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After a Six Hour Hearing on Lawsuits against Trump, the Only Clear Thing is Don Jr Is in the Clear

We just finished a 6-hour hearing before Judge Amit Mehta in the consolidated lawsuits (by Bennie Thompson and other members of Congress, by Eric Swalwell, and by some cops) against Trump and others for January 6.

As the judge presiding over the Oath Keepers case, Mehta knows January 6 as well as anyone — and probably has seen a bunch that is not public.

And the only two takeaways about which he seemed certain are that, first of all, Don Jr’s attempts to get his Pop to call off the riot, on top of the fact that his incendiary speech wasn’t nearly as pointed as his Dad’s, likely puts him in the clear for tortious liability. Whether Trump himself is, Mehta said over and over, is a very difficult question.

He seemed to think the question of whether Trump abetted the riot is easier than whether he conspired with the criminals.

The one other thing about which Mehta seemed certain, based on the record before him (and possibly on stuff he has seen that’s not public) is that a claim that the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys conspired is not at all a stretch. He even noted, at one point, that Jonathon Moseley’s claim that some people who listened to Trump might have listened to his speech and then gone to lunch was not applicable here given that, as he knows well, the Oath Keepers did not go to lunch.

Here’s my thread on the rest, which I’ll presumably return to.

Because this case was for a conspiracy before a judge who knows January 6 as well as anyone, in suits arguing incitement more aggressively than a conspiracy that I think is becoming more evident (but that was not briefed before Mehta), his caution should caution others. These lawsuits are basically a dry run of any criminal charges against the Former, particularly for incitement. And, at least per Judge Mehta, the case is not as clearcut as many seem to believe.

DOJ’s Approximate January 6 Conspiracies

Amid the clamor for Merrick Garland to say something about the January 6 investigation, DOJ has announced he will give a speech, tomorrow, to mark Thursday’s year anniversary of the assault on the Capitol.

Meanwhile, late last year, DOJ released a one-year summary of the investigation. It’s similar to periodical reports the DC US Attorney’s Office has released before, including that its numbers generally skew high. It includes DC Superior Court arrests, in addition to federal arrests, to come up with “more than 725 defendants;” (GWU’s count, which those of us tracking this closely consider the canonical list, shows 704 arrests). DOJ appears to mix assault and civil disorder arrests to come up with 225 in some way interfering with cops; my own count, while low, counts fewer than 150 people charged with assault. DOJ’s summary boasts that 275 people have been charged with obstruction, a number that includes those who’ve been permitted to plead down to misdemeanors.

One number, however, is low: DOJ claims that,

Approximately 40 defendants have been charged with conspiracy, either: (a) conspiracy to obstruct a congressional proceeding, (b) conspiracy to obstruct law enforcement during a civil disorder, (c) conspiracy to injure an officer, or (d) some combination of the three.

By my count, this number is at least 25% off the known count. There are 39 people currently charged in the top-line militia conspiracies, plus five people cooperating against them.

There are at least another 13 people charged in smaller conspiracies (though the Texas “Patriot” conspiracy has not been indicted yet), with two more people cooperating in those cases.

It’s most likely DOJ got this number so badly wrong because it is overworked and some of these (like the Texas one and the status of Danny Rodriguez co-conspirator “Swedish Scarf”) aren’t fully unsealed.

But it’s also likely that these numbers are not what they seem.

That’s because in (at least) the larger conspiracies, there have been a lot of plea discussions going on behind the scenes, if not hidden cooperators. Certainly in the wake of five decisions upholding the obstruction application (including in the main Oath Keeper conspiracy, in the Ronnie Sandlin conspiracy, and by Tim Kelly, who is presiding over three of the Proud Boy conspiracies), we should expect some movement. I expect there will be some consolidation in the Proud Boy cases. The Texas case and some other Proud Boy defendants have to be indicted.

Importantly, too, these conspiracies all link up to other key players. For example, Roger Stone, Ali Alexander, and Alex Jones coordinated closely with the Proud Boy and Oath Keeper conspirators. The state-level conspiracies are most interesting for local power brokers and the elected officials with whom these conspirators networked — like Ted Cruz in the case of the Texas alleged conspirators or Morton Irvine Smith in the SoCal 3%er.

The utility of conspiracy charges lies in the way they can turn associates against each other and network others into the crime. Prosecutors love to use secrecy and paranoia to increase that utility.

And so while DOJ is undoubtedly overwhelmed, it may also be the case that DOJ would like to keep potential co-conspirators guessing about what’s really behind them.

Easy Cases: Why Austin Sarat’s Argument That Trump Should Not Be Prosecuted Is Wrong

Randolph Moss, serving as Assistant Attorney General for OLC in 2000, famously wrote the following:

Our view remains that a sitting President is constitutionally immune from indictment and criminal prosecution.

Less famously, however, the first 11 pages of that more famous memo rely on this earlier OLC memo from Moss:

We conclude that the Constitution permits a former President to be criminally prosecuted for the same offenses for which he was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate while in office.

Even less famous are words Moss released last Tuesday, now presiding as a judge over a January 6 prosecution, ruling that obstruction, 18 USC 1512(c)(2), clearly applies to the official Congressional proceeding to certify the vote count on January 6, 2021.

Hard cases may make bad law. But easy cases ought not.

For these reasons, the Court rejects Defendants’ contention that the joint session of Congress convened to certify the electoral vote is not a “proceeding before the Congress.”

Those legal documents are all useful background to my response to this Austin Sarat op-ed, opining that DOJ should not prosecute Trump for his actions related to January 6.

I worry that going forward with even a well-grounded prosecution of Trump would almost certainly turn him into a martyr, fuel a furious attack on the Biden Justice Department for using prosecution as a political weapon, spur violent outbursts, and plunge this country ever closer to the abyss which it seems to be fast approaching.

“An investigation and potential indictment and trial of Mr. Trump,” Eric Posner warns, “would give the circus of the Trumpian presidency a central place in American politics for the next several years, sucking the air out of the Biden administration and feeding into Mr. Trump’s politically potent claims to martyrdom. Mr. Trump will portray the prosecution as revenge by the ‘deep state’ and corrupt Democrats.”

This difficult judgment does not mean that Attorney General Garland should do nothing.

He can serve justice by building on the work of the House committee and helping to fully develop the facts of what Trump did in the lead up to and on January 6. Garland should present those facts clearly, logically, and with irrefutable documentation. And he should do what McConnell and Graham suggested in February by citing chapter and verse the numerous federal criminal laws that Trump violated.

First, some background.

Unless you went to Amherst College, you may never have heard of Sarat. He created a Law and Society program there and has served as a Dean. I’ve had conversations a number of prominent and not-so prominent lawyers who graduated from Amherst during Sarat’s tenure — some you’ve heard of!! — who have spoken of the great influence the professor has had on their career. And while I’m not a lawyer, like many of those lawyers, I first learned to read a legal document from Sarat.

Over thirty years ago in a class on how the state regulates sexuality, Sarat assigned me to read Griswold v Connecticut and Roe v Wade alongside Tolstoy and Kiss of the Spider Woman, the latter of which I taught on my own right and included in my dissertation years later. Sarat taught me critical skills you may benefit from at this site.

My complaint with Sarat’s argument is that he violates the rule he taught me so many years ago: He didn’t read the relevant legal documents before writing this op-ed. The sources he links in his op-ed are:

  • Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks’ MSNBC appearance addressing the issue
  • A column on a June 2021 Rachel Maddow appearance in which she suggested the House could send a criminal referral to DOJ
  • An article about a bunch of people responding to Liz Cheney’s invocation of obstruction (the same statute Moss ruled on), which itself betrays that those people quoted in the article missed how obstruction was already being used in DOJ’s prosecution
  • Lawrence Tribe’s column that is riddled with factual errors that make it clear Tribe is unfamiliar with the public record
  • Mitch McConnell’s speech, justifying why he was voting against impeaching Trump, noting that he could be criminally prosecuted
  • Lindsey Graham’s comments making the same argument: that Trump should not be impeached but could be prosecuted
  • A report on DC District Attorney Karl Racine’s comments that Trump could be charged with a misdemeanor
  • A BoGlo op-ed that calls for prosecution but envisions Trump’s vulnerability with regards to January 6 to pertain to incitement
  • A NY Mag piece that includes obstruction among the possible laws Trump may have broken, but claims that DOJ, “seems to be pursuing misdemeanor trespass cases at the Capitol more aggressively than potential felony charges for Trump,” which misunderstands how DOJ appears to be using misdemeanor arrests (and indeed, how those witnesses would be necessary to any Trump prosecution)
  • A Ryan Cooper piece that states as fact that Garland’s DOJ, “is enabling Republican lawlessness through its pathetic unwillingness to prosecute Trump and all his cronies for their crimes against democracy;” Cooper makes no mention of the Tom Barrack prosecution, and while he invokes Rudy Giuliani he doesn’t mention the decision — seemingly made in Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco’s first days — to seize Rudy Giuliani’s phones and spend 8 months getting a privilege review on the contents of Rudy’s phones right through April 2021
  • A law review article on prosecutorial discretion
  • Robert Jackson’s seminal text about the role of a Federal prosecutor
  • The Bordenkircher precedent on plea negotiations that upholds prosecutorial discretion
  • The quip, “hard cases make bad law”
  • An Eric Posner op-ed published before Trump attempted a coup

Some of these things — the Bordenkircher opinion, McConnell and Graham’s comments suggesting Trump could be prosecuted, and Robert Jackson — are important primary sources. But most of the rest are secondary sources, and many of them — notably Tribe and Cooper — are demonstrably wrong on the facts because they didn’t consult available primary sources.

And as a result of consulting erroneous sources like Tribe, Sarat misunderstands the case before him.

For example, many of Sarat’s sources imagine that Trump’s biggest criminal exposure is in incitement and not the same obstruction charge with which well over 200 insurrectionists have already been charged and to which at least a dozen people have already pled guilty (most of them even before Moss and his colleagues upheld the application in recent weeks). Nine pled guilty to obstruction as part of cooperation agreements and several of those cooperators interacted with Roger Stone in the days and hours leading up to the assault on the Capitol.

Many of Sarat’s sources assume that DOJ couldn’t get to Trump except for the work the January 6 Committee is doing.

In spite of Garland’s repeated claims that his DOJ would pursue the January 6 investigation wherever the evidence leads — including at an appearance where he discussed that famous Moss memo that relies so heavily on that less famous Moss memo — Sarat suggests that Garland would have to launch an investigation, one entirely separate from the investigation already in progress, anew. “Based on what we now know, there appears to be ample reason for Attorney General Merrick Garland to launch a criminal probe of Trump.” That is, Sarat treats the question before him as whether Merrick Garland should take to a podium and announce, “we are investigating the former President,” and not whether DOJ should continue the investigation(s) that it already has in progress, working to prosecute organizer-inciters like Alex Jones’ side-kick Owen Shroyer (who helped lure mobsters to the Capitol) and flipping low-level conspirators to build the case against more senior conspirators, conspirators whose ties to Trump associates like Jones and Stone have already been raised in court documents.

The question is not whether DOJ should open an investigation into Donald Trump. The question is whether, if and when DOJ accumulates enough evidence — surely helped by Select Committee efforts but in no way relying entirely on them — to show probable cause that Trump conspired with others to prevent Congress from certifying the vote on January 6, 2021, to charge him like DOJ has already charged hundreds of others.

And that question is significantly a question about equity.

The question is whether, if Paul Hodgkins has to serve eight months in prison for occupying the Senate while waving a Donald Trump flag around (Hodgkins is already three months into that sentence), Donald Trump should be prosecuted as well.

The question is whether, if Jacob Chansley has to serve 41 months in prison (Chansley has been in jail since January 9, 2021) for occupying the Senate dais, in defiance of orders from a cop, with a spear and a blowhorn and leaving a message for Mike Pence reading, “It’s Only A Matter of Time. Justice Is Coming!,” Donald Trump should be prosecuted as well.

The question is whether, if Kevin Fairlamb has to serve 41 months in prison (Fairlamb has been in jail since January 22, 2021) for punching one of the cops protecting the Capitol “with the purpose of influencing, affecting, and retaliating against the conduct of government by stopping or delaying the Congressional proceeding by intimidation or coercion,” Donald Trump should be prosecuted as well.

The question is whether, if Gina Bisignano faces 41 months for traveling to DC boasting, “The insurrection begins,” marching to the Capitol while narrating her actions — “we are marching to the Capitol to put some pressure on Mike Pence” and “I’m going to break into the Capitol” — and then helping to break a window to get into the Capitol, Trump should be prosecuted as well.

The question is whether, if Matthew Greene faces 41 months in prison for — months after Trump instructed the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” — joining the Proud Boys in an orchestrated assault on the Capitol in hopes, “that his actions and those of his co-conspirators would cause legislators and the Vice President to act differently during the course of the certification of the Electoral College Vote than they would have otherwise,” Donald Trump should be prosecuted as well. Greene has been in jail since April 21, 2021.

The question is whether, if Jon Schaffer faces 41 months for, after learning “that Vice President Pence planned to go forward with the Electoral College vote certification,” forcibly storming the Capitol armed with bear spray, Trump should be prosecuted as well.

The question is whether, if Josiah Colt faces 51 months because, after he, “learned that the Vice President had not intervened to stop the certification of the Electoral College vote,” he stormed the Capitol, broke into the Senate, and then occupied Pence’s chair, Donald Trump should be prosecuted as well.

The question is whether, if Graydon Young faces 63 months because he barged into the Capitol as part of a stack of kitted out militia members with the purpose of “intimidating and coercing government personnel who were participating in or supporting” the vote certification, Donald Trump should be prosecuted as well.

At this point, there’s no way to avoid the things Sarat would like to avoid by merely talking about Trump’s crimes rather than prosecuting them, to say nothing of the way that would violate DOJ rules prohibiting doing so. That’s true, in large part, because Trump is claiming martyrdom for those who did his dirty work. Between right wing lawyers swooping in to push defendants to renege on their guilty pleas, continued efforts by defendants’ co-conspirators to claim they were all set up by the Deep State, and schemes to profit off continued propaganda in support of Trump, every one of these cases involves some of the things that Sarat fears would occur if Trump, too, were prosecuted. Trump has a press conference scheduled for January 6 that will undoubtedly do some of the things Sarat would like to stave off. That din will only get louder as trials start in February. The claims of martyrdom are already baked into this investigation, and so would be better addressed by a direct debunking rather than a belated attempt at avoidance, not least because white terrorists have a history of undermining prosecutions by claiming martyrdom.

But there’s another reason, besides equity, that demands that DOJ prosecute Trump if prosecutors can collect the evidence to do so.

All five of the opinions (Dabney Friedrich, Amit Mehta, Tim Kelly, James Boasberg, plus Moss) upholding the application of obstruction to the vote certification have some discussion of what separates “corrupt” efforts to obstruct the vote count from political lobbying or civil disobedience. The discussion entails whether corruption requires an attempt to corrupt someone else, or whether it only involves corruptness in one’s own actions. A number of these opinions take an easy route, stating simply that the defendants in question are alleged to have broken the law in other ways in their efforts to obstruct the vote count, which gets past corruptness in one’s own actions, so a further analysis of whether legal actions might amount to obstruction is unnecessary as applied to those defendants. That’s an intransitive understanding of the corrupt purpose necessary to obstruction.

All stop short of where James Pearce, the prosecutor guiding this adoption of 1512(c)(2), went in responding to a question from Trump appointee Carl Nichols; Pearce stated that one way an unnamed person just like Trump might act corruptly would be by asking someone else to violate their duty: If that person, “calls Vice President Pence to seek to have him adjudge the certification in a particular way … knowing it is not an available argument [and is] asking the vice president to do something the individual knows is wrongful … one of the definitions of ‘corruptly’ is trying to get someone to violate a legal duty.” That’s a transitive kind of corruption, an attempt to get someone else to violate their oath. Even some of the confessed obstructors listed here (most notably, the first Proud Boy to plead guilty) were knowingly doing that.

But there’s a third option. In his opinion on the application of 1512(c)(2), somewhat uniquely among the five opinions upholding the application thus far, former OLC head Judge Moss ruled that if the use of illegal activity to interrupt the vote count weren’t enough to distinguish between normal protests and obstruction, then the court could turn to whether the defendants (whom, in this case, you’ve likely never heard of) were attempting to obtain an improper benefit for themselves … or someone else.

To the extent any additional guardrail is necessary, other recognized definitions of the term “corruptly” both fit the context of the obstruction of a congressional proceeding and provide additional guidance. In his separate opinion in Aguilar, for example, Justice Scalia quoted with approval the jury instruction given by the district court in that case: “An act is done corruptly if it’s done voluntarily and intentionally to bring about an unlawful result or a lawful result by some unlawful method, with a hope or expectation of . . . [a] benefit to oneself or a benefit to another person.” 515 U.S. at 616–17 (Scalia, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Because the Aguilar majority ruled on other grounds, it did not opine on the meaning of “corruptly.” Id. at 598–603. But there is no reason to doubt Justice Scalia’s observation that formulations of this type are “longstanding and well-accepted,” id. at 616, and, indeed, the D.C. Circuit cited to a similar definition—“a person acts ‘corruptly’ when taking action ‘with the intent to obtain an improper advantage for [one]self or someone else, inconsistent with official duty and the rights of others’”—in United States v. Pasha, 797 F.3d 1122, 1132 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quotation marks omitted) (quoting United States v. North, 910 F.2d 843, 882 (D.C. Cir. 1990), opinion withdrawn and superseded in other part on reh’g, 920 F.2d 940 (D.C. Cir. 1990)). In the garden-variety disruption or parading case, in contrast, the government need not prove that the defendant sought unlawfully to obtain a benefit for himself or another person in the proceeding itself. But, because the Court is persuaded that Defendants’ vagueness argument fails even without this refinement, and because the Court has yet to hear from the parties on the proper jury instructions, the Court will leave for another day the question whether this formulation—or a slightly different formulation—will best guide the jury.

This language likely came out of some ill-advised claims from the defense attorneys in question, who claimed there would be no injustice that could result from obstructing the certification of Joe Biden’s vote. The claim was ridiculous. It suggested that nullifying the votes of 81 million people and depriving Biden of his legal victory would create no victims.

But the comment brought the briefing before Moss to where it didn’t go (except to a limited degree before Kelly) in the other challenges.

The obstruction of the vote count on January 6, 2021 was corrupt because people put on body armor, broke into the locked Capitol, and beat up cops in an attempt to obstruct the certification of Biden’s victory — the intransitive corruption of the people who broke other laws to carry it out. It was corrupt because those who carried it out sought to intimidate people like Mike Pence to do what he otherwise refused to. But it was corrupt because the entire goal, shared by all the people charged with obstruction, was to declare Trump the victor in an election he didn’t win.

DOJ should not back off prosecuting Trump along with all those others charged in the same crime, some of whom (I believe DOJ will ultimately be able to prove) are co-conspirators with Trump in a large networked conspiracy, for the crime of trying to obstruct the certification of Joe Biden’s win. Judges, defense attorneys, and defendants themselves — including many of the trespassers — keep insisting that Donald Trump was the key participant in the crime they’re all pleading guilty to.

His improper advantage was undoubtedly the goal.

“What every prosecutor is practically required to do is to select the cases for prosecution and to select those in which the offense is the most flagrant, the public harm the greatest, and the proof the most certain,” Jackson told America’s US Attorneys in the famous speech Sarat cited. Those watching the DOJ investigation rather than just the Select Committee or some often ill-informed TV lawyers have raised real questions about whether DOJ has honored that advice, because so many hapless Trump dupes are being prosecuted for their role in attempting to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power (as I have laid out, there appear to be investigative reasons why DOJ has prosecuted the misdemeanants they have). But about one thing, Jackson had no doubt: “In the enforcement of laws that protect our national integrity and existence, we should prosecute any and every act of violation.”

As noted above, DOJ has thus far accused 275 people of obstructing the certification of Joe Biden’s victory (a good number of those have been permitted to plead down to a misdemeanor). DOJ has already decided that it will treat obstruction of the vote certification as a crime that endangers our national integrity. Charging Trump with obstruction would amount to holding the guy who stood to benefit to the same standard as those whose corrupt actions attempted to steal for him an improper advantage.

The question is not, as so many commentators who discovered the obstruction application only when Liz Cheney called their attention to it, whether to open an investigation into Trump. 700 people have already been charged in the investigation that might one day charge Trump. The question is whether to hold Trump to the same standard as the hundreds who have gone before him.

Prosecuting Trump may be the only way to confirm that Chansley and Bisignano and Colt and Young aren’t martyrs to Trump’s losing cause.

Other Posts

Because new readers are coming to this site via this post, I wanted to include some other overview posts about January 6 that may be helpful:

A Taxonomy of the [Visible] January 6 “Crime Scene” Investigation: This post explains what I understand the DOJ investigation to have accomplished in a year.

The Pied Piper of Insurrection, and Other Challenges in Charging the January 6 Organizer-Inciters: The 700 arrests thus far have been relatively easy, because everyone arrested was — at a minimum — trespassing on January 6. The next step of the investigation — arresting the organizer-inciters who themselves implemented Trump’s plans — is where DOJ will have to have more evidence of conspiracy or other corrupt mens rea supporting obstruction. This post looks at several of them.

Ten Things TV Lawyers Can Do Rather than Whinging about Merrick Garland: I can’t promise you DOJ will prosecute Trump or even Rudy Giuliani and Alex Jones. I can promise that if they were to charge Trump, it wouldn’t be before midterms. Complex investigations of very powerful people simply don’t work that fast. For that reason, among others, those spending their time whinging about Merrick Garland’s purported inaction would be better served finding some other way to save democracy. This post provides ten ways to do that.

Judge Tim Kelly Releases Opinion on Obstruction Affecting as Many as Two Dozen Proud Boys

Judge Tim Kelly released his order denying Ethan Nordean’s motion to dismiss the Proud Boys’ conspiracy indictment, a challenge largely focused on DOJ’s application of the obstruction statute to January 6 (here’s my Twitter thread on the opinion). The opinion cites Dabney Friedrich’s opinion in Sandlin seven times, Amit Mehta’s opinion in Caldwell three times, and Trevor McFadden’s opinion in Couy Griffin (on one of the trespassing charges) ten times, suggesting that DC District judges (three of them Trump appointees) are coming to a consensus approving the way DOJ has charged these January 6 cases.

Perhaps the most notable language in the opinion rejects a comparison Nordean tried to make with the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court protests.

Arguing that the statute invites discriminatory enforcement, Defendants repeatedly point to charging decisions and plea deals related to other January 6 defendants, see ECF No. 226 at 12– 13, and the uncharged protestors on the Capitol steps during Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, see ECF No. 113 at 13–16. But neither provides evidence of vagueness. Both merely show “the Executive’s exercise of discretion over charging determinations.” United States v. Fokker Servs. B.V., 818 F.3d 733, 741 (D.C. Cir. 2016). And “Supreme Court precedent teaches that the presence of enforcement discretion alone does not render a statutory scheme unconstitutionally vague.” Kincaid v. Gov’t of D.C., 854 F.3d 721, 729 (D.C. Cir. 2017); see also United States v. Griffin, — F. Supp. 3d —- , 2021 WL 2778557, at *7 (D.D.C. July 2, 2021) (rejecting argument that defendant’s prosecution was discriminatory given large numbers of similarly situated, uncharged individuals from January 6 and uncharged protestors at Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings). “As always, enforcement requires the exercise of some degree of police judgment, but, as confined, that degree of judgment here is permissible.” Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 114 (1972).

That’s because eventually Kavanaugh will get to weigh in on this issue, and because DOJ’s response to Nordean’s comparison was weaker than it should have been.

In a feat of procedural wizardry, Nordean already appealed today’s decision, yesterday, by sticking it onto an appeal of Kelly’s refusal to reopen bail.

The denial of his motion to dismiss normally would not be appealable until after trial (at which point Kavanaugh can have his say).

One reason Nordean may have done that is to attempt to stave off a flood of Proud Boys rushing to join Matthew Greene in pleading out. That’s because Judge Kelly’s decision will also apply to the following groups of Proud Boys and Proud Boy adjacent defendants whose cases he is also presiding over, as well as a number of others who might get added in if — as I expect — DOJ consolidates its Proud Boy conspiracy cases in the weeks ahead:

  • Nordean (4 defendants)
  • Pezzola (2 remaining defendants after Greene’s change of plea)
  • Chrestman (6 defendants)
  • Jackman (5 defendants charged individually with obstruction, but not with conspiracy)
  • Hughes (2 defendants)
  • Pruitt
  • Samsel (2 defendants)*

All defendants charged with obstruction have been waiting for these opinions. But as it happens, almost two dozen people currently or potentially charged with obstruction will be covered by this opinion. And if the attorneys are seeing the same signs of an imminent superseding Proud Boy indictment, if they don’t think there’ll be any fresh uncertainty from another judge, they may rush for the exits before that happens.

Thus far, with assistance from Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys have prevented the kinds of (visible) defections we’ve seen from the Oath Keepers. But this decision — coming at the same time as Greene’s plea deal — may change that.

*DOJ has been talking about consolidating Samsel’s case with that of Paul Johnson and Stephen Chase Randolph, along with another not-yet arrested defendant. If they do that, it would normally be kept under Judge Paul Friedman since he had the case first.

Update: Corrected McFadden’s first name.

Update: Judge Randolph Moss has also issued his opinion, similarly upholding the application of obstruction. Here’s my thread on it.

The Intransitive Corruption of the Oath Keepers

In a 49-page opinion upholding the government’s application of obstruction to January 6, Judge Amit Mehta lists using encrypted communications during the January 6 operation among the means by which the defendants are alleged to have obstructed the vote count.

Section 1512(c)(2) targets only “corrupt” acts of obstructing, influencing, or impeding an official proceeding. Therefore, it does not “proscribe lawful or constitutionally protected speech.” Thompson, 76 F.3d at 452. And the indictment here reflects that the government is not prosecuting protected speech. Rather, it charges Defendants with conspiring “to stop, delay, and hinder the Certification of the Electoral College vote.” Indictment ¶ 38. They allegedly carried out the conspiracy by various means, including “[a]greeing to participate in and planning an operation to interfere with the Certification of the Electoral College vote on January 6, 2021,” i.e. “the January 6, operation,” id. ¶ 39a; bringing and contributing paramilitary gear and supplies—including firearms—for the January 6 operation, id. ¶ 39f; forcibly storming past exterior barricades, Capitol Police, and other law enforcement officers to enter the Capitol building, id. ¶ 39j; and using encrypted communications during the January 6 operation, id. ¶ 39k. If the government can carry its burden of proof at trial, a conviction of Defendants premised on such activities would not violate the First Amendment.

I start with that detail not to raise concerns that Mehta is criminalizing Signal in the way DOJ always likes to — though it is a concern — but to note that Mehta does not distinguish obstruction, as Dabney Friedrich did, at least with respect to Ronnie Sandlin and Nate DeGrave, solely by illegal activities.

That’s important because (in part because Mehta was addressing the filings of about 6 defendants) this opinion is likely to be the one that the DC Circuit and SCOTUS look to when defendants inevitably appeal obstruction convictions.

In addition to being very thorough, Mehta provides all the context, historical background, and translation from the Latin to make this opinion accessible to those trying to figure out what the challenge is about.

While the opinion is, generally, a point by point rejection of each of the challenges that defendants have brought against this application, two moves Mehta makes are worth noting.

Mehta relies on 1512(d) to lay out a limiting principle

First, to rebut several kinds of arguments that 1512(c)(2) can’t be applied to the occupation of the Capitol as a means to obstruction the vote certification because other parts of the law would apply, Mehta focuses on part of the law that Friedrich addressed in a hearing but largely ignored in her opinion: 1512(d)(1). He does so several times, first in dismissing a Begay challenge that would require 1512(c)(2) to treat the destruction of evidence. He points out that 1512(d)(1) contemplates obstruction to include preventing someone from attending an official proceeding.

Defendants also colorfully assert that the government’s interpretation of section 1512(c)(2) “out-Begays Begay.” Crowl Suppl. Br. at 10. That is so, according to Defendants, because the offenses charged in Counts One and Two are not only dissimilar to the evidence spoliation prohibited by section 1512(c)(1) but also dissimilar to “[e]very crime in §§ 1512(a)–(c)(1) and (d),” which are “designed to affect the integrity or availability of evidence in a proceeding.” Crowl Suppl. Br. at 10. That characterization is simply not correct. Subsections (a) and (b) are, concededly, largely aimed at proscribing conduct that affects the presentation of evidence at an official proceeding—but not entirely. Each subsection also makes unlawful certain acts that cause another to “hinder, delay, or prevent the communication” of an offense to law enforcement and judicial officers. 18 U.S.C. § 1512(a)(2)(C), (b)(3). What’s more, subsection (d) has little to do with the presentation of evidence. It does, in one of four subparagraphs, prohibit harassment of another person to hinder, delay, prevent, or dissuade giving “testi[mony] in an official proceeding,” id. § 1512(d)(1), but the same subparagraph makes unlawful harassment that affects mere “attending” of an official proceeding, id., and the remaining subparagraphs concern the reporting of crimes or other violations to law enforcement and judicial officers, id. § 1512(d)(2)–(4). Thus, section 1512 is not, as Defendants contend, targeted exclusively at protecting the presentation of evidence at an official proceeding.

He then returns to 1512(d) to respond to surplusage claims that the application of 1512(c)(2) to obstructing the vote count would be covered elsewhere by focusing on the mens rea requirement.

[I]f there is a concern about the breadth of section 1512(c)(2) it would be with respect to its impact on section 1512(d), which imposes only a three-year maximum penalty. The “harass[ment]” prohibited by section 1512(d) arguably could be swept up by section 1512(c)(2)’s broad proscription, transforming three-year felonies into 20-year felonies, thereby vesting substantial leverage in charging and plea bargaining to prosecutors. But section 1512(d) is different two critical respects. One, it requires only that the person act “intentionally,” and not “corruptly.” That more stringent mens rea element serves as an important barrier to charging mere harassment as a 20-year felony. And, two, as discussed, subsections 1512(d)(2) through (d)(4) extend to acts not impacting official proceedings. So, even a broad understanding of section 1512(c)(2) will not render 1512(d) obsolete.

Mehta’s treatment of 1512(d) does a whole lot of work here, work barely touched on by defendants, because it both proves that Congress did intend attendance at official proceedings to be covered by the statute, but also sets a limiting principle — mens rea — that Mehta (and Randolph Moss) were seeking.

Mehta’s response on constitutional avoidance

I’m also interested in Mehta’s response to a challenge brought by James Beeks, who by dint of being arrested very recently, contributed to this challenge at a very late date. He argues that to avoid constitutionality problems, 1512(c)(2) must be limited to evidence.

To “sidestep constitutional quicksand,” Defendants Beeks contends, these principles compel a construction of section 1512(c)(2) that reaches “only its core conduct—acts that affect the integrity and availability of evidence used in an official proceeding.”

I’m interested in Mehta’s treatment of this not because I think — particularly given what Mehta does with 1512(d) — that it has merit.

But I think this treatment of McConnell may not be enough to convince SCOTUS.

McDonnell v. United States does not demand a more restrictive reading, either. There, the Court rejected the government’s reading of the term “official act” in 18 U.S.C. § 201 as reaching “nearly any activity by a public official.” 579 U.S. , , 136 S. Ct. 2355, 2368 (2016). The government had urged that the term “official act” include “workaday functions,” such as “setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event.” Id. at 2368. The Court read “official act” as encompassing only a “formal exercise of governmental power” that is “specific and focused” on a pending matter or one that may be brought before a public official. Id. at 2372. This narrowed reading avoided a “vagueness shoal.” Id. at 2373 (quoting Skilling, 561 U.S. at 368). The vagueness concerns that animated McDonnell are not present here. For one, the Court expressed worry that the government’s essentially unbounded definition of “official act” would chill the conduct of public officials who, as a matter of course, made meeting arrangements and contacted other officials for constituents. Id. at 2372. If such constituents made campaign contributions or extended invitations to the public official, as often happens, “[o]fficials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse.” Id. Such concerns are less pronounced here. Their alleged actions were no mere political protest. They stand accused of combining, among themselves and with others, to force their way into the Capitol building, past security barricades and law enforcement, to “stop, delay, and hinder the Certification of the Electoral College vote.” Indictment ¶ 38. Prosecuting such conduct under section 1512(c)(2) poses little risk of chilling otherwise protected activities. The Court in McDonnell also was concerned that the “standardless sweep” of the government’s proposed definition could subject public officials, without fair notice, to prosecution/potential criminal liability “for the most prosaic interactions.” 136 S. Ct. at 2373 (internal quotation marks omitted). A straightforward reading of section 1512(c)(2), by contrast, would have provided these Defendants with sufficient notice that their alleged acts, even though not affecting evidence, put them in danger of prosecution. Even if there were a line of ambiguity inherent in section 1512(c)(2), their alleged acts went well beyond it.

When these challenges get to SCOTUS, you’ll not only have the possibility that the Republican majority will be hunting for some way — and given this court, it doesn’t even have to be credible — to help out the mobsters who tried to keep Trump in power. But you’ll also have a thin-skinned Brett Kavanaugh who is still smarting over the fact that his past abuse of women became an issue in his confirmation. And defendants are already arguing that the Kavanaugh protests — which featured, separately, protestors who breached police lines and protestors who (after having gone through security and waited in line for a seat) interrupted the official proceeding — are indistinguishable from January 6.

And so if SCOTUS decides they want to fuck with Mehta’s ruling, this may be the place they do so, relying on John Roberts’ opinion in McDonnell to say that it’s just too confusing to distinguish prosaic things like disrupting a hearing. I’m not arguing it would be legally sound. I’m arguing that’s the kind of thing I might expect from this court.

Mehta’s intransitive corruption

But until such time as defendants start appealing any convictions, a more important aspect of this opinion has to do with how Judge Mehta treated the mens rea requirement that defendants acted “corruptly.” After spending some time dealing with the history of Poindexter (click through to read it), Mehta asserts that “corruptly” here “must be read in the intransitive sense,” meaning the defendant him or herself must have themselves had corrupt intent, rather than that they intended to persuade someone else to act corruptly. Mehta gets there by noting that the application of corruption used in 1512(c)(1) must be the same one as applies in 1512(c)(2).

With this background in mind, the court explains why this case is not controlled by Poindexter. Unlike section 1515 at the time of Poindexter, the term “corruptly” in section 1512(c) must be read in the intransitive sense—that is, the person must act “corruptly” to violate section 1512(c)(2). That is plain from section 1512(c)(1), which prohibits corrupt acts with respect to a “record, document, or other object” “with the intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding.” 18 U.S.C. § 1521(c)(1). Corruption of another is not required to violate 1512(c)(1). Indeed, the purpose of enacting section 1512(c) was to close a loophole in the pre-Arthur Andersen law that only made it an offense under section 1512(b) to “intimidat[e], threate[n], or corruptly persuad[e] another person” to shred documents. Yates v. United States, 574 U.S. 528, 536 (2015); See S. Rep. No. 107-146, at 6–7 (2002) (referencing the “legal fiction” in Arthur Andersen that the defendants were “being prosecuted for telling other people to shred documents, not simply for destroying evidence themselves”); cf. Yates, 574 U.S. at 535–36 (2015) (discussing Arthur Anderson and the loophole in existing law leading to Congress’s passage of section 1519). That reading must similarly extend to a prosecution under 1512(c)(2): the term “corruptly” applies equally to subsections (c)(1) and (c)(2). The term thus must be understood in its intransitive form with regard to these Defendants.5 Accordingly, the concern that animated Poindexter—that a transitive reading of corruptly under section 1505 did not reach the making of false statements to Congress—is simply not present in this prosecution under section 1512(c)(2).

5 For this reason, the court also rejects Defendant Connie Meggs’s contention that the Indictment fails to allege corrupt intent because “there is no allegation that either the co-conspirators or Ms. Meggs sought to corruptly influence any other persons.” Connie Meggs MTD at 9. Unlike section 1512(b), section 1512(c)(2) on its face does not require a defendant to have acted corruptly with respect to “another person,” 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b).

Mehta’s language seems to exclude the possibility of transitive corruption, even though there is good reason — particularly given Kelly Meggs’ seeming attempt to hunt down Nancy Pelosi — that one goal of this operation, one that succeeded wildly, was to terrorize members of Congress into voting not to certify Joe Biden’s votes (and, later, to terrorize Republicans not to vote for impeachment). That, to my mind, is transitive corruption.

The other reason I’m interested in this passage is for how closely, relying on Arthur Anderson, Mehta links “knowingly” and “corruptly.”

Arthur Andersen also ameliorates any lingering concerns about the vagueness of “corruptly.” See Edwards, 869 F.3d at 502. To be sure, the issue of vagueness was not squarely presented in that case. But it is notable that the Supreme Court there relied on common definitions of “knowingly” and “corruptly” to proscribe the mens rea element of section 1512(b)(2). Circuit courts had done so prior to Arthur Andersen. See, e.g., Thompson, 76 F.3d at 452 (interpreting “corruptly” for purposes of section 1512(b)(2) to mean “motivated by an improper purpose”); accord Shotts, 145 F.3d at 1300. This court does the same here.

Doing so results in a definition of “corruptly” that, at the very least, requires Defendants to have acted with consciousness of wrongdoing. See Arthur Andersen, 544 U.S. at 706. The government agrees with that definition. See Gov’t’s Suppl. Br. at 15 (“That the term ‘corruptly’ requires the government to prove that a defendant acted not only with intent to obstruct but also with ‘consciousness of wrongdoing’ ensures that Section 1512(c)(2) ‘reaches only’ those who have committed felony obstruction.”). The court need not adopt a firm definition of “corruptly” at this point. Courts have approved various formulations of the term. See, e.g., United States v. Friske, 640 F.3d 1288, 1291 (11th Cir. 2011) (defining “corruptly” under section 1512(c) to mean “with an improper purpose and to engage in conduct knowingly and dishonestly with the specific intent to subvert, impede or obstruct the [official proceeding]” (internal quotation marks omitted)); United States v. Gordon, 710 F.3d 1124, 1151 (10th Cir. 2013) (adopting Eleventh Circuit’s definition); United States v. Watters, 717 F.3d 733, 735 (9th Cir. 2013) (approving jury instruction defining “corruptly” to mean “consciousness of wrongdoing”); cf. United States v. Edlind, 887 F.3d 166, 173 n.3 (4th Cir. 2018) (noting in prosecution under section 1512(c)(1) that the trial court had instructed the jury that “it could convict only if [the defendant] ‘acted knowingly and dishonestly, with the specific intent to subvert or undermine the due administration of justice,’ and was ‘conscious of wrongdoing’”). It suffices for present purposes to say that to prove that Defendants acted “corruptly,” the government, at least, will have to show that they acted with consciousness of their wrongdoing. So defined, the term “corruptly” is not unconstitutionally vague.

Defining “corruptly” in this way also substantially mitigates, if not resolves altogether, Defendants’ vagueness challenges to section 1512(c)(2) as a whole. The Supreme Court “has long recognized that the constitutionality of a vague statutory standard is closely related to whether that standard incorporates a requirement of mens rea.” Colautti v. Franklin, 439 U.S. 379, 395 (1979). Criminal statutes that lack a scienter requirement, the Court has held, present “a trap for those who act in good faith.” United States v. Ragen, 314 U.S. 513, 524 (1942). On the other hand, where a statute requires as an element of conviction that the defendant possessed a specific intent, the statute “gives a person acting with reference to the statute fair warning that his conduct is within its prohibition.” Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91, 104 (1945). “One who does act with such specific intent is aware that what he does is precisely that which the statute forbids. He is under no necessity of guessing whether the statute applies to him.” Id. Here, Defendants cannot complain that section 1512(c)(2) does not supply fair notice if it is construed to require proof that Defendants acted with a specific intent to do what the statute prohibits: obstruct an official proceeding. Again, the court need not decide the precise contours of what the government must prove at this stage. For now, it is sufficient to say that interpreting section 1512(c)(2) to contain a stringent specific intent mens rea requirement shields it from unconstitutional vagueness.

I have no doubt that DOJ will provide proof that most of these defendants had the goal of obstructing the vote count and/or preventing Joe Biden from becoming President.

But by tying “corruptly” with “knowingly,” I think Mehta invites a defense that some of these defendants actually believed they were doing the right thing by obstructing the vote count. A number of the Oath Keepers, for example, have claimed that Trump’s call to rise up was an order from the Commander-in-Chief, and as veterans it was natural to respond.

To be sure, DOJ still has proof that these defendants knew they were doing something wrong. Even aside from the trespassing or the (in some cases) confrontations with cops, or example, they were denied entry to Trump’s rally wearing their military kit, so putting it back on (as they did) to enter the Capitol distinguished that behavior. In this case, DOJ can get there even with legal behavior. And a number of these defendants acted as if they knew they had done something wrong afterwards by destroying evidence.

But to the extent Mehta’s approach — rather than Friedrich’s focus on other illegal acts — is adopted, the trials risk getting bogged down with defendants claiming, truthfully, that they believed the propaganda Trump and QAnon fed them.

Two Months after Insinuating Ali Alexander Should Be Held Responsible for January 6, Jonathan Moseley Claims To Be His Lawyer

Like Mark Meadows and John Eastman before him, Ali Alexander has sued Verizon in an attempt to keep evidence about a coup out of the hands of Congress.

The lawsuit seems significantly intended to provide information to others involved in the coup, both by identifying which texts Alexander shared with Congress and which (by omission) he did not, but also by communicating that everything he did provide to Congress constituted telephony communication. That seems to suggest that Alexander did not share any communications involving Signal, Telegram, or other messaging apps.

On November 24, 2021, Mr. Alexander provided the Select Committee with over one thousand and five hundred (1,500) mobile messages sent and received by him and people he corresponded with. All of these were using his Verizon phone service. Mr. Alexander expressed his concerns to the Select Committee about compromising the privacy rights of uninterested parties, and members of political group(s), and productions that exceeded the scope of H. Res. 503.

More importantly, Alexander provided the Select Committee with a privilege log of his text messages noting where the subject matter of the text was not pertinent to the Committee’s scope of inquiry or otherwise privileged but did not identify the party or the phone number of the sender or recipient of the text unless it was Mr. Alexander.

[snip]

At Alexander’s December 9, 2021 deposition, he testified that he had a few phone conversations with Representative Paul Gosar and no verbal phone conversations with Representatives Andy Biggs or Mo Brooks that he recalls. The Select Committee asked him about all three Members of Congress. Mr. Alexander testified that he had phone conversations with Rep. Brooks’ staff about a “Dear Colleague” letter and how his activists could be helpful. Mr. Alexander believes he exchanged a text message with Rep. Brooks, contents which he provided to the Committee. He also testified that he spoke to Rep. Biggs in person and never by phone, to the best of his recollection. In January, Mr. Alexander held an organizing call where Members of Congress might have been present and some were invited. He doesn’t recall who was in attendance because there was no roll call of attendees because the call was so large.

On January 6, 2021, it was reported that Mr. Alexander had a call with fundraiser Ms. Kimberly Guilfoyle. Mr. Alexander volunteered this information on a radio show that early morning. The Select Committee asked him about this call. He stated that it was a short and pleasant call. Ms. Guilfoyle thanked Mr. Alexander for being a leader on voting rights and creating the “Stop the Steal” movement. The two spoke about the ongoing Georgia election and the GOP primaries that would take place in 2022. The Select Committee seemed satisfied with Alexander’s explanation of that short call.

The more remarkable part of the lawsuit, however, is his legal team.

As I previously noted, Alexander is represented by Paul Kamenar, the lawyer who played a key role in attempting to cover-up Roger Stone’s role in coordinating with Russia in 2016 by delaying the testimony of Stone’s aide, Andrew Miller. Alexander had at least two other lawyers at his deposition last week, including Baron Coleman and Joseph McBride, who recently told Ryan Reilly (in regards to his representation of a different January 6 defendant) that he doesn’t give a shit about spreading bullshit conspiracy theories.

But as HuffPost went into more detail explaining why the idea that Rally Runner was some sort of undercover law enforcement agent was absurd, McBride shifted a bit. He said his job was to defend his client, and he didn’t “need to be right” in everything he claimed.

“If I’m wrong, so be it, bro. I don’t care,” McBride said. “I don’t give a shit about being wrong.”

McBride said he was simply “theorizing things” and “not publishing conclusive findings,” and he said his appearances on Carlson’s show were a part of his effort to combat the narrative being given about his Jan. 6 clients.

“If this guy turns out to be some, some guy who runs around the Cardinals’ stadium with his face painted, then that’s great,” he said. “If that’s the truth, then so be it, and God bless America.”

McBride is not on Alexander’s lawsuit, though Kamenar — Alexander’s Roger Stone cover-up specialist — is (Kamenar cc’ed Coleman on the letter he sent to Verizon alerting him to this suit).

The surprising appearance, however, is from Jonathon Moseley. Moseley currently represents Kelly Meggs — one of the Oath Keepers with ties to Roger Stone — and until Tuesday, also represented Zach Rehl, one of the Proud Boys accused of conspiring with Stone associate Joe Biggs to mastermind an attack that encircled the Capitol and involved Stone associate Alex Jones, using the excuse of permits obtained using covers by Alexander, luring unwitting Trump fans to the East doors just before they opened from inside.

Moseley’s legal promiscuity among these coup plotters is itself notable.

Crazier still is his claim to be representing Alexander just over two months after — back when he was ostensibly representing Rehl — filing a motion suggesting that Alexander (whom he repeatedly called “Ari”), not Rehl, should be the one held accountable for any crimes arising from the riot.

The one person who claims to have been the National Organizer of the “Stop the Steal movement” through events across the country and the “Stop the Steal rally” in Washington, D.C., is Ali Alexander, born Ali Abdul-Razaq Akbar. See Allam, Hannah; Nakhlawi, Razzan (May 16, 2021). “Black, Brown and extremist: Across the far-right spectrum, people of color play a more visible role”. The Washington Post, accessible at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/minorities-far-right-visiblerole/2021/05/16/e7ba8338-a915-11eb-8c1a-56f0cb4ff3b5_story.html

The mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was overwhelmingly White,1 but the official speaker lineup for the rally that day was more diverse. Vernon Jones, a Black former Georgia state lawmaker, and Katrina Pierson, a Black adviser and former spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, were among the speakers parroting the baseless assertion that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Another familiar face was main rally organizer Ali Alexander, born in Texas as Ali Abdul-Razaq Akbar, of mixed Black American and Middle Eastern descent.

Id. (emphasis added).

Ari [sic] Alexander is – as far as Defendant Zachary Rehl knows – entirely innocent of the crimes committed on January 6, 2021. Surely, the FBI is busy identifying and charging those who actually attacked police officers. We are confident that the FBI will complete that important task of bringing to justice those who actually battled with police before silencing parents who are petitioning for the redress of grievances in school board meetings, thus alienating suburban mothers.

However, without undermining Alexander for exercising his rights as a citizen, the one person who CLAIMS credit for organizing the “Stop the Steal” rally and movement including in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021, 2 is being basically ignored while Zachary Rehl who DID NOT organize anyone or anything but himself, and tell his friends that he would be there, too, is sitting in a jail cell for things he did not do. Zachary Rehl did not get to see his child being born while being locked up since March. His wife with a newborn is struggling arrange a forbearance on the mortgage on their modest rowhouse.

See, video interview with Ali Alexander, with Jenny Chang, “Ali Alexander on What Will Happen on January 6,” NTD News, December 31, 202[sic], https://www.ntd.com/ali-alexander-on-what-will-happen-on-january-6_547084.html. Ari [sic] Alexander is presented as the “National Organizer of ‘Stop the Steal.’

Without question, some idiots and brawlers also showed up who committed criminal acts of brawling with police, apparently initiated violent assaults on police, and reportedly (though counsel has not seen it directly) there were calls before the rally that were for a variety of violent acts that are not peacefully expressing a message under the First Amendment. [all emphasis Moseley’s]

Even ignoring the overt racism suggesting that one of the few brown people involved in the riot should be the one held accountable for it, Moseley as much as says that Alexander more responsible than Rehl for any violence that happened.

Now, Moseley claims it will badly harm Alexander if Congress learns even just the phone numbers of people Alexander engaged in telephony communications with.

It has long seemed as if there was a concerted effort to ensure certain January 6 defendants receive the kind of representation that might not protect their own interests, but would firewall those they had close ties to. But Moseley’s sudden conversion to representing Alexander strains credulity.

Have Ethan Nordean’s Hopes Been Semi-Colon’ed by Dabney Friedrich’s [Chapter and] Verse?

Back in June, I noted that Ethan Nordean’s lawyers were staking his defense on getting all the crimes charged against him thrown out — from the obstruction charge applied in an unprecedented manner, to the civil disorder tainted by its racist past, all the way to trespassing.

The biggest advantages that Ethan Nordean and the other men charged in the Proud Boys Leadership conspiracy have are a judge, Tim Kelly, who is very sympathetic to the fact that they’re being held in jail as the government fleshes out the case against them, and the 450 other January 6 defendants who have been charged with one or another of the same charges the Proud Boys were charged with. The biggest disadvantages are that, as time passes, the government’s case gets stronger and stronger and the fact that seditious conspiracy or insurrection charges not only remain a real possibility, but are arguably are a better fit than what they got charged with.

That’s why it baffles me that, minutes after Judge Kelly noted that every time Nordean files a new motion, Nordean himself tolls the Speedy Trial clock, Nordean’s lawyer, Nick Smith, filed a motion to dismiss the entirety of the indictment against Nordean.

[snip]

[T]actically, trying to throw out every single crime, up to and including his trespassing charge, charged against one of the key leaders of a terrorist attack that put our very system of government at risk trades away the two biggest advantages Nordean has on legal challenges that won’t eliminate the prosecution against Nordean.

[snip]

[I]f any of these challenges brought by others succeed, then at that point, Nordean could point to the appellate decision and get his charges dropped along with hundreds of other people. But launching the challenge now, and in an omnibus motion claiming that poor Ethan didn’t know he was trespassing, is apt to get the whole package treated with less seriousness. Meanwhile, Nordean will be extending his own pre-trial detention. The government will be given more time to try to flip other members of a famously back-stabbing group, possibly up to and including Nordean’s co-conspirators (whose pre-trial detention Nordean will also be extending). And Judge Kelly will be left wondering why Nordean keeps undermining Kelly’s stated intent to limit how much the government can draw this out.

As I noted, on Friday Dabney Friedrich became the first DC District judge to uphold the obstruction application. The decision comes as — predictably — DOJ seems to be closing in on a much more substantive description of the Proud Boy-led plan to assault Congress. All the while, Nordean has been sitting in SeaTac jail, and even got thrown into SHU (solitary) last week for as yet undisclosed reasons.

To be clear: Friedrich’s is in no way the last word. Judges Randolph Moss, Amit Mehta, and the judge presiding over Nordean’s case, Tim Kelly, are all due to rule on the issue as well, with a number of the other judges facing such challenges as well. I’d be surprised if all the judges ruled for DOJ.

And because these judges are likely to rule differently, as all the parallel challenges have been briefed, some of the lawyers in the key cases have kept the judges apprised of what was going on in other challenges. For example, after getting leave first, the government submitted filings they made in Nordean and Guy Reffitt’s challenges to obstruction in the Brady Knowlton docket. Defendants have occasionally used that opportunity to respond.

Yesterday, without first asking for leave to file it, Nordean submitted what was billed as a “notice of new authority” in the case, but which was, in fact, a 23-page point by point rebuttal of and which didn’t actually include Friedrich’s opinion. As part of that, purportedly to take issue with the grammatical claims that Judge Friedrich made but actually in an effort to attack an example Friedrich used rather than the law itself, Nordean lawyers David and Nick Smith use an Emily Dickinson poem to — they claim — make a point about line breaks and semicolons.

And the Court did not explain how a semicolon and line break somehow altered the meaning of (c)(2)’s “otherwise” phrase which, as the Court correctly noted, “links” it to the meaning of (c)(1). As Nordean has previously explained, the question of meaning involves grammar, not page format. Subsection (c)(2) is a clause dependent on (c)(1) for its meaning because the predicate “or otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to. . . .” is not a complete sentence.

[snip]

As the Court will see, each of the provisions in the case relied on by the Sandlin Court is a complete sentence, unlike subsections (c)(1) and (c)(2) of § 1512. Thus, they are grammatically independent in a way that (c)(1) and (c)(2) are not. The same grammatical point distinguishes Justice Scalia’s finding in United States v. Aguilar, on which the Sandlin Court relies, that the ejusdem generis canon did not apply to § 1503’s “omnibus clause.” 515 U.S. at 615-16 (finding that the omnibus clause is “independent” of the rest of § 1503 in a grammatical sense: it stands alone as a complete sentence).

Contrary to the Sandlin Court’s understanding, line breaks and semicolons do not necessarily alter the meaning of the clauses that follow in a sentence. One simple example would seem to suffice:

The reticent volcano keeps
His never slumbering plan;
Confided are his projects pink
To no precarious man.

In the sentence above, the line break between “The reticent volcano keeps/His never slumbering plan” does not indicate that the second line’s meaning is “independent” of the first line’s. To the contrary, the phrase containing the pronoun “his” cannot be understood without reference to its antecedent in the first line. Similarly, the same pronoun following the semicolon cannot be understood without reference to the first line. Just so with (c)(2)’s “; or otherwise obstructs . . .” We are concerned with meaning, not the surface of the page.

This is poetry!! It is fairly insane to liken poetry, much of the power of which stems from breaking the rules of grammar and which often strives to obscure meaning, to US Code, which aspires to use grammar in ways that clarify meaning.

There’s one more problem, too.

There’s some dispute, because there is no final manuscript for this poem, about whether Dickinson used a semicolon or a dash after “slumbering plan.” And Dickinson’s dashes — literary experts say with all the certitude that drove me from literary academics — put great stake in the ambiguity introduced by such punctuation.

“The dash is an invitation to the reader to make meaning,” Dr. Smith said. “It can also be a leap of faith.”

Moreover, these were handwritten works, and so dashes would not even be regular lines. The variation in such lines has been interpreted with various meanings as an immediate expression of Dickinson’s intent. [Note: I owe this observation to several people on Twitter but have lost those Tweets; h/t to them]

That is, Dickinson’s poem is not so much an apt comment on Friedrich’s examples. Rather, it’s an example of the uncertainty embodied by the artistic expression of another individual, almost the opposite of laws codified by Congress.

Bizarrely, the citation of Dickinson is among the parts of Smith’s brief that Brady Knowlton’s attorneys lifted and replicated in their own unsolicited notice and reply. Carmen Hernandez, who is Donovan Crowl’s attorney, not only remembered to include Friedrich’s opinion, but she didn’t include the Dickinson poem.

There have been many aspects of my own literary training that I’ve used in my coverage of the January 6 investigation. Reading Emily Dickinson (about which I have no expertise) is not one I’d expect to need.

Update: In a hearing today, Judge Kelly joined Friedrich in rejecting the challenge to the obstruction application.

Dabney Friedrich Rejects Challenge to January 6 Obstruction Application

I have written — a lot — about the application of obstruction (18 USC 1512(c)(2)) at the heart of the way DOJ has approached the January 6 prosecution. (July; July; August; August; September; September; December; December)

The government has, thus far, chosen not to charge January 6ers with Seditious Conspiracy (18 USC 2384), a crime which carries a sentence of 20 years but requires the government show specific intent to overthrow the government. DOJ has a history of spectacular failure when trying to charge white terrorists with sedition, in part because the bar to proving the elements of the offense is quite high, and in part because white terrorists have long known how to package their extremism in heroic terms. Sedition would be particularly hard to prove with regards to January 6, since it was an attack launched by one branch of government on another.

Instead, the government has charged those Jan6ers against whom they had solid evidence of a specific intent to stop the vote certification with obstruction of an official proceeding under 18 USC 1512(c)(2). Like sedition, that crime can carry a 20 year sentence. But the base offense carries a range closer to 18 months (or the eight months to which Paul Hodgkins was sentenced). To get to stiffer sentences, DOJ would have to demonstrate any of a number of exacerbating behaviors, most notably, the threat of violence or an attempt to assassinate someone, but also destruction of evidence. That’s how DOJ got to very different guideline ranges for five men, all of whom pled guilty to the same obstruction offense:

That is, using obstruction offers the possibility of the same sentence as sedition for the more serious perpetrators, without the same political blowback and legal risk, while giving DOJ more flexibility in punishing different kinds of actions that day as felonies.

Only, using obstruction in this fashion is without precedent, in part because no one has ever tried to prevent the vote certification by violently attacking the Capitol before.

Because of that, January 6 defense attorneys have launched a concerted legal attack on the application, variously claiming:

  • This application of obstruction can’t be applied to the vote certification because 18 USC 1512(c)(2) is limited to those proceedings for which there is some kind investigation and adjudication of evidence (like an impeachment)
  • If DOJ wanted to charge obstruction, they should have used some other part of the law (that didn’t carry a potential 20 year sentence)
  • A recent Supreme Court ruling in Yates v United States that ruled fish could not be evidence of obstruction, which pivoted largely on grammar and conjunctions, would apply to using a mob to stop a vote certification
  • January 6 rioters had no way of knowing that the vote certification counted as an official proceeding the obstruction of which would carry a felony charge
  • The same confusion about what “corruptly” means that saved John Poindexter exists here

Yesterday, Judge Dabney Friedrich denied Ronnie Sandlin and Nate DeGrave’s motion to dismiss their conspiracy to obstruct and obstruction charges. The opinion is succinct, step-by-step dismissal of each of those challenges (I’ve put the bullets above in the order she addresses them to make it easier to read along).

There are three other major efforts (by Brady Knowlton before Randolph Moss, by Proud Boy Ethan Nordean before Tim Kelly, by Thomas Caldwell before Amit Mehta in the Oath Keeper case) and a slew of other more minor efforts to overturn this application. So the viability of this application of obstruction is by no means a done deal. If any of those other judges ruled against the government, it would set off interlocutory appeals that could upend this decision.

But one judge, at least, has now sanctioned DOJ’s novel application, at least as used with these two defendants.

It’s significant that Friedrich has ruled against this motion (she’s facing a similar one from 3%er Guy Reffitt), for a number of reasons. That’s true, for one, because she’s one of four Trump appointees in the DC District. While all four are (unlike some Trump appointees on the DC Circuit or Supreme Court) quite serious judges, Friedrich is, with Trevor McFadden, one of the judges who might be more sympathetic to the Trump-supporting defendants before her.

Friedrich had also raised questions as to why DOJ hadn’t used a different clause of the obstruction statute, 1512(d)(1) that might also apply to January 6, but which carries just a three year sentence. That makes her sustained treatment of how the law works — citing a Scalia opinion that defendants have raised repeatedly — of particular interest, because it’s the question she seemed to have the most doubt about.

Indeed, § 1512(c)(2) is more akin to the omnibus clause in 18 U.S.C. § 15035 than it is to “tangible object” in § 1519. The specific provisions in § 1503 cover actions related to jurors and court officers and the omnibus clause “serves as a catchall, prohibiting persons from endeavoring to influence, obstruct, or impede the due administration of justice.” As such, it is “far more general in scope.” United States v. Aguilar, 515 U.S. 593, 598 (1995). The ejusdem generus canon does not apply to limit § 1503’s omnibus clause to acts directed at jurors and court officers, because the clause “is not a general or collective term following a list of specific items.” Aguilar, 515 U.S. at 615 (Scalia, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (emphasis omitted). Instead, “it is one of the several distinct and independent prohibitions contained in § 1503 that share only the word ‘Whoever,’ which begins the statute, and the penalty provision that ends it.” Id. So too here.

[snip]

Nor does the plain text of § 1512(c)(2) create “intolerable” surplusage. Aguilar, 515 U.S. at 616 (Scalia, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). To be sure, interpreting subsection (c)(2) to include any and all obstructive, impeding, or influencing acts creates substantial overlap with the rest of § 1512, and with other provisions in Chapter 73. But the Court does not find that it creates intolerable overlap.

To start, a broad interpretation of § 1512(c)(2) does not entirely subsume numerous provisions with the chapter. For instance, § 1512(a)(1)(C), (a)(2)(C), (b)(3), and (d)(2)–(4) proscribe conduct unrelated to an “official proceeding.” Sections 1503 and 1505 prohibit obstructive acts related to the “due administration of justice” and congressional inquiries or investigations, respectively, which may have no relation to an official proceeding. Section 1513, meanwhile, prohibits retaliatory conduct that occurs after a person participates in an official proceeding. Section 1512(c)(2), on the other hand, concerns obstructive conduct that occurs either before or during such proceedings.

It is true that killing a witness to prevent his testimony at an official proceeding, see § 1512(a)(1)(A), or intimidating a person so that he withholds a record from the proceeding, see § 1512(b)(2)(A), among others, could be charged under § 1512(c)(2). But the fact that there is overlap between § 1512(c)(2) and the rest of § 1512, or other provisions in Chapter 73, is hardly remarkable; “[i]t is not unusual for a particular act to violate more than one criminal statute, and in such situations the Government may proceed under any statute that applies.” Aguilar, 515 U.S. at 616 (Scalia, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (internal citations omitted); see also Loughrin, 573 U.S. at 358 n.4.

In the Reffitt case, Friedrich had made DOJ provide a Bill of Particulars to explain how they understand Reffitt to have obstructed the vote certification, which was a different approach than other judges have taken. Moss and Mehta, for example, seem most concerned about limiting principles that distinguish obstruction as charged here from otherwise protected political speech (which also might give them a different basis to reject this application, particularly given that Donovan Crowl attorney Carmen Hernandez has focused on the First Amendment in the Oath Keeper case).

One other factor that makes Friedrich’s quicker decision on this issue (this challenge came before her after all the others I’ve listed as major above) interesting is that her spouse, Matthew Friedrich, was an Enron prosecutor. And — as Judge Friedrich’s opinion makes clear — Congress passed this specific clause in response to lessons learned in Enron.

In 2002, following the collapse of Enron, Congress enacted a new obstruction provision in Section 1102 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-204, 116 Stat. 745, 807: “Tampering with a record or otherwise impeding an official proceeding.” It was codified as subsection (c) of a pre-existing statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1512. Section 1512(c), in full, states:

Whoever corruptly—

(1) alters, destroys, mutilates, or conceals a record, document, or other object, or attempts to do so, with the intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding; or

(2) otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2).

[snip]

As noted, Congress enacted § 1512(c) as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 following “Enron’s massive accounting fraud and revelations that the company’s outside auditor, Arthur Andersen LLP, had systematically destroyed potentially incriminating documents.” Yates, 574 U.S. at 535–36. That Congress acted due to concerns about document destruction and the integrity of investigations of corporate criminality does not define the statute’s scope. Statutes often reach beyond the principal evil that animated them. See Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Servs., Inc., 523 U.S. 75, 79 (1998).

She has personal reason to know this history and the import of the statute well.

Friedrich looked to the Enron history to map how “corruptly” might apply in this case, too.

In considering the meaning of “corruptly” (or wrongfully), courts have drawn a clear distinction between lawful and unlawful conduct. In Arthur Andersen LLP v. United States, 544 U.S. 696 (2005), the Supreme Court explained, in the context of § 1512(b), that “corruptly” is “associated with wrongful, immoral, depraved, or evil.” Id. at 705 (internal quotations omitted).

[snip]

The ordinary meaning of “wrongful,” along with the judicial opinions construing it, identify a core set of conduct against which § 1512(c)(2) may be constitutionally applied—“independently criminal” conduct, North, 910 F.2d at 943 (Silberman, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) that is “inherently malign,” Arthur Andersen, 544 U.S. at 704, and committed with the intent to obstruct an official proceeding, see Friske, 640 F.3d at 1291–92. “Corruptly” (or wrongfully) also acts to shield those who engage in lawful, innocent conduct—even when done with the intent to obstruct, impede, or influence the official proceeding—from falling within the ambit of § 1512(c)(2). See Arthur Andersen, 544 U.S. at 705–06.

All in all, this was a no-nonsense opinion that didn’t rely on distinct aspects of this case, such as that Sandlin encouraged others in the Senate to look for and seize laptops and papers, the kind of destruction of evidence that makes the question easier.

Her opinion laid out just one limiting factor, though given how DOJ has charged conspiracy to obstruct the vote certification in all the conspiracy cases, an important one. This case was easy, Friedrich suggests, because so much of what else Sandlin and DeGrave are accused was obviously illegal (even moreso than Reffitt, who didn’t enter the building and whose resistance to cops was not charged as assault).

The indictment in this case alleges obstructive acts that fall on the obviously unlawful side of the line. It alleges that the defendants obstructed and impeded the congressional proceeding to certify the election results. Superseding Indictment ¶ 37. And it further alleges that the defendants engaged in advance planning, forcibly breached the Capitol building, assaulted Capitol police officers, and encouraged others to steal laptops and paperwork from the Senate Chamber. Id. ¶¶ 15-33. This alleged conduct is both “independently criminal,” North, 910 F.2d at 943 (Silberman, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) and “inherently malign,” Arthur Andersen, 544 U.S. at 704. And it was allegedly done with the intent to obstruct the congressional proceeding, see Friske, 640 F.3d at 1291. Assuming that the government can meet its burden at trial, which is appropriate to assume for purposes of this motion, the defendants were sufficiently on notice that they corruptly obstructed, or attempted to obstruct, an official proceeding under § 1512(c)(2).

The Court recognizes that other cases, such as those involving lawful means, see, e.g., Arthur Andersen, 544 U.S. at 703, will present closer questions.14 But the Court need not decide here what constitutes the outer contours of a “corrupt purpose.” Because the indictment alleges that the defendants used obvious criminal means with the intent to obstruct an official proceeding, their conduct falls squarely within the core coverage of “corruptly” as used in § 1512(c)(2). See Edwards, 869 F.3d at 502 (“While the corrupt-persuasion element might raise vagueness questions at the margins, the wrongdoing alleged here falls comfortably within the ambit of the statute.”). The Court will address further refinements of the definition of “corruptly” with jury instructions.

14 As courts have noted, difficult questions arise when lawful means are used with a corrupt purpose and with the intent to obstruct, influence, or impede an official proceeding. See, e.g., United States v. Doss, 630 F.3d 1181, 1189 (9th Cir. 2011); North, 910 F.2d at 943 (Silberman, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). In Judge Silberman’s view, the purpose inquiry should focus narrowly on whether the defendant “was attempting to secure some advantage for himself or for others than was improper or not in accordance with the legal rights and duties of himself or others.” North, 910 F.2d at 944 (Silberman, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part); see also Aguilar, 515 U.S. at 616 (Scalia, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (the “longstanding and well-accepted meaning” of “corruptly” is “[a]n act done with an intent to give some advantage inconsistent with official duty and the rights of others”) (internal quotation marks omitted). See also United States v. Kanchanalak, 37 F. Supp. 2d 1, 4 (D.D.C. 1999) (noting that it may be too vague to require only that a defendant “act[ed] with an improper purpose”). This case, which allegedly involves unlawful means engaged in with the intent to obstruct, does not raise these challenging questions.

Whether Sandlin and DeGrave corruptly attempted to halt the vote count is easy, Friedrich suggests, because they are accused of so much else that was clearly illegal, including both trespassing and assaulting cops. Whether this application of obstruction holds for overt acts that are not, themselves illegal, will be a much harder question, but it was not one before her in this case.

This question is already before other judges though, significantly (for DOJ’s efforts to hold what I’ve termed, “organizer inciters” accountable) in the 3%er SoCal conspiracy. And, as the AUSA dealing with the legal application of all this, James Pearce, responded in yet another challenge to this application of obstruction, it goes to the core of whether this application of obstruction could be used with the former President.

At a hearing on Monday for defendant Garret Miller of Richardson, Texas, [Carl] Nichols made the first move toward a Trump analogy by asking a prosecutor whether the obstruction statute could have been violated by someone who simply “called Vice President Pence to seek to have him adjudge the certification in a particular way.” The judge also asked the prosecutor to assume the person trying to persuade Pence had the “appropriate mens rea,” or guilty mind, to be responsible for a crime.

Nichols made no specific mention of Trump, who appointed him to the bench, but the then-president was publicly and privately pressuring Pence in the days before the fateful Jan. 6 tally to decline to certify Joe Biden’s victory. Trump also enlisted other allies, including attorney John Eastman, to lean on Pence.

An attorney with the Justice Department Criminal Division, James Pearce, initially seemed to dismiss the idea that merely lobbying Pence to refuse to recognize the electoral result would amount to the crime of obstructing or attempting to obstruct an official proceeding.

“I don’t see how that gets you that,” Pearce told the judge.

However, Pearce quickly added that it might well be a crime if the person reaching out to Pence knew the vice president had an obligation under the Constitution to recognize the result.

“If that person does that knowing it is not an available argument [and is] asking the vice president to do something the individual knows is wrongful … one of the definitions of ‘corruptly’ is trying to get someone to violate a legal duty,” Pearce said.

If Trump honestly believed that Mike Pence could blow off the vote certification when he ordered him to do so on January 6, this application of obstruction would be far more problematic, as even DOJ’s expert on this application concedes. But if Trump knew the demand violated the law (or the Constitution), then it would meet the definition of “corruptly” under this application of the statute.

The entire course of the January 6 prosecution has been waiting on these decisions about DOJ’s use of obstruction. And while Friedrich’s opinion does not decide the issue, DOJ has notched one significant opinion in support for the approach they’re using. If a few other judges match her opinion, we could begin to see a wave of plea deals to felony convictions.

Update: Here’s the order Friedrich issued in Reffitt’s case, deferring the 1512 question until trial unless he gives her a good reason not to:

MINUTE ORDER. Before the Court is the defendant’s [38] Motion to Dismiss Count Two of the Indictment on multiple grounds, including that Count Two is unconstitutionally vague as applied. On a motion to dismiss, the Court “is limited to reviewing the face of the indictment,” United States v. Sunia , 643 F. Supp. 2d 51, 60 (D.D.C. 2009), and it must assume the truth of the indictment’s factual allegations, United States v. Bowdoin , 770 F. Supp. 2d 142, 149 (D.D.C. 2011). The question for the Court at this stage of the proceedings is “whether the allegations, if proven, would be sufficient to permit a jury to find that the crimes charged were committed.” Id. at 146.

A criminal statute is not unconstitutionally vague on its face unless it is “impermissibly vague in all of its applications.” Vill. of Hoffman Estates v. Flipside, Hoffman Estates , 455 U.S. 489, 497 (1982). And “[o]ne to whose conduct a statute clearly applies may not successfully challenge it for vagueness.” Parker v. Levy , 417 U.S. 733, 756 (1974). Numerous courts have rejected vagueness challenges the word corruptly as used in obstruction statutes. See, e.g.United States v. Shotts , 145 F.3d 1289, 1300 (11th Cir. 1998); United States v. Edwards, 869 F.3d 490, 50102 (7th Cir. 2017); see also Mem. Op. issued December 10, 2021 in United States v. Sandlin , 21-cr-88, Dkt. 63 (holding that § 1512(c)(2) is not unconstitutionally vague as applied to defendants who allegedly forcibly breached the Capitol and assaulted Capitol police officers with the intent to impede the official proceeding).

In contrast to the indictment at issue in Sandlin, the Indictment in this case does not allege any facts in support of the § 1512(c)(2) charge. Count Two merely alleges that Reffitt “attempted to, and did, corruptly obstruct, influence, and impede an official proceeding, that is a proceeding before Congress, specifically, Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote as set out in the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and 3 U.S.C. §§ 15-18.” [34] Second Superseding Indictment at 2. The government proffers in its brief, however, that “[w]hile at the Capitol, the defendant, armed with his handgun in a holster on his waist, confronted U.S. Capitol Police officers on the west side stairs, just north of the temporary scaffolding. The defendant charged at the officers, who unsuccessfully tried to repel him with two different types of less-than-lethal projectiles before successfully halting his advances with pepper spray. The defendant encouraged other rioters to charge forward at the officers, which they did. The officers were forced to fall back, the Capitol was invaded.” [40] Gov’t Opp’n at 1. Reffitt disputes this in his briefing. [38] Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss at 13-15.

Because it is unclear, based on the indictment alone, what actions Reffitt allegedly engaged in to obstruct and impede the official proceeding, the Court cannot determine at this early stage of the proceeding whether the charges are unconstitutionally vague as applied to him. For this reason, the Court is inclined to defer ruling on his vagueness challenge until the facts have been established at trial and the jury has had an opportunity to consider that evidence. See United States v. Kettles , No. CR 3:16-00163-1, 2017 WL 2080181, at *3 (M.D. Tenn. May 15, 2017) (finding that pretrial as-applied challenge to § 1591(a) was premature because “[t]he court cannot determine the nature and extent of [defendant’s] conduct in this case and, therefore, also cannot determine whether § 1591(a) is void for vagueness as applied to that conduct”); United States v. Raniere , 384 F. Supp. 3d 282, 320 (E.D.N.Y. 2019).

Accordingly, the defendant is directed to file, on or before December 15, 2021, a supplemental brief of no more than 5 pages in length explaining why the Court should not defer ruling on his motion until the evidence has been presented at trial. Upon review of the defendant’s supplemental brief, the Court will consider whether a response from the government is necessary.

237 Days: Cooperation in Criminal Investigations Takes a Long Time

Earlier this week, I pointed out that the complaints about Merrick Garland’s approach to the January 6 investigation simply don’t account for how long competent investigations take. On Twitter, I noted that it took almost a full year after the Russian investigation was opened for George Papadopoulos to be arrested and another two months before he pled guilty, making 14 months for a simple false statements charge in a lightning fast investigation. With a purported cooperator like Mike Flynn, it took 15 months to plead guilty and another year for the cooperation, and that, again, was considered lightning fast (and was assisted by the criminal exposure Flynn had for secretly working for Turkey).

In the January 6 investigation, prosecutors got their first public cooperating witness on April 16, when Jon Schaffer entered into a cooperation agreement. Since then, four additional Oath Keepers (Graydon Young on June 23, Mark Grods on June 30, Caleb Berry on July 20, and Jason Dolan on September 15), Josiah Colt (on July 14), and Klete Keller (on September 29; and no, I have no clue against whom he’d be cooperating) also publicly entered into cooperation agreements. That’s what DOJ has formally revealed, though there are several cases where the government clearly has gotten cooperation from other defendants, but hasn’t shared that formally.

But even with cooperators, investigations take time. There are three recent developments that provide a sense of how time-consuming that is.

Jon Schaffer’s still unresolved cooperation

As I previously noted, the four main Oath Keeper cooperators have a harmonized status deadline for December 17. I had been waiting to see whether Jon Schaffer, who has ties to the Oath Keepers and communications with whom were noticed to Oath Keeper defendants, would be put on that same reporting schedule.

He hasn’t been.

In fact, a recent status report in his case suggests the main Oath Keeper conspiracy may not be the primary focus of his cooperation. That’s because two details in it are totally inconsistent with the progress of the Oath Keeper case.

Multiple defendants charged in the case in which the Defendant is cooperating have been presented before the Court; several are in the process of exploring case resolutions and a trial date has yet to be set.

As Judge Mehta well knows, four of the Oath Keepers already have “explor[ed] case resolutions.” And Mehta has set the first trial date for April 19, 2022.

So unless Schaffer’s attorney is entirely in error, it seems there’s some other multiple defendant case in which Schaffer is cooperating.

Swedish Scarf still at large?

Earlier this month, Gina Bisignano may have pushed the government to indict a conspiracy in which she’s a key witness earlier than they might have.

On November 4, she filed a motion to modify her release conditions, to get out of home arrest so she can try to salvage her salon business. In it, her lawyers revealed that back in July, Bisignano had entered into a sealed plea agreement.

10. On July 28, 2021, Defendant signed a plea agreement in the above captioned case UNDER SEAL.

11. On August 4, 2021, Defendant appeared before this Court and entered a guilty plea in the above captioned case, UNDER SEAL, to multiple counts of the indictment.

12. On September 16, 2021, a Zoom hearing was held before this Court, and Your Honor advised that you would entertain the Defendant’s motion in three (3) weeks to see whether the Defendant had any infractions during that time.

The only reason to seal the plea would be to hide a cooperation component.

There has long been chatter about a conspiracy indictment against members of the Southern California anti-mask community that traveled to the insurrection together. In response to Amy Berman Jackson’s questions about why Danny Rodriguez was not charged with three other defendants for assaulting Michael Fanone, prosecutors kept giving her vague answers for months, until they filed what must have been a sealed update on November 5. And a transcript of Rodriguez’ FBI interview at least suggested that the FBI had spoken to Bisignano before Rodriguez’ March 31 interview.

Is there any reason why Gina would tell us that you told her not to say anything to — about you being at the Capitol?

Videos of this interview, which are engaging TV, are here.

In mid-November, the government finally rolled out the long-awaited conspiracy indictment, which was more narrowly tailored than originally expected, charging Rodriguez, his estranged friend Ed Badalian, and someone referred to in the online community as “Swedish Scarf,” but whose identity remains sealed. The indictment charges two objects of the conspiracy: to halt the vote count on January 6, but also to “mutilate or destroy photographs and videos taken by” Bisignano (who is referred to as Person One in the indictment).

But there’s still no sign of an arrest of Swedish Scarf.

That could mean several things, one of which is that he’s on the lam.

The minute order from Judge Carl Nichols granting Bisignano some but not all of the release conditions she requested revealed that the government opposition to that request, which was due on November 24 (and so after the indictment against Badalian was unsealed) remains sealed.

There’s something else going on with this case. What, it is not entirely clear.

That said, what the public record suggests is that Bisignano had at least one interview prior to March 31, she pled guilty in August, but it still took three more months to obtain the indictment against Badalian and Swedish scarf.

Indicting a cop for fun and probation

Meanwhile the sentencing memos (government, defense) for Jacob Hiles reveal that not all cooperation comes with a cooperation agreement.

As the government describes, Hiles’ actions on January 6 include a number of the factors that would normally lead them to ask for a sentence including jail time: calls for revolution in advance, mockery of police efforts to defend the Capitol, and long boasts posted to Facebook after the fact.

But those Facebook posts play a key role in a more important prosecution, that of former Capitol Police Officer Michael Riley, who friended Hiles on Facebook before the insurrection and tried to protect him afterwards. After they first initiated contact, Riley warned Hiles to delete his posts, but he did not.

On January 7, 2021, a sworn U.S. Capitol police officer, Michael Angelo Riley, sent the defendant a private direct message on Facebook—the first message between the two, who had never met but shared an avid interest in fishing. The message stated as follows:

“Hey Jake, im a capitol police officer who agrees with your political stance. Take down the part about being in the building they are currently investigating and everyone who was in the building is going to be charged. Just looking out!”

Hiles responded to this message with a shorter version of the narratives posted on his public page and detailed above. He further stated, in part, “Investigate me however youd like and thank you for the heads up. . . . If what I did needs further investigation, I will gladly testify to this. There are some people who were violent. They attacked officers. They destroyed property. They should be fully prosecuted.”2 In the course of an extended conversation that ensued between the two, Hiles also said, “I don’t think I did anything wrong at all yesterday and I am very sorry things turned out the way that they did. I dont like the way that a few bad apples in a massive crowd are making the entire crowd be portrayed as violent terrorists,” and “I think when the fbi gets to investigating, they will find that these terroristic acts were committed in false flag attacks by leftists.”

The government’s investigation revealed that these communications between Riley and the defendant had been deleted by Riley, but not by the defendant, from whose Facebook account they were recovered. The communications included further corrupt conduct by Riley, as detailed in part in the Indictment, ECF No. 1, in United States v. Michael Angelo Riley, 21-CR-628 (ABJ). Indeed, according to Hiles, and consistent with the evidence recovered in the government’s investigation of Michael Riley, Hiles deleted no information in response to Riley’s suggestion that he do so.

And when FBI Agents interviewed Hiles after they arrested him on January 19, he told them enough about his contact with Riley such that they knew to look for those communications once they exploited his phone. That led to another interview and, ultimately, to the indictment of Riley.

Hiles further indicated that following the riot he had become friends with a Capitol police officer, although he did not at that time describe the content of then-Officer Riley’s initial contact. Later, a search of Hiles’ cell phone revealed a screenshot of the Facebook message detailed in the government’s Sentencing Memorandum from Riley to Hiles on January 7, 2021. Upon discovery of the message, the government requested through counsel that Hiles participate in a debrief with prosecutors and federal agents. Through counsel, Hiles agreed to do so and appeared for the debrief (held virtually) within 24 hours, and with no promise of any benefit from or agreement of any kind with the government.3

After his initial interview, Hiles told Riley that the FBI had expressed an interest in their communications. That led Riley to delete his own Facebook communications with Hiles.

15. RILEY and Person 1 continued to exchange friendly messages until January 20, 2021. On that date, Person 1 sente RILEY Facebook direct messages regarding having turned himself in to the FBI, including telling RILEY, “The fbi was very curious that I ha been speaking to you if they havent already asked you about me they are gonna. They took my phone and downloaded everything.” RILEY responded, “Thats fine”.

16. On January 20, 2021, RILEY deleted all his Facebook direct messages to and from Person 1.

Because of this cooperation against Riley (and because he offered up that he had gone to insurrection with his cousin, James Horning, who was arrested on obstruction and trespassing charges a month later), the government recommended probation.

Indeed, without the defendant’s significant, useful assistance to the government with respect to two felony prosecutions, the factors would require the government to recommend a sentence involving incarceration. Yet, upon consideration of the defendant’s exceptional cooperation with the government, the scale tips in favor of probation.

Hiles is due to be sentenced on Monday.

Hiles’ role in the prosecution of Riley is instructive for several reasons. First, these misdemeanants are not just defendants, but they are all witnesses to a crime. And some of them are going to provide important testimony without the formal trappings of a cooperation plea those indicted with felonies would have (even assuming those cooperation pleas were made public).

But the Hiles sentencing also gives a sense of the time necessarily involved. Riley’s indictment reveals how long even simple cooperation prosecutions can take. While union protections and internal investigations probably delayed things somewhat, it still took over 235 days between when the FBI first learned of Hiles’ communications with Riley and Riley’s arrest.

That’s for a cop. You can be sure it would take longer to indict those close to Donald Trump, even assuming the FBI has identified cooperators with useful testimony directly pertaining to those in Trump’s orbit, rather than identified those once or twice removed from Trump’s closest aides.

The government is getting more cooperation from January 6 defendants and witnesses than is publicly admitted. But that doesn’t mean we’ll see the fruit of such cooperation anytime soon.

Update, December 23: Adding the cooperation agreements for Gina Bisignano (August 4) and Matthew Greene (December 22).

Where to Look (or Not) for Signs of Life in Rule of Law

According to the court schedule for this week, January 6 defendants Stacie and John Getsinger will plead guilty on Thursday, no doubt to misdemeanor trespassing. On the surface, their guilty plea will likely resemble those of the dozens of other January 6 misdemeanor pleas that have gone before them, and that may be all it is.

But, along with a handful of others (Adam Johnson and Justin McAuliffe, who both pled guilty last week, are two other examples), these pleas may hint at what kind of larger underlying case DOJ is building. That’s because the Getsingers are witnesses to an important detail about the way January 6 worked: that Alex Jones, whom Trump had put in charge of leading mobs to the Capitol, likewise induced them to go to the top of the East steps of the Capitol with a lie, the false claim that Trump would be speaking there. That’s what led a couple like the Getsingers, who otherwise would never have entered the Capitol, to do so.

This comes even as InfoWars personality Owen Shroyer’s attempts to dodge his own legal accountability have brought more focus on Jones’ actions, described as Person One in DOJ’s opposition to Shroyer’s attempt to dismiss his indictment.

When the body-camera individual asked if he could get Person One there, the officer stated, “Through the hole that you guys breached right there” (emphasis added). When the body-camera individual responded that he didn’t breach anything, the officer retorted, “Well, the whole group that was with you guys.” The officer then pointed again away from the Capitol Building toward the northeast, telling them to leave through the same hole he had just said other rioters had breached. An officer surrounded by people illegally on the Capitol Grounds dismissively waving them away from the Capitol Building and toward another area hundreds of others had already illegally breached does not amount to “telling [the defendant] that … police officers could use his help.”

[snip]

[T]he defendant forced his way to the top of Capitol Building’s east steps with Person One and others and led hundreds of other rioters in multiple “USA!” and “1776!” chants with his megaphone. Harkening to the last time Americans overthrew their government in a revolution while standing on the Capitol steps where elected representatives are certifying a Presidential Election you disagree with does not qualify as deescalation.

[snip]

The video shows the defendant on an elevated platform leading chants with his megaphone on the Capitol Grounds before his first interaction with law enforcement officers; it shows the body-camera individual repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) try to get Person One on the Capitol steps; it shows evidence that the defendant reasonably should have known he was somewhere he was not supposed to be, including by stepping near moved barriers and downed signs; and it shows officers repeatedly refer to the defendant’s group as part of the problem and the “breaches” of various police lines. In fact, at the end of the video, the body-camera individual took matters into his own hands after facing multiple rejections for permission. He turned to the group and asked, “Just get him up there? … But we know we might catch a bang or two.” That is not evidence that the defendant received explicit or implicit permission to go onto the Capitol steps. That is evidence that the defendant is guilty of the crimes he is charged with.

Every single time that Merrick Garland has been asked about the scope of the January 6 investigation, he has said his DOJ will follow the evidence where it leads. These details are tidbits of the evidence in question, visible tidbits that would be largely meaningless unless you understood how the Oath Keepers, Joe Biggs, and his former employer all converged on those East doors just before they were opened from inside.

None of these details — and others like them, such as Johnson’s description of the crowd’s response to Rudy Giuliani and Mo Brooks’ calls for violence — guarantee that Rudy and Brooks will be held responsible.

At the rally, JOHNSON listened to several speeches, including by former President Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and an unknown older member of Congress–the latter of whom JOHNSON heard stating that it was time for action and violence. In response to these comments, JOHNSON saw members of the crowd nodding their heads in agreement.

But if you don’t know these details, you don’t know even what is publicly available about the investigation.

I respect David Rothkopf. I share his concerns about the threat Trump poses to US democracy and the limited time before Republicans likely take control of the House and shut down efforts to guard democracy in the US.

But unlike him I know that the place to learn about DOJ’s January 6 investigation is not by asking Harry Litman or Barb McQuade or AG Gill or Lawrence Tribe or even Dahlia Lithwick — all of whom I respect greatly — how they feel about the general direction of the investigation, but instead to look at the actual records or reading the reports of people actually covering hearings, such as this crucial Josh Gerstein story about how prosecutors responded when Judge Carl Nichols (the former Clarence Thomas clerk who happens to be presiding over Steve Bannon’s case) asked if someone who did what Trump did could be charged with the same obstruction charge DOJ is using with the more serious defendants.

At a hearing on Monday for defendant Garret Miller of Richardson, Texas, Nichols made the first move toward a Trump analogy by asking a prosecutor whether the obstruction statute could have been violated by someone who simply “called Vice President Pence to seek to have him adjudge the certification in a particular way.” The judge also asked the prosecutor to assume the person trying to persuade Pence had the “appropriate mens rea,” or guilty mind, to be responsible for a crime.

Nichols made no specific mention of Trump, who appointed him to the bench, but the then-president was publicly and privately pressuring Pence in the days before the fateful Jan. 6 tally to decline to certify Joe Biden’s victory. Trump also enlisted other allies, including attorney John Eastman, to lean on Pence.

An attorney with the Justice Department Criminal Division, James Pearce, initially seemed to dismiss the idea that merely lobbying Pence to refuse to recognize the electoral result would amount to the crime of obstructing or attempting to obstruct an official proceeding.

“I don’t see how that gets you that,” Pearce told the judge.

However, Pearce quickly added that it might well be a crime if the person reaching out to Pence knew the vice president had an obligation under the Constitution to recognize the result.

“If that person does that knowing it is not an available argument [and is] asking the vice president to do something the individual knows is wrongful … one of the definitions of ‘corruptly’ is trying to get someone to violate a legal duty,” Pearce said.

I can’t tell you whether DOJ will get much further up the chain of responsibility for January 6; part of that necessarily depends on DOJ’s success at obtaining cooperation, of which only that of Oath Keepers has DOJ thus far disclosed. I can’t tell you what DOJ is doing behind the scenes in what Garland describes as “following the money.”

But I can tell you that columns like Rothkopf’s, which complain that Garland’s DOJ is not doing enough to hold Trump accountable while ignoring cases like the Tom Barrack prosecution and the Rudy Giuliani investigation that provide concrete evidence about the kinds of investigative steps Garland’s DOJ has been willing to pursue (the Rudy raid was likely among Lisa Monaco’s first major decisions), likely don’t make it any more likely that Garland will be able to act against the masterminds of January 6 any sooner.

A far better use of Rothkopf’s time and space than bitching that Garland has authorized John Durham’s funding request, for example …

We have seen that Garland is letting the highly politicized investigation of special prosecutor John Durham into the conduct of the Trump-Russia investigation continue (by continuing its funding). We therefore have the real prospect that those who sought to look into the Trump-Russia ties that both Mueller and Congressional investigations have demonstrated were real, unprecedented and dangerous might be prosecuted while those who actively sought the help of a foreign enemy to win an election will not be.

… Would be to ask Harry Litman and Barb McQuade and AG Gill and Lawrence Tribe and Dahlia Lithwick about the specific things that Durham has done — like failing to cut-and-paste with fidelity, relying on a Twitter feed for a key factual assertion, and using materiality arguments to skirt DOJ’s prohibition on publicly commenting on uncharged conduct — that put his prosecutions in violation of DOJ guidelines. Such questions would be readily accessible to all by reading just two indictments (as compared to the full dockets of 675 charged January 6 defendants), it would draw on the considerable expertise of the prosecutors he cited, and it might do something concrete to give Garland the political support he would need to force Durham to hew to DOJ guidelines.

Importantly, it may not be possible for DOJ to move quickly enough against Trump without violating due process (just as one example, the Project Veritas investigation could lead to incredibly damaging revelations about political spying targeting the Biden family, but it’s not entirely clear DOJ respected First Amendment protections).

Which means those with a platform would be better off defending the rule of law — selling independents and moderate Republicans on the import of the January 6 investigation — than whining that it is not working quickly enough.

Update: In his piece, Rothkopf complains, as well, that the only visible investigation into the people around Trump is coming from the January 6 Commission, not DOJ.

More troubling to me though is that the only reason we are hearing of any case being brought against Bannon as a senior coup plotter (or upper middle management in any case) is because Congress is investigating the events of Jan. 6. We have not heard a peep out of the Department of Justice about prosecuting those responsible for inciting, planning or funding the effort to undo the lawful transfer of presidential power to the man the American people elected, Joe Biden.

This morning, Adam Schiff went on CNN. Dana Bash asked him about Judge Amit Mehta’s focus on Donald Trump’s role in the insurrection in a sentencing last week. In response, Schiff described that, “I am concerned that there does not appear to be an investigation, unless it’s being done very quietly” into Trump’s call to Brad Raffensperger to demand he come up with just enough votes for Trump to win the state. But Schiff noted that, “this is not January 6 related — specifically, at least, to the violence of that day.”

Then Bash asked whether Schiff was saying he wanted Biden’s DOJ to be more aggressive. Schiff did not answer “yes.” Instead, he responded to a question about DOJ by talking about the January 6 Commission’s role in holding people accountable.

We are now trying to expose the full facts of the former President’s misconduct, as well as those around him. It is certainly possible that what we reveal in our investigation will inform the Justice Department of other facts that they may not yet be aware of yet. And so we will pursue our role in this, which is to expose the malefactors, to bring about legislation as a result of our investigation, to protect the country. But we will count on the Justice Department to play its role.

That is, when Bash asked specifically if DOJ was being aggressive enough on January 6, Schiff implied that the January 6 Commission played a key role in their efforts.

This is something that has not gotten enough attention: Even if DOJ didn’t ask, the Jan 6 Commission would refer people for any crimes they discovered, as SSCI and HPSCI both referred people to Mueller for lying, lies that led to the prosecution and cooperation of (at least) Michael Cohen and Sam Patten. Schiff knows better than anyone that HPSCI’s investigation was critical to the prosecution of Roger Stone. I also suspect that Steve Bannon’s transcripts were important preparation for Bannon’s grand jury appearance in January 2019, because they laid out the script that the White House had given to him for his testimony. I further suspect that SSCI obtained — and then shared — testimony from certain witnesses that Mueller could not otherwise get.

Trump’s pseudo-cooperation with the Mueller investigation, waiving privilege for the investigation but not any prosecution, likely was one hinderance to holding him accountable. And on this investigation, DOJ would be even more constrained, because it could face Executive Privilege claims and definitely would face Speech and Debate protections.

There has been almost no discussion of how closely Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney are working with DOJ to ensure that the Jan 6 Commission doesn’t impede DOJ’s Jan 6 investigation, but it must be happening.

Similarly, there has been no discussion of obvious witnesses that the Jan 6 Commission has not (yet) subpoenaed, such as Lin Wood or Rudy Giuliani, the latter of whom DOJ seized phones from in another investigation in April.

Finally, there has been little discussion of how DOJ moved to have Executive Privilege waived for Congress just as the Jan 6 Commission got up and running.

DOJ only released its new contact policy — under which the request for a privilege determination may have been passed — on July 21. I’m curious whether the request for a  waiver of executive privilege waiver came after that. Executive privilege considerations were a key limitation on the Mueller investigation overseen in its final days partly by Rosen himself.

At least as interesting, however, is that DOJ sent the letter just one day before DOJ submitted a court filing in the Eric Swalwell lawsuit — speaking of members of Congress but using more generalized language — arguing that no federal officials can campaign in their official capacity and further noting that attacking one’s employer is not within the scope of someone’s job description.

DOJ is using that same waived privilege for the documents responsive to the Jan 6 Commission requests at the National Archive.

That is, DOJ is supporting the efforts of a co-equal branch of government to obtain testimony and records that that co-equal branch of government has a broader claim to than DOJ itself.

And Schiff, who understands better than anyone how HPSCI and DOJ worked together on the Stone prosecution, described, after first answering a question that he distinguished from January 6, then addressing January 6 directly by saying that “our role in this[] is to expose the malefactors,” and “we will count on the Justice Department to play its role” if and when the Commission “inform[s] the Justice Department of other facts that they may not yet be aware of yet.”

Yes, the January 6 Commission has a very short window in which to work. Yes, Congress is taking steps that DOJ does not appear to be taking. But that doesn’t mean that DOJ is not obtaining that evidence.