ensuring, the memo noted, that “President Trump is re-elected.”
Within a few hours of the judge’s order, Eastman issued a statement that he would not appeal the ruling.
Judge Carter, in a recounting of the plot to subvert the election, described Eastman’s role as supporting “illegality.”
“Disagreeing with the law entitled President Trump to seek a remedy in court, not to disrupt a constitutionally-mandated process,” Carter wrote.
He did find that out of 111 documents, privilege applied to 10 of them. The Committee will get the balance of 101.
“Our nation was founded on the peaceful transition of power, epitomized by George Washington laying down his sword to make way for democratic elections,” the opinion reads. “Ignoring this history, President Trump vigorously campaigned for the Vice President to single-handedly determine the results of the 2020 election.”
Eastman had sued the Jan. 6 Committee in a bid to block a panel subpoena for his records. He had argued that some of the documents were protected from release by attorney-client privilege.
The Jan. 6 Committee responded that its investigation had gathered evidence suggesting that the crime-fraud exception applied to the documents, citing obstruction of Congress and conspiracy to defraud the American people as potential criminal acts.
Eastman’s work for Trump gets the harshest rebuke from Carter, with the judge suggesting multiple times that it rose to the level of criminal wrongdoing.
He found that Trump and Eastman had likely entered into a conspiracy to obstruct Congress, identifying a number of overt acts – and alleged lies – that the two committed in their bid to subvert the election.
That included the infamous Pence memo, but also instances in which Eastman, under pressure, “recognized that his plan had no legal support.”
“Importantly, Dr. Eastman admitted more than once that “his proposal violate[d] several provisions of statutory law,” including explicitly characterizing the plan as “one more relatively minor violation” of the Electoral Count Act,” Carter wrote.
It was “a coup in search of a legal theory,” Carter wrote, that “spurred violent attacks on the seat of our nation’s government, led to the deaths of several law enforcement officers, and deepened public distrust in our political process.”
Carter recognizes that the case – about what documents Eastman must provide pursuant to a Jan. 6 Committee subpoena – is limited compared to the scale of wrongdoing that led to Jan. 6.
“This is not a criminal prosecution; this is not even a civil liability suit,” Carter wrote. “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.”
He added that “If Dr. Eastman and President Trump’s plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution.”
“If the country does not commit to investigating and pursuing accountability for those responsible, the Court fears January 6 will repeat itself,” Carter concluded.
Eastman said in the statement that he disagreed with the crime-fraud portion of the judge’s ruling.
“The court’s findings were therefore not based on the complete picture, but instead relied on evidence cherry picked by the committee, supplemented by news articles,” the statement reads.
For Carter, Pence’s decision to push back on Eastman and Trump’s plan is central.
Pence was one among many officials who “made clear to President Trump that the plan was unlawful,” saying publicly that “no Vice President in American history has ever asserted such authority.”
Carter found that Pence’s pushback highlighted out clearly unlawful the scheme was, casting doubt on the argument that Trump or Eastman may have been honestly misled.
“The illegality of the plan was obvious,” Carter wrote. “Our nation was founded on the peaceful transition of power, epitomized by George Washington laying down his sword to make way for democratic elections.”
For the purposes of Carter’s ruling, finding that Trump and Eastman likely engaged in criminal activity allowed him to say that the crime-fraud exception to attorney-client privilege applied in the case.
Under that doctrine, legal documents drafted in furtherance of a crime aren’t covered by the normal privilege.
Carter found that, out of 11 privileged documents, the exception applied to one: an email chain involving Eastman and Rudy Giuliani.
In the chain, Eastman received a memo written for Giuliani. It purportedly recommended that Pence reject electors on Jan. 6.
“This 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,” Carter wrote. “The draft memo pushed a strategy that knowingly violated the Electoral Count Act, and Dr. Eastman’s later memos closely track its analysis and proposal.”
Read the order here: