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Judge finds Trump "more likely than not" illegally tried to obstruct Congress on January 6

Trump likely committed obstruction, judge says
Judge finds Trump "more likely than not" illegally tried to obstruct Congress on Jan. 6 00:27

Washington — A federal judge in California on Monday ordered conservative attorney John Eastman to turn over a tranche of emails to the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and found that former President Donald Trump "more likely than not" illegally tried to impede official congressional proceedings on the day of the attack.

In his 44-page decision involving the documents from Eastman, a former law professor at Chapman University who played a key role in Trump's efforts to reverse the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, U.S. District Judge David Carter wrote that based on the evidence, he finds it is "more likely than not that President Trump corruptly attempted to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021."

"Dr. Eastman and President Trump launched a campaign to overturn a democratic election, an action unprecedented in American history," he wrote. "Their campaign was not confined to the ivory tower — it was a coup in search of a legal theory. The plan 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."

Eastman's legal fight with the House select committee came in response to a subpoena it issued to Chapman University in January for records, including emails, related to the 2020 presidential election or the January 6 assault. 

Eastman used his Chapman email account to communicate about efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results and sought to withhold the documents from investigators, arguing they included information that would be protected under attorney-client privilege and attorney work-product privileges. He asked a federal district court to block the committee from enforcing its subpoena and stop Chapman from complying with the demand.

John Eastman speaks at a news conference in Boulder, Colorado, on Thursday, April 29, 2021. Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Specifically at issue were emails exchanged between January 4, 2021, and January 7, 2021, some of which Eastman attempted to claim privilege over, assertions that were rejected by the committee. 

Of the 111 emails from those dates that Eastman said should be shielded from disclosure, Carter found just 10 contained privileged information and therefore should be withheld. The remaining 101 must be disclosed to the House select committee, he said.

"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 wrote. "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."

While Carter determined it is "more likely than not" that Trump attempted to obstruct the joint session on January 6 and conspired with Eastman to do so, any decision on whether to charge the former president will ultimately be made by the Justice Department and Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Garland vowed in January that the department is "committed to holding all January 6th perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law — whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy."

Charles Burnham, an attorney representing Eastman, said in a statement he intends to comply with the court's order.

"Dr. Eastman has an unblemished record as an attorney and respectfully disagrees with the judge's findings," Burnham said in a statement. "Dr. Eastman asks all persons interested in this case to join him in calling upon the January 6th committee to release all the evidence so the courts and the public can reach accurate conclusions about the matters involved."

Eastman was a driving force behind the legal strategy to justify efforts to stop the transfer of power, which centered on a plan for Vice President Mike Pence, who presided over the January 6 joint session, to reject electoral votes in key battleground states won by President Biden. Pence rebuffed the plan to reject state electoral votes, arguing he did not have the authority to carry it out.

"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. Ignoring this history, President Trump vigorously campaigned for the vice president to single-handedly determine the results of the 2020 election. ... Every American — and certainly the President of the United States — knows that in a democracy, leaders are elected, not installed. With a plan this 'BOLD,' President Trump knowingly tried to subvert this fundamental principle."

In his decision, Carter identified tranches of Eastman's emails to be released that involved the plan for Pence to reject or delay the counting of state electoral votes; alleged voter fraud at the state level; documents prepared for members of Congress; third-party communications; and news or press releases.

Of the documents for Congress, seven emails name specific senators as the intended recipients, which were "created to persuade federal legislators to take action," Carter said.

Also among the documents to be disclosed to the committee is an email chain to Eastman forwarding a draft memo written for Rudy Giuliani, Trump's attorney, that recommended Pence reject electors from battleground states on January 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. The memo is both intimately related to and clearly advanced the plan to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress."

Of the 10 documents that will not be handed over to committee, Carter said none are "pivotal" to its investigation. Nine include "opinions and discussions about trial strategy in ongoing lawsuits," and the 10th is an email that includes Eastman's thoughts on the evening of January 6 about potential future actions since Pence refused to set aside electoral votes.

The panel had told the court in an earlier filing as part of the dispute with Eastman that it had evidence that Trump and his allies engaged in a "criminal conspiracy" by attempting to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 election.

Eastman was among those who advised Trump in the wake of the presidential election and was summoned by the House select committee to testify about the events leading up to the January 6 riots. He declined to turn over documents and, during his deposition, asserted his Fifth Amendment right 146 times. 

After he declined to answer questions from House investigators, the committee issued a subpoena to Chapman for Eastman's communications. 

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