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DOJ’s Reply Motion for Carl Nichols’ Reconsideration on 1512: Other Judge Other Judges Other Judges

I’ve written two posts on former Clarence Thomas clerk Carl Nichols’ outlier ruling rejecting DOJ’s use of 18 USC 1512(c)(2) to January 6. (one, two)

Yesterday, they submitted their reply motion. It reads like this:

Reconsideration of the substantive ruling in Miller is appropriate because that ruling is inconsistent with decisions from every other judge on this Court to have considered the issue. That inconsistency means proving a violation of Section 1512(c)(2) requires additional facts in this case (and other Section 1512(c)(2) cases in front of this Court) but not in any case before any of the other judges of this Court. Moreover, with one exception, the Court’s ruling in Miller did not address the opinions from other judges of this Court, some of whom have explicitly disagreed with this Court after Miller issued.

[snip]

As noted in the government’s reconsideration motion, every other judge of this Court to consider this issue has concluded that Section 1512(c)(2) “prohibits obstruction by means other than document destruction.” United States v. Sandlin, No. 21-cr-88, 2021 WL 5865006, at *5 (D.D.C. Dec. 10, 2021) (Friedrich, J.); see ECF 75 at 5-6 (citing cases). At the time the reconsideration motion was filed, one judge had disagreed with Miller in a footnote, United States v. Puma, 21-cr-454, 2022 WL 823079, at *12 n.4 (D.D.C. Mar. 19, 2022) (Friedman, J.), and another judge indicated her disagreement with Miller orally when delivering a “brief ruling” denying a defendant’s post-trial motion for judgment of acquittal, see United States v. Reffitt, 21-cr-32, Trial Tr. 1498, 1502-05 (Mar. 8, 2022) (Friedrich, J.) (attached as Exhibit A to the reconsideration motion). Since the reconsideration motion was filed, judges have continued to reject Miller’s reasoning. See, e.g., United States v. Hughes, No. 21-cr-106, Minute Order denying motion to dismiss count charging Section 1512 (D.D.C. May 9, 2022) (Kelly, J.) (rejecting the “narrow reading” of Section 1512(c)(2) and agreeing with an opinion that “directly responded to and rejected the logic employed in Miller”); United States v. Hale-Cusanelli, No. 21-cr-37, Transcript of motion to dismiss hearing at 4-8 (D.D.C. May 6, 2022) (McFadden, J.)(attached as Exhibit D);United States v. Reffitt, No. 21-cr-32, 2022 WL 1404247, at *7-*10 (D.D.C. May 4, 2022) (Friedrich, J.); United States v. McHugh, No. 21-cr-453, 2022 WL 1302880, at *2-*13 (D.D.C. May 2, 2022) (Bates, J). Although none of those rulings represents “controlling law,” McAllister v. District of Columbia, 53 F. Supp. 3d 55, 59 (D.D.C. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted), it is surely “significant” that this Court stands as the sole outlier among all the judges on this Court to have ruled on the issue both before and after Miller issued.

Two related factors militate in favor of reconsideration of the Court’s substantive conclusion about the scope of Section 1512(c)(2). First, the Court in Miller addressed only one of the contrary opinions from judges on this Court. See Mem. Op. 16, 18 n.8, 22, 26 (citing United States v. Montgomery, No. 21-cr-46, 2021 WL 6134591(D.D.C. Dec. 28, 2021)). Reconsideration would permit the Court the opportunity to consider in full the “persuasive authority” issued by other judges of this Court. See United States v. Drummond, 98 F. Supp. 2d 44, 50 n.5 (D.D.C. 2000) (noting that within-Circuit district court cases are not binding but “[o]f course” are “persuasive authority”). Second, reconsideration resulting in an interpretation consistent with other judges of this Court would ensure that all defendants charged under Section 1512(c)(2) are treated alike until the court of appeals has an opportunity on post-conviction review to consider the merits of their challenges to the statute’s scope.

[snip]

Second, Miller argues (Opp. 10-18) that the government “misunderstands” (id. at 10) this Court’s textual analysis of Section 1512(c)(2). But the issue is not one of misapprehension; rather, the government (and every other judge on this Court to have considered the issue) understands but disagrees with the Court’s (and Miller’s) interpretation of Section 1512(c)(2)’s reach. [my emphasis]

It uses Garret Miller’s response to implicitly attack Carl Nichols and emphasize the degree to which even Nichols’ Trump appointed colleagues — first Dabney Friedrich, then Tim Kelly, and finally, the judge most likely to agree with Nichols, Trevor McFadden — have disagreed with Nichols’ thinking.

Guy Reffitt’s prosecution is now ripe for appeal, if he still plans on doing that. Or Nichols will choose to adhere to his outlier opinion.

Here’s the current tally on obstruction opinions, with McFadden added.

  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; May 9, 2022, Hughes (by minute order), rejecting Miller
  5. Randolph Moss, December 28, 2021, Montgomery
  6. Beryl Howell, January 21, 2022, DeCarlo
  7. John Bates, February 1, 2022, McHugh; May 2, 2022 [on reconsideration]
  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
  11. Rudolph Contreras, announced March 8, released March 14, Andries
  12. Paul Friedman, March 19, Puma
  13. Thomas Hogan, March 30, Sargent (opinion forthcoming)
  14. Trevor McFadden, May 6, Hale-Cusanelli

Steve Bannon’s “Alleged” Non-Contemptuous Behavior

On Friday, the two sides in the Steve Bannon contempt prosecution filed a bunch of motions about the scope of the case. They are:

Office of Legal Counsel memos

The fight over OLC memos is likely to get the bulk of attention, possibly even from Judge Carl Nichols (who relied on one of the OLC memos at issue in the Harriet Miers case). While there’s no telling what a Clarence Thomas clerk might do, I view this fight as mostly tactical. One way for Bannon’s attempt to fail (Nichols improbably ruling that OLC memos cannot be relied on in court) would upend the entire way DOJ treats OLC memos. That might have salutary benefits in the long term, but in the short term it would expose anyone, like Vice President Dick Cheney, who had relied on OLC memos in the past to protect themselves from torture and illegal wiretapping exposure themselves.

In my opinion this challenge is, in part, a threat to Liz Cheney.

But as DOJ (I think correctly) argues, none of this should matter. That’s because — as they show with two exhibits — none of the OLC memos apply to Bannon, and not just because he was not a government employee when he was plotting a coup.

On October 6, 2021, Trump attorney Justin Clark wrote to Bannon attorney Robert Costello (citing no prior contact with Costello), instructing him not to comply to the extent permitted by law:

Therefore, to the fullest extent permitted by law, President Trump instructs Mr. Bannon to: (a) where appropriate, invoke any immunities and privileges he may have from compelled testimony in response to the Subpoena; (b) not produce any documents concerning privileged material in response to the Subpoena; and (c) not provide any testimony concerning privileged material in response to the Subpoena.

But on October 14, Clark wrote and corrected Costello about claims he had made in a letter to Benny Thompson.

Bob–I just read your letter dated October 13, 2021 to Congressman Benny Thompson. In that letter you stated that “[a]s recently as today, counsel for President Trump, Justin Clark Esq., informed us that President Trump is exercising his executive privilege; therefore he has directed Mr. Bannon not to produce documents or testify until the issue of executive privilege is resolved.”

To be clear, in our conversation yesterday I simply reiterated the instruction from my letter to you dated October 6, 2021, and attached below.

Then again on October 16, Clark wrote Costello stating clearly that Bannon did not have immunity from testimony.

Bob–In light of press reports regarding your client I wanted to reach out. Just to reiterate, our letter referenced below didn’t indicate that we believe there is immunity from testimony for your client. As I indicated to you the other day, we don’t believe there is. Now, you may have made a different determination. That is entirely your call. But as I also indicated the other day other avenues to invoke the privilege — if you believe it to be appropriate — exist and are your responsibility.

In other words, before Bannon completely blew off the Committee, Trump’s lawyer had told him not to do it on Trump’s account. (See this post which captures how Robert Costello had tried to bullshit his way through this.) That, by itself, should kill any claim that he was relying on an OLC memo.

Bannon’s prior (alleged) non-contemptuous past behavior

For different reasons, I’m a bit more interested in DOJ’s attempt to prevent Bannon from talking about what a good, subpoena-obeying citizen he has been in the past. Costello had made this argument to DOJ in an interview Bannon is trying to get excluded.

DOJ argues, uncontroversially, that because Bannon’s character is not an element of the offense, such evidence of prior compliance with a subpoena would be irrelevant.

Just as the fact that a person did not rob a bank on one day is irrelevant to determining whether he robbed a bank on another, whether the Defendant complied with other subpoenas or requests for testimony—even those involving communications with the former President—is irrelevant to determining whether he unlawfully refused to comply with the Committee’s subpoena here.

I expect Judge Nichols will agree.

What I’m interested in, though, is the way the filing refers to Bannon’s past compliance with subpoenas as “alleged.” It does so nine times:

The Defendant has suggested that, because he (allegedly) was not contemptuous in the past, he is not a contemptuous person and was not, therefore, contemptuous here.

[snip]

Mr. Costello advised that the Defendant had testified once before the Special Counsel’s Office of Robert S. Mueller, III (the “SCO”), although Mr. Costello did not specify whether the pertinent appearance was before the grand jury or in some other context; once before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; and twice before the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. See id. Although, in his letter to the Committee and his interview, Mr. Costello said nothing about whether the Defendant was subpoenaed for documents by those authorities and whether the Defendant did produce any, and he did not say whether those other subpoenas or requests were limited to communications with the former President or involved other topics as well, the Defendant and Mr. Costello have asserted, essentially, that the Defendant’s alleged prior compliance demonstrates that he understands the process of navigating executive privilege, illustrates his willingness to comply with subpoenas involving communications with the former President, and rebuts evidence that his total noncompliance with the Committee’s subpoena was willful.

[snip]

The Defendant cannot defend the charges in this case by offering evidence of his experience with and alleged prior compliance with requests or subpoenas for information issued by Congress and the SCO.

[snip]

The Defendant’s alleged prior compliance with subpoenas or requests for information is of no consequence in determining whether he was contemptuous here.

[snip]

Specifically, the Defendant’s alleged compliance with other demands for testimony is not probative of his state of mind in failing to respond to the Committee’s subpoena, and his alleged non-contemptuous character is not an element of the contempt offenses charged in this case.

[snip]

1 1 To the extent the Defendant seeks to introduce evidence of his general character for law-abidingness, see In re Sealed Case, 352 F.3d 409, 412 (D.C. Cir. 2003), he cannot use evidence of his alleged prior subpoena compliance to do so. Evidence of “pertinent traits,” such as law-abidingness, only can be introduced through reputation or opinion testimony, not by evidence of specific acts. See Fed. R. Evid. 404(a)(2)(A); Fed. R. Evid. 405(a); Washington, 106 F.3d at 999.

[snip]

Second, whatever probative value the Defendant’s alleged prior compliance in other circumstances might serve, that value is substantially outweighed by the trial-within-a-trial it will prompt and the confusion it will inevitably cause the jury.

[snip]

The Defendant’s reliance on counsel and/or his alleged good faith in response to prior subpoenas is thus not pertinent to any available defense and is irrelevant to determining whether his failure to produce documents and appear for testimony in response to the Committee’s subpoena was willful. [my emphasis]

The reason DOJ always referred to Bannon’s past compliance with subpoenas as “alleged” is because calling the claim “bullshit” — which is what it is — would be unseemly in a DOJ filing.

As a reminder, here’s the history of Bannon’s “alleged” past compliance with subpoenas (it is unknown whether he was subpoenaed in the Build the Wall fraud investigation):

HPSCI: Bannon got subpoenaed after running his mouth off in the wake of the release of Fire and Fury (Republicans likely acceded to that so they could discipline Bannon for his brief and soon-aborted effort to distance himself from Trump). In his first appearance, Bannon refused to answer a bunch of questions. Then, in a second appearance and after the intervention of Devin Nunes, Bannon reeled off a bunch of “no” answers that had been scripted by Nunes and the White House, some of which amounted to misdirection and some of which probably were lies. Bannon also claimed that all relevant communications would have been turned over by the campaign, even though evidence submitted in the Roger Stone case showed that Bannon was hiding responsive — and very damning — communications on his personal email and devices.

SSCI: Bannon was referred in June 2019 by the Republican-led committee to DOJ for making false statements to the Committee.

According to the letter, the committee believed Bannon may have lied about his interactions with Erik Prince, a private security contractor; Rick Gerson, a hedge fund manager; and Kirill Dmitriev, the head of a Russian sovereign fund.

All were involved in closely scrutinized meetings in the Seychelles before Trump’s inauguration.

[snip]

No charges were filed in connection with the meetings. But investigators suspected that the men may have been seeking to arrange a clandestine back-channel between the incoming Trump administration and Moscow. It’s unclear from the committee’s letter what Bannon and Prince might have lied about, but he and Prince have told conflicting stories about the Seychelles meeting.

Prince said he returned to the United States and updated Bannon about his conversations; Bannon said that never happened, according to the special counsel’s office.

Mueller: Over the course of a year — starting in two long interviews in February 2018 where Bannon lied with abandon (including about whether any of his personal comms would contain relevant information), followed by an October 2018 interview where Bannon’s testimony came to more closely match the personal communications he had tried to hide, followed by a January 2019 interview prior to a grand jury appearance — Bannon slowly told Mueller a story that more closely approximated the truth — so much so that Roger Stone has been squealing about things Bannon told the grand jury (possibly including about a December 2016 meeting at which Stone appears to have tried to blackmail Trump) ever since. Here’s a post linking Bannon’s known interview records and some backup.

But then the DC US Attorney’s Office (in efforts likely overseen by people JP Cooney, who is an attorney of record on this case) subpoenaed Bannon in advance of the Stone trial, and in a preparatory interview, Bannon reneged on some of his testimony that had implicated Stone. At Stone’s trial, prosecutors used his grand jury transcript to force Bannon to adhere to his most truthful testimony, though he did so begrudgingly.

In other words, the record shows that Bannon has always been contemptuous, unless and until you gather so much evidence against him as to force him to blurt out some truths.

Which is why I find it curious that DOJ moved to exclude Bannon’s past contemptuousness, rather than moving to admit it as 404(b) evidence showing that, as a general rule, Bannon always acts contemptuously. His character, DOJ could have claimed, is one of deceit and contempt. The reason may be the same (that contempt is a one-time act in which only current state of mind matters).

But I’m also mindful of how the Mueller Report explained not prosecuting three people, one of whom is undoubtedly Bannon.

We also considered three other individuals interviewed — [redacted] — but do not address them here because they are involved in aspects of ongoing investigations or active prosecutions to which their statements to this Office may be relevant.

That is, one reason Bannon wasn’t prosecuted for lying to Mueller was because of his import in, at least, the ongoing Roger Stone prosecution. That explains why DOJ didn’t charge him in 2019, to retain the viability of his testimony against Stone. I’m interested in why they continue the same approach. It seems DOJ’s decision to treat Bannon’s past lies — even to SSCI! — as “alleged” rather than “criminally-referred” by SSCI, may also reflect ongoing equities in whatever Bannon told the the grand jury two years ago. One thing Bannon lied about at first, for example, was the back channel to Dubai that may get him named as a co-conspirator in the Tom Barrack prosecution.

But there were other truths that Bannon ultimately told that may make it worthwhile to avoid confirming that those truths only came after a whole bunch of lies.

Update: Thanks to Jason Kint for reminding me that Bannon refused to be served an FTC subpoena pertaining to Cambridge Analytica in 2019.

On Ginni Thomas’ Obstruction Exposure and Clarence’s Former Clerk, Carl Nichols

In a motions hearing for January 6 assault defendant Garret Miller on November 22, former Clarence Thomas clerk Carl Nichols asked the appellate prosecutor for the January 6 investigation, James Pearce, whether someone asking Mike Pence to invalidate the vote count could be charged with the obstruction statute, 18 USC 1512(c)(2), that Miller was challenging. Pearce replied that the person in question would have to know that such a request of the Vice President was improper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the time (as Josh Gerstein wrote up in his piece), we knew that former Clarence Thomas clerk John Eastman had pressured Pence to throw out legal votes.

But we’ve since learned far more details about Eastman’s actions, including his admissions to Pence’s counsel, Greg Jacob, that there was no way SCOTUS would uphold the claim. In fact, those admissions were cited in Judge David Carter’s opinion finding that Eastman himself likely obstructed the vote count by pressuring Pence to reject the valid votes, because he knew that not even Clarence Thomas would buy this argument.

Ultimately, Dr. Eastman conceded that his argument was contrary to consistent historical practice,37 would likely be unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court,38 and violated the Electoral Count Act on four separate grounds.39

[snip]

Dr. Eastman himself repeatedly recognized that his plan had no legal support. In his discussion with the Vice President’s counsel, Dr. Eastman “acknowledged” the “100 percent consistent historical practice since the time of the Founding” that the Vice President did not have the authority to act as the memo proposed.254 More importantly, Dr. Eastman admitted more than once that “his proposal violate[d] several provisions of statutory law,”255 including explicitly characterizing the plan as “one more relatively minor violation” of the Electoral Count Act.256 In addition, on January 5, Dr. Eastman conceded that the Supreme Court would unanimously reject his plan for the Vice President to reject electoral votes.257 Later that day, Dr. Eastman admitted that his “more palatable” idea to have the Vice President delay, rather than reject counting electors, rested on “the same basic legal theory” that he knew would not survive judicial scrutiny.258

We’ve also learned more details about Ginni Thomas’ role in pressuring Mark Meadows to champion an attempt to steal the election, including — after a gap in the texts produced to the January 6 Committee — attacking Pence.

The committee received one additional message sent by Thomas to Meadows, on Jan. 10, four days after the “Stop the Steal” rally Thomas said she attended and the deadly attack on the Capitol.

In that message, Thomas expresses support for Meadows and Trump — and directed anger at Vice President Mike Pence, who had refused Trump’s wishes to block the congressional certification of Biden’s electoral college victory.

“We are living through what feels like the end of America,” Thomas wrote to Meadows. “Most of us are disgusted with the VP and are in listening mode to see where to fight with our teams. Those who attacked the Capitol are not representative of our great teams of patriots for DJT!!”

“Amazing times,” she added. “The end of Liberty.”

Ginni Thomas famously remains close with a network of Clarence’s former clerks, so much so she apologized to a listserv of former Justice Thomas clerks for her antics after the insurrection.

Any former Thomas clerk on that listserv would likely understand how exposed in efforts to overturn the vote certification Ginni was.

As I said, little of that was known, publicly, when former Justice Thomas clerk Carl Nichols asked whether someone who pressured Pence could be exposed for obstruction. We didn’t even, yet, know all these details when Judge Nichols ruled in Miller’s case on March 7, alone thus far of all the DC District judges, against DOJ’s application of that obstruction statute. While we had just learned some of the details about Jacobs’ interactions with former Thomas clerk John Eastman, we did not yet know how centrally involved Ginni was — frankly, we still don’t know, especially since the texts Mark Meadows turned over to the January 6 Committee have a gap during the days when Eastman was most aggressively pressuring Pence.

DOJ may know but if it does it’s not telling.

But now we know more of those details and now we know that Judge Carter found that Eastman and Trump likely did obstruct the vote certification. All those details, combined with Nichols’ treatment of the Miller decision as one that might affect others, up to and including Ginni Thomas and John Eastman and Trump, sure makes it look a lot more suspect that a former Clarence Thomas clerk would write such an outlier decision.

Which brings us to the tactics of this DOJ motion to reconsider filed yesterday in the Miller case. It makes two legal arguments and one logical one.

As I laid out here, Nichols ruled that the vote certification was an official proceeding, but that the statute in question only applied to obstruction achieved via the destruction of documents. He also held that there was sufficient uncertainty about what the statute means that the rule of lenity — basically the legal equivalent of “tie goes to the runner” — would apply.

DOJ challenged Nichols’ claim that there was enough uncertainty for the rule of lenity to apply. After all, the shade-filled motion suggested, thirteen of Nichols’ colleagues have found little such uncertainty.

First, the Court erred by applying the rule of lenity. Rejecting an interpretation of Section 1512(c)(2)’s scope that every other member of this Court to have considered the issue and every reported case to have considered the issue (to the government’s knowledge) has adopted, the Court found “serious ambiguity” in the statute. Mem. Op. at 28. The rule of lenity applies “‘only if, after seizing everything from which aid can be derived,’” the statute contains “a ‘grievous ambiguity or uncertainty,’” and the Court “‘can make no more than a guess as to what Congress intended.’” Ocasio v. United States, 578 U.S. 282, 295 n.8 (2016) (quoting Muscarello v. United States, 524 U.S. 125, 138-39 (1998)) (emphasis added); see also Mem. Op. at 9 (citing “‘grievous’ ambiguity” standard). Interpreting Section 1512(c)(2) consistently with its plain language to reach any conduct that “obstructs, influences, or impedes” a qualifying proceeding does not give rise to “serious” or “grievous” ambiguity.

[snip]

First, the Court erred by applying the rule of lenity to Section 1512(c)(2) because, as many other judges have concluded after examining the statute’s text, structure, and history, there is no genuine—let alone “grievous” or “serious”—ambiguity.

[snip]

Confirming the absence of ambiguity—serious, grievous, or otherwise—is that despite Section 1512(c)(2)’s nearly 20-year existence, no other judge has found ambiguity in Section 1512(c)(2), including eight judges on this Court considering the same law and materially identical facts. See supra at 5-6.

[snip]

Before this Court’s decision to the contrary, every reported case to have considered the scope of Section 1512(c)(2), see Gov’t Supp. Br., ECF 74, at 7-9, 1 and every judge on this Court to have considered the issue in cases arising out of the events at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, see supra at 5-6, concluded that Section 1512(c)(2) “prohibits obstruction by means other than document destruction.” Sandlin, 2021 WL 5865006, at *5. [my emphasis; note, not all of the 13 challenges to 1512(c)(2) that were rejected made a rule of lenity argument, which is why AUSA Pearce cited eight judges]

Among the other things that this argument will force Nichols to do if he wants to sustain his decision, on top of doubling down on being the extreme outlier on this decision, is to engage with all his colleagues’ opinions rather than (as he did in his original opinion) just with Judge Randolph Moss’.

The government then argued that by deciding that 1512(c)(2) applied to the vote certification but only regarding tampering with documents, Nichols was not actually ruling against DOJ, because he can only dismiss the charge at this stage if the defendant, Miller, doesn’t know what he is charged with, not if the evidence wouldn’t support such a charge.

Although Miller has styled his challenge to Section 1512(c)(2)’s scope as an attack on the indictment’s validity, the scope of the conduct covered under Section 1512(c)(2) is distinct from whether Count Three adequately states a violation of Section 1512(c)(2).6 Here, Count Three of the indictment puts Miller on notice as to the charges against which he must defend himself, while also encompassing both the broader theory that a defendant violates Section 1512(c)(2) through any corrupt conduct that “obstructs, impedes, or influences” an official proceeding and the narrower theory that a defendant must “have taken some action with respect to a document,” Mem. Op. at 28, in order to violate Section 1512(c)(2). The Court’s conclusion that only the narrower theory is a viable basis for conviction should not result in dismissal of Count Three in full; instead, the Court would properly enforce that limitation by permitting conviction on that basis alone.

The government argues that that means, given Nichols’ ruling, the government must be given the opportunity to prove that Miller’s actions were an attempt to spoil the actual vote certifications that had to be rushed out of the Chambers as mobsters descended.

Even assuming the Court’s interpretation of Section 1512(c)(2) were correct, and that the government therefore must prove “Miller took some action with respect to a document, record, or other object in order to corruptly obstruct, impede[,] or influence Congress’s certification of the electoral vote,” Mem. Op. at 29, the Court cannot determine whether Miller’s conduct meets that test until after a trial, at which the government is not limited to the specific allegations in the indictment. 7 And at trial, the government could prove that the Certification proceeding “operates through a deliberate and legally prescribed assessment of ballots, lists, certificates, and, potentially, written objections.” ECF 74, at 41. For example, evidence would show Congress had before it boxes carried into the House chamber at the beginning of the Joint Session that contained “certificates of votes from the electors of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia.” Reffitt, supra, Trial Tr. at 1064 (Mar. 4, 2022) (testimony of the general counsel to the Secretary of the United States Senate) (attached as Exhibit B).

Those are the two legal arguments the government has invited Nichols to reconsider.

But along the way of making those arguments, DOJ pointed out the absurd result dictated by Nichols’ opinion: That Guy Reffitt’s physical threats against members of Congress or the threat Miller is accused of making against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would not be obstruction, because neither man touched any documents.

Any such distinction between these forms of obstruction produces the absurd result that a defendant who attempts to destroy a document being used or considered by a tribunal violates Section 1512(c) but a defendant who threatens to use force against the officers conducting that proceeding escapes criminal liability under the statute.

[snip]

Finally, an interpretation of Section 1512(c)(2) that imposes criminal liability only when an individual takes direct action “with respect to a document, record, or other object” to obstruct a qualifying proceeding leads to absurd results. See United States v. X-Citement Video, Inc., 513 U.S. 64, 69 (1994) (rejecting interpretation of a criminal statute that would “produce results that were not merely odd, but positively absurd”). That interpretation would appear, for example, not to encompass an individual who seeks to “obstruct[], influence[], or impede[]” a congressional proceeding by explicitly stating that he intends to stop the legislators from performing their constitutional and statutory duties to certify Electoral College vote results by “drag[ging] lawmakers out of the Capitol by their heels with their heads hitting every step,” United States v. Reffitt, 21-cr-32 (DLF), Trial Tr. 1502, carrying a gun onto Capitol grounds, id. at 1499, and then leading a “mob and encourag[ing] it to charge toward federal officers, pushing them aside to break into the Capitol,” id. at 1501-02, unless he also picked up a “document or record” related to the proceeding during that violent assault. The statutory text does not require such a counterintuitive result.

The mention of Reffitt is surely included not just to embarrass Nichols by demonstrating the absurdity of his result. It is tactical.

Right now, there are two obstruction cases that might be the first to be appealed to the DC Circuit. This decision, or Guy Reffitt’s conviction, including on the obstruction count.

By asking Nichols to reconsider, DOJ may have bought time such that Reffitt will appeal before they would appeal Nichols’ decision. But by including language about Reffitt’s threats to lawmakers, DOJ has ensured not just the Reffitt facts and outcome will be available if and when they do appeal, but so would (if they are forced to appeal this decision) a Nichols decision upholding the absurd result that Reffitt didn’t obstruct the vote certification. Including the language puts him on the hook for it if he wants to force DOJ to appeal his decision.

I said in my post on Nichols’ opinion that DOJ probably considered themselves lucky that Nichols had argued for such an absurd result.

They may count themselves lucky that this particular opinion is not a particularly strong argument against their application. Nichols basically argues that intimidating Congress by assaulting the building is not obstruction of what he concedes is an official proceeding.

By including Reffitt in their motion for reconsideration, DOJ has made it part of the official record if and when they do appeal Nichols’ decision.

This would be a dick-wagging filing even absent the likelihood that Nichols has some awareness of Ginni Thomas’ antics and possibly even Eastman’s. It holds Nichols to account for blowing off virtually all the opinions of his colleagues, including fellow Trump appointees Dabney Friedrich and Tim Kelly, forcing him to defend his stance as the outlier it is.

But that is all the more true given that there’s now so much public evidence that Nichols’ deviant decision might have some tie to his personal relationship with the Thomases and even the non-public evidence of Ginni’s own role.

Plus, by making any appeal of this opinion — up to the Supreme Court, possibly — pivot on how and why Nichols came up with such an outlier opinion, it would make Justice Thomas’ participation in the decision far more problematic.


Carl Nichols, March 7, 2022, Miller

David Carter, March 28, 2022, Eastman

Opinions upholding obstruction application:

  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
  11. Rudolph Contreras, announced March 8, released March 14, Andries
  12. Paul Friedman, March 19, Puma

 

Four Rudy Giuliani-Related Privilege Reviews: DOJ Likely Already Has a Version of Document 4708

As I noted here and here, on Monday, Judge David Carter ordered John Eastman to turn over most documents he had been trying to withhold from the January 6 Committee. That order found that it was likely that Trump and Eastman had conspired to defraud the US. But there was just one document turned over on the basis of crime-fraud exception: a document otherwise privileged under a work product claim that, Judge Carter ruled, could not be withheld because it was sent in the commission of the attempt to obstruct the vote count.

Here’s how Carter described the document:

In this email, a colleague forwards to Dr. Eastman a memo they wrote for one of President Trump’s attorneys.153 The memo sketches a series of events for the days leading up to and following January 6, if Vice President Pence were to delay counting or reject electoral votes. The memo clearly contemplates and plans for litigation: it maps out potential Supreme Court suits and the impact of different judicial outcomes. While this memo was created for both political and litigation purposes, it substantively engages with potential litigation and its consequences for President Trump. The memo likely would have been written substantially differently had the author not expected litigation. The Court therefore finds that this document was created in anticipation of litigation.

[snip]

The eleventh document is a chain forwarding to Dr. Eastman a draft memo written for President Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani.274 The memo recommended that Vice President Pence reject electors from contested states on January 6. This may have been the first time members of President Trump’s team transformed a legal interpretation of the Electoral Count Act into a day-by-day plan of action. The draft memo pushed a strategy that knowingly violated the Electoral Count Act, and Dr. Eastman’s later memos closely track its analysis and proposal. The memo is both intimately related to and clearly advanced the plan to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021. Because the memo likely furthered the crimes of obstruction of an official proceeding and conspiracy to defraud the United States, it is subject to the crime-fraud exception and the Court ORDERS it to be disclosed.

274 4708. [my emphasis]

Carter’s decision and the release of documents has set off the usual wails about how much more proactive the January 6 Committee is than DOJ, replete with statements of fact — almost always people who haven’t done any work to understand what DOJ is really doing — that DOJ hasn’t taken steps to obtain such documents itself.

I’d like to look at four privilege reviews that implicate Rudy Giuliani and show that it is likely DOJ already has this document or at least ones that are related. Those reviews are:

  • Judge David Carter’s review of 111 documents subpoenaed from John Eastman by the January 6 committee
  • The 11-month long privilege review of materials on 16 devices seized from Rudy Giuliani on April 28, 2021
  • Details released about Robert Costello’s advice to Steve Bannon provided in response to a subpoena from the January 6 Committee
  • The known details about subpoenas served on Sidney Powell’s non-profit, Defending the Republic

John Eastman

As explained here, the David Carter opinion describes the judge’s privilege review of just four days of materials (January 4 to January 7, 2021) responsive to the January 6 Committee subpoena to Eastman. Carter went meticulously through seven categories of materials in Eastman’s possession and determined that just ten documents could be withheld under a work product claim and one — document 4708 — had to be turned over under a crime-fraud exception.

Carter ruled the document — an email chain that forwarded a memo written for Rudy to Eastman — was excepted under a crime-fraud exception because, the judge described, it sought to transform Eastman’s Electoral Count Act scheme “into a day-by-day plan of action.” Eastman didn’t write it. Rather, because the document was created for Rudy, Carter treated it along with four others, “created by or for agents of President Trump or his campaign, including attorneys of record in state cases and President Trump’s personal attorney.” [my emphasis]

References to the document explain that Eastman claimed attorney-client privilege over the document (fn 81, 125) and someone wrote “PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL” in email text (fn 101).

Carter’s review of the document is particularly valuable for how he dismisses Eastman’s attorney-client privilege claim: In hundreds of pages of briefing, Eastman provided no evidence that its sender was affiliated with the Trump campaign or was covered by Eastman’s own claim to be representing Trump.

Dr. Eastman claims attorney-client privilege over only nine documents: five emails125 and four attachments.126 None of these documents includes Dr. Eastman’s client, President Trump, as a sender or recipient of the email. Instead, all emails are sent from a third party to Dr. Eastman, and two of the emails blind copy (bcc) a close advisor to President Trump.127

Despite having filed nearly a hundred pages of briefing, Dr. Eastman does not mention this third-party email sender anywhere in his briefs; the person is named only in his privilege log entries. Dr. Eastman’s description in the privilege log is conclusory, describing the sender merely as his “co-counsel.”128 Dr. Eastman failed to provide retainer agreements or a sworn declaration that would prove this third party was an attorney or agent for President Trump. The Court also cannot infer the third party’s affiliation with President Trump from his email, which is a generic, [email protected] email address. Dr. Eastman has not met his burden to show that these communications were with an agent of President Trump or the Trump campaign, and as such, these documents do not warrant the protection of the attorney-client privilege.

In other words, there was someone involved in relaying a memo originally written for Rudy to Eastman that Eastman didn’t want to or couldn’t argue was a Trump lawyer. And that’s why this attorney-client privilege claim failed. That’s an important detail because — as we’ll see — Bannon tried something similar.

Rudy Giuliani

Now let’s turn to Rudy’s phones. As I keep explaining, while the known warrants used to seize Rudy’s phones cover his Ukrainian influence peddling and cover a time period from May 1, 2018 through December 31, 2019, SDNY got Judge Paul Oetken to approve a Special Master review that covered the period from January 1, 2018 through the date of seizure, April 28, 2021. Special Master Barbara Jones’ review is only for privilege claims (including Executive privilege and attorney-client at least), not for responsiveness to any subpoena, so the end result of her review will result in turning over all non-privileged content on Rudy’s devices from that 28-month period.

That means if the person who created the memo forwarded as part of document 4708 sent it to Rudy on one of the devices that were seized, then the underlying memo would be included in the Special Master review.

We don’t know how DOJ has prioritized this review. We know only what is in this and earlier reports, which I’ve captured in this table.

Jones did an initial review, covering the entire timeframe (that is, post-dating January 1, 2018) of 7 devices, from which she found 3 documents about which she had some question, but ultimately deemed them privileged and turned over 2,000 other items.

Then, seemingly in parallel, she did a review of Device 1B05 (a cell phone) and 8 other devices. For the 8 devices, her review covered only the period of Rudy’s Ukrainian influence peddling. But for Device 1B05, Jones’ review covered the full 28-month period, meaning it would include any texts or messages sent on or pertaining to January 6.

I next assigned for review the chats and messages that post-dated January 1, 2018 on Device 1B05, which is a cell phone. There were originally 25,481 such items, which later increased to 25,629 after a technical issue involving document attachments was identified. An initial release of non-designated items was made to the Government’s investigative team on November 11, 2021.1

Of the total documents assigned for review, Mr. Giuliani designated 96 items as privileged and/or highly personal. Of those 96 designated items, I agreed that 40 were privileged, Mr. Giuliani’s counsel withdrew the privilege designation over 19, and I found that 37 were not privileged. I shared these determinations with Mr. Giuliani’s counsel, and they indicated that they would not challenge my determination that the 37 items are not privileged. The 40 privileged documents have been withheld from the Government’s investigative team and the remaining 56 were released on January 19, 2022.

1 Additional non-designated items were released on January 19, 2022.

Device 1B05 was the only one for which Jones disputed the original privilege claims made by Rudy and his attorney Robert Costello. Of 40 items, Jones agreed with their privilege claim. Of 19, Costello withdrew the claim. And of 37, Jones told Costello she disagreed, after which Costello decided not to fight her ruling.

While these discussions were going on, Judge Oetken issued a ruling that, if Rudy wanted to challenge Jones’ rulings, they’d have to make their legal arguments (but not the content of the contested communications) public. During the Michael Cohen privilege review, such a decision led Cohen and Trump to drop privilege claims, probably over the crime-fraud excepted hush payment communications, and that may be what happened here.

Whatever happened, we know that, with the exception of 43 items, any January 6-related communications that were on half of the 16 phones seized from Rudy would have been turned over to the FBI for a scope review. To be clear, investigators wouldn’t be able to access those comms unless they got a separate warrant for them, but we would never know (short of an indictment relying on them) if they had.

None of that guarantees that the memo forwarded with Eastman’s document 4708 is in DOJ possession. If the person who wrote it emailed it, it would not necessarily be on the seized devices. (Though if DOJ had a January 6 warrant for Rudy’s phones, they presumably would have obtained one for his email and iCloud as well, as they did with his Ukraine investigation.) If the person delivered it by hand, it would not be on the devices. And it’s possible that Costello made a more compelling argument than Eastman did that the sender was covered by a privilege claim tied to Trump.

Steve Bannon

We don’t know what kind of wild privilege claims Robert Costello was making as part of the privilege review of Rudy’s devices (which started in earnest in September 2021). But we do know what kind of wild privilege claims Robert Costello was making for another of his clients, Steve Bannon, in discussions of how to respond to a subpoena from the January 6 between October 5 and 19, 2021. He provided those details (including two 302s from interviews at which FBI agents were present) in a bid to claim he — Costello — was unfairly targeted as part of DOJ’s investigation of Bannon’s contempt (see this post for details).

In Costello’s interviews, he was all over the map about whether Bannon could invoke Executive Privilege. He said that according to some OLC opinions, Bannon did not have to be a government employee to receive “protections” under EP, and that “TRUMP had the right to claim it for BANNON.” He said that 10 of the 17 items on the Jan 6 subpoena were covered by EP. He admitted EP did not cover a request for comms involving Scott Perry and “it would take a ‘creative argument’ to apply Executive Privilege to that particular item.” He admitted, too, that comms with the Proud Boys wouldn’t be covered by EP if such communications existed.  He said that EP claims should be worked out between Trump and the Committee. He said he had told Bannon that Bannon could not invoke EP because “that authority belongs to the President.”

Ultimately, though, Costello admitted that Trump’s attorney Justin Clark never reviewed anything Bannon might have claimed privilege over and refused several requests to contact the Committee himself about EP.

COSTELLO did not provide any documents to attorneys representing former President Trump for review to determine if Executive Privilege covered the documents. At the time, COSTELLO did not know what attorneys were representing others who had received Select Committee subpoenas.

COSTELLO asked CLARK to reach out to the Select Committee and to directly express to the Select Committee what COSTELLO and BANNON were confused about in regards to Executive Privilege. COSTELLO estimated he requested this of CLARK approximately two or three times; however, CLARK did not reach out to the Select Committee. COSTELLO did not have prior knowledge of the lawsuit of former President TRUMP.

[snip]

CLARK would not identify for COSTELLO what would be covered under Executive Privilege and that CLARK left that determination up to those who had received the Select Committee subpoena. CLARK also refused to reach out to the Select Committee on behalf of COSTELLO or BANNON.

[snip]

COSTELLO did not provide or offer any documents to attorneys representing former President TRUMP to review for Executive Privilege.

In a follow-up, Costello effectively admitted there was no concrete record that Trump had invoked EP.

Costello stated that Justin Clark (Clark) was trying to be intentionally vague; however, Costello was clear former President Donald Trump (President Trump) asserted executive privilege with regard to Bannon.

When DOJ asked Costello for a letter indicating that Clark had invoked EP for Bannon, he had nothing specific.

Then there was the matter of Bannon’s podcasts. Costello ceded they weren’t covered by privilege, but only because they were public (!!!!), and appears to have just assumed the Committee would go get them on their own.

With regards to responding to the Select Committee’s request for documents, COSTELLO planned to send a link to the website hosting all of BANNON’s publicly accessibly podcasts.

[snip]

The podcasts requested could be obtained by the Select Committee off the internet, and since they were in the public domain, the podcasts also were not covered by Executive Privilege.

[snip]

COSTELLO admitted he did not have a good answer as to why he didn’t disclose to the Select Committee that the podcasts were in the public domain and BANNON was not required to respond to that particular item. COSTELLO believed the particular requests regarding the podcasts was just a “bad request” by the Select Committee.

The most telling piece of advice given by the lawyer Bannon shares with Rudy — one that goes to the heart of what Costello might have done in discussions taking place at the same time about privilege with SDNY — was that Bannon, who is not a lawyer, could claim attorney-client privilege over items requested in item 17 of the subpoena, which asked for,

Any communications with Rudolph Giuliani, John Eastman, Michael Flynn, Jenna Ellis, or Sydney Powell about any of the foregoing topics.

Costello claimed these such communications, including those with Mike Flynn or Sidney Powell, would be covered by attorney-client or work product privilege.

COSTELLO believed that the request listed as number 17 involved information over which BANNON could assert attorney-client privilege given it included a request for communications between BANNON and RUDOLPH GIULIANI, JENNA ELLIS, and other attorneys who were working for former President Trump.

[snip]

COSTELLO believed item 17 was covered by attorney-client privilege or by attorney work product protections. Even though MICHAEL FLYNN was not an attorney, he was present during attorney-client-protected discussions. Those particular attorneys represented former President TRUMP and CLARK informed COSTELLO not to respond to item 17.

There’s so much crazy-train about this last bit. After stating over and over that Clark refused to invoke EP, Costello then admitted that Clark wanted Bannon to withhold communications involving Rudy, Eastman, Powell, and Mike Flynn. Costello admitted Flynn (like Bannon) was not a lawyer, but was still prepared to claim attorney work product over comms with him anyway. But the thing I can’t get enough of is that Rudy’s lawyer Robert Costello was claiming that Sidney Powell — who, in a written statement issued on November 22, 2020, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani made very clear did not represent Donald Trump — represented Donald Trump.

Still, all this crazy train amounts to non-lawyer Bannon, advised by the lawyer he shares with Rudy, making the same claim that lawyer John Eastman had made regarding “war” planning leading up to January 6; that such documents were covered by work product privilege. That’s the same claim that Judge Carter just applied a crime-fraud exception for.

I’m guessing Costello attempted to make similar claims with Barbara Jones in SDNY and I’m guessing that Jones pointed out that Bannon and Flynn aren’t lawyers and Rudy was quite clear that Powell was not Trump’s lawyer. In other words, I think it likely that some of the claims Costello withdrew are similar to those that Eastman failed with. If that’s right, it increases the chance Document 4708 would be turned over to DOJ.

Sidney Powell

And then there’s the Kraken lady.

We don’t know the full scope of the grand jury investigation into Powell, aside from the fact that Molly Gaston, who is supervising the Bannon prosecution, is also involved in it (which means she’d have visibility on the overlap between the two, and would know that Trump’s lawyer tried to withhold comms involving Powell without invoking privilege). The subpoena requests, at least, cover the finances of her Defending the Republic “non-profit.”

The federal probe, which has not been previously reported, is examining the finances of Defending the Republic, an organization founded by Powell to fund her “Kraken” lawsuits to overturn the 2020 election, the sources said.According to two of the people familiar with the matter, a grand jury was empaneled, and subpoenas and documents requests have gone out to multiple individuals as recently as September.

The investigation, then, would cover activities that are tangential to the January 6 subpoenas to Bannon and Eastman.

But the fact that there’s a grand jury investigation into Powell makes it exceedingly likely DOJ got a warrant for her emails.

She has a valid privilege claim covering communications with Mike Flynn for some of this period. But thanks to Rudy’s public statement, she has no privilege covering her actions for Trump.

Chances are pretty good she received a copy of the memo for Rudy too (if the memo wasn’t written by someone with closer ties to Powell than Rudy).

I think it’s likely that DOJ has multiple copies of document 4708, probably via Rudy, Bannon, and Powell, if not Eastman himself (getting it from Chapman U would always have been easy to do with a gag, and would be still easier now).

What’s clear, though, is that the lawyer that Rudy and Bannon share is making privilege claims every bit as absurd as the ones Carter just rejected, and with Bannon, there’s no question about privilege claims.

Judge David Carter Confirms Trump Could Be Prosecuted for [A Lower Standard of] Obstruction

As you’ve no doubt heard, Judge David Carter issued an order releasing 91 documents from the days before and the day of the insurrection to the January 6 Committee. Chapman University professor John Eastman had attempted to withhold them from the 6 Committee under privilege claims. Judge Carter allowed Eastman to withhold just ten documents, most pertaining to then-ongoing lawsuits.

The headline finding from his opinion is that Judge Carter found it more likely than not that Trump committed the crime hundreds of other insurrectionists have been charged with — obstruction of an official proceeding — and Eastman and Trump (and others) entered into a conspiracy to do so.

On August 19, I laid out that if Trump were to be prosecuted, it would be for conspiring to obstruct the vote count. At the the time, TV lawyers ignored me, thinking they knew better. In December, after Liz Cheney argued that Trump had obstructed an official proceeding, those same TV lawyers started adopting the theory as if they had come up with it. Now a judge has agreed that it is likely that Trump did commit that crime that I laid out back in August.

Sometimes I hate to say I told the TV lawyers so. This is not one of those times.

Especially since, of the three kinds of overt acts that Carter cites to substantiate his decision, two — Trump’s pressure on Mike Pence and his mobilization of his mob to march on the Capitol — are Trump actions about which DOJ has been accumulating piles of evidence. In my opinion, by including the mobilization of the mob in his opinion, Carter showed a better understanding of Trump’s legal exposure than the Committee.

There are five elements Carter needed to establish to make his finding. First, to find Trump may have obstructed a vote count, Carter pointed to:

  • Proof the vote certification was an official proceeding
  • The actions Trump took to obstruct that official proceeding
  • Proof of Trump’s corrupt intent

Then, to show that Trump and Eastman (and others) entered into a conspiracy to obstruct the vote count, he pointed to:

  • An agreement to defraud the US
  • Eastman’s own dishonest actions

Carter didn’t spend much time on the official proceeding prong. Instead he relied on the ten existing DC rulings on the issue finding the vote certification was an official proceeding cited in the committee brief (there are now at least 13 opinions finding it to be an official proceeding, though Carter did not address the issue on which Judge Carl Nichols had differed from his colleagues, whether obstruction required destroying of documents).

Carter pointed to three kinds of acts that amounted to Trump’s effort to obstruct the election: two meetings before January 6 where they discussed pressuring Pence, several appeals on the morning of January 6 to Pence (including on Twitter), and “galvanizing the crowed to join him in enacting the plan,” by walking to the Capitol.

President Trump facilitated two meetings in the days before January 6 that were explicitly tied to persuading Vice President Pence to disrupt the Joint Session of Congress. On January 4, President Trump and Dr. Eastman hosted a meeting in the Oval Office with Vice President Pence, the Vice President’s counsel Greg Jacob, and the Vice President’s Chief of Staff Marc Short.209 At that meeting, Dr. Eastman presented his plan to Vice President Pence, focusing on either rejecting electors or delaying the count.210 When Vice President Pence was unpersuaded, President Trump sent Dr. Eastman to review the plan in depth with the Vice President’s counsel on January 5.211 Vice President Pence’s counsel interpreted Dr. Eastman’s presentation as being on behalf of the President.212

On the morning of January 6, President Trump made several last-minute “revised appeal[s] to the Vice President” to pressure him into carrying out the plan.213 At 1:00 am, President Trump tweeted: “If Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency . . . Mike can send it back!”214 At 8:17 am, President Trump tweeted: “All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!”215 Shortly after, President Trump rang Vice President Pence and once again urged him “to make the call” and enact the plan.216 Just before the Joint Session of Congress began, President Trump gave a speech to a large crowd on the Ellipse in which he warned, “[a]nd 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.”217 President Trump ended his speech by galvanizing the crowd to join him in enacting the plan: “[L]et’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue” to give Vice President Pence and Congress “the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”218

Together, these actions more likely than not constitute attempts to obstruct an official proceeding. [my emphasis]

It is public that DOJ has spent months focusing on the second (pressure on Pence) and third (mobilizing his mob) actions. Indeed, as I have shown, DOJ has laid out proof that many of the conspiracies had the specific goal of pressuring Pence.

To show that this met obstruction’s requirement of corrupt intent, Carter relied on a Ninth Circuit precedent that, for where he is in California, adopts a lower threshold for corrupt intent than the one adopted by the DC District judges so far.

The Ninth Circuit has not defined “corruptly” for purposes of this statute.222 However, the court has made clear that the threshold for acting “corruptly” is lower than “consciousness of wrongdoing,”223 meaning a person does not need to know their actions are wrong to break the law. Because President Trump likely knew that the plan to disrupt the electoral count was wrongful, his mindset exceeds the threshold for acting “corruptly” under § 1512(c).

There is no such precedent in DC and, as I’ve argued, Judge Dabney Friedrich’s adopted standard is actually higher than this, finding corrupt intent in the commission of otherwise illegal actions. So Carter’s opinion, on top of meeting a lower standard than DOJ would need to charge, dodged two legal issues already before the DC District judges, whether obstruction required the destruction of evidence and whether it required otherwise illegal actions. It’s not clear that the actions that he lays out would, by themselves, meet Friedrich’s standard.

Carter pointed to two kinds of proof that Trump knew the plan to obstruct the vote count was wrong. He pointed to the 60 court losses as proof that their claims of voter fraud were false. He also pointed to Trump’s demand from Brad Raffensperger for exactly the number of votes he needed to win, which Carter presented as proof that Trump cared about winning, not voter fraud (As I have repeated over and over, this is one Trump action that is otherwise illegal).

President Trump and Dr. Eastman justified the plan with allegations of election fraud— but President Trump likely knew the justification was baseless, and therefore that the entire plan was unlawful. Although Dr. Eastman argues that President Trump was advised several state elections were fraudulent,224 the Select Committee points to numerous executive branch officials who publicly stated225 and privately stressed to President Trump226 that there was no evidence of fraud. By early January, more than sixty courts dismissed cases alleging fraud due to lack of standing or lack of evidence,227 noting that they made “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations”228 and that “there is no evidence to support accusations of voter fraud.”229 President Trump’s repeated pleas230 for Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger clearly demonstrate that his justification was not to investigate fraud, but to win the election: “So what are we going to do here, folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break.”231 Taken together, this evidence demonstrates that President Trump likely knew the electoral count plan had no factual justification.

Carter then points to the two meetings (bolded above) as the moment when Eastman and Trump — and others — entered into a conspiracy to obstruct the vote count. Notably, this may put everyone else who was in that meeting on the hook for the conspiracy as well, members of an enormous conspiracy already charged against sixty people, including some seditionists.

He then pointed to Eastman’s awareness that his theories were bullshit and Pence’s repetitive insistence they were to find Eastman acted dishonestly.

The plan not only lacked factual basis but also legal justification. Dr. Eastman’s memo noted that the plan was “BOLD, Certainly.”232 The memo declared Dr. Eastman’s intent to step outside the bounds of normal legal practice: “we’re no longer playing by Queensbury Rules.”233 In addition, Vice President Pence “very consistent[ly]” made clear to President Trump that the plan was unlawful, refusing “many times” to unilaterally reject electors or return them to the states.234

[snip]

The evidence shows that Dr. Eastman was aware that his plan violated the Electoral Count Act. Dr. Eastman likely acted deceitfully and dishonestly each time he pushed an outcome-driven plan that he knew was unsupported by the law.

So on top of getting some documents, this opinion lays out a framework that envisions Trump being charged for the same crimes that DOJ has been working towards charging him and others on for over a year.

In several ways, though (the standard of proof and two legal standards he adopted on obstruction), Carter has only found Trump may have obstructed the vote count at a much lower standard than DOJ would need.

Steve Bannon’s Phantom Executive Privilege

In a reply motion demanding to know why DOJ subpoenaed the toll records for him, the lawyer Steve Bannon shares with Rudy Giuliani, Robert Costello, claims DOJ obtained the email information, including hundreds of pages from Google, for different Robert Costellos, not him.

The hundreds of pages of email information they obtained from Google, including email addresses (and IP addresses) of the sender and recipient, date and time of the emails, metadata, social media and meeting (Google Hangouts) data, information as to whether each email was read, remained unread, was deleted, or what filing box the recipient put it in, and more [See e.g., 0011510001249; 001339-1732] were all for another completely uninvolved citizen apparently named Robert Costello or Robert M. Costello. In fact, not one of the email accounts the Government sought access to in this case, intending to get defense counsel’s emails, actually was defense counsel’s email account.

He even issued a declaration stating, among other things, that,

I have no association whatsoever with email accounts with the addresses “[email protected],” or “[email protected],” or “[email protected],” or “[email protected]

We shall see how the government explains this claimed mix-up, assuming Judge Carl Nichols permits them to file a surreply (Costello claims he only just discovered these weren’t his emails after reviewing them for months).

That said, Costello did not deny association with email accounts with the addresses of, [email protected], [email protected], or [email protected], which appear to be included in the friends and family accounts of the main Gmail account in question. And though Costello claims to provide the exhibits to back his claims, he doesn’t provide the Comcast return and doesn’t provide back-up for the bulk of the returns he is complaining about (US 001339-001732 below).

What Costello has also shown is that, in a memo to DOJ, he claimed to quote from a letter from Justin Clark, who would have been acting as Trump’s lawyer, invoking privilege on Trump’s behalf.

“President Trump vigorously objects to the overbreadth and scope of these requests and believes they are a threat to the institution of the Presidency and the independence of the Executive Branch.” Mr. Clark added that:

“Through the Subpoenas, the Select Committee seeks records and testimony purportedly related to the events of January 6th, 2021, including but not limited to information which is potentially protected from disclosure by the executive and other privileges, including among others, the presidential communications, deliberative process, and attorney-client privileges. President Trump is prepared to defend these fundamental privileges in court.

As I’ve previously noted, at a meeting on November 3 at which Costello was supposed to be presenting that memo, Costello alternately claimed:

  • He had had no communications with Trump lawyers prior to October 18
  • Clark refused to reach out to the January 6 Committee on behalf of Costello or Bannon
  • Costello could not recall who brought up Executive Privilege first, him or Clark
  • Costello did not ask Clark to attend the hearing because he wouldn’t contact the committee on his behalf (even though his later complaint was that the Committee refused to have a Trump lawyer present)

In that November 3 meeting, Costello said he’d provide all the backup to support his claims.

But when JP Cooney asked for all the documents Costello claimed to be relying on in the memo and an interview with DOJ and the FBI on November 3, 2021, Costello said, “as soon as I locate the letter I received from Justin Clark, acting as counsel for President Trump, I will forward that under separate cover.” Cooney responded, making sure, “please review and let us know if this constitutes your entire production.”

There’s no evidence in this filing that Costello ever provided it.

Which may be why, in a follow-up interview on November 8 — after searching and (at least as this record shows) not finding any letter from Clark — Costello told DOJ:

There are additional discrepancies disclosed by the materials Costello has included.

In his declaration, Costello (who, remember, was investigated as part of the Mueller investigation for helping to dangle pardons) complained that this meeting to stave off an indictment didn’t work like all the previous times he had had such meetings.

[I]t is clear to me that the representatives of the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia never had any intention of engaging in a lawyer like discussion of the legal merits of a prosecution of Mr. Bannon for criminal contempt of Congress. This position was and is shocking to me because of the many prior instances when this same Office declined to prosecute others, including sitting United States Attorney Generals based upon a referral from Congress.

There’s more: For example, Costello misrepresents when he joined Bannon’s defense team for this.

But the key detail is that Costello claimed to have a letter from Trump invoking Executive Privilege. And when DC USAO asked to see it, Costello changed his story.

Update, April 19: I’ve updated the timeline below with two documents DOJ submitted on April 15. They raise further inconsistencies in Costello’s statements to the FBI and DOJ in his interviews.


BATES STAMP RANGE: US 001093-001883

US 001093: Grand jury subpoena

US 001145-001768: 623-page return from Internet provider showing IP activity, status (read or unread, inbox, etc.) and other details concerning emails and other activity offered by the carrier obtained with a Section 2703(d) Order on November 11, 2021 [US 001733] that includes a case number [US 001732-001735] and returned on December 7, 2021.  Returns include:

US 001769-001789: Costello’s 302s

US 001808: Yahoo return

US 001833-001878: Subpoenas for home, direct office, and cell phone from September 1 to October 20, 2021

US 001834: Case number

US 001842: Case number

US 001863: Subscriber record showing payment method for Costello’s cell phone

US 001866: Costello’s data usage

US 001872; Grand jury subpoena

US 001874-001875:  SMS (text messaging) information, including the numbers to which texts were sent and from which they were received

TIMELINE

March 5: Beginning date for Costello records request (last event involving Bannon and Costello in Kolfage)

September 22: First contact between J6 and Bannon

September 23: Bannon subpoena

September 24: Costello accepts service

October 5: Media reports on subpoenas to Mark Meadows and others; call from Justin Clark

October 6: Clark instructs Costello to invoke whatever privileges he can, including executive, deliberative, and attorney-client

October 6: Costello claims Clark invoked privilege; Costello’s memo quotes Clark invoking privilege; undated call with Tonolli (actually on October 12)

October 7, 10AM: Original deadline for document production

October 7, 5:05PM: Costello letter claiming Trump invoked privilege

October 8: Thompson letter to Bannon rejecting non-compliance

October 12: Call with Tonolli re representation from Trump

October 13: Costello and Clark speak

October 13: Second Costello letter, demanding accommodation with Trump

October 14: Clark corrects Costello that he had simply reiterated his October 6 letter

October 14, 10AM: Original date for Bannon testimony

October 15: Thompson letter noticing failure to comply with subpoena, warning of contempt meeting, setting response deadline for October 18, 6PM

October 16: Clark emails Costello stating clearly that he had not told him he had immunity from testifying

October 18: Thompson letter to Bannon with deadline; Trump sues Thompson and the Archives on privilege issues; Costello claims he sent a note to Thompson;

October 18, 6:50 PM: White House says no privilege after 2017

October 19: Bannon claims they intended to respond; Amerling letter to Costello; J6 business meeting to hold Bannon in contempt; Thompson letter to “change course”?

October 20: Rules committee meeting to hold Bannon in contempt

October 21 Bannon held in contempt

October 25: Costello email exchange with Cooney (and Phillips); Costello asks for meeting after October 27

October 28: Matthew Graves confirmed as US Attorney

October 29: Cooney suggests November 3

November 1: Costello emails memo arguing against prosecution, dated October 29

November 2: Kristin Amerling interview

November 3: Costello informs he’ll be joined by Katz; First interview with Robert Costello; Cooney follows up asking for documents

November 4: Cooney asks Costello to confirm full production

November 5: Matthew Graves sworn in as US Attorney

November 8: Second interview with Robert Costello

November 11: Subpoena to Internet provider

November 12: End date for Costello records request

November 12: Indictment

November 15: Bannon arrest; David Schoen and Evan Corcoran file notices of appearance

November 18: At status conference, government says there are just 200 documents of discovery

December 2: Costello moves to appear PHV; Government asks if Bannon intends to rely on advice of counsel defense

December 7: Returns on Internet provider (623 pages)

December 7 to 16: Bannon refuses to submit joint status report

January 4: DOJ turns over 790 pages of records from Costello

January 6: Bannon request for more information on Costello

January 7: Government response to Bannon request

January 14: Bannon discovery request letter; Bannon motion to compel regarding Costello

January 28: Government response to discovery demand

February 4: In guise of Motion to Compel, Bannon complains about “spying” on Robert Costello

Judge Carl Nichols Upends DOJ’s January 6 Prosecution Strategy

On Friday, I argued that both the January 6 Committee and TV lawyers wailing about DOJ’s slow pace of prosecution needed to look more closely at the litigation surrounding DOJ’s use of 18 USC 1512(c)(2) to prosecute January 6 defendants.

[U]ltimately 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.

Judge Carl Nichols — the Trump-appointed judge presiding over the Steve Bannon case and as such one of the most likely judges to preside over any Trump prosecution — will undoubtedly finally generate needed attention to what judges are doing.

That’s because he just rejected DOJ’s application in the case of Garret Miller. In places, the decision is reasonable; in others, it is far too clever. Nichols acknowledges only the Randolph Moss opinion in on this topic, thereby ignoring some language addressing issues he raises in his opinion.

Nichols disagrees with Miller’s contention that the vote certification was not an official proceeding.

[I]t makes little if any sense, in the context here, to read “a proceeding before Congress” as invoking only the judicial sense of the word “proceeding.” After all, the only proceedings of even a quasijudicial nature before Congress are impeachment proceedings, and Miller has offered no reason to think Congress intended such a narrow definition here.

But he argued that the word “otherwise” in the statute necessarily connects the charged clause to the one prior to it, and should be read as a limitation of it. From that, he reads the statute to pertain only to evidence tampering, not witness tampering.

He then cites Justice Kavanaugh to argue that under the rule of lenity, such ambiguity here must be judged in favor of the defendant.

“Under the rule of lenity, courts construe penal laws strictly and resolve ambiguities in favor of the defendant,” id., so long as doing so would not “conflict with the implied or expressed intent of Congress,” Liparota v. United States, 471 U.S. 419, 427 (1985). Under current doctrine, the rule of lenity applies to instances of “grievous” ambiguity, see Shular v. United States, 140 S. Ct. 779, 788 (2020) (Kavanaugh, J., concurring) (collecting citations), a construction that is arguably in tension with the rule’s historical origins, see 1 William Blackstone, Commentaries *88 (“Penal statutes must be construed strictly.”). See also Wooden v. United States, ___ U.S. ___, ___ (2022) (Gorsuch, J., concurring in judgment) (slip op. at 9–12); but see id. (Kavanaugh, J., concurring) (slip op. at 1–4).

Via a variety of means, Nichols judges that 1512(c)(2) must relate to the destruction of evidence, which Miller is not accused of doing.

The Court therefore concludes that § 1512(c)(2) must be interpreted as limited by subsection (c)(1), and thus requires that the defendant have taken some action with respect to a document, record, or other object in order to corruptly obstruct, impede or influence an official proceeding.

This argument has holes in it–holes that were addressed by some of the opinions he ignores.

Nichols simply dismisses the argument that Congress could have provided the kind of limiting language he thinks should be inferred.

Another court has sought to allay this overlap concern by pointing to the language Congress could have used:

[I]t would have been easy for Congress to craft language to achieve the goal that Defendants now hypothesize. Congress, for example, could have substituted Section 1512(c)(2) with the following: “engages in conduct that otherwise impairs the integrity or availability of evidence or testimony for use in an official proceeding.” The fact that Congress, instead, enacted language that more generally—and without the limitations that Defendants now ask the Court to adopt—criminalized efforts corruptly to obstruct official proceedings speaks volume.

Montgomery, 2021 WL 6134591, at *12. That is certainly true, and in fact is why the Court does not believe that there is a single obvious interpretation of the statute. But it is also the case that reading § 1512(c)(1) as limiting the scope of § 1512(c)(2) avoids many of these structural or contextual issues altogether

He also ignores some differences between clause c and other clauses of 1512, arguments made and dismissed by some of the opinions he ignores.

At a minimum, conduct made unlawful by at least eleven subsections— §§ 1512(a)(1)(A), 1512(a)(1)(B), 1512(a)(2)(A), 1512(a)(2)(B)(i), 1512(a)(2)(B)(iii),1512(a)(2)(B)(iv), 1512(b)(1), 1512(b)(2)(A), 1512(b)(2)(C), 1512(b)(2)(D), and 1512(d)(1)— would also run afoul of § 1512(c)(2).

He also makes a comparison between clause b and c, ignoring that c(2) — and the behavior Miller is accused of — is equivalent to b(2)(D).

DOJ will have a ready response to this on appeal. They may count themselves lucky that this particular opinion is not a particularly strong argument against their application. Nichols basically argues that intimidating Congress by assaulting the building is not obstruction of what he concedes is an official proceeding.

But this will cause a number of prosecutions, including of some defendants who were about to provide key cooperation, to grind to a halt until this is appealed.

Update: In other news, Guy Reffitt was just found guilty on all five charges against him. That includes the obstruction charge. So the DC Circuit will soon be getting two appeals of the obstruction application.

Update, 4/1/22: DOJ asked Nichols to reconsider, making two legal and one common sense arguments:

  • You can’t really argue there’s some grievous uncertainty implicating the rule of lenity if 13 of your colleagues don’t see it.
  • Your ruling that 1512(c)(2) requires document destruction is an evidentiary question, not a motion to dismiss one, and if we have to we’ll argue that Miller’s actions posed a risk to the actual ballots.
  • Your logic would suggest that, per the Reffitt scenario, attempting to drag lawmakers out of Congress to prevent them from certifying the vote would not be obstruction.

Other opinions upholding obstruction application:

  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; May 9, 2022, Hughes (by minute order), rejecting Miller
  5. Randolph Moss, December 28, 2021, Montgomery
  6. Beryl Howell, January 21, 2022, DeCarlo
  7. John Bates, February 1, 2022, McHugh; May 2, 2022 [on reconsideration]
  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
  11. Rudolph Contreras, announced March 8, released March 14, Andries
  12. Paul Friedman, March 19, Puma
  13. Thomas Hogan, March 30, Sargent (opinion forthcoming)
  14. Trevor McFadden, May 6, Hale-Cusanelli

Why to Delay a Mark Meadows Indictment: Bannon Is Using His Contempt Prosecution to Monitor the Ongoing January 6 Investigation

In this post, I described that DOJ would be smarter to charge Mark Meadows with obstruction for his destruction of records relevant to an ongoing investigation than to charge him for misdemeanor criminal contempt of Congress. That’s because obstruction, a felony, would pose the risk of real jail time, which would be more likely to convince Meadows to cooperate with investigators and explain what he did as part of an attempt to steal the election.

On December 15, the House voted to send the Mark Meadows contempt referral to DOJ for prosecution. Much to the chagrin of the TV lawyers, DOJ has not taken overt action against Meadows on the criminal contempt of Congress referral.

But as I’ve repeatedly argued, that referral is better considered — and would be more useful to the pursuit of justice — as a referral of Mark Meadows for a violation of the Presidential Records Act and obstruction of the DOJ criminal investigation that he knew to be ongoing.

Among the things included in the referral are:

  • A link to this Politico report quoting “a source close to former President Donald Trump’s ex-chief of staff,” insisting that, “all necessary and appropriate steps either were or are being taken” to ensure that Meadows is not deemed to have violated the Presidential Records Act by failing to share Presidential communications he conducted on his personal email and phone
  • Repeated references to Jonathan Swan’s coverage of the December 18 meeting at which Powell and others discussed seizing the voting machines
  • Indication that Meadows received notice on his personal phone (and so among the records withheld in violation of the PRA) the rally might get violent
  • A citation of a message that Meadows turned over to the committee (but presumably not, originally, to the Archives) in which Alyssa Farah urged, “You guys have to say something. Even if the president’s not willing to put out a statement, you should go to the [cameras] and say, ‘We condemn this. Please stand down.’ If you don’t, people are going to die”
  • Citation of several communications Meadows had with state politicians involved in the fake elector scheme (which Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco has confirmed they are investigating), including one where Meadows said, “I love it” and another where he said, “Have a team working on it;” Monaco’s confirmation puts Meadows on notice that his actions are the subject of a federal criminal investigation
  • A claim of election fraud sent to Meadows on his private email (and so among the materials he violated the PRA by withholding)
  • Citation of a tweet Meadows sent on December 21 reporting “‘Several members of Congress just finished a meeting in the Oval Office with President @realDonaldTrump, preparing to fight back against mounting evidence of voter fraud. Stay tuned”
  • Citation of this story describing that Meadows’ late December trip to Georgia to pressure election officials to find more votes could get him in legal trouble; when Fulton County DA Fannie Willis asked for increased protection in the wake of Trump’s calls for riots, she stated explicitly that she was criminally investigating, “former President Donald J. Trump and his associates,” putting Mark Meadows on notice that he’s under criminal investigation there, too

This entire process led Meadows and his attorney to make efforts to comply with the PRA, meaning they’ve been working to provide the communications cited here, as well as those Meadows intended to claim privilege over, to the Archives.

If they can’t comply — and some of the texts in question were sent via Signal, which is really hard to archive, and so may not have been preserved when Meadows sent his own phone back to his provider to be wiped and replaced — then Meadows will not just be in violation of the PRA (which is basically toothless) but also of obstructing the criminal investigation he knew was ongoing when he replaced his phone. Obstruction carries a far stiffer penalty than contempt of Congress does, and it serves as good evidence of involvement in a larger conspiracy.

As Carl Nichols, the Trump appointee presiding over the Steve Bannon criminal contempt case (and therefore likely to preside over one against Meadows if it were ever charged), criminal contempt is for someone from whom you’ve given up getting cooperation, not someone who still might offer useful cooperation.

Meanwhile if Meadows and his lawyer do belatedly comply with Meadows’ obligations under the PRA, it’s quite possible (particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling denying Trump’s attempt to override Joe Biden’s privilege waiver) that DOJ has to do no more to obtain these records than to send a warrant to the Archives. If not, Meadows is now on notice that he is the subject of several criminal investigations (the fake elector one and the Fulton County one), and he may think twice before trying to withhold communications that are already in possession of the Archives.

So whether or not DOJ has these documents in their possession right now, they have the means to get them very easily.

When I’ve pointed this explanation out to those wondering why DOJ has yet to (visibly) act on the Meadows contempt referral the January 6 Select Committee the House sent over on December 14, they ask why DOJ can’t just charge Meadows with contempt now and then follow up with obstruction charges later.

The answer is clear. Doing so will make any ongoing investigation far more difficult.

We can see why that’s true from the Bannon case. Bannon has already used his contempt prosecution as a means to obtain evidence about an ongoing obstruction investigation implicating Trump.

In these two posts, I described what we know about DOJ seizing the call records for Robert Costello, the lawyer for both Steve Bannon and Rudy Giuliani, who is someone who has been at the center of Trump’s pardon dangling for years. There’s a full timeline here, but for the purposes of this post, the key details are:

  • On September 23, the House subpoenaed Bannon.
  • Around October 5, the lawyer for Bannon and Rudy started speaking with a lawyer for Trump, Justin Clark, about how to avoid responding on Bannon’s behalf.
  • Between then and Bannon’s deadlines, Costello twice invoked Trump to avoid complying (in an interview with DOJ, Costello admitted that, “CLARK would not identify for COSTELLO what would be covered under Executive Privilege” and “refused to reach out to the Committee on behalf of COSTELLO or BANNON,” though, “CLARK informed COSTELLO not to respond to item 17” (involving communications Bannon had with Rudy, Sidney Powell, and Mike Flynn).
  • Costello claimed he did not know the lawsuit Trump filed on October 18 was coming and also claims he had a draft in process to blow off another October 19 contempt deadline, but on the evening of October 18, he told a J6 staffer that Bannon would not show up.
  • Over the next three days, the J6 Committee went through the process of holding Bannon in contempt, completing the process on October 21.
  • On November 3, Costello met with the investigative team, ostensibly to persuade them not to indict Bannon; in the process, Costello made claims about his communications with Trump’s lawyers (as well as those for Meadows, Dan Scavino, and Kash Patel) that materially conflicted. In response, DOJ sought Costello’s call records, ultimately obtaining records dating back to the last act Costello did on Bannon’s behalf in the Build the Wall prosecution, March 5, 2021, thereby reflecting an interest in Costello’s actions that significantly precede the J6 Committee actions.
  • On November 12, DOJ indicted Bannon. At first, just Evan Corcoran and David Schoen (the latter of whom represented the former President in his January 6 related impeachment) filed notice as Bannon’s lawyers.
  • On December 2, Costello informed DOJ he would file a notice to join the Bannon defense team (he may have been tipped off by his firm that DOJ had asked for his call records for his business phone). DOJ noted that if Costello represented Bannon, it might impact Bannon’s ability to claim an Advice of Counsel defense. On December 8, Costello filed his notice of appearance on Bannon’s team.
  • On January 4, DOJ provided Bannon 790 pages of call records data pertaining to Costello (including from his law firm).

In the early appearances after Bannon’s indictment, DOJ said it wanted to go to trial immediately and believed the trial could take a matter of hours. Bannon, by contrast, wanted a fall trial, and believed the trial could take weeks. Carl Nichols, the Trump appointee who had a key role in the Harriet Miers contempt conflict who is presiding over the case, split the difference on time, and has otherwise seemed unconvinced by Bannon’s maximalist challenges to the indictment.

Nevertheless, because the trial did not happen immediately, until Bannon does go to trial (currently scheduled in July), then DOJ will be obliged to provide him a range of information that would be (as the Costello records clearly are) relevant to an ongoing obstruction investigation implicating Trump personally. And until DOJ has reason to claim a conflict has arisen between Costello’s representation of Rudy and Bannon (which would effectively tip Rudy off that he’s being investigated for January 6), anything shared with Bannon’s defense team will be shared with Rudy’s defense team (and probably, through Schoen, Trump’s).

Those wailing for immediate action got an indictment of Steve Bannon … which will, at most, lead to his jailing for a few months.

And in exchange, Bannon got records that suggest that DOJ treated his attorney as a suspect in a conspiracy to obstruct this (and the J6) investigation. Bannon got records that suggest that DOJ is investigating his lawyer’s activities going back at least to March 5. He was able to see some of the evidence DOJ has obtained in that ongoing investigation.

Until something resets the current status, the contempt prosecution of Bannon is far more useful to Bannon as a means to monitor the ongoing investigation into him and his co-conspirators than it is for DOJ. And DOJ is likely now limiting investigative steps into Bannon and Costello, accordingly, to avoid triggering a discovery obligation to share information with Bannon.

There are a whole lot of really good reasons why DOJ probably hasn’t acted on the Meadows referral yet — most notably that Judge Nichols, who would likely preside over a Meadows case as a related prosecution, has made it clear he believes criminal contempt is used only for those whom DOJ has no hope of coercing cooperation. If they charge Meadows with contempt, per Nichols, they have foresworn any hope of getting his cooperation.

Given what Meadows has already done, DOJ surely views the potential of Meadows’ cooperation as more useful than a time-consuming and restrictive contempt prosecution.

And that’s true, first and foremost, because charging Meadows with contempt now would further limit their ability to shield parts of their investigation from the suspected co-conspirators.

Update: Corrected the Build the Wall reference to mention Bannon, not Meadows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, some background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that question is significantly a question about equity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His improper advantage was undoubtedly the goal.

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

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

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

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

Other Posts

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

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

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

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

Trevor McFadden Uses Stormtroopers to Justify His Promise to Let Jan6ers Off Easy

In the middle of a rather cursory opinion rejecting David Judd’s claim that he has been selectively prosecuted as compared to Portland rioters, Trevor McFadden cites this AP story to support a claim that “thousands” of protestors gathered every night in Portland.

For the first prong, Judd argues that he is similarly situated to multiple defendants who faced charges in the District of Oregon. Those defendants rioted outside the Mark Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Portland during the summer of 2020. See Def.’s Mot. at 2–4. The riots erupted after the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and raged for months. Thousands gathered nightly, vandalizing the courthouse and hurling objects at federal agents guarding it. Officers responded with tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse rioters, but the riots continued, causing havoc. See generally Mike Balsamo and Gillian Flaccus, On Portland’s Street: Anger, fear, and a fence that divides, AP News (July 27, 2020). [my emphasis]

In fact, the story says that the 4,000 gathered on that particular night was the largest crowd federal officers had seen, not that those kinds of numbers consistently came out.

Under orders to protect the courthouse — federal property that has been increasingly targeted as the city’s protests against racial injustice march on — the agents were accustomed to the drill. But tonight, the crowd was huge, estimated at 4,000 people at its peak and the largest they had seen.

The numbers the AP cites for those involved in violence or those that remained after officers responded is smaller.

As she spoke, small pods of three to four protesters dressed in black circulated in the crowd, stopping every few minutes to point green laser beams in the eyes of agents posted as lookouts on porticoes on the courthouse’s upper stories.

[snip]

Outside, hundreds of protesters surged back from the courthouse with each new round of tear gas, dumped saline solution and water into their stinging eyes, vomited or doubled over to catch their breath, then regrouped to march back to the fence.

“Stay together, stay tight! We do this every night!” they chanted.

The protesters’ numbers, however, were half what they had been just a few hours before.

[snip]

Tear gas canisters bounced and rolled in the street, their payload fizzing out into the air before protesters picked them up and hurled them back over the fence at the agents, who held their ground.

A woman weaved through the crowd of the few hundred people who remained and told someone on the phone, “We’ve reached some kind of stand-off, I think.”

When the federal agents finally came, they came with force. [my emphasis]

So it actually doesn’t support McFadden’s claim, which is probably why he cites it, “generally:” to hide that in fact he doesn’t have a source for his claim about sustained crowds of thousands of rioters (though at that time in July 2020, protests did remain large for a brief period).

The article is not one David Judd cited himself in either his original motion or his reply — perhaps because the AP story makes it crystal clear why firecrackers are so dangerous when thrown at cops, as he is accused of doing.

That McFadden’s clerk did research on their own on the Portland unrest and that McFadden’s clerk chose this particular article — by one of Billy Barr’s favorite reporters and covering unrest overnight on July 24 to 25, 2020 — is really telling. That’s true because the story portrays details directly pertinent to Judge McFadden’s opinion that should, but do not, appear in his opinion. And it’s also true because McFadden’s clerk relied on the AP story and not this NYT story from the same week covering the same unrest, which I’ll come back to.

At the core of Judd’s argument is that those charged with violence in Portland got (starting even under Billy Barr) and continue to get (under Merrick Garland) Deferred Prosecution Agreements, rather than the felony charges Judd is facing. To make his argument, Judd cherry-picked some cases and complained that he wasn’t being treated as nicely as a guy who (unlike Judd) was charged with a crime of terrorism, but whose charges were dismissed when the guy was murdered. DOJ pointed out more problems with Judd’s claims, including that he had claimed felony assault charges were misdemeanors, left out cases similar to his that were charged similarly, and ignored cases where DOJ deferred to state prosecution.

But DOJ professed to be unaware of the reason why three cases on which Judd (and McFadden) focused closely led to a DPA.

Further, contrary to his claims, each of the three cases Judd cites in his motion as examples where a defendant had only been charged with a misdemeanor actually involved a felony charge to 18 U.S.C. § 111(a). Although it is true that each case was eventually dismissed by the government for unknown reasons (typically after the defendants repeatedly agreed to waive their rights to a preliminary hearing or indictment over a period of months), all were initially facing felony charges. [my emphasis]

DOJ’s claim not to know why these cases entered into a DPA is just as suspect as McFadden’s choice of a source for the crowd sizes in Portland.

That’s because the three cases at the core of this debate all appear to involve assaults not at Portland Federal courthouse (marked with the green arrow), but assaults a block away, not on Federal property at all, probably close to the blue arrows marked below.

  • David Bouchard, arrested overnight on July 23-24 at Main and 4th by a Federal Protection Services officer stationed in Colorado
  • Joshua Webb, arrested overnight by a US Marshal on July 25-26 on Salman between 4th and 5th by a US Marshal
  • Thomas Johnson, arrested overnight by a US Marshal on July 25-26 “in the park” (but because it appears to be the same instance as Webb, probably towards Main & 4th) by a US Marshal

All three of these arrest affidavits include a drawing of the city block that is Federal property, and then describe arrests that don’t take place on that Federal property.

The arrest affidavits offer no explanation for what led the Federal agents to leave the courthouse they were purportedly defending.

Specifically, on July 26, 2020, federal law enforcement officers attempted to disperse a crowd on SW Salmon Street between 4th and 5th streets in Portland, OR. The crowd was part of a protest that was declared an unlawful assembly by the Federal Protective Service and a riot by the Portland Police Bureau.

In other words, the story McFadden cites for his claim that there were thousands involved in the unrest involved direct reporting from the site the day between these arrests. His clerk researched and found a story about Portland from the week of these arrests, which featured elevated hostility and significantly expanded numbers, because (as even that story noted) Portland was reacting against Billy Barr’s decision to send in Federal agents.

Which brings us back to the NYT story that McFadden could have but did not rely on. It describes that on Friday morning — overnight on July 23 to 24, so covering events from the day when Bouchard was arrested — Federal officers were prowling the streets blocks away from the Hatfield Court House that they were purportedly protecting. And that created legal problems,

After flooding the streets around the federal courthouse in Portland with tear gas during Friday’s early morning hours, dozens of federal officers in camouflage and tactical gear stood in formation around the front of the building.

Then, as one protester blared a soundtrack of “The Imperial March,” the officers started advancing. Through the acrid haze, they continued to fire flash grenades and welt-inducing marble-size balls filled with caustic chemicals. They moved down Main Street and continued up the hill, where one of the agents announced over a loudspeaker: “This is an unlawful assembly.”

By the time the security forces halted their advance, the federal courthouse they had been sent to protect was out of sight — two blocks behind them.

The aggressive incursion of federal officers into Portland has been stretching the legal limits of federal law enforcement, as agents with batons and riot gear range deep into the streets of a city whose leadership has made it clear they are not welcome.

[snip]

Robert Tsai, a professor at the Washington College of Law at American University, said the nation’s founders explicitly left local policing within the jurisdiction of local authorities.

He questioned whether the federal agents had the right to extend their operations blocks away from the buildings they are protecting.

“If the federal troops are starting to wander the streets, they appear to be crossing the line into general policing, which is outside their powers,” Professor Tsai said.

Homeland Security officials say they are operating under a federal statute that permits federal agents to venture outside the boundaries of the courthouse to “conduct investigations” into crimes against federal property or officers.

But patrolling the streets and detaining or tear-gassing protesters go beyond that legal authority, said David Lapan, the former spokesman for the agency when it was led by John Kelly, Mr. Trump’s first secretary of homeland security.

“That’s not an investigation,” Mr. Lapan said. “That’s just a show of force.”

Indeed, these particular arrests happened just after the Portland City Council voted to cease cooperating with Federal authorities, as described by a DHS OIG Report reviewing the deployment (which McFadden’s clerk might have used to source a claim that the largest protest reached 10,000 participants, but which would have made the authorization problem clear), meaning that invoking the Portland Police Bureau covering the city generally (including where these arrests seem to have taken place) was particularly problematic.

However, on July 22, 2020, the Portland City Council voted to cease cooperation between the Portland Police Bureau and Federal law enforcement. The Portland City Council viewed Federal operations in Portland as an “unprecedented and unconstitutional abuse of power” by the Federal Government.11 According to the Portland City Council resolution, “the Portland Police Bureau shall not provide, request, or willingly receive operational support … from any agent or employee representing or constituting part of deployment under executive order from the president, be they from Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Protective Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection or any other service.”1

The OIG Report states that officers had authority to be in Portland, but doesn’t address whether they had legal authority to do what the did in this case: leave the building they were protecting and go blocks away, looking for trouble.

An earlier DHS OIG Report described that officers sent into Portland had not been bureaucratically designated in the way they should have been and raised still-unanswered questions about whether DHS Acting Secretaries acted under legal authority when sending troops to Portland.

In other words, there seems to be a ready explanation — one that both DOJ and McFadden have reasons to suppress — for why these cases were diverted: for a number of reasons, the arrests were made under dubious legal authority. (At least one of the other ones Judd cites may have involved less-than-lethal force violation.)

But Trevor McFadden, who made very clear he wanted to consider this kind of selective prosecution claim and has whined for months that Jan6ers are being treated differently, doesn’t mention this ready explanation which (given the research his clerk did to find the AP article and others not included in the record before that) at least his clerk must know. Instead, McFadden goes on a multi-paragraph rant suggesting that DOJ — starting under, “a Republican-appointed U.S. Attorney (under the direction of a Republican-appointed Attorney General),” he notes elsewhere — started diverting these prosecutions in significant numbers.

Judd’s claim is nontrivial. His chart suggests that Portland defendants generally received much lighter treatment than he has. For example, three Portland defendants allegedly struck officers in various ways. One placed an officer in a headlock. See United States v. Bouchard, No. 3:20-mj-00165 (D. Or.), ECF No. 1-1 at 4–5. Another punched and hit an officer in the face with a shield. See United States v. Webb, No. 3:20-mj-00169 (D. Or.), ECF No. 1 at 5. Yet another struck officers with a shield after he tried to pick up a smoke grenade. See United States v. Johnson, No. 3:20-mj-00170 (D. Or.), ECF No. 1 at 5. The Government charged these three defendants with felony assault on a federal officer, just as it charged Judd here. See Gov’t Opp’n at 17–18. That makes some sense—Judd was likewise allegedly present for a fracas with law enforcement at a federal building and used a firecracker (which if it had exploded, would have caused “bodily injury”) to “intimidate” law enforcement. 18 U.S.C. § 111(a). The Government could justifiably seek felony convictions for both Judd and the Portland defendants.

But, incredibly, the Government dismissed the charges against all three Portland defendants. See Bouchard, Motion to Dismiss Complaint, ECF No. 16; Webb, Motion to Dismiss Complaint, ECF No. 22; Johnson, Motion to Dismiss Complaint, ECF No. 9. Judd still faces nine charges, including multiple felonies, even though the Government never alleges that he, unlike the Portland defendants, struck or injured an officer. That he still faces greater charges than the Portland defendants despite that key difference is suspicious.5 That is the kind of “different treatment” that might warrant discovery. Armstrong, 517 U.S. at 470.

The Government responds that it treated Judd and the three Portland defendants equitably because it filed felony charges against all of them. See Gov’t Opp’n at 18. The Government seems to think that the initial charges are all that matter. Not so. By that logic, the Government could avoid discovery of a race-based selective prosecution claim if it indicted similarly situated black and white persons, dismissed the charges against the whites, and prosecuted the black defendants to conviction or plea. The “administration of a criminal law” is not limited to an initial charging decision. Armstrong, 517 U.S. at 464. Nor is it so easily circumvented.

More, the Government’s logic would allow it to charge similarly situated black defendants with felonies and white defendants with misdemeanors. But discriminatory effects include disparities in the “crimes charged.” Stone, 394 F. Supp. 3d at 31. The Government’s argument is thus absurd and untenable—that the Government originally indicted the Portland defendants does not erase the potential for discriminatory effect.6

Nor does the Court accept the Government’s attempt to distinguish these Portland cases on evidentiary grounds. According to the Government, video footage of Judd’s actions solidified the case against him, precluding a dismissal. See Gov’t Opp’n at 20. In contrast, Portland cases relied on officer recollections during nighttime attacks—none captured on video—by mostly masked assailants. See id. Fair enough. This could explain why fewer defendants overall were charged in Portland than here. But by indicting those cases, the Portland prosecutors presumably believed they had sufficient evidence to sustain convictions. See Justice Manual § 9-27.220 cmt. (“[N]o prosecution should be initiated against any person unless the attorney for the government believes that the admissible evidence is sufficient to obtain and sustain a guilty verdict by an unbiased trier of fact.”). If anything, that fact supports Judd’s argument. Evidentiary differences notwithstanding, the Government felt it had enough basis to charge both Judd and Portland defendants. Yet the Government dismissed the charges against only Portland defendants. The suggestion that Portland cases suffered from widespread, post-indictment, evidentiary challenges is thus a tough argument to swallow.

[snip]

Therein lies a troubling theme that emerges from a wholesale analysis of the Government’s decisions in Portland. The Government dismissed 27 cases brought against Portland defendants, including five felony cases. See generally Appendix to Def.’s Mot. Dismissal of one felony case is unusual. Dismissal of five is downright rare and potentially suspicious.7 Rarely has the Government shown so little interest in vigorously prosecuting those who attack federal officers. Considered in this light, when compared to Portland cases, the disposition of Judd’s case appears an outlier.

5 The D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office also dismissed charges against the one D.C. defendant mentioned by Judd. She allegedly threw a firecracker at police during a Black Lives Matter protest in August 2020. See Affidavit in Support of Arrest Warrant, United States v. Rogers, No. 2020 CF3 006970 (D.C. Super. Ct. dismissed Sept. 30, 2020). The firecracker burned the pant leg of one officer. See id.

6 The Government wisely dropped this argument at the motion hearing. See Hr’g Tr. at 66.

7 By way of comparison, the Court knows of only one January 6 case that the Government has dismissed among the hundreds of defendants charged for their alleged actions on that day. See United States v. Kelly, No. 21-mj-00128 (D.D.C., dismissed on June 1, 2021). [my emphasis]

DC District’s Trumpiest judge here uses diversions most likely necessitated by the legal abuses and bureaucratic incompetence of the Trump Administration to claim that Jan6ers are being treated poorly. He focuses on arrests made, in very significant part, to fulfill Barr’s priority on such prosecutions in summer 2020, while ignoring the legally suspect circumstances created by Barr’s effort to gin up arrests. And he does so even as he refuses discovery that might confirm this most obvious of explanations.

The proper comparison to the cases McFadden focuses on would be to examine the arrests on January 5 and 6 in DC made by Federal officers away from the Capitol, such as Freedom Square. Yet in that case (particularly at the Washington Monument before the riot kicked off), the evidence suggests that Federal officers were far too lenient on Jan 6, even in the nation’s Capitol on Federal land. At least in the three cases as the center of this dispute, the disparate treatment in Portland appears to have come in the arrests outside of Federal property, not the prosecutorial diversions of those arrests later. Such a comparison would make it clear that Federal authorities treated Trump’s supporters far too lightly, not the opposite.

But McFadden has a goal here, one that — as he notes — he has been developing since at least July.

McFadden properly rules that Judd has not shown enough evidence of selective prosecution to get discovery into why these other prosecutions were diverted (in that, he may have been bound by an opinion issued days earlier by Trump appointee Carl Nichols in the Garret Miller case). Both Trump appointees note that Jan 6 is different from Portland for a number of reasons. In fact, McFadden cites Nichols in describing what he sees to be the difference.

Putting aside any claims that January 6 rioters sought to tear down our system of government (an allegation not made against Judd), their actions endangered hundreds of federal officials in the Capitol complex. Members of Congress cowered under chairs while staffers blockaded themselves in offices, fearing physical attacks from the rioters. See Lindsay Wise, Catherine Lucey, and Andrew Restuccia, “The Protestors Are in the Building.” Inside the Capitol Stormed by a Pro-Trump Mob, Wall St. J. (Jan. 6, 2021, 11:53 P.M.).8 The action in Portland, though destructive and ominous, caused no similar threat to civilians. Accord United States v. Miller, No. 21-cr-119 (CBN), slip order at 3 (D.D.C. Dec. 21, 2021) (“Nor did the Portland rioters, unlike those who assailed America’s Capitol in 2021, make it past the buildings’ outer defenses.”). Given the “narrow[ ]” interpretation of “similarly situated,” Stone, 394 F. Supp. 3d at 31, the Court cannot say that the Portland defendants “committed roughly the same crime under roughly the same circumstances” as Judd, Khanu, 664 F. Supp. 2d at 32.

But even after having laid out reasons (but ignoring the legal problems introduced by Federal big-footing in Portland) why you cannot compare Portland and Jan6, McFadden — who, again, invited this challenge — concludes that he will sentence Jan6ers leniently because he’s sure they’re being mistreated. McFadden cites himself saying he’ll account for such disparities at sentencing in the very same paragraph where he denies discovery to find out whether there’s an obvious explanation for such claimed disparities.

None of this suggests that the distinctions Judd highlights are irrelevant for all purposes. “Disparate charging decisions in similar circumstances may be relevant at sentencing.” United States v. Griffin, — F. Supp. 3d —, 2021 WL 2778557 at *7 (D.D.C. July 2, 2021); cf. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6) (“the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct”). But on this record, those disparate outcomes fail to justify the discovery he seeks.

Then he cites Merrick Garland thinking he’s being clever.

Justice requires that “like cases be treated alike” and that “there not be one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans.” Merrick Garland, Remarks to DOJ Employees on His First Day, (Mar. 11, 2021).10 Otherwise, prosecutions risk becoming “so unequal and oppressive” as to deny the rights of all. Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 373 (1886). Especially during moments of politically charged unrest, the Justice Department must strive for even-handed justice. Judd raises troubling questions about the Department’s adherence to this imperative in Portland. But for the reasons stated above, he has not carried his burden to justify further discovery into the Government’s prosecutions.

Make no mistake what this is: It is an otherwise law-and-order touting Federal Judge announcing, in advance, that he’s going to sentence Jan6ers, people who share his political views, leniently because — he claims, even while refusing to order discovery to prove or disprove his hypothesis — Jan6ers are being badly treated.

And in fact he has already been doing that. When he sentenced Danielle Doyle to two months probation and a fine in October, rather than the three years of probation DOJ sought, he said as much.

Trevor McFadden used this challenge to lay out, for at least the third time, his plan to let Jan6ers off easy, presumably including Judd and his co-defendants, accused of attacking cops over the course of hours. And in the course of doing so, he has suppressed the evidence showing that the disparity, in fact, pertains to overpolicing, not lenient prosecutions, in Portland.

Update: In June DHS provided Ron Wyden with responses to some of his questions about the deployment. They claim they can operate 1-3 blocks from the Federal property which could include all of these arrests.

Practically speaking, DHS personnel deployed to support FPS in protecting federal property in Portland, like the Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, dispersed crowds approximately one to three blocks away from the federal property to secure the perimeter, contain/mitigate fires, treat officer injuries, and otherwise reconstitute facility security.

As set forth above, 40 U.S.C. § 1315 does grant cross-designated law enforcement personnel certain authorities at a distance from federal property. For instance, a cross-designated officer or agent may make arrests without a warrant for any offense against the United States committed in the presence of the officer or agent, or for any felony cognizable under the laws of the United States if the officer or agent has reasonable grounds to believe that the person to be arrested has committed or is committing a felony. Similarly, such an officer or agent may conduct.