Posts

John Durham May Lose His Battle But Gain New Ammunition to Fight His War

There were a number of things not said at yesterday’s hearing on the Democrats’ privilege claims in the Michael Sussmann case. The importance of having Russian-speaking experts when representing a client getting systematically attacked by Russia, for example, was not mentioned. Nor was the amount of research that Fusion did that was never released to the press. Nor were Durham’s two cheap stunts — falsely claiming an FEC settlement was not “public” in time to introduce it as part of the initial filings, and presenting exhibits without correcting for a time anomaly and thereby falsely suggesting Fusion sent a previously unpublished link to Tea Leaves’ postings to Eric Lichtblau — which made Durham’s case to pierce the Democrats’ privilege claims look stronger than it was.

Even on the issue of whether communications can have more than one purpose — an issue that Robert Trout, representing Hillary’s campaign, addressed directly — the argument could have been stronger. And when Judge Christopher Cooper asked if there were specific emails “that might support [the Democrats’] position that Fusion’s internal communications on these issues were for the purpose of providing legal support as opposed to pure opposition research and dissemination that is not covered by the privilege?,” Trout was caught flat-footed. Which is to say that the Democrats may not have presented their case as well as they could have.

It likely didn’t matter. Even before ruling that he will review the documents over which Democrats invoked privilege, Judge Christopher Cooper made it clear he was pretty skeptical of their privilege claims.

But there were a number of other things that were mentioned that may limit how much value Durham gets from this decision, even if Cooper determines that most of the Fusion documents were not privileged. Most importantly, both before and after Cooper had clearly decided he was going to review the documents, he raised the other procedural issues — which I raised in this post — that will dictate whether or not Durham can use them at trial.

The defense has raised some procedural objections to I think the use and introduction of the emails; namely, that you have waited too long after the assertion of the privilege — on the eve of trial now — to bring the issue to me.

I take it you’re saying that even if I were to agree with them about the specific emails that have been withheld, I would still have to deal with the privilege issue with respect to Ms. Seago’s testimony.

[snip]

That still leaves the relevance issues as well as the prejudice issues and the knock-on effects from the defense from the introduction and use of the emails, but I think that I’m probably going to have to deal with this issue nonetheless because of what the government may plan to ask Ms. Seago about. All right?

That is, even if Cooper agrees that the 38 documents Durham wants unsealed are not privileged, it may not mean Durham can use them at trial. The following are all possibilities, of greater or lesser likelihood:

  1. Cooper rules that one purpose of the emails was legal advice and so are privileged
  2. Cooper decides some or all of the emails are not privileged, but rules, based on representations made yesterday, that Durham violated local rules in his attempt to obtain them and so cannot get them
  3. Cooper rules that some or all of the emails are not privileged but rules that they are prejudicial, irrelevant, or hearsay to the charge against Sussmann, so Durham can have the emails, he just can’t use them at trial
  4. Cooper determines that Durham’s claims about the necessity or relevance of Laura Seago’s testimony are not only false, but Durham knew them to be false when he made them and, given that Durham has used as his excuse to pierce privilege at this late date, cannot introduce them at trial
  5. Cooper rules that the communications involving Rodney Joffe are privileged, even if the internal Fusion emails are not, adding further problems with Seago’s role as a witness
  6. Cooper rules the Fusion emails aren’t privileged, but at least some of them end up disproving Durham’s conspiracy theories

If I had to guess, I’d say a combination of 3, 5, and 6 are most likely. I’ll explain why, but if that turns out to be the case, it may mean that Durham finds a way to access the other 1,500 Fusion emails he says he wants to use in “other investigations,” but still can’t use many of the 38 emails at issue here in the trial against Sussmann. Durham’s conspiracy theories might live on, but his case against Sussmann might not.

As a reminder, Sussmann argued that Durham broke a number of rules by bypassing Beryl Howell and waiting until the last minute to try to get these emails — the procedural objections Cooper alluded to above. Cooper can’t be that impressed with the argument, or he wouldn’t have agreed to review the emails at all. But he did seem rather interested in Steven Tyrell’s assertion that he had made it clear there was never a way Durham was going to get the emails involving Joffe without litigation.

MR. TYRRELL: So if they wanted to challenge our assertion of privilege as to this limited universe of documents — again, which is separate from the other larger piece with regard to HFA — they should have done so months ago. I don’t know why they waited until now, Your Honor, but I want to be clear. I want to say without hesitation that it’s not because there was ever any discussion with us about resolving this issue without court intervention.

THE COURT: That was my question. Were you adamant a year ago?

MR. TYRRELL: Pardon me?

THE COURT: Were you adamant a year ago that —

MR. TYRRELL: Yes. We’ve been throughout. We were not willing to entertain resolution of this without court intervention.

THE COURT: Very well.

This is important because it supports Sussmann’s contention that this late bid for the emails is just an improper means of bypassing local rules and discovery deadlines. The same is not as true for Fusion, though, because they did make some concessions to Durham along the way.

Joffe’s intransigence about his privilege claims are all the more problematic for Durham, because (contrary to all my predictions!) Cooper seems far more convinced of Joffe’s privilege claims than the those of the Democrats.

With respect to the Joffe/Sussmann/Seago emails, I am dubious that the government has met its burden to pierce the privilege, but I will take a look at the emails nonetheless.

Indeed, at one point, Cooper noted that Durham’s entire theory of the case assumes, “Sussmann was in the [September 19, 2016 James Baker] meeting representing Joffe,” which would mean there was a privileged relationship between Sussmann and Joffe, and so therefore assumes Sussmann’s communications with Joffe about the topic would be privileged. If Joffe’s communications with Sussmann and Laura Seago aren’t privileged, then it’s proof that Sussmann was not representing a client. If they are privileged, then Durham can’t have them.

Catch-22.

Given what Cooper said in last week’s hearing, in which he repeatedly suggested that Joffe’s testimony might be central, the possibility that Durham may not pierce Joffe’s privilege may dictate other evidentiary (though not privilege) decisions. All the more so given how Durham excused his late bid to pierce privilege based off a late recognition they were going to immunize and call Seago.

In addition, over the course of months, and until recently, the Government has been receiving voluminous rolling productions of documents and privilege logs from numerous parties. The Government carefully analyzed such productions in order assess and re-assess the potential legal theories that might support the parties’ various privilege assertions. In connection with that process, the Special Counsel’s Office reached out to each of those parties’ counsel numerous times, directing their attention to specific documents where possible and communicating over email and phone in an effort to obtain non-privileged explanations for the relevant privilege determinations.2 The Government also supplied multiple counsel with relevant caselaw and pointed them to documents and information in the public domain that it believed bore on these issues. The Government was transparent at every step of these discussions in stating that it was contemplating seeking the Court’s intervention and guidance. Unfortunately, despite the Government’s best efforts and numerous phone calls, it was not able to obtain meaningful, substantive explanations to support these continuing broad assertions of privilege and/or work product protections.

It was only recently, when the Government determined it would need to call an employee of Fusion GPS as a trial witness (the “Fusion Witness”), that the Government concluded these issues could not be resolved without the Court’s attention. Because all or nearly all of the Fusion Witness’s expected testimony on these matters concern work carried out under an arrangement that the privilege holders now contend was established for the purpose of providing legal advice, it is essential to resolve the parties’ potential disputes about the appropriate bounds of such testimony (and the redaction or withholding of related documents).

As of yesterday, Sussmann had not received a 302 from Seago, so it’s not clear whether Durham has even interviewed her yet. But with one exception, Sussmann, Fusion lawyer Joshua Levy, and Joffe say she’ll be of limited value for Durham. Last week Sean Berkowitz said that Seago did not recall knowing Christopher Steele, much less being aware of the dossier project.

The only person from Fusion on their witness list is Laura Seago, who either I think has been immunized or will be immunized, and we understand that she would say she doesn’t recall that she even knows Mr. Steele or is able to talk about what he did. And so we don’t know that they actually are able to get anything in about what Mr. Steele did or didn’t do. Certainly there’s no evidence that Mr. Sussmann was aware of what Mr. Steele was doing. No evidence of that.

Levy noted that — as proven by the transcript of her Alfa Bank deposition, which the government has — Seago will testify she has no knowledge of either Sussmann’s meeting with the FBI or of the white paper Fusion did on Alfa Bank.

[I]n its brief, the government says that Ms. Seago has unique possession of knowledge as to what the government tries to characterize as the core issue in the case. But the government mischaracterizes that core issue. The government says that the core issue in this case is whether the defendant was representing any client in 2016 with regard to the Russian Bank 1 allegations.

That’s not the core issue in the case, respectfully. The core issue in the case is whether the defendant knowingly made a false and misleading statement to the government when he met with the government about whether he was there on behalf of a client or not that day. And as to that issue, Your Honor, Ms. Seago, the Fusion witness, has no knowledge. And the government knows this.

In parallel to the government’s investigation of this case, Russian Bank 1, Alfa-Bank, was pursuing its own discovery in a civil case. They subpoenaed and deposed Ms. Seago last year. There’s a transcript of that deposition. It’s in the public record. The government’s made clear to counsel that it has that deposition transcript, and we can furnish a copy of it to the Court.

And at the same time the government knows that Ms. Seago has no knowledge of the meeting between Mr. Sussmann and the FBI, and that’s at Pages 151 to 152 of that transcript.

THE COURT: All right. If you could file the — not file it, but provide it to the Court.

[snip]

And it’s very clear that she has no knowledge about the meeting, that she doesn’t recall any discussions about the meeting, that she didn’t work on this white paper that allegedly was provided to the government by Mr. Sussmann.

This is the memo that, again, the government has talked about today in its papers as to why it’s so important to pierce this privilege. Ms. Seago didn’t contribute to it, doesn’t know who did, doesn’t know who researched it, doesn’t know who wrote it, doesn’t know its purpose; and the government’s aware of all that.

As Sean Berkowitz followed up, Seago also does not recall knowing about the late July meeting involving Joffe, Sussmann, and Marc Elias.

And the question that was asked was: “So were you aware of this July 28th meeting between Sussmann and personnel of Fusion?

“ANSWER: Not that I recall.

“QUESTION: Were you aware of the meeting after it happened?

“ANSWER: Not that I recall.

Importantly, Durham knew (because he has been operating as a parasite on the lawfare project that Vladimir Putin probably ordered to make America less safe) that Seago would testify she didn’t know about the July meeting with Perkins Coie and Joffe or Sussmann’s meeting with James Baker or the Fusion-drafted white paper when Durham said she would be the pivotal witness to represent the relationship between Joffe and Fusion. This foreknowledge, which is incompatible with Durham’s claim that Seago’s testimony, “may be necessary to the public interest,” undermines both his relevance arguments and his excuse for the belated bid to pierce privilege.

As to Joffe, Tyrrell represented that at least some of the emails between him and Seago were the exchange of PGP keys.

MR. TYRRELL: Well, there are — Mr. Joffe is a cyber security expert, and he was trying to exchange something called PGP keys with Ms. Seago —

THE COURT: Okay.

MR. TYRRELL: — so that their communications would be secure and encrypted. So some of the attachments are actually just simply an exchange of PGP keys. But there is at least one or — there’s one or two attachments that’s not that, and I’m really not — I’d be happy to answer that in camera ex parte.

It’s the other communications that might be of value to Durham, but if they’re not privileged via Sussmann’s representation of Joffe, then his entire argument that Sussmann was representing a client may fall apart.

So Seago has, per those who know her involvement, little to offer in useful testimony (and Durham knew this). That’s a problem for Durham, because per Jonathan Algor, she was the way they planned to introduce the emails as evidence.

THE COURT: Okay. And obviously you haven’t seen these emails. You don’t know what they say. But you think there is a possibility, based on the descriptions in the privilege log, that they would be relevant and admissible through Ms. Seago for that purpose?

MR. ALGOR: Yes, Your Honor.

If Seago doesn’t know about the key issues necessary to validate the documents in question, then Durham may have a problem introducing them at trial at all.

As noted above, there are a number of possible ways Cooper resolves this, and it’s most likely he makes decisions that will displease both sides.

But given what he said yesterday, I think it quite likely Cooper will rule at least some of the Fusion emails are not privileged, even while making other rulings that will prevent them from coming into the trial as evidence.

If that happens, Durham may be able to use that ruling to get access (this time via proper methods) to that pool of 1,500 emails — many presumably of more interest to the Igor Danchenko case — that will let him spin his conspiracy theories for years to come. It might take losing the case against Sussmann, though, to continue his war of conspiracies.

“Not Us at All:” In His Bid to Pierce Privilege, John Durham Makes Strong Case for Immunizing Rodney Joffe

The folks in John Durham’s Office of Conspiracy-Mongering seem to be frazzled. What other explanation might they have for a positively hysterical entry in their bid to pierce Democrats’ privilege claims?

To be clear (because frothy lawyers are making false claims about what I think might happen), I think some of the privilege claims being made are suspect. Durham might succeed, in part, and a more professional effort to do so in a different case — say, Igor Danchenko’s — might get the results he wanted.

But last night’s filing, even ignoring that Durham released confidential emails while purportedly asking permission to release them under seal, was a clown show.

Start with what Durham doesn’t mention.

In Michael Sussmann’s opposition to Durham’s motion to compel, he raised four procedural problems with Durham’s effort.

First, the Special Counsel’s Motion is untimely. Despite knowing for months, and in some cases for at least a year, that the non-parties were withholding material as privileged, he chose to file this Motion barely a month before trial—long after the grand jury returned an Indictment and after Court-ordered discovery deadlines had come and gone.

Second, the Special Counsel’s Motion should have been brought before the Chief Judge of the District Court during the pendency of the grand jury investigation, as the rules of this District and precedent make clear.

Third, the Special Counsel has seemingly abused the grand jury in order to obtain the documents redacted for privilege that he now challenges. He has admitted to using grand jury subpoenas to obtain these documents for use at Mr. Sussmann’s trial, even though Mr. Sussmann had been indicted at the time he issued the grand jury subpoenas and even though the law flatly forbids prosecutors from using grand jury subpoenas to obtain trial discovery. The proper remedy for such abuse of the grand jury is suppression of the documents.

Fourth, the Special Counsel seeks documents that are irrelevant on their face. Such documents do not bear on the narrow charge in this case, and vitiating privilege for the purpose of admitting these irrelevant documents would materially impair Mr. Sussmann’s ability to prepare for his trial.

While Durham makes unconvincing attempts to address the first and fourth issue (to which I’ll return), he doesn’t meaningfully address the second and third. In this post, I opined that the third — his blatant abuse of grand jury rules — could be easily addressed (which he didn’t try to do), but given how obviously irrelevant and potentially inadmissible these documents are to the charge against Sussmann, I’m not so sure anymore.

But Durham only addresses Sussmann’s argument that he ignored local rules and deliberately bypassed Beryl Howell, who would have been the proper person to assess these privilege claims, by making unconvincing claims he made a good faith effort to do so directly.

There’s another thing he doesn’t mention, another point Sussmann raised. Some of the emails Durham is focused on make it explicit that there was a separation between Fusion’s research (including the Steele dossier) and the DNS research.

The Special Counsel makes much of the fact that (1) there was an August 11, 2016 email exchange between Mr. Sussmann, Mr. Elias, and Fusion employees with the subject “connecting you all by email” and (2) that thereafter, Fusion employees “began to exchange drafts of a document . . . the defendant would provide to the FBI General Counsel.” Motion ¶¶ 29, 30. But in seeking to draw inflammatory and unsupported inferences, the Special Counsel ignores another email—that he produced in discovery—in which a Fusion employee stated that the document was “an [A]lfa memo unrelated to all [the Alfa Bank DNS information].” See Email from P. Fritsch to M. Hosenball (Oct. 5, 2016), SC-00027475, at SC-00027476.

Indeed, Peter Fritsch told Mark Hosenball that “the DNS stuff” was “not us at all.”

Even though Sussmann pointed that out, Durham did not address the clear evidence in his possession that this was not a joint effort. Other of these communications, Peter Fritsch has testified under oath, he engaged in because he was independently alarmed about the Alfa Bank allegations. And some of them, Fusion has noted before, derived from Paul Singer’s involvement in the project and Singer didn’t invoke privilege.

Much of rest, though, is primarily focused on Carter Page and Sergei Millian (though in one place, Durham also downplays that Fusion was investigating Felix Sater, which is interesting given Durham’s efforts to pretend the notion Trump had multiple back channels with Russia is malicious and political). Indeed, included emails explain that what had been a potentially scandalous reference — the allegation that Millian had an email “with” Alfa Bank — actually came from public Internet research, not from the DNS analysis.

Given the focus on Millian, though, it is inexplicable why Durham is trying to pierce these privilege claims here rather than in the case where it might matter, Danchenko’s. Rather, I can think of some explanations, such as that someone in Millian’s organization viewed the obligation to register under FARA as a “problem” as early as 2013, but none of them are legally sound.

The far more interesting aspect of Durham’s filing comes in how he addresses two substantive issues. First, here’s how he addressed the timing of his belated decision to try to pierce privilege.

As an initial matter, the defendant and others accuse the Government of carrying out an untimely “full frontal assault” on the attorney client privilege by raising these issues more than a month before trial. (Def. Opp. at 1.) But those characterizations distort reality. Indeed, the opposite is true: the primary reason the Government waited until recently to bring these issues to the Court’s attention was because it wanted to carefully pursue and exhaust all collaborative avenues of resolving these matters short of litigation. The Government did so to avoid bringing a challenge to the parties’ privilege determinations and to ensure that it first gathered all relevant facts and provided the relevant privilege holders with notice and an opportunity to explain the bases for their privilege assertions. Even the emails between the Government and counsel that the defendant quotes in his opposition reflect this very purpose. See., e.g., Def. Opp. at 7 (quoting emails in which the Special Counsel’s Office stated that it “wanted to give all parties involved the opportunity to weigh in before we. . . seek relief from the Court” and requested a call “to avoid filing motions with the Court.”).

In addition, over the course of months, and until recently, the Government has been receiving voluminous rolling productions of documents and privilege logs from numerous parties. The Government carefully analyzed such productions in order assess and re-assess the potential legal theories that might support the parties’ various privilege assertions. In connection with that process, the Special Counsel’s Office reached out to each of those parties’ counsel numerous times, directing their attention to specific documents where possible and communicating over email and phone in an effort to obtain non-privileged explanations for the relevant privilege determinations.2 The Government also supplied multiple counsel with relevant caselaw and pointed them to documents and information in the public domain that it believed bore on these issues. The Government was transparent at every step of these discussions in stating that it was contemplating seeking the Court’s intervention and guidance. Unfortunately, despite the Government’s best efforts and numerous phone calls, it was not able to obtain meaningful, substantive explanations to support these continuing broad assertions of privilege and/or work product protections. [my emphasis]

This flips a point Sussmann made on its head — that Durham kept prodding Sussmann to waive privilege. “[T]he Special Counsel has been asking Mr. Sussmann whether there would be any waiver of privilege in this case because of his concern that a privilege waiver at this stage in the proceedings would fundamentally impact the course of trial.”

Durham provides no dates on his claimed efforts to resolve the privilege issues. But Sussmann has already revealed what some of those dates are. The two Durham cites were in August.

Email from Andrew DeFilippis, Dep’t of Just., to Patrick Stokes, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, et al. (Aug. 9, 2021) (requesting a call to discuss privilege issues with a hope “to avoid filing motions with the Court”); Email from Andrew DeFilippis, Dep’t of Just., to Patrick Stokes, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, et al. (Aug. 14, 2021) (stating that the Special Counsel “wanted to give all parties involved the opportunity to weigh in before we . . . pursue particular legal process, or seek relief from the Court”). And since January— before the deadline to produce unclassified discovery had passed—the Special Counsel suggested that such a filing was imminent, telling the DNC, for example, that he was “contemplating a public court filing in the near term.” Email from Andrew DeFilippis, Dep’t of Just., to Shawn Crowley, Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP (Jan. 17, 2022).

2 In response to these inquiries and discussions, Tech Executive-1’s counsel withdrew his client’s privilege assertions over a small number of documents, and Fusion GPS produced a redacted version of its retention agreement with Perkins Coie. [my emphasis]

August is when Durham should have been involving Chief Judge Howell. Instead, we’re in April, and Durham is only now involving Judge Christopher Cooper. Importantly, using the dates Sussmann decided to include but which Durham did not, Durham was talking about taking imminent action in January, over two months before he first raised piercing privilege. After that, Durham again nudged Sussmann to waive privilege on his own. And the only reason why Durham was still getting responses to subpoenas, to the extent he was, is because he subpoenaed some of this after indicting (again, which he doesn’t address).

Given Durham’s claims he was trying to use other methods to get this information, his explanation of why he “only recently” decided he needed to pierce privilege is utterly damning: He only recently decided he needed to immunize Laura Seago and call her as a witness, he says.

It was only recently, when the Government determined it would need to call an employee of Fusion GPS as a trial witness (the “Fusion Witness”), that the Government concluded these issues could not be resolved without the Court’s attention. Because all or nearly all of the Fusion Witness’s expected testimony on these matters concern work carried out under an arrangement that the privilege holders now contend was established for the purpose of providing legal advice, it is essential to resolve the parties’ potential disputes about the appropriate bounds of such testimony (and the redaction or withholding of related documents).

That’s utterly damning because one of the last two things Alfa Bank was pursuing in their John Doe lawsuits before they were sanctioned, on Thursday, February 10, was to revisit privilege claims made by Fusion in a September Seago deposition with Alfa Bank (Seago’s first interview, in March 2021, was abandoned quickly). The reason Alfa gave for needing to challenge privilege claims Seago made in a 4-hour September deposition at which she invoked privilege over 60 times was because, “people at Fusion are speaking with the likes of Rodney Joffe.” And before Associate Judge Heidi Pasachow could rule, Alfa Bank was sanctioned to prevent it from helping Russia to attack democracy.

As I’ve laid out, all of Durham’s missed deadlines came after he could no longer rely on Alfa Bank to do his dirty work. As did, by his own description, the belated decision that he needs to immunize Seago and get her to testify at trial.

And that’s important because in spite of the pages and pages of irrelevant emails, when Durham turns to make the case that he needs to pierce this privilege, he again turns to Seago, claiming that she has “unique” knowledge about the charges against Sussmann.

Where a party seeks to overcome work product protection, it must show either that “it has a substantial need for the materials to prepare its case and cannot, without undue hardship obtain their substantial equivalent by other means” for fact work product, or make an “extraordinary showing of necessity” to obtain opinion work product. Boehringer, 778 F.3d at 153 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quotations omitted).

Here, the vast majority of the relevant materials likely constitute fact work product, given that few of the communications involve an attorney. In addition, the Government has met both prongs of the relevant test. First, the Government has a “substantial need” for materials that it has requested the Court to review in camera. Those materials include, for example, communications between Tech Executive-1 and the Fusion Witness whom the Government will call at trial. The Fusion Witness is, to the Government’s knowledge, the only Fusion GPS employee who exchanged emails with Tech Executive-1 concerning the Russian Bank-1 allegations (or any other issue). The Fusion Witness also (i) acted as the firm’s primary “technical” expert; (ii) worked for an extended time period on issues relating to the Russian Bank-1 allegations; (iii) was a part of the team that handled work under Fusion’s contract with HFA and the DNC; and (iv) met in 2016 with various parties – including Law Firm-1, Tech Executive-1, and the media – about the Russian Bank-1 allegations. As such, the Fusion Witness undoubtedly possesses unique insight to the core issue to be decided by the jury—i.e., whether the defendant was acting on behalf of one or more clients when he worked on the Russian Bank-1 allegations. Accordingly, the Government has a “substantial need” to obtain the Fusion Witness’s communications relating to the Russian Bank-1 allegations. Moreover, the materials for which the Government has requested in camera review also include internal Fusion GPS communications regarding one of the three white papers that the defendant provided to the FBI, namely, the “[Russian Bank-1’s parent company] Overview” paper. Communications regarding the origins and background the very Fusion GPS paper that the defendant brought to the FBI are therefore likely to shed unique light on the defendant’s meeting with the FBI General Counsel, including the defendant’s work on behalf of his clients. Fusion GPS’s communications regarding that paper in the days prior to the defendant’s meeting with the FBI General Counsel are also likely to reveal information about the paper’s intended purpose and audience. Such facts will, again, shed critical light on the defendant’s conduct and meeting with the FBI.

Second, the Government cannot “without undue hardship obtain the[] substantial equivalent” of these materials “by other means.” Boehringer Ingelheim Pharms., Inc., 778 F.3d at 153. That is because these materials constitute mostly internal Fusion GPS communications and, accordingly, are not available from any other source. To the extent these communications reflect emails with Tech Executive-1, they are similarly unavailable because Tech Executive-1 has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Therefore, obtaining the materials or their substantial equivalent from another source would not merely present an “undue hardship,” but rather, is impossible. [my emphasis]

This is a fairly astonishing argument.

That’s because Seago’s knowledge of the communications she had with Joffe is not unique. Joffe also has knowledge of their communications. To get Seago’s testimony, Durham plans to immunize her.

Yet he says he can’t get the very same testimony from Joffe because Joffe would invoke the Fifth.

Durham has an obvious alternative, and it just so happens to be the alternative that Sussmann is also seeking: To immunize not Seago, but Joffe. That would be more beneficial for Durham, if he really wants that testimony, because Joffe can waive privilege over precisely these communications and enter them as evidence with no hearsay exception. Immunizing Joffe gives Durham everything he wants and his testimony would be unquestionably pertinent to the charge against Sussmann.

Just twelve days ago, John Durham argued that he’s not playing fast-and-loose with his immunity decisions and that Joffe would offer no testimony useful to Sussmann (though to do so, Durham misrepresented Sussmann’s statement about Joffe’s role in helping to kill the NYT story).

Indeed, to now arbitrarily force the Government to immunize Tech Executive-1 merely because the defense believes he would offer arguably helpful testimony to the defendant would run afoul of the law and inject the Court into matters plainly reserved to the Executive Branch.

[snip]

(The Government also currently intends to seek immunity at trial for an individual who was employed at the U.S. Investigative Firm. But unlike Tech Executive-1, that individual is considered a “witness” and not a “subject” of the Government’s investigation based on currently-known facts.)

Finally, the defendant fails to plausibly allege – nor could he – that the Government here has “deliberately denied immunity for the purpose of withholding exculpatory evidence and gaining a tactical advantage through such manipulation.” Ebbers, 458 F. 3d at 119 (internal citation and quotations omitted). The defendant’s motion proffers that Tech Executive-1 would offer exculpatory testimony regarding his attorney-client relationship with the defendant, including that Tech Executive-1 agreed that the defendant should convey the Russian Bank-1 allegations to help the government, not to “benefit” Tech Executive-1. But that testimony would – if true – arguably contradict and potentially incriminate the defendant based on his sworn testimony to Congress in December 2017, in which he expressly stated that he provided the allegations to the FBI on behalf of an un-named client (namely, Tech Executive-1). And in any event, even if the defendant and his client did not seek specifically to “benefit” Tech Executive-1 through his actions, that still would not render his statement to the FBI General Counsel true. Regardless of who benefited or might have benefited from the defendant’s meeting, the fact still remains that the defendant conducted that meeting on behalf of (i) Tech Executive-1 (who assembled the allegations and requested that the defendant disseminate them) and (ii) the Clinton Campaign (which the defendant billed for some or all of his work). The proffered testimony is therefore not exculpatory, and certainly not sufficiently exculpatory to render the Government’s decision not to seek immunity for Tech Executive-1 misconduct or an abuse.6

6 The defendant’s further proffer that Tech Executive-1 would testify that (i) the defendant contacted Tech Executive-1 about sharing the name of a newspaper with the FBI General Counsel, (ii) Tech Executive-1 and his associates believed in good faith the Russian Bank-1 allegations, and (iii) Tech Executive-1 was not acting at the direction of the Clinton Campaign, are far from exculpatory. Indeed, even assuming that all of those things were true, the defendant still would have materially misled the FBI in stating that he was not acting on behalf of any client when, in fact, he was acting at Tech Executive-1’s direction and billing the Clinton Campaign.

Now, he’s claiming that the only possible way he can get testimony pertaining to Seago’s communications with Joffe is to immunize Seago and breach both Joffe’s and the Democrats’ claims of privilege.

By far the easiest way of solving this issue — and the one that meets Sussmann’s due process rights — is instead to immunize Joffe.

It’s a great case Durham made that they should cede to Sussmann’s request and immunize Joffe!

We’ll see what Cooper thinks of these claims at the status hearing tomorrow (because the hearing is in person, it’s unclear whether I’ll be able to call in).

But what is clear is that Durham keeps presenting evidence that he’s looking in the wrong place for the evidence he says he needs.

John Durham Unveils His Post-Putin Puppet Strategy

I first complained publicly about the Alfa Bank allegations on November 1, 2016. I raised questions about the provenance of the Steele dossier the day after it was released, on January 11, 2017. I started raising concerns that Russia had succeeded in injecting the dossier with disinformation just a year later — literally years before the Republicans investigating it full-time did. When Democrats revealed that they had paid for the dossier in October 2017, I wrote a very long post labeling the entire project “fucking stupid.” Part of that was about the Democrats’ delayed admission they were behind the dossier. But part of that was because of the way the dossier distracted from Trump’s very real very concerning ties to Russia.

It has been clear for some time that Steele’s reports had some kind of feedback loop, responding to information the Democrats got. That was most obvious with respect to the September 14 Alfa Bank report, which was obviously written after first news of the Alfa Bank/Trump Tower story, which was pushed by Democratic partisans. Particularly given that we know the released report is a selective release of just some reports from the dossier, the inclusion of Alfa Bank in that release makes no sense. Even if reports about old corrupt ties between Alfa and Putin are true (as if Democratic politicians and corrupt American banks never have old ties), the inclusion of the Alfa report in the dossier on Trump made zero sense.

Which is why Alfa Bank decided — after consulting with big Republican lawyers like Viet Dinh and soon-to-be DOJ Criminal Division Chief Brian Benczkowski — to sue for defamation. Now I understand why (particularly given that Republicans seem to have known who paid for the dossier for some time). I’m not sure Alfa Bank executives pass the bar for defamation here (though the publication of a report that misspelled Alfa’s name is pretty damning), but the fact that Elias paid for this dossier on behalf of the Democrats is going to make that defamation case far more explosive (and I’ll be surprised if Elias doesn’t get added into the mix).

As I said when I began this: I have no doubt Russia tampered with the election, and if the full truth comes out I think it will be more damning than people now imagine.

But the Democrats have really really really fucked things up with their failures to maintain better ethical distance between the candidate and the dossier, and between the party and the FBI sharing. They’ve made things worse by waiting so long to reveal this, rather that pitching it as normal sleazy political oppo research a year ago.

The case of Russian preference for Trump is solid. The evidence his top aides were happy to serve as Russian agents is strong.

But rather than let FBI make the case for that, Democrats instead tried to make their own case, and they did in such a way as to make the very solid case against Trump dependent on their defense of the dosser, rather than on better backed claims released since then.

Boy it seems sadly familiar, Democrats committing own goals like this. And all that’s before where the lawfare on this dossier is going to go.

I may be the earliest and most prescient critic of all this, in either party. Sit down, Kash Patel! Sit down, Chuck Ross!

Sit down, John Durham!

And boy was I right, way back in October 2017, about where this was going to go.

But I have also shown that people close to Oleg Deripaska succeeded in exploiting this project as part of a vicious double game, victimizing both Hillary Clinton and Paul Manafort, making it more likely Manafort would cooperate in the Russian operation against Hillary, which he did. I have shown that the most obvious disinformation in the dossier, probably sourced to Dmitri Peskov — claiming that Michael Cohen had secret communications with the Kremlin on election interference — served to hide Michael Cohen’s very real secret communications with Peskov on a Trump Tower deal involving sanctioned banks and a former GRU official. I have more recently confirmed that someone who claimed to work for an FSB front was pushing the Alfa Bank allegations more aggressively than Michael Sussmann in October 2016; that same person was using Internet routing records to support a false story in May 2016, the same month the DNS anomalies started. I showed that large numbers of Republicans rationalize their attack on democracy on January 6 based on the dossier, even while they accept the dossier was Russian disinformation, thereby literally claiming that Russian disinformation convinced them to attack American democracy.

And Russia’s wild success at using this to sow division continues, even as Russia massacres children in an assault on Ukrainian democracy. Just Monday, after all, John Durham suggested that because private citizen April Lorenzen investigated the actions of the people married to Alfa Bank Oligarch children, she was part of a criminal conspiracy, even though it is a provable fact that the man married to the daughter of an Alfa Bank founder, Alex Van der Zwaan, was — in those very same weeks!!! — acting on orders from Russian spy Konstantin Kilimnik to cover up Manafort’s ties to the Oligarchs behind the 2016 election interference. Durham is so far down his conspiratorial rabbit hole, he doesn’t even realize he’s trying to criminalize being right about a real threat to democracy.

Which brings us to Durham’s motion to compel submitted last night, predictably asking Judge Christopher Cooper to review the privilege claims behind the Democrats and Fusion GPS’ privilege claims. I’m pretty sympathetic that some of the privilege claims the parties involved have made are bullshit, just as the claims Trump’s supporters have made to hide the events that led up to January 6 or any number of other things that go well beyond election-year rat-fucking are obviously bullshit. But it now seems clear that Durham is making the same error Alfa Bank did, not only assuming that everyone pushing the Alfa Bank allegations was being directed by the Democrats (when Lorenzen played a more important role), but also assuming people working for Hillary were behind all new push on the story; I’ve proven that was false.

Worse still, the specific form of Durham’s demand and its timing not only prove Durham’s bad faith, but strongly suggest that Durham viewed his own investigation to form part of a symbiotic whole with the Alfa Bank lawfare (the lawfare I rightly identified in 2017) still exploiting the dissension sowed by Russia in 2016. In the month of March, Durham did three things that were, as Sussmann’s lawyers described, “wildly untimely” for a trial scheduled to start in May. After getting an approved extension to their CIPA deadline, Durham filed a 404(b) notice on March 23; those notices were due on March 18. Durham told Sussmann of a new expert witness in the last days in March; that notice was also due by March 18. And then, on March 30, Durham told Sussmann he was going to attempt to pierce privilege claims that had been under discussion for a year.

All these belated steps look like a desperate, last minute attempt to change strategy. And it seems likely that the strategy change was necessitated, at least in part, by the stay and then dismissal of Alfa Bank’s lawfare, necessitated by the sanctions imposed by Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.

Consider the following timeline:

  • February 9: DC Superior Judge Shana Frost Matini observes that Durham case and Alfa Bank lawsuit appear reading from the same script and stays Alfa’s motions until after the Sussmann trial
  • February 11: In the wake of the expiration of the statute of limitation on a February 9, 2017 Sussmann meeting at the CIA, Durham files an inflammatory and belated conflict filing, raising new allegations and setting off death threats
  • Mid-February 2022: Alfa Bank continues its efforts to breach the privilege and Fifth Amendment claims of John Durham’s subjects
  • February 22: Russia invades Ukraine in an attempt to rid it of its democracy and sovereignty
  • February 24: A first set of sanctions on Alfa Bank
  • March 3: Durham asks for an extension on filing his CIPA filing from March 18 to March 25
  • March 4: Alfa dismisses John Doe lawsuits
  • March 18: Alfa dismisses Fusion GPS lawsuit
  • March 23: Durham files a Supplement to his 404(b) notice making wild new claims about the scope of the material pertinent to Sussmann’s alleged lie
  • March 25: Durham submits his CIPA notice, probably asking to use an intelligence product viewed as possible Russian disinformation in real time (and, given what we’ve learned about Roger Stone’s activities before that, likely designed as cover for him)
  • March 30: Durham informs Sussmann they want to call an FBI expert, in part to explain DNS data, but in part to attack the credibility of the data and also want to use a motion in limine to breach privilege claims made by the Democrats
  • March 31: Andrew DeFilippis tells attorney for Rodney Joffe that Joffe remains under investigation
  • April 4: Competing motions in limine present two different versions of the conspiracy that happened in 2016
  • April 6: Second set of sanctions on Alfa Bank; Durham moves to compel privilege review

Since Alfa’s lawsuit was stayed, Durham has taken at least four untimely steps, apparently in an effort to turn a single sketchy false statement charge into the conspiracy Durham has not yet been able to substantiate, the conspiracy without which his single false statement claim is far weaker.

With all that in mind, consider the basis on which Durham argues he should be able to breach privilege claims, no matter how flimsy.

Durham admits that he only asked for redacted copies of those documents Fusion and the Democrats have claimed privilege over on September 16, the day Durham indicted Sussmann.

On September 16, 2021, the Government issued grand jury subpoenas to Law Firm1 and the U.S. Investigative Firm, requiring them to produce – in redacted form – the documents previously listed on privilege logs prepared by counsel for those entities so that such documents would be available for admission into evidence at any trial in this matter. Those entities subsequently produced the requested documents with redactions.

In other words, Durham didn’t even begin the process of trying to pierce this privilege claim until over 850 days into his investigation, and days before the statutes of limitation started to expire. And in the ensuing six months, Durham has done nothing. So he’s making this request less than six weeks before the start of the trial (as I noted, litigating the much more specious John Eastman privilege claims has been pending since January 20), claiming the information is necessary for his case.

But some of the arguments Durham makes rely on the belated filings he has submitted in the last month. For example, he invokes Christopher Steele, whose first appearance in this case was in that untimely 404(b) notice.

Perhaps most notably, the U.S. Investigative Firm retained a United Kingdom-based investigator (“U.K. Person-1”) who compiled information and reports that became a widely-known “dossier” containing allegations of purported coordination between Trump and the Russian government.

Durham intertwines discussion of the Alfa Bank allegations with those of the dossier, even though — as Sussmann noted,

the Special Counsel has not identified, nor could he, any evidence showing that Mr. Sussmann … had any awareness Mr. Steele was separately providing information to the FBI.

That is, Steele’s activities might matter to the Sussmann case if this were a charged conspiracy, but not only didn’t Durham charge it, he only asserted the theory of conspiratorial relationship that involves Steele by relying on his delayed 404(b) notice.

Durham’s bid to pierce privilege claims with Rodney Joffe and Marc Elias similarly tie to events in which Sussmann was not involved. False statements cases are, as Sussmann noted the other day, about the state of mind of the defendant, not about events that took place weeks after his alleged lie.

But even if this were a conspiracy, Durham reserves for himself the right to determine what is necessary for a law firm to determine how to respond when a campaign opponent invites crimes from a hostile nation-state while making false claims about his ties to that state, and what is, instead, just political dirt.

To the extent these entities continue to assert privilege over the cited documents, they cannot plausibly rely on the “intermediary” exception. To be sure, the record available to the Government does not reflect that employees of the U.S. Investigative Firm were necessary in any way to facilitate Law Firm-1’s provision of legal advice to HFA and DNC, much less to Tech Executive-1. As noted above, many of the actions taken by the U.S. Investigative Firm pursuant to its retention agreement fell outside the purpose outlined in Law Firm-1’s engagement letter – that is, to provide expertise related to Law Firm-1’s legal advice to the DNC and Clinton Campaign regarding defamation and libel. When U.S. Investigative Firm employees communicated with Tech Executive-1, they were doing so in furtherance of collaborating and promoting the Russian Bank1 allegations, not facilitating legal advice from [Law Firm-1] to Tech Executive-1. Simply put, these were communications related to political opposition research and were not made “in confidence for the purpose of obtaining legal advice from the lawyer.” In re Lindsey, 158 F.3d at 1280. Any confidentiality that Tech Executive-1 might have otherwise maintained over these communications was waived when he and the defendant chose to disclose such information to a third party that did not have any formal or informal contract or retention agreement with Tech Executive-1 (i.e., the U.S. Investigative Firm).

These claims, absent evidence of the sort Robert Mueller showed Beryl Howell to breach Paul Manafort’s privilege claims, would be controversial even if they were timely (and if they were timely, they should have been presented to Howell before charging Sussmann instead of presenting them to Cooper six weeks before the trial date).

But they’re not timely, and they rely on other claims that are not timely. And all those untimely claims came in the wake of altered circumstances created by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

This series of late game curveballs would be abusive in any case, even if they were caused by long-planned deliberate malice or even incompetence. But the way they coincide with the collapse of the symbiotic lawfare project probably ordered — as was Petr Aven’s post-election outreach to Trump — by Putin really makes this look like a mere continuation of a six year plan to use Russia’s assault on democracy in 2016 to continue to sow discord in the US.


Claims made in untimely March 23 404(b) notice:

In a supplement to his Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) notice provided to the defense on March 23 (the “Supplemental Notice”), the Special Counsel argues that such data gathering “constitute[s] direct evidence of the charged offense” as “factual context for the defendant’s conduct” and “to prove the existence of the defendant’s attorney-client relationships with [Mr. Joffe] and the Clinton Campaign.” Suppl. Notice at 2.

[snip

In his Supplemental Notice, the Special Counsel suggests that data was gathered “in a manner that may be considered objectionable—whether through invasions of privacy, breaches of contract, or other [unspecified] unlawful or unethical means.” Suppl. Notice at 2. But the Supplemental Notice does not identify—nor could it—any evidence that Mr. Sussmann had any awareness of or involvement in the alleged “objectionable” conduct of others related to gathering data, to the extent there even was any such “objectionable” conduct.

[snip]

The Special Counsel has also provided notice of his intention to adduce evidence regarding the accuracy of both “the purported data and [the] allegations” that Mr. Sussmann provided to the FBI and Agency 2. See Suppl. Notice at 2 (emphasis added).

[snip]

Elsewhere, the Special Counsel has suggested that data provided to Agency-2 was “misstated, overstated, and/or cherry-picked facts,” Suppl. Notice at 2,

[snip]

The Special Counsel has asserted he will offer evidence regarding the “origin” of the technical data gathered by Mr. Joffe and Others as “direct evidence” of “factual context for the defendant’s conduct” and “the existence of the defendant’s attorney-client relationships with [Mr. Joffe] and the Clinton Campaign” as to both the data provided to the FBI in September 2016 and the data provided to Agency-2 in 2017.1 Suppl. Notice at 2.

[snip]

The Special Counsel has also indicated an intention to offer evidence that (1) the data Mr. Sussmann provided was inaccurate; and (2) the analysis and conclusions drawn from that data were inaccurate. Suppl. Notice at 2 (seeking to introduce evidence regarding the “strength and reliability” of the data and allegations provided to the FBI and Agency-2, including that the white papers “may have misstated, overstated, and/or cherry-picked facts” or that certain FBI or Agency2 personnel determined that “data was potentially incomplete, fabricated, and/or exaggerated”).

[snip]

Second, the Special Counsel has utterly failed to provide an explanation for how such evidence is admissible against Mr. Sussmann. Instead, the Special Counsel simply asserts that evidence regarding the strength and reliability of the information provided to the FBI and Agency 2 is “direct evidence” of the false statements charge against Mr. Sussmann. Suppl. Notice at 2.

 

The Error that Betrays Insufficient Attention to the Obstruction Standard in the January 6 Eastman Filing

There’s a telling error in the January 6 Committee’s filing aiming to overcome John Eastman’s claims his emails are covered by Attorney-Client privilege. In the section asserting that Trump had probably violated 118 USC 1512(c)(2) — the same obstruction statute used to charge over 200 of the other January 6 defendants — the filing asserts that six judges “to date” have “refused to dismiss charges against defendants under the section.”

That number is incorrect. As of March 2, at least ten judges had upheld DOJ’s application of 18 USC 1512(c)(2), and a few more have as much as said they would.

  1. Dabney Friedrich, December 10, 2021, Sandlin*
  2. Amit Mehta, December 20, 2021, Caldwell*
  3. James Boasberg, December 21, 2021, Mostofsky
  4. Tim Kelly, December 28, 2021, Nordean*
  5. Randolph Moss, December 28, 2021, Montgomery
  6. Beryl Howell, January 21, 2022, DeCarlo
  7. John Bates, February 1, 2022, McHugh
  8. Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, February 9, 2022, Grider
  9. Richard Leon (by minute order), February 24, 2022, Costianes
  10. Christopher Cooper, February 25, 2022, Robertson

When I first made this observation, I thought I was being a bit churlish in making it. But on reflection (and after reading the quotes from lawyers in this Charlie Savage article), I think it’s an important point. All the more so given how TV lawyers have claimed that, because the January 6 Committee has claimed Trump could be charged with obstruction, then damnit DOJ should already have done so.

The fact that the Jan 6 Committee isn’t even aware of all the obstruction rulings suggests they’ve been insufficiently attentive to what the rulings actually say, aside from the baseline holding of all of them that the vote certification was an official proceeding.

While ten judges have upheld the application, there are some differences between these opinions, particularly with regards to their formulation of the corrupt mens rea required by the statute. The most important differences from my review (but I’m not a constitutional lawyer and so I should not be the one doing this analysis!!!!!), are:

  • Whether “corrupt” intent requires otherwise illegal action
  • Whether such corruption would be transitive (an attempt to get someone else to act improperly) or intransitive (whether it would require only corruption of oneself)

Dabney Friedrich argued (and I laid out briefly here) — and has repeatedly warned in pretrial hearings for Guy Reffitt — that as she understand this application it must involve otherwise illegal actions. Amit Mehta ruled (as I wrote up here) that, at least for the Oath Keepers, this corruption may be just intransitive.

On both these issues, the Jan 6 Committee’s argument is a bit muddled. Here’s how they argue that Trump’s actions (and, less aggressively, Eastman’s) demonstrate that corrupt intent.

The Electoral Count Act of 1887 provides for objections by House and Senate members, and a process to resolve such objections through votes in each separate chamber. 3 U.S.C. §§ 5, 6, 15. Nothing in the Twelfth Amendment or the Electoral Count Act provides a basis for the presiding officer of the Senate to unilaterally refuse to count electoral votes — for any reason. Any such effort by the presiding officer would violate hte law. This is exactly what the Vice President’s counsel explained at length to Plaintiff and President Trump before January 6. Plaintiff acknowledge that the Supreme Court would reject such an effort 9-0. And the Vice President made this crystal clear in writing on January 6: [1] any attempt by the Vice President to take the course of action the President insisted he take would have been illegal

Nevertheless, pursuant to the Plaintiff’s plan, the President repeatedly asked the Vice President to exercise unilateral authority illegally, as presiding officer of the Joint Session of Congress, to refuse to count electoral votes. See supra at 11-13. In service of this effort, he and Plaintiff met with the Vice President and his staff several times to advocate that he universally reject and refuse to count or prevent the counting of certified electoral votes, and both also engaged in a public campaign to pressure the Vice President. See supra at 3-17.

The President and Plaintiff also took steps to alter the certification of electors from various states.

[snip]

The evidence supports an inference that President Trump and members of his campaign knew he had not won enough legitimate state electoral votes to be declared the winner of the 2020 Presidential election during the January 6 Joint Session of Congress, but [2] the President nevertheless sought to use the Vice President to manipulate the results in his favor.

[snip]

[T]he President and the Plaintiff engaged in an extensive public and private campaign to convince the Vice President to reject certain Biden electors or delay the proceedings, without basis, so that the President and his associates would have additional time to manipulate the results. [3] Had this effort succeeded, the electoral count would have been obstructed, impeded, influenced, and (at the very least) delayed, all without any genuine legal justification and based on the false pretense that the election had been stolen. There is no genuine question that the President and Plaintiff attempted to accomplish this specific illegal result. [numbering and bold mine]

As I said, I think this is a bit of a muddle. For starters, the Jan 6 Committee is not arguing that the delay actually caused by Trump’s mob amounted to obstruction. Rather, they’re arguing (at [3]) that had Eastman’s efforts to get Pence to himself impose a delay would be obstruction.

They make that argument even though they have evidence to more closely align their argument to the fact pattern ten judges have already approved. The emails included with this filing show Pence Counsel Greg Jacob twice accusing Eastman of convincing Trump of a theory that Trump then shared with his followers, which in turn caused the riot.

[T]hanks to your bullshit, we are now under siege.

[snip]

[I]t was gravely, gravely irresponsible of you to entice the President of with an academic theory that had no legal viability, and that you well know we would lose before any judge who heard and decided the case. And if the courts declined to hear it, I suppose it could only be decided in the streets. The knowing amplification of that theory through numerous surrogates, whipping large numbers of people into a frenzy over something with no chance of ever attaining legal force through actual process of law, has led us to where we are.

That is, Jacob argued, in real time, that Eastman’s knowingly impossible theory, amplified by the President, caused the riot that ended up putting Pence’s life at risk and delaying the vote certification. But the Jan 6 Committee argues instead that the attempted persuasion of Pence the was the obstructive act.

Perhaps as a result, the agency (transitive versus intransitive) involved in this obstructive act is likewise muddled. In one place (at [1]), the Jan 6 Committee argues that the obstructive act was a failed attempt to persuade Pence to take an illegal action. I’m not sure any of the failed attempts to persuade people to do something illegal (to persuade Pence to do something he couldn’t do, to persuade members of Congress to challenge the vote with either good faith or cynical challenges, to persuade Jeffrey Clark to serve as Acting Attorney General) would sustain legal challenges.

If the Commander in Chief ordered his Vice President to take an illegal act, that would be a bit different, but that’s not what the Jan 6 Committee argues happened here.

Elsewhere, this filing (and other attempts to apply obstruction to Trump) point to Trump’s awareness (at [2]) that he lost the election, and so his attempts to win anyway exhibit an intransitive corrupt intent.

As Charlie Savage noted in his story and a thread on same, to some degree the Jan 6 Committee doesn’t need to do any better. They’re not indicting Trump, they’re just trying to get emails they will likely get via other means anyway (and as such, the inclusion of this argument is significantly PR).

But to the extent that this filing — and not, say, the opinion issued by Judge Mehta after he had approved obstruction, in which he both ruled it was plausible that Trump had conspired with two militias and, more importantly (and to me, at least, shockingly), said it was also plausible that Trump may be liable under an aid and abet standard — is being used as the model for applying obstruction to Trump, it is encouraging a lot of unicorn thinking and, more importantly, a lot of really sloppy thinking. There are so many ways to charge Trump with obstruction that don’t require an inquiry into his beliefs about losing the election, and those are the ones DOJ has laid a groundwork for.

Plus, there are a few more realities that TV lawyers who want to talk about obstruction should consider.

First, it is virtually guaranteed that Friedrich’s opinion — the one that holds that “corrupt” must involve otherwise illegal actions — will be the first one appealed. That’s because whatever happens with the Guy Reffitt trial this week and next, it’s likely it will be appealed. And Reffitt has been building in an appeal of Friedrich’s obstruction decision from the start. First trial, first appeal. So TV lawyers need to study up what she has said about otherwise illegal action and lay out some rebuttals if their theory of Trump’s liability involves mere persuasion.

Second, while ultimately all 22 judges are likely to weigh in on this obstruction application (and there are only two or three judges remaining who might conceivably rule differently than their colleagues), there are just a handful of judges who might face this obstruction application with Trump or a close associate like Roger Stone or Rudy Giuliani. Judge Mehta (by dint of presiding over the Oath Keeper cases) or Judge Kelly (by dint of ruling over the most important Proud Boy cases) might see charges against Roger Stone, Rudy Giuliani, or Alex Jones. Chief Judge Howell might take a higher profile case herself. Or she might give it to either Mehta (who is already presiding over closely related cases, including the January 6 lawsuits of Trump) or one of the two judges who has dealt with issues of Presidential accountability, either former OLC head Moss or Carl Nichols. Notably, Judge Nichols, who might also get related cases based on presiding over the Steve Bannon case, has not yet (as far as I’m aware) issued a ruling upholding 1512(c)(2); I imagine he would uphold it, but don’t know how his opinion might differ from his colleagues.

The application of 18 USC 1512(c)(2) to January 6 is not, as the TV lawyers only now discovering it, an abstract concept. It is something that has been heavily litigated already. There are eight substantive opinions out there, with some nuances between them. The universe of judges who might preside over a Trump case is likewise finite and with the notable exception of Judge Nichols, the two groups largely overlap.

So if TV lawyers with time on their hands want to understand how obstruction would apply to Trump, it’d do well — and it is long overdue — to look at what the judges have actually said and how those opinions differ from the theory of liability being thrown around on TV.

I’m convinced not just that Trump could be prosecuted for obstruction, but that DOJ has been working towards that for some time. But I’m not convinced the current January 6 Committee theory would survive.

The Half of Trump’s Conspiracy to Obstruct JustSecurity Left Out: Inciting an Insurrection

Two days after Judge Amit Mehta ruled that it was plausible that Trump conspired with the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, JustSecurity has posted an imagined prosecutor’s memo laying out the case that Trump, John Eastman, and Rudy Giuliani (and others known and unknown) conspired to obstruct the vote count that almost entirely leaves out the militias.

It has gotten a lot of attention among the TV lawyer set, who imagine that it would save Merrick Garland time.

With this obnoxious tweet, Laurence Tribe betrays (yet again) that he has completely missed what DOJ has been doing for the past year. What Barb McQuade did is lay out the theory of prosecution that DOJ has long been working on — as I laid out in August. Except that McQuade (of whom I’m a great fan both personally and professionally) misses great swaths of public evidence, and in so doing, makes her case far weaker than it would need to be to prosecute a former President.

Start with McQuade’s argument substantiating that Trump corruptly tried to obstruct the vote count.

Here, attempting to prevent the certification of the votes for president is illegal only it is wrongful or for an improper purpose. It would be wrongful or improper for Trump to seek to retain the presidency if he knew that he had been defeated in the November election. His public statements suggest that he genuinely believed that he had won the election, but, as discussed above, by Jan. 6, it was apparent that there was a complete absence of any evidence whatsoever to support his belief, which at this point had become merely a wish. The statements from Krebs, Barr, Rosen, Donoghue, Ratcliffe, and Raffensperger, and the memo from his own campaign team all permit a fair inference that Trump knew that there was no election fraud, and that his efforts to obstruct the certification was therefore corrupt.

Independently, regardless of his knowledge or belief in election fraud, it was an improper purpose to hold into power after the 50 states had certified their election results, the Electoral College had voted, and litigation had been exhausted after an across-the-board rejection by the federal courts.

This is the theory of prosecution where an obstruction case against Trump would succeed or fail. And I’m not sure it meets the understanding of obstruction already laid out by the judges who would preside over the case.

Defendants have been challenging DOJ’s application of 18 USC 1512(c)(2) to the vote certification since at least April, and so there’s a great deal of background and seven written, one oral, and one minute opinions on the topic:

  1. Dabney Friedrich (my post on it and the obstruction application generally)
  2. Amit Mehta (my post on his intransitive application of it to the Oath Keepers)
  3. Tim Kelly (my post on its application to the Proud Boys)
  4. Randolph Moss (my post situating his application with his past OLC opinion on charging a President)
  5. John Bates
  6. James Boasberg
  7. My livetweet of Beryl Howell’s oral opinion
  8. Colleen Kollar-Kotelly
  9. Richard Leon by minute order
  10. Christopher Cooper

One of the central issues addressed in these — and something any prosecution of Trump under 18 USC 1512(c)(2) would need to address — is how you establish that the effort to obstruct the vote count is “corrupt.” While thus far all judges have upheld the application, there’s some differentiation in their understanding of corruption (something that a site like JustSecurity might productively lay out).

Two key issues are whether corruption, under 18 USC 1512(c)(2) must be transitive (meaning someone tried to coerce another to do something improper) or intransitive (meaning someone exhibited corruption with their own actions), and the extent to which corruption is proven by doing acts that are otherwise illegal.

Importantly, Judge Friedrich’s opinion, and so the first jury instructions, only extends to illegal actions. In a recent hearing, she warned the Guy Reffitt prosecutors (both of whom also happen to be prosecuting cases charged as a conspiracy) that they will not prove him guilty of obstruction without first proving him guilty of other crimes at the riot.

Trump acted both transitively and intransitively corruptly

McQuade’s formulation is unnecessarily weak on the transitive/intransitive issue. There are at least two things that are missing.

First, citing some tax precedents, defendants wanted the application of obstruction to apply only to those who were obtaining an unfair personal advantage. That’s not the standard adopted in the opinions thus far, but it is a standard that some Justices one day might try to uphold. And while that standard was doable for the charged rioters (because they were attempting to make their own votes count more than the votes of the 81 million people who voted for Biden), it is a slam dunk for Trump. It’s not just that Trump was trying to win an election he knew he lost, he was trying to retain the power of the Presidency for himself. My complaint here, though, is mostly stylistic. McQuade could rewrite this paragraph easily to take advantage of the fact that, for Trump, obstruction of the vote count really was an attempt to gain personal advantage.

It’s in leaving out Trump’s transitive obstruction — even in a piece that focuses closely on the pressure of Pence — where McQuade’s memo could and I think might need to, to pass muster given the existing opinions on it — be vastly improved. That’s because it’s in Trump’s corruption of others where he clearly conspired in illegal acts.

Trump didn’t just do things an ethical President shouldn’t do (intransitive corruption). He carried out an extended campaign to pressure Pence to do something that violated Pence’s Constitutional obligations. That is, he tried to corrupt Pence (transitive corruption).

Trump transitively corrupted by conspiring with people who committed crimes

And it’s in the means by which Trump’s tried to corrupt Pence on the day of the insurrection that McQuade largely leaves out, and in the process forgoes an easy way to meet Friedrich’s current requirement (that those charged with obstruction commit a crime in attempting to obstruct the vote count).

Bizarrely, McQuade’s overt acts on January 6 are focused largely on John Eastman.

T. Trump Speaks at the Ellipse

On Jan. 6, 2021, Trump addressed a crowd of his supporters at approximately 1 p.m. on the Ellipse outside the White House.[129] During his remarks, Trump said, “If Mike Pence does the right thing we win the election.”[130] He explained, “All Vice President Pence has to do is send it back to the states to recertify and we become president and you are the happiest people.”[131] Trump then spoke directly to Pence: “Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country. And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you. I will tell you right now. I’m not hearing good stories.’”[132]

Giuliani, a former United States Attorney, also spoke at the rally. He declared that it would be “perfectly appropriate” for the Vice President to “cast [] aside” the laws governing the counting of electoral votes, and “decide on the validity of these crooked ballots or he can send it back to the state legislators, give them five to ten days to finally finish the work.”[133]

Another speaker at the rally was Eastman. “All we are demanding of Vice President Pence is this afternoon at one o’clock he let the legislatures of the states look into this so that we get to the bottom of it and the American people know whether we have control of the direction of our government or not!” Eastman told the crowd. [134] “We no longer live in a self-governing republic if we can’t get the answer to this question!”[135]

According to reports, Trump was directly involved in planning the speaker lineup.[136]

U. Pence Issues Public Letter Rejecting Eastman’s Theory

On Jan. 6, at 1:02 p.m., Pence posted to Twitter a letter stating that as Vice President, he lacked “unilateral authority to decide which electoral votes should be counted during the Joint Session of Congress.”[137] His duties, the letter stated, were “merely ministerial,” and were limited to counting the votes. The letter further stated that he would instead follow the Electoral Count Act, permitting members of Congress, as “the people’s representatives,” to resolve any disputes.[138] The letter had been drafted with the help of two conservative legal experts — former federal Judge J. Michael Luttig and former Justice Department official John Yoo.[139] Both have confirmed that they advised Pence’s staff and outside counsel that there was no basis for the vice president to intervene in the counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6. “I advised that there was no factual basis for Mike Pence to intervene and overturn the results of the election,” said Yoo, who now teaches law at the University of California at Berkeley. “There are certain limited situations where I thought the Vice President does have a role, for example in the event that a state sends two different electoral results. . . . But none of those were present here.”[140]

Luttig wrote subsequently that “Professor Eastman was incorrect at every turn of the analysis,” including his suggestion that the vice president could delay the electoral vote count.[141]

V. U.S. Capitol Attack Begins

At about 2 p.m., protestors broke a window at the U.S. Capitol and climbed inside.[142] The Senate and House of Representatives soon went into recess and members evacuated the two chambers.[143] At 2:24 p.m., Trump tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”[144] The Capitol would not be secured again until about 6 p.m.[145]

Her discussion here doesn’t explicitly mention a single one of the 750 people already being prosecuted for crimes for their actions on January 6. She mentions neither Alex Jones (whom Trump ordered to take the mob on an unpermitted march to the Capitol and two of whose employees are already among those 750 being prosecuted) nor Roger Stone (who has ties to the two militias that orchestrated events that day and who has been a subject in the Oath Keeper investigation from its early days).

It’s not just or even primarily that Trump grasped John Eastman’s crackpot theory and used it to pressure Pence (which is not  itself a crime). It’s that he incited thousands of people to take an unpermitted walk to the Capitol to physically threaten Pence and other members of Congress directly.

As I laid out last month, DOJ has already collected a great deal of evidence that those who did break the law at the Capitol did so in response to Trump’s incitement with the motive of pressuring Pence.

Trump led his mob to believe only Pence could help them, and if Pence did, Trump falsely led many of them to believe, it would amount to following the Constitution (precisely the opposite of what his White House Counsel appears to have had told him).

Pennsylvania has now seen all of this. They didn’t know because it was so quick. They had a vote. They voted. But now they see all this stuff, it’s all come to light. Doesn’t happen that fast. And they want to recertify their votes. They want to recertify. But the only way that can happen is if Mike Pence agrees to send it back. Mike Pence has to agree to send it back.

And many people in Congress want it sent back.

And think of what you’re doing. Let’s say you don’t do it. Somebody says, “Well, we have to obey the Constitution.” And you are, because you’re protecting our country and you’re protecting the Constitution. So you are.

That’s what Trump left his mob with as he falsely promised he would walk to the Capitol with them.

So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Already, at that moment, the Proud Boys had kicked off the attack. Moments later, Pence released his letter stating he would certify the vote. “Four years ago, surrounded by my family, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which ended with the words, ‘So help me God.’”

And Trump’s Tweets and speech had the direct and desired effect. When Trump called out, “I hope Pence is going to do the right thing,” Gina Bisignano responded, “I hope so. He’s a deep state.” When she set off to the Capitol, Bisignano explained, “we are marching to the Capitol to put some pressure on Mike Pence.” After declaring, “I’m going to break into Congress,” Bisignano rallied some of the mobsters by talking about “what Pence has done.” She cheered through a blowhorn as mobsters made a renewed assault on the Capitol. “Break the window! she cheered, as she ultimately helped another break a window, an act amounting to a team act of terrorism.

Josiah Colt and his co-conspirators learned that Pence would not prevent the vote certification as Trump demanded. In response, they aimed to “breach the building.” Colt set out to where Pence was presiding. “We’re making it to the main room. The Senate room.” Where they’re meeting.” His co-conspirators Ronnie Sandlin and Nate DeGrave are accused of assaulting a cop to get into the Senate.

Jacob Chansley mounted the dais where Pence should have been overseeing the vote count and declared, “Mike Pence is a fucking traitor,” and left him a note, “It’s Only A Matter of Time. Justice Is Coming!”

Matthew Greene never went to listen to Trump speak. Instead, he was following orders from top Proud Boys, a bit player in an orchestrated attack to surround and breach the Capitol. His goal in doing so was to pressure Pence.

Greene’s intent in conspiring with others to unlawfully enter the restricted area of the Capitol grounds was to send a message to legislators and Vice President KePence. Greene knew he lawmakers and the Vice President were inside the Capitol building conducting the certification of the Electoral College Vote at the time the riot occurred. Green hoped 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 Vote than they would have otherwise. Greene believed that by unlawfully entering the Capitol grounds, he and other rioters outside the building would send a stronger message to lawmakers and the Vice President inside the building, than if Green and others had stayed outside the restricted area.

There is a direct line of corrupt intent from the moment where Trump asked Pence, “If these people say you had the power, wouldn’t you want to [exercise it]?” and efforts that his mobsters — both those who planned this in advance and those who reacted to Trump’s incitement — made at the Capitol. Some of the most central players in the attack on the Capitol have testified under oath that they understood their goal to be pressuring Mike Pence. In pursuit of that, they broke into the Capitol, they assaulted cops, they occupied the Mike Pence’s seat.

I would add (because Amit Mehta did in his oral ruling that Stewart Rhodes should be detained pre-trial), in addition to the explicit attempt by Kelly Meggs to hunt down Nancy Pelosi, the other group of Oath Keepers appears to have tried to find those in the Senate, presumably including Mike Pence. If prosecutors can prove that, then, the militia that was checking in with Stone the day of the riot took overt steps to physically threaten Mike Pence.

Importantly, with the exception of QAnoner Chansley, all of the January 6 defendants I’ve laid out here were part of a conspiracy (Colt and Bisignano, because they flipped on co-conspirators, are not charged with one). All of these Jan6ers are accused of conspiring with others to carry out Trump’s will to transitively corrupt Pence by physically pressuring him to violate his Constitutional duty.

And Judge Mehta has now ruled it plausible (though he was careful to note he was addressing the lower standard of a civil suit) that Trump’s incitement amounts to entering into a conspiracy with all of these people who acted on his incitement to pressure and in some cases physically hunt down Pence.

McQuade’s theory of corruption may not meet Judge Friedrich’s standard for corruption (which we should assume as a baseline of one that Brett Kavanaugh might find palatable).

Which is why you cannot ignore the other half of the conspiracy: Trump entering into an agreement with Roger Stone to coordinate with the militias, entering into an agreement with Alex Jones to lead the mob to the Capitol, and Trump entering into an agreement with those he incited to directly pressure Pence to violate his Constitutional duty.

750 people have been charged with committing crimes at the Capitol. And the easy way to demonstrate that Trump employed illegal means in his effort to obstruct the vote certification is to point to the mountains of evidence that he conspired both via his close associates Stone and Jones but more directly via incitement with a vast number of those 750 people who allegedly broke the law.

Update: One thing McQuade does focus on (she’s a Michigander who does a lot of work on voter protection) are the fake electors. That’s another illegal act that probably should be brought in any statement of corrupt intent for the same reason Trump’s ties to the rioters should be.

Update, 2/25: Added link to Kollar-Kotelly’s opinion and noted that Leon and Cooper have now ruled.

How Judge Amit Mehta Argued It Plausible that Trump Conspired with Two Militias

As I noted and you’ve no doubt heard elsewhere, on Friday, Judge Amit Mehta rejected Trump’s motion to dismiss three lawsuits against him, along with those of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. This is just the first step in an effort by police and some members of Congress to hold the former President civilly accountable for conspiring to prevent them from certifying the electoral vote on January 6. All he did was rule that the claims, as alleged, were plausible; this is not a ruling that Trump did conspire with two militias.

Judge Mehta’s decision will undoubtedly be appealed, by plaintiffs, the militias, and Trump.

But the decision matters because it lays out a framework to understand Trump’s actions on January 6 as a conspiracy between himself and two militias that played key roles in the insurrection on January 6.

It matters, too, because Mehta is not just any judge. He is well-respected by all involved (indeed, some Oath Keeper defendants have explicitly suggested that retaining Mehta as the presiding judge might worth more than challenging venue). Mehta’s order will carry a good deal of weight with any of his colleagues who might preside over a Trump criminal case, and with the DC Circuit. Plus, as the judge presiding over the Oath Keeper conspiracy and a number of other high profile January 6 cases, he has a far greater understanding of how the day’s events unfolded than, say, Chief Judge Beryl Howell, who is presiding over a disproportionate number of trespassing cases. As I’ll show in a follow-up, his opinion reflects a far greater understanding of January 6 (including, possibly, non-public information) than most others have.

So while this decision is nowhere near the last word on whether Trump conspired with two militias to attack the Capitol, it is a really important first word.

It is plausible that Donald Trump entered into a conspiracy with two militias

As Judge Mehta laid out, accepting the claims alleged as true (which one must do on motions to dismiss), there were five things Trump did that made the plaintiffs’ claims of a conspiracy plausible, which is the standard required to reject the motion to dismiss:

  • They agreed to pursue the goal of disrupting the vote certification: “The President, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and others “pursu[ed] the same goal”: to disrupt Congress from completing the Electoral College certification on January 6th.”
  • Trump encouraged means of obstructing the vote count and the militias (and others) carried them out: “He knew the respective roles of the conspirators: his was to encourage the use of force, intimidation, or threats to thwart the Certification from proceeding, and organized groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers would carry out the required acts.”
  • Trump incited law-breaking: “Based on these allegations, it is reasonable to infer that before January 6th the President would have known about the power of his words and that, when asked, some of his supporters would do as he wished. On January 6th they did so. When he called on them to march to the Capitol, some responded, “Storm the Capitol.” Thousands marched down Pennsylvania Avenue as directed. And, when some were inside the Capitol, they told officers, “We were invited here by the President of the United States.”
  • Trump called for collective action: “Fourth, the President’s January 6 Rally Speech can reasonably be viewed as a call for collective action. The President’s regular use of the word “we” is notable.”
  • Trump ratified the riot: “And then, around 6:00 p.m., after law enforcement had cleared the building, the President issued the following tweet: ‘These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!’ A reasonable observer could read that tweet as ratifying the violence and other illegal acts that took place at the Capitol only hours earlier.”

Laying out the conspiracy like this is the easy part.

The hard part is finding that the sitting President could be sued, and could be sued substantially for his speech.

The President has no role in certifying the vote count

Mehta got there in three key moves.

The first was dismissing Trump’s claim that his actions amounted to fulfilling his duty to Take Care that election laws were faithfully executed.

President Trump argues that these acts fall into two presidential “functions”: (1) the constitutional duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” U.S. Const., art. II, § 3,

[snip]

President Trump says that he “had an ever-present duty to ensure that the election laws were followed, including the certification process.” Thompson Trump Reply at 3. Quoting from a law review student note, he says that enforcing election laws is “at the core of the executive branch’s duty to faithfully execute the law.” Id.

As Mehta notes, Trump’s law review student note sees the President’s role in enforcing election law to be litigation, not intervening to prevent the actual vote certification.

What President Trump omits from that quote, however, makes his citation grossly misleading. The full quote reads: “However, enforcing election laws through litigation [strikes] at the core of the executive branch’s duty to faithfully execute the law. It must therefore belong solely to the executive.” Lightsey, supra, at 573 (emphasis added). Including “through litigation” completely changes the meaning of the sentence. The President can enforce election laws through litigation initiated by the Department of Justice or the Federal Election Commission, agencies over which he has appointment authority. The case the Lightsey note cites, Buckley v. Valeo, makes that clear: “A lawsuit is the ultimate remedy for a breach of the law, and it is to the President, and not to the Congress, that the Constitution entrusts the responsibility to ‘take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.’” 424 U.S. 1, 138 (1976). This case, of course, does not involve litigation to enforce federal election laws, and so the President’s reliance on the Lightsey note is inapt.

This comment has further implications, both because Trump’s campaign personally tried to sue to overturn the election results, but failed in spectacular fashion, and because Trump’s efforts to force DOJ to launch such suits failed. Mehta mentions neither of these details, but they do matter in understanding Trump’s actions.

Outside of such litigation, Mehta notes, the Constitution assigns the President no role in certifying the vote count.

[A] sitting President has no expressly identified duty to faithfully execute the laws surrounding the Certification of the Electoral College. So, perhaps it is not surprising that President Trump does not identify any law relating to the Certification that he was purportedly executing through his tweets and the January 6 Rally Speech.

The other legal duties involved in certifying election results are explicitly assigned to other parties, including a co-equal branch of government.

President Trump cites no constitutional provision or federal statute that grants or vests in the President (or the Executive Branch) any power or duty with respect to the Certification of the Electoral College vote, at least in the manner in which he conceives it. That is because there is none. The Constitution spells out the respective responsibilities of various actors in the election of the President.11 The Constitution provides that States are to select Electors who will cast votes for President and Vice President, and the Electors transmit a tally of those votes to the President of the Senate. U.S. Const. art. II, § 1, cl. 3; id. amend. XII. The President of the Senate “in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives” shall “open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted.” Id. amend. XII. A sitting President is prescribed no role.

The Electoral Count Act, Pub. L. No. 49-90, 24 Stat. 373 (1887), fills in procedural details not addressed in the Constitution. It, too, prescribes no role for a sitting President.

This language closely models language that DOJ is using in obstruction cases to establish that the vote certification was an official proceeding.

Then-President Trump was not speaking, as President, about matters of public concern

Mehta then dismisses Trump’s claim that he is immune from suit because his January 6 speech simply amounted to him, in the role of President, commenting on matters of public concern.

He bases his approach on a DC Circuit case that ruled that any claim of immunity must be rooted in the actual duties of the office.

Rather than apply the parties’ proffered categorial rules to the immunity question, the court thinks the better course is to evaluate the defense on the specific facts alleged and, based on those facts, determine whether President Trump’s words were spoken in furtherance of a presidential function. That is the approach that the D.C. Circuit took in Banneker Ventures, LLC v. Graham, a case in which then–Board Member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”) Jim Graham asserted absolute immunity from a suit accusing him of improperly interfering with a developer’s ultimately unsuccessful project negotiations with WMATA.

[snip]

“The appropriate focus,” the court wrote, “is on the relationship between ‘the act complained of’ and the corresponding ‘matters committed by law to [the official’s] control or supervision.’” Id. (quoting Barr, 360 U.S. at 573). The court noted that “[o]ne way that an official acts manifestly beyond his authority is through the use of ‘manifestly excessive means,’ even if he does so in the conduct of duties otherwise within his official purview.” Id. at 1141 (citation omitted). The court emphasized that the burden of establishing immunity rests on the official claiming it. Id. at 1140.

Using that as a framework (and spending a paragraph admitting that consideration of a President’s role is a far more weighty matter), Mehta holds that it is not within the scope of the President’s duties to ensure his own incumbency.

In undertaking this analysis, the court starts from the following premise, as to which there should be no dispute: The Office of the President has no preference for who occupies it. Article II of the Constitution, which defines the powers and duties of the President, is agnostic as to whether a sitting President is elected to a new term. So, too, is federal statutory law. A function of the presidency therefore is not to secure or perpetuate incumbency.

He goes allegation by allegation showing that Trump’s alleged actions served to ensure his own incumbency, including this key paragraph laying out the purpose of the Rally itself.

That, too, was the purpose of the January 6 Rally. President Trump invited people to Washington, D.C., for the event. Id. ¶ 32. In a tweet referencing the January 6 Rally, he encouraged his followers to “Never give up.” Swalwell Compl. ¶ 56. On the eve of the January 6 Rally, the President’s tweets turned to Vice President Pence. Blassingame Compl. ¶ 38. The President expressed the view that the Vice President had the power, as President of the Senate, to reject states’ Electoral College certifications and return them to be recertified. Id. The clear purpose of such recertification would be to allow Electoral College votes to be recast in his favor: “All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN.” Id. These tweets were not official acts but issued to help him “win.”

Via this approach, then, Mehta arrives precisely where DOJ did — in making a Hatch Act argument that campaigning is not among the duties of any federal employee — via different means. It is not the duty of the President to remain President, but that’s what Trump was doing in all the alleged acts.

Trump incited violence (and also ordered his followers to do something unauthorized)

Mehta ultimately judges that Trump’s speech on January 6 meets the Brandenberg test for incitement.

But before he gets there, he makes another important point. It was Trump’s campaign’s idea — and he was personally involved in — sending people on an unpermitted march to the Capitol.

President Trump also allegedly participated directly in the planning. He was involved in decisionmaking about the speaking lineup and music selection. Thompson Compl. ¶ 69. And, critically, to the surprise of rally organizers, President “Trump and his campaign proposed that the rally include a march to the Capitol,” even though the permit they had obtained did not allow for one. Id. ¶¶ 69, 90 (alleging that the permit expressly provided: “This permit does not authorize a march from the Ellipse”).

[snip]

[T]he President ended his speech by telling the crowd that “we fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Almost immediately after these words, he called on rally-goers to march to the Capitol to give “pride and boldness” to reluctant lawmakers “to take back our country.” Importantly, it was the President and his campaign’s idea to send thousands to the Capitol while the Certification was underway. It was not a planned part of the rally. In fact, the permit expressly stated that it did “not authorize a march from the Ellipse.”

After a good deal of legal analysis, Mehta conducts a detailed analysis of Trump’s speech, focusing closely on how his call for non-violence come long before an airing of Trump’s false grievances and attacks on Mike Pence, leading up to calls to fight and to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Having considered the President’s January 6 Rally Speech in its entirety and in context, the court concludes that the President’s statements that, “[W]e fight. We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” and “[W]e’re going to try to and give [weak Republicans] the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country,” immediately before exhorting rally-goers to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue,” are plausibly words of incitement not protected by the First Amendment. It is plausible that those words were implicitly “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and [were] likely to produce such action.” Brandenburg, 395 U.S. at 447.

[snip]

That is why the court determines, as discussed below, that Giuliani’s and Trump Jr.’s words are protected speech. But what is lacking in their words is present in the President’s: an implicit call for imminent violence or lawlessness. He called for thousands “to fight like hell” immediately before directing an unpermitted march to the Capitol, where the targets of their ire were at work, knowing that militia groups and others among the crowd were prone to violence.

It’s not just the call for violence and Trump’s awareness (because of the threats leading up to January 6) that violence was likely to result. It’s also the call for a march that was not permitted.

That is, it’s not even just speech, or just incitement to violence. It’s also the call for a march that the campaign knew was not permitted.

While Mehta obviously returns to the unpermitted march over and over, he doesn’t dwell on the significance of it. That’s not the task before him. Moreover, though he alludes in passing to Alex Jones’ role (which I may return to), that likewise is not a developed part of the complaints before him.

The alleged complaints — the most recent of which was filed in March, an eternity ago in our understanding of January 6 — primarily focus on a theory of incitement.

But Trump did more than that. After riling up his supporters, he told them to do something he could have permitted but did not: march to the Capitol, to confront lawmakers directly.

Related Posts

Judge Mehta’s Ruling that Donald Trump May Have Aided and Abetted Assaults on Cops Is More Important Than His Conspiracy Decision

Judge Mehta Observes that Roger Stone’s Role on January 6 “May Prove Significant in Discovery”

 

The Pied Piper of Insurrection, and Other Challenges in Charging the January 6 Organizer-Inciters

In a post laying out what I called my “taxonomy” of the DOJ investigation of the January 6 crime scene, I noted that the next step in holding those who orchestrated January 6 responsible was to start holding the “organizer-inciters” responsible.

 I have argued that DOJ is very close to rolling out more details of the plot to seize the Capitol, a plot that was implemented (at the Capitol) by the Proud Boys in coordination with other militia-tied people. I have also argued that one goal of the misdemeanor arrests has been to obtain evidence showing that speeches inciting violence, attacks on Mike Pence, or directing crowds to (in effect) trespass brought about violence, the targeting of Mike Pence, and the breach of the Capitol.

If I’m right about these two observations, it means that the investigation has reached a step where the next logical move would be to charge those who incited violence or directed certain movement. The next logical step would be to hold those who caused the obstruction accountable for the obstruction they cultivated.

This is why I focused on Alex Jones in this post: because there is a great deal of evidence that Alex Jones, the guy whom Trump personally ordered to lead mobs to the Capitol, was part of the plot led by his former employee, Joe Biggs, to breach a second front of the Capitol. If this investigation is going to move further, people like Alex Jones and other people who helped organize and incite the riot, will be the next step.

Though you might not know it from the coverage, DOJ has charged several people who played a key role in creating and mobilizing the mob that seized the Capitol. This is where, however, the obscurity of the investigation and First Amendment protections raise real questions about whether DOJ will be able to move up the chain of responsibility.

I’d like to look at the prospects of accountability at three nodes of organizer inciters:

  • Walkaway founder Brandon Straka
  • SoCal anti-maskers Russell Taylor and Alan Hostetter
  • Alex Jones, Owen Shroyer, and Ali Alexander

The import of January 5 in January 6

Before I do so, though, a word about January 5. Though the general outline of the January 6 attack kicked off in November 2020 and was fine-tuned in December (the MAGA events in both months were critical both as dry runs and for networking among participants), the final outline of plans took place in the days before the riot. There seems to have been an intra-militia meeting planned on January 3 in Quarrysville, Pennsylvania where groups, “[got] our comms on point with multiple other patriot groups.”

After Proud Boy Enrique Tarrio got arrested on January 4, the Proud Boys frantically tried to regroup. As late as 9PM on January 5, Joe Biggs and Ethan Nordean were meeting with some unnamed group, out of which came their plan for the 6th.

There were rallies organized for January 5 at which a number of leaders gave incendiary speeches. There’s some reason to believe that members of what I’ve called a “disorganized militia” conspiracy, Ronnie Sandlin, Nate DeGrave, and Josiah Colt, learned key details of the plan for the next day at that event, which allowed them to be tactically important in the breach. Other disorganized attendees, like Jenny Cudd, came away from those Janaury 5 speeches persuaded a revolution was inevitable.

On January 5, 2021, Ms. Cudd stated the following in a video on social media: “a lot of . . . the speakers this evening were calling for a revolution. Now I don’t know what y’all think about a revolution, but I’m all for it. . . . Nobody actually wants war, nobody wants bloodshed, but the government works for us and unfortunately it appears that they have forgotten that, quite a lot. So, if a revolution is what it takes then so be it. Um, I don’t know if that is going to kick off tomorrow or not, we shall see what the powers that be choose to do with their powers and we shall see what it is that happens in Congress tomorrow at our United States Capitol. So, um either way I think that either our side or the other side is going to start a revolution.”

As Robert Costa and Bob Woodward have described, Trump ratcheted up the pressure as the mobs formed the night of January 5 by falsely claiming that Mike Pence agreed he could ignore the true vote counts.

Yet, even in spite of the import of January 5 to what happened on January 6, DOJ has included remarkably few details about what January 6 defendants did that day.

The organizer-inciters called for revolution on January 5

The three organizer-inciters are a notable exception. As I noted in this post, DOJ focused on the January 5 speeches of Straka, Shroyer, and Taylor in their arrest affidavits. Straka’s described how he called for revolution on January 5.

STRAKA was introduced by name and brought onto stage. STRAKA spoke for about five minutes during which time he repeatedly referred to the attendees as “Patriots” and referenced the “revolution” multiple times. STRAKA told the attendees to “fight back” and ended by saying, “We are sending a message to the Democrats, we are not going away, you’ve got a problem!”

The SoCal 3%er conspiracy described how Russell Taylor called for violence.

[T]hese anti-Americans have made the fatal mistake, and they have brought out the Patriot’s fury onto these streets and they did so without knowing that we will not return to our peaceful way of life until this election is made right, our freedoms are restored, and American is preserved.

And Owen Shroyer’s arrest affidavit described him calling for revolution, too.

Americans are ready to fight. We’re not exactly sure what that’s going to look like perhaps in a couple of weeks if we can’t stop this certification of the fraudulent election . . . we are the new revolution! We are going to restore and we are going to save the republic!

But the treatment of these three organizer-inciters, both in their charges, and the development of their prosecution so far, has been very different.

Brandon Straka

Originally, Brandon Straka was charged with trespassing and 18 USC 231, civil disorder, for egging on rioters as they stripped a cop of his shield.

At around the 3:45 mark of the video, an officer from the United States Capitol Police holding a protective shield could be seen in the crowd. As individuals pushed past the officer toward the entrance of the U.S. Capitol, the officer held his shield up in the air. At around the 3:59 mark of the video, STRAKA stated, “Take it away from him.” STRAKA and others in the crowd then yelled, “Take the shield!”

As several people in the crowd grabbed the officer’s shield, STRAKA yelled, “Take it! Take it!” The crowd successfully pulled the shield away from the officer as the officer appeared to be trying to move back toward the entrance of the building.

After his early arrest, his case was continued without indictment several times, first in February, then in May, then in August, each time invoking fairly standard boilerplate about a plea. “The government and counsel for the defendant have conferred, and are continuing to communicate in an effort to resolve this matter.” In September, Straka was finally charged, with just the less serious of the two trespassing misdemeanors. After a tweak in October reflecting that he never entered the Capitol itself, he pled guilty on October 6. His statement of offense says only this about January 5:

Brandon Straka flew to Washington D.C. to speak at a rally protesting the election results on January 5 and January 6, 2021.

It focuses entirely on his role in egging on rioters at the Capitol.

This plea could be one of the ones in which someone cooperating was able to plead to a misdemeanor (the only confirmed one of which, so far, was Jacob Hiles, who cooperated in the prosecution of Michael Riley). After all, he could provide valuable information not just on the plans for January 5, but also explain what he learned about why the scheduled rally on January 6, at which he was also supposed to speak, got canceled. And in fact, he posted the kind of self-justification in advance of pleading that might reflect cooperation.

[O]n Facebook this week he addressed 357,000 followers as “Dear Patriots,” thanked them for their patience, and urged them to tune out “negative press . . . likely coming down the pike” as he took the first meaningful step toward concluding “the perils of the situation I am in.”

“Hang on tight,” Straka wrote on the site, where he has asked for financial support and plugged a forthcoming “grand relaunch” of his campaign. “Let it come, and let it go. It means nothing. It’s just pointless noise. The best is yet to come. We’re almost there.”

But his plea agreement includes the boilerplate cooperation language that generally gets taken out when someone has already cooperated, which is one reason to believe his plea may just reflect good lawyering.

We may find out whether his plea included a cooperation component when we see the filings regarding his sentencing. He was originally supposed to be sentenced on Friday December 17, but that got bumped back (as many things are, these days) to December 22. His sentencing memos were due on December 15. But unless something happened with PACER overnight, they’re not there (PACER was particularly unreliable yesterday on account of the AWS outage, but the filings could also be sealed).

Update: The two sides have asked for 30 more days to make sense of some stuff that has recently come up.

On December 8, 2021, the defendant provided counsel for the government with information that may impact the government’s sentencing recommendation. Additionally, the government is requesting additional time to investigate information provided in the Final Pre- Sentence Report. Because the government’s sentencing recommendation may be impacted based on the newly discovered information, the government and defendant request a 30-day continuance of this case so that the information can be properly evaluated.

The government is currently ordered to file its sentencing memorandum and any video evidence in support of its memorandum on December 17, 2021. The government respectfully requests that this deadline be extended based upon the reasons stated.

3%er SoCal Conspiracy

Calling the indictment against Alan Hostetter et al the “3%er SoCal conspiracy” is actually a misnomer, because it has more to do with how two men calling for violence helped organize Southern Californians largely mobilized around anti-mask politics.

The indictment provides evidence that some of the men charged–Erik Warner, Tony Martinez, Derek Kinnison, and possibly Ronald Mele– are 3%ers. Though the indictment shows Hostetter invoking the language of 3%ers in one place, he is the head of the American Phoenix anti-mask group and his anti-mask activism is one of the places Hostetter met Russell Taylor (the other is the QAnon conference in Arizona in October 2020). Hostetter and Taylor repurporsed a Telegram chat Hostetter was already using to sow violence to organize Southern Californians to travel to DC for the rally, then created a new one on January 1 called “The California Patriots-DC Brigade.”

Much of the conspiracy involves the planning of alleged conspirators for the trip, including discussions of how to bring weapons to DC.

Just one of these men, Warner, entered the Capitol; the rest skirmished around the West Terrace. Not all of the January 6 defendants whose arrest documents show them to be members of the California Patriots-DC Brigade Telegram chat are included as part of this conspiracy; Jeffrey Scott Brown and Ben Martin, who were each charged individually, are described to have been part of the chat, and it’s likely that Gina Bisignano and Danny Rodriguez and his co-conspirators were also part of that chat (among others). In addition, there’s a Person One described in the indictment, whom Hostetter has identified as big GOP donor Morton Irvine Smith, who wasn’t charged, though Irvine Smith’s actions appear distinguishable from Hostetter’s only in that he didn’t climb onto the West Terrace on January 6. So it’s not entirely clear why DOJ included the six people they did in this conspiracy.

As I laid out before, in addition to being charged individually with obstructing the vote count, the men were charged with conspiracy under the obstruction statute rather than the conspiracy statute, as most other January 6 conspiracies were charged (though a Patriot-3%er two person conspiracy unsealed the other day uses 1512(k) as well). Taylor was charged for civil disorder for an interaction with cops and his trespassing charges were enhanced because he was armed with a knife. Warner and Kinnison are separately charged for efforts to hide the Telegram chat.

In other words, this conspiracy ties together two guys publicly calling for violence with members of a militia who discussed arming themselves.

Hostetter says he wants no part of it, though. After getting permission to represent himself in October, earlier this month the former cop filed a motion to dismiss the entire indictment because of alleged government misconduct. The entire thing is the kind of batshit conspiracy theory you’d expect from Tucker Carlson or Glenn Greenwald, spinning what appears to have been inappropriate coddling of him by an Orange County Sheriff’s Sergeant into an FBI plot (that started in spring 2020) to get him, involving Yale’s Secret Society Skull and Bones, the Freemasons, Scientologists, Mormons, and a talented artist named Bandit who likes to mock him. (Read this thread if you want to laugh along.) In the wild yarn Hostetter spins, he argues both Irvine Smith and Taylor must be FBI informants and therefore he can’t be held accountable for any of the actions they induced him to take.

He asks to be severed from the other defendants and/or have his case thrown out because, he claims, he “has never knowingly met, nor has he ever knowingly communicated with, four of the co-defendants,” the 3%ers, and according to his feverish conspiracy theory, Taylor is an FBI informant who set him up (Taylor is Mormon, which is where that part of Hostetter’s conspiracy theory stems from). In a filing asserting as fact that, “the election of 2020 was actually stolen from a duly elected President whom was elected in one of the biggest landslide victories in the history of our country,” Hostetter complains that his actions to prevent the vote count of the actual winner do not amount to a crime.

On January 6, 2021 defendant did not commit one act of violence. Defendant did not commit one act of vandalism. Defendant never entered the U.S. Capitol Building. Defendant never conspired with anyone to do anything illegal, immoral or unethical. The government has not provided anything, that defendant has yet seen in discovery, that contradicts these claims by defendant. Yet, defendant is charged with federal felonies that could result in his imprisonment for up to twenty years.

Particularly given the scope of Dabney Friedrich’s ruling on the application of obstruction, with its caveats regarding whether legal activities can be deemed part of an effort to obstruct the vote count, Hostetter’s claims may have some success (Royce Lamberth is presiding over the case).

His motion to dismiss doesn’t, however, mention a number of overt acts described in the conspiracy to obstruct the vote count:

  • His participation in the November 14, 2020 MAGA event in DC
  • His own November 27, 2020 call to execute “traitors”
  • A December 12, 2020 Stop the Steal rally in Huntington Beach
  • His own calls for people to travel to DC starting on December 19, 2020

Rather than addressing most of the overt acts alleged against him, Hostetter provides what appear to be cover stories for two key December 2020 events in this timeline.

After Taylor and Hostetter spoke at an Orange County event on December 15, they met with Irvine Smith the next day, and Taylor gave both axes.

On December 15, 2020, defendant and co-defendant Russell Taylor both spoke at an Orange County Board of Supervisor’s Meeting. This was only three weeks prior to January 6th. As usual at the Board Meeting, the topics to be discussed related to Orange County issues to include Covid-19 related issues, which is what we typically spoke out about. For some reason, while Taylor was speaking during this particular board meeting, he made the following comment to the Board which was completely unrelated to any of the topics on the agenda: “Week after week, I and others are with thousands in the street all up and down the state of California. You know what they are saying? Revolution. Storm the Capitol.”

[snip]

On December 16th, the day following Taylor’s comments to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, co-defendant Russell Taylor met defendant and “Person One” Morton Irvine Smith at a Mexican restaurant in San Clemente, CA called “El Ranchito.” Taylor was the organizer of this meeting and had requested, planned and organized it a few days prior. While at the restaurant, Taylor told defendant and Irvine Smith that he had purchased gifts for them. Taylor reached under the table and pulled out two boxes and gave them to defendant and Irvine Smith.

Inside these boxes were the axes that have been referred to in the indictment as proof of defendant’s nefarious intent to attack the Capitol using the axe as a weapon of some sort. Until receiving this “gift,” defendant had never personally owned an axe in his life. As he gifted it to us, Taylor described the axe metaphorically as a “battle axe” representing the battles we had already fought in support of freedom and the many battles yet to come.

Upon leaving the restaurant, either (informant) Taylor or (informant) Irvine Smith requested one of the restaurant employees take our photograph in front of the restaurant holding the axes. Defendant liked the photograph and thought it looked quite masculine and “tough” so he posted the photograph to Instagram with a somewhat provocative comment attached to the photograph. Defendant’s comment was, “The time has come when good people may have to act badly, but not wrongly.” Defendant continued in this post with, “Thank you @russ.taylor for the gift of the #thebattleaxe representing the many battles yet to come.”

Defendant had read this quote about good people possibly having to act “badly but not wrongly” in a meme very close in time to when Taylor gifted the axe to him. Defendant had no thought whatsoever about January 6 or the U.S. Capitol when creating this Instagram post. Defendant had been making public speeches regarding the fact that the U.S. was and had been “at war” with the Chinese Communist Party and domestic enemies for approximately 8 months prior to receiving this axe from Russell Taylor

Hostetter posted the photo not as a call for war, he claims, but because it made him look manly. And his caption to the photograph wasn’t a prospective call to war on January 6 in response to Taylor’s call for revolution, but to the prior 8 months of political unrest.

Particularly given Hostetter’s description of the December 16 meeting, which he helpfully tells us was actually planned, “a few days prior” (and so possibly the same day that Irvine Smith, but not Hostetter, returned from the DC MAGA March), I find the description Hostetter gives for his involvement in the January 5 event of interest. He learned of it from Irvine Smith at around the same time as that same December 16 meeting at El Ranchito and before — the indictment alleges but Hostetter ignores — he started recruiting people to attend the event.

January 5, 2021: Defendant’s non-profit organization, American Phoenix Project (APP), cohosted a rally with a group called Virgina Women for Trump. The VWT group was headed by Alice Butler-Short, a well-known and well-connected woman in the DC area.

This event, and APP’s ability to co-host it was brought to defendant’s attention in mid-December after informant Morton Irvine Smith returned to California after attending the December 12, 2020 Stop the Steal rally in Washington DC. Defendant did not attend this event. Irvine Smith claimed to have met Ms. Butler-Short for the first time at this 12/12/2020 event and the two of them agreed to APP becoming involved in co-hosting the event together.

Irvine Smith arranged for defendant to participate in a conference call with Ms. Butler-Short and two members of another group identified as Jericho March as they were a nationally known group also supporting election integrity. Once this conference call was completed, defendant told Irvine Smith that he was not interested in having American Phoenix Project co-host the event as it was too far away from California to be able to properly assist in putting it together and defendant had also gotten a bad vibe / feeling from some of the other participants in the conference call.

Irvine Smith was highly disappointed and notified defendant that he, Irvine Smith, would then just continue to help Butler-Short on his own time as they had developed a good relationship and he wanted to be personally helpful to her. Within a week or two, Irvine Smith notified defendant that Butler-Short had lined up some very big-name and popular conservative speakers for the event to include Roger Stone, Alex Jones, General Michael Flynn’s brother Joe Flynn, among several others. Irvine Smith notified defendant that ButlerShort was continuing to hold out the invitation for APP to co-host this event with her group, to include flying the APP banner at the event. Irvine Smith told defendant the only thing Butler-Short requested of APP was to help her with finding security staff to cordon off an area in front of the Supreme Court because it was a “first come, first served” policy as far as finding a location to set up a stage and microphone.

[snip]

After hearing from Irvine Smith about the high-quality speakers involved and the relative ease with which APP could co-host such a high-profile event, defendant agreed to co-host the event under the APP banner. Were it not for the individual efforts of Morton Irvine Smith, neither defendant nor APP would have been involved with this event at all.

Irvine Smith’s role in getting him this gig certainly raises more questions about why he wasn’t charged, but it doesn’t change Hostetter’s own exposure.

Hostetter adds to the questions about Irvine Smith’s treatment by revealing that Irvine Smith was not searched until the day before this indictment (Hostetter also makes much of what appears to be FBI’s choice to image Irvine Smith’s devices rather than seizing them).

On 1/27/2021 when Taylor and defendant had search warrants served on them, Irvine Smith did not. It wasn’t until nearly five months later, on June 9, 2021 that Irvine Smith finally had a search warrant served on him. This was one day before defendant’s indictment was unsealed. The timing of Irvine Smith’s “raid” is transparently obvious and laughable. It was intended to “clean him up” as an informant.

Hostetter’s questions about Irvine Smith, who funded much of his actions, are as justified as questions from the Oath Keepers about Stewart Rhodes not being charged yet. But I expect this crazypants motion to be dismissed and the conspiracy prosecution to continue to hang on whether all six members of the conspiracy entered into an agreement to help stop the vote count on January 6.

But Hostetter’s motion does suggest that the conspiracy indictment uses the involvement of the 3%ers as a way to raise the stakes of both Hostetter and Taylor’s own public calls for violence. That is, DOJ seems to have charged these organizer-inciters (but not the guy funding it all, yet) by exploiting their ties to an organized militia.

Alex Jones, Owen Shroyer, and Ali Alexander

The way that DOJ appears to have used militia ties to charge organizer-inciters Alan Hostetter and Russell Taylor makes their treatment of far more important organizer-inciters, Alex Jones, Owen Shroyer, and Ali Alexander, more interesting.

Ignore for a moment Ali Alexander’s crucial role in setting up explicitly violent protests.

It is a fact that the guy leading the coup, Donald Trump, asked Alex Jones (personally, as Jones tells it) to lead the mobs Trump had incited at the Ellipse down the Mall to the Capitol. As Jones was doing this, his former employee, Joe Biggs, was kicking off the entire riot. It is also a fact that Jones lured rioters like Stacie Getsinger to the East side of the building, to where Biggs and the Oath Keepers were also gathering, by promising a second speech from Trump.

There’s reason to believe that Jones and Biggs remained in contact that day, evidence of which DOJ would presumably have from Biggs’ phone, if not his phone provider (based on whether the contact was via telephony or messaging app). If it was the latter, getting it may have taken a while. While DOJ obtained Ethan Nordean’s phone when they searched his house (because his spouse provided the FBI the password), and obtained the content of Biggs’ Google account quickly (which included some videos shared with his co-travellers), it may have taken until July 14 to exploit Biggs’ phone (this Cellebrite report must pertain to Biggs because it is not designated Highly Sensitive to him). While the content of any calls Biggs had with his former boss would not be captured, some of it is also likely available from videos shot of him. If his co-travellers wanted a cooperation deal they might be able to provide Biggs’ side of any contacts with Jones too, though several of Biggs’ co-travelers are represented by John Pierce, who may be serving as a kind of firewall for Biggs or even Enrique Tarrio.

Nevertheless, if DOJ has in its possession evidence that one of the guys accused of masterminding the plan to breach the Capitol from two sides was in contact during that process with Jones, who lured unwitting rioters to the second breach by lying to them, then DOJ would appear to have far more evidence tying Jones to militia violence than they used to charge Hostetter in a conspiracy with 3%ers. And Jones got just as far inside the restricted area of the Capitol — to the top of the steps on the East side — as Hostetter did.

Of course, two things have made it harder to charge Jones: he is a media figure, one who very quickly disseminated a cover story claiming his intent for joining the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers at the site of the second breach was to de-escalate the situation, not to escalate it.

DOJ has been chipping away at both those defenses. It already arrested two of Jones’ employees, videographer Sam Montoya and on-air personality Owen Shroyer.

DOJ arrested Montoya for trespassing on April 13 and charged him with misdemeanors on April 30. The arrest warrant cited a number of things Montoya said that were captured on his own footage making it clear he viewed himself as part of the mob.

We’re gonna crawl, we’re gonna climb. We’re gonna do whatever it takes, we’re gonna do whatever it takes to MAGA. Here we go, y’all. Here we go, y’all. Look at this, look at this. I don’t even know what’s going on right now. I don’t wanna get shot, I’ll be honest, but I don’t wanna lose my country. And that’s more important to me than—than getting shot.

And DOJ noted that Montoya had no press credentials for Congress (a really shitty distinction for an event where legitimate journalists chased mobsters inside).

At times during the video, Montoya describes himself to others inside the Capitol Building as a “reporter” or “journalist” as he attempts to get through crowds. The director of the Congressional press galleries within the Senate Press office did a name check on Samuel Christopher Montoya and confirmed that no one by that name has Congressional press credentials as an individual or via any other organizations.

Montoya’s case has been continued on his own initiative since then. Given the discovery notices he has gotten — from AUSA Candice Wong — he had been treated as part of the mob most closely involved in the scene at Ashli Babbitt’s shooting. On December 10, Montoya got discovery from the Statutory Hall Connector that other defendants in that group did not get, and a different prosecutor, Alexis Loeb, took over his case. Loeb’s January 6 caseload is eclectic, but in October she started taking over the case of Proud Boys Joshua Pruitt, and Nicholas Ochs and Nicholas DeCarlo, and she has always been in charge of the prosecution of the pair that played a key role in opening the East doors from the inside, George Tenney and Darrell Youngers.

In August, Shroyer was arrested. His arrest was opportunistic, relying on the fact that he had a still-unsatisfied Deferred Prosecution Agreement arising from his attempts to disrupt Trump’s first impeachment making his loud presence inside the restricted are of the Capitol uniquely illegal. He filed a motion to dismiss his case, which was basically the cover story about de-escalation that Jones offered up immediately after the riot and Ali Alexander prepared to deliver to Congress last week. In a filing debunking that cover story, the government noted that calling for revolution — as Shroyer and Jones did from the top of the East steps — does not amount to de-escalation.

Even assuming the defendant’s argument is true and the defendant received permission to go to the Capitol steps for the limited purpose of deescalating the situation, the defendant did not even do that. Quite the opposite. Despite the defendant’s arguments today that “Shroyer did nothing but offer his assistance to calm the crowd and urge them to leave United States Capitol grounds,” Dkt. 8-1 at 14, the defendant himself said otherwise in an open-source video recorded on August 21, 2021: “From the minute we got on the Capitol, the Capitol area, you [referring to Person One] started telling people to stand down, and the second we got on there, you got up on stacks of chairs, you said, ‘We can’t do this, stand down, don’t go in.’ … And I’m silent during all of this” (emphasis added).11 Moreover, as seen in other videos and described above, the 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.

Shroyer let the due date to reply to this debunking, November 22, pass without filing anything. A status conference that had originally been scheduled for Tuesday, December 14 has been rescheduled for Monday December 20.

As I said in my taxonomy post, the government seems to be very close to being able to demonstrate how that the breach of the second front worked, an effort on which the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Alex Jones seemed to coordinate.

Doing so will be very important in demonstrating how the militia conspiracies worked. But if DOJ finds a way to charge Alex Jones for his role as the Pied Piper of insurrection, the organizer-inciter who provided the bodies needed to fill that second breach, it would bring the January 6 investigation up to an order issued directly by the former President.

The investigation of three InfoWars figures — Montoya, Shroyer, and Jones — who all have legitimate claims to be media figures happens even as DC judges are getting more insistent that DOJ adhere to Merrick Garland’s own media guidelines. In November, for example, Chief Judge Beryl Howell required prosecutors to acknowledge the media guidelines if they sought orders and warrants targeting news media.

Of course, Alexander has no such press protection, and his decision to go mouth off to Congress for seven hours last week may prove as self-destructive as the similar decision by his mentor, Roger Stone, four years ago.

The government seems to have a pretty good case about how the multi-front breach of the Capitol worked. The question is whether First Amendment protections will shield those who made that breach possible from prosecution.

How One CCTV Camera Was Rendered Ineffective Over Two Hours on January 6

This is a screen cap from the first CCTV video successfully released by a January 6 defendant.

It shows the Tunnel as it appeared at 2:53 on January 6.

In June, accused assault defendant John Anderson’s attorney, Marina Medvin, argued that Anderson needed the video to show — and argue publicly — that, contrary to showing an older man lunge to the front of violent mob, the video instead showed a man suffering from the effects of tear gas and moving up towards a line of officers to ask for help.

The government’s evidence, instead, shows a man approaching police to seek medcial [sic] attention after being chemically prayed by a member of the crowd and after being subjected to additional chemical spray released into the crowd by law enforcement. The video sought for release, and being blocked by the government, establishes Mr. Anderson’s defense.

[snip]

Furthermore, the defense should be free to utilize this highly exculpatory short video to defend Mr. Anderson just as the government uses their discretion to publicize videos and screenshots to accuse this defendant, and every other, of very serious crimes. And, Mr. Anderson should be free to utilize CCTV video publicly just as the government has utilized CCTV video publicly to benefit their position in other prosecutions. See discussion infra. The defense should not need to explain how or why we need this evidence when the exculpatory nature of the evidence is clear on its face. The subjection of this 30-second CCTV clip to a Protective Order prejudices the defendant immensely. The government’s position on preventing the release of a 30-second recording is unreasonable and fails to meet the burden that is on the government to prevent release.

The government argued against that release, describing that unnamed people were using the aftermath of the January 6 attack to gather non-public information about the interior of the Capitol to identify vulnerabilities.

The USCP’s concern with release of the footage is based on an awareness of efforts made by individuals, whether participants in the Capitol riots or not, to gather information about the interior of the U.S. Capitol which is generally not publicly available. The USCP is concerned that release of the footage without protection, especially to defendants who have already shown a desire to interfere with the democratic process, will result in the release of information regarding the vulnerabilities and security weaknesses of the U.S. Capitol which could be used in a future attack.

After weeks of litigation, Chief Judge Beryl Howell ordered that the “Highly Sensitive” designation on the video be lifted, freeing Medvin to share the video publicly.

Medvin will never use this video at trial. Anderson is one of the January 6 defendants who passed away since he was charged. Still, the release of that video marked the first step in the subsequent release of far more video of which Capitol Police had initially tried to restrict the widespread release.

This is a screen shot of a video seemingly taken from the same (or an adjacent) camera around 4:20PM on January 6.

The screen cap appeared in a filing opposing the release of James McGrew. McGrew is accused of “position[ing a] pole [handed to him by another rioter] over his head and launch[ing] the pole into the tunnel” at a line of police officers. While some substance got splattered onto the lens of the camera in the ensuing 87 minutes, the camera still proved useful in identifying participants in the hours-long struggle that it filmed.

The video was released just weeks ago, after Beryl Howell ruled against McGrew’s bail motion on November 2.

This is a screen cap from the same camera taken 32 minutes later.

The same splatters that had made the video less useful at 4:20, made the video almost useless at at 5:02PM, the moment the sun set on January 6, as artificial lights turned on, rendering the splatters more opaque.

The screen cap appears in the arrest affidavit for Josiah Kenyon, whom the FBI claims can be seen in these videos, beating cops with a table leg with nails exposed.

The affidavit reveals that the FBI first got a tip on January 9 in response to photos of Kenyon released in some of the earliest Be On the Lookout photos released. By April 6, the FBI had obtained positive ID for Kenyon based off that wanted poster from two family members of Kenyon.

And yet it wasn’t until last week that he was arrested, on charges of assault and damaging a $41,315 Capitol window that make Kenyon a good candidate for a terrorism enhancement if he is ever convicted.

The affidavit makes clear that in the eight months since the FBI first identified Kenyon, they’ve been tracking his movements and spending from when he was in DC, perhaps to see if he had any accomplices. For example, the FBI pulled Metro surveillance video showing Kenyon entering the L’Enfant Metro station at 6PM, less than an hour after he was allegedly beating cops in the Tunnel and literally the moment that Muriel Bowser’s curfew went into effect on January 6. Further Metro surveillance video shows him getting off the Metro in Franconia-Springfield at 6:48PM.

Still, it’s hard to believe the process of tracking his movements on January 6 took eight months.

What may have taken eight months, however, was the replacement of the CCTV cameras in the Tunnel. The release of this screen cap, after all, shows how over the course of several hours on January 6 the rioters made the camera — a camera surveilling the Tunnel through which Joe Biden would walk, two weeks later, to be sworn in as President — almost useless.

The release of these videos not only make clear the assaults captured by the cameras on the day of the insurrection. They also show how to render them useless.

That may be one of the reasons supporters of the insurrection are demanding all the video be released.

After Describing DOJ’s January 6 Language as “Schizophrenic,” Judge Beryl Howell Imposes a Sound Baseline Sentence

In the sentencing hearing for Jack Griffith yesterday, Beryl Howell spent several hours berating the government for the way they’ve charged the January 6 cases. Here’s Zoe Tillman’s coverage of the hearing.

Howell repeatedly expressed puzzlement at how the Justice Department was managing the Jan. 6 cases, especially for defendants charged solely with misdemeanor crimes. She questioned prosecutors using “scorching” rhetoric to describe the severity of the attack on the Capitol while also using words like “trespass” to describe what some defendants, including Griffith, did that day. She described the government’s brief as “almost schizophrenic.”

She also pressed prosecutors to explain why the government was offering plea deals for low-level charges that limited judges’ options at sentencing, especially when prosecutors had articulated that one goal of these cases was to prevent a similar postelection attack on the peaceful transfer of power in the future.

“This is a muddled approach by the government,” she said. It is “no wonder,” she said, that some people “are confused about whether what happened on Jan. 6 was a petty offense of trespassing or shocking criminal conduct that represented a grave threat to our democratic norms.”

Howell’s complaint about the seeming inconsistency between DOJ’s rhetoric on the attack itself and the charges being filed may stem, in part, from the fact that Howell has a greater proportion of misdemeanor defendants than other judges, and so doesn’t see how there’s a continuum among defendants. Of the 30-some defendants whose cases she has, Grady Owens and James McGrew are two of her only more serious cases, plus Nick Ochs and Nick DeCarlo from the Proud Boys.

But her complaint about the way DOJ has tied judges’ hands on sentencing raises an important point. She worried about whether DOJ will really be able to collect restitution payments, given that that normally happens as part of supervised release and these class B misdemeanors don’t permit that (something discussed at length yesterday). And ultimately, she decided that because that’s all Griffith was asked to plead to, she wouldn’t sentence him to jail time, as DOJ had requested.

That said, several minutes after she issued her ruling for a 3 month probationary period, she added a term of supervised release that confused me and others covering it. I think the sentence she did impose — three months in home confinement with a GPS, as part of three years of probation — is not a bad one for those DOJ charges with misdemeanors.

Defendant sentenced on Count 5 to serve a term of thirty-six (36) months Probation which includes a special condition of 90 days of home confinement; Defendant ordered to pay a $10.00 special assessment and restitution in the amount of $500.00; imposition of a fine waived. Government’s oral motion for the dismissal of Counts 2, 3, and 4, granted as to Defendant JACK JESSE GRIFFITH. Bond Status of Defendant: Defendant placed on Probation.

Howell focused closely on deterrence — and argued that sentences without jail time will not adequately deter further events. But Griffith will still face a three month period where his conditions of release are more harsh than they currently have been, outfitted by a GPS. And by sentencing him to an extended probationary period, Howell has limited the degree to which Griffith can engage in armed insurrection.

As it is, the courts are overwhelmed with the number of January 6 defendants. Even without the legitimate challenges to the way DOJ has used obstruction in this case, it’s unlikely they would have been able to charge more felonies. This sentence is a way to limit the possibility Griffith will rejoin an insurrection without submitting him to radicalization in prison.

And as of right now, between Tanya Chutkan’s jail terms and Trevor McFadden’s brief probation terms, the misdemeanor sentences are disconcertingly all over the map. I’m hopeful that this sentence will serve as a better guideline going forward.

There’s one more detail of yesterday’s hearing worth noting. James Pearse, the AUSA in charge of most of the legal issues in this investigation, gave Judge Howell a detailed explanation of how DOJ had come up with the $500 restitution amount (with $2,000 for felony defendants). He described that the Architect of the Capitol came up with a damages amount in May, and DOJ spread that over the estimated number of people who had entered the Capitol. He described their estimate at that point was 2,000 to 2,500.

This means DOJ has come up with the same estimated number as the Sedition Hunters did (as described in this Ryan Reilly piece; click through for links), working off an estimate of flow rate of people coming into the Capitol.

In the weeks after the attack, law enforcement officials estimated that 800 people had entered the Capitol. That number stuck around in media coverage for months, becoming a benchmark against which the FBI’s progress has been measured. The 800 figure has been mentioned in stories as recently as this week.

In reality, as online sleuths have discovered over the past several months, that’s only a fraction of the scope of criminal activity that day. A HuffPost analysis of public-facing data on the Capitol attack, combined with the findings of online investigators working under the #SeditionHunters moniker, shows that the total number of Jan. 6 participants who could face charges if identified tops 2,500.

Federal investigators have quietly ticked up their own estimate. In a budget request earlier this year, the FBI told Congress that “approximately 2000 individuals are believed to have been involved with the siege.” Law enforcement officials did not dispute HuffPost’s 2,500 figure.

That means federal authorities have charged about 25% of the suspects who could face criminal charges for their conduct on Jan. 6. At the current pace, it would take federal authorities until early 2024 to bring cases against 2,500 defendants. And some of the easiest cases to bring, the “low-hanging fruit,” have already been charged.

Online investigators, who have been responsible for identifying countless Jan. 6 defendants and will play a role in dozens of forthcoming FBI cases, have counted more than 2,000 individuals they say breached the Capitol building. These sleuths refer to the people they say they spotted inside the Capitol as “Sedition Insiders,” and have collected the highest-quality image they’ve found of each rioter (even if that photo was snapped while the suspect was outside the Capitol).

When Pearse offered this number, he explained that DOJ didn’t want to explain how it came up with this number — which led me to quip that maybe they had used the Sedition Hunter number. That’s not possible, though, as the calculation predates it. It’s likely, then, that this number relies (at least partly) on the number of trespassers identified using cell tower dumps, which reflect all the phones and Google access, less those who had a legal reason to be in the Capitol.

Ultimately, of course, this means that restitution won’t pay for all the damage to the Capitol, as prosecutors seem to be limiting further misdemeanor arrests to those who serve an investigative purpose (such as to obtain their cell phone for evidence against others).

Unless, of course, prosecutors ultimately move towards holding organizers accountable for the damage their mob incited.

Whatever the case, DOJ continues to fall short of providing compelling explanations of how all the parts of the riot fit together in either public statements or court filings. And on that level, Judge Howell’s complaint deserve closer attention from DOJ.

What is the appropriate sanction for a “pawn” who participated in a coup attempt?

One thing I informally track in January 6 guilty pleas is education level. At the beginning of most change of plea hearings, as part of an effort to substantiate competence to plead guilty, most judges ask, “How far did you go in school?” I first started to take note when Oath Keeper Graydon Young replied that he has a graduate degree. He’s a dramatic outlier. Since then, my very informal tracking of this detail has shown that very very few of the January 6 defendants who’ve pled guilty so far have a four year degree (others who do include but are not limited to Cleveland Meredith Jr, Jenna Ryan, and Andrew Ericson, the latter of whom finished a CompSci degree since the riot).

I track this demographic not out of intellectual snobbery. I know of some absolutely brilliant people who didn’t finish school (a close family member has been very successful without finishing college, and a good number of the smartest students in the 600 student high school class of which I was valedictorian dropped out short of graduation).

Rather, it’s that based on this unscientific observation, the January 6 defendants who’ve pled guilty are, demographically, dramatically less likely to have a four-year degree than the US population, closer to 10% (perhaps 8 of the 96 people who’ve pled guilty) than the 36% that one might expect of the population more broadly. To be sure, this is not scientific. At least two DC judges don’t ask this question, and my count reflects only those hearings where I was personally listening or another journalist who has become aware of my focus on it has noted it. Plus, there may be reasons why people with less education plead guilty earlier, such as that more of them make up those charged with misdemeanor trespassing. But even Brandon Straka, one of the leaders of the larger Trump movement, described that he went through 12th grade and then got a vocational degree at his change of plea.

January 6 defendants seem disproportionately white and rural, but they also appear to be less educated than the country as a whole, even those who’ve had a good deal of financial success.

I raise all that as background to the sentencing memo for Jack Griffith submitted overnight by Heather Shaner, the same defense attorney who convinced Anna Morgan-Lloyd to do some book reports before sentencing (after which Morgan-Lloyd went straight to Fox News to disclaim her stated remorse).

Shaner doesn’t really address the government’s request for a three month jail term.

Griffith pled guilty to one count of 40 U.S.C. § 5104(e)(2)(G): Parading, Demonstrating, or Picketing in the Capitol Building. As explained below, a custodial sentence is appropriate in this case because Griffith committed his January 6th crime in a manner that trivialized the severity  of the chaotic and dangerous attack, and his later self-promotion and commentary about his participation in the riot demonstrates continued pride in his actions. Griffith had many opportunities to remove himself from the disorder of January 6th but was all too happy to continue his participation. Following his arrest, his casual attitude toward these criminal proceedings demonstrated a lack of respect for this Court—worrying only that he did not want to appear too “cocky” that it was all going to go well for him. By minimizing the seriousness of his conduct, Griffith fails to recognize the harm he caused to his country, the law enforcement officers who were trying to defend it, and others who were working at the Capitol to carry out a Constitutionally mandated process for the peaceful transfer of power

Instead, Shaner focused on what the January 6 riot was, describing it as a coup attempt fomented by people who deliberately manipulated people online.

What occurred on January 6, 2021 was not a naturally developed political protest. It was, I believe, a coup attempt–fomented intentionally by right wing actors who used data mining and psychological manipulation. Vulnerable individuals were identified and persuaded through the internet that it was their patriotic duty to come to Washington to support Trump. In Washington, they were emboldened and ushered down the avenue to “Stop the Steal” and to storm the Capitol.

It is fitting and appropriate to arrest those who participated in the attempted coup. The difficult question is what is the appropriate sanction for a pawn who personally did no physical damage nor assaulted law enforcement– but nonetheless participated in the riot. As Fiona Hill recently stated the “main threats” to democracy come from right-wing actors who are deliberately undermining faith in the “integrity of the election system” and “calling for violence against fellow Americans.” Among the thousands who came to Washington in January and have since been arrested– few among the arrested are the people described by Ambassador Hill. Of the several individuals I have been appointed to represent—none are informed, intentional political actors. Four of the individuals I represent are very young—were heavily reliant on the internet—were uniformed and misinformed. Two individuals suffer from diagnosed mental diseases. The balance of individuals I have come to know and to respect are vulnerable, politically unsophisticated individuals, who are truly confounded by what is happening in our country. Good people with no criminal history—our neighbors– who were fed cynical and dangerous misinformation which destroyed their faith in the integrity of the election system. People who wrongly believed they could save America.

I think Shaner’s description of the event is sound. But I’m not sure she, or anyone, knows the answer to her question: What we do about pawns mobilized for a coup attempt, particularly in the absence of any accountability (yet) for the more powerful coup plotters.

Shaner argues that probation is appropriate for Griffith for two reasons. First, to avoid making a martyr of him.

We should not make pariahs or martyrs of these men and women.

But also to provide a period in which more education can occur.

To save our Union we must be wise. We must be compassionate. We must listen. We must provide the opportunity for the approximately 550 charged misdemeanants to receive more education, and to encourage each of them to study history and to gain civic literacy. Only knowledge—truth based on facts– can foster change. At this critical moment of civil discord and domestic contention –if it is still possible to create a more perfect Union –it must be through education. We cannot force people to learn. But during Probation, we can provide the impetus and the opportunity of continuing education.

This is an argument not about Jack Griffith (and because she’s pitching this to Chief Judge Beryl Howell, who asked with this defendant why DOJ hadn’t charged him more aggressively, it’s unlikely to work). It’s an argument about what the path forward needs to be.

Few people besides Shaner think probation can accomplish what she envisions here (though a three year term of probation will keep defendants supervised and prohibited from owning guns through the next Presidential election). Indeed, the two judges imposing most disparate sentences for trespassers so far, Tanya Chutkan (who has sentenced two trespassers, including Anna Morgan-Lloyd’s buddy, Dona Bissey, to jail terms in the last week), and Trevor McFadden (who has sentenced defendants to far shorter terms of probation than the government asked for, though with extra on top) have come out against probation for these defendants. Chutkan believes Probation is simply too overtaxed to deal with the influx of all these trespassers. McFadden seems to believe what he sees as a debt to society can better be paid through a fine (he imposed the only fine thus far on Danielle Doyle) or community service (which he imposed on Eliel Rosa); McFadden also believes that January 6 defendants are being treated more harshly than other rioters.

Meanwhile, in the case of Robert Reeder, who was first charged with trespassing then, at the last minute, discovered to have assaulted a cop and downplayed that to the FBI, got sentenced to just three months in jail by Thomas Hogan, rather than the six months prosecutors requested rather than charging him with that assault.

I don’t know the answer to Shaner’s question. And I badly wish that Prettyman Courthouse were fully open so I could assume that judges were hashing this out over lunch in their judge’s lunchroom. I know that there are a significant portion of defendants who really were just engaged in the kind of civil disobedience I don’t want criminalized. Though I also know that as DOJ has pushed to move through the misdemeanors and accepted downward pleas from those charged more seriously for a variety of reasons, it has fostered seeming inequities among the growing group of trespassers being sentenced.

Whether or not Shaner is right about Griffith, she’s right about what happened: Coup plotters used conspiracy theories to mobilize thousands, as if in a cult, to storm the Capitol. We need deprogramming as much as we need jail time. And our criminal justice system is probably ill-suited to provide either.