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Crime in the Era of Encrypted Apps: The Relationship between the DOJ and January 6 Investigations into Fake Electors

Yesterday, DOJ took a slew of overt steps in their investigation into the fake electors:

  • WaPo: Law enforcement activity targeting GA lawyer David Carver and Trump staffer Thomas Lane, subpoenas for GA GOP Chair David Shafer and Michigan fake electors
  • NYT: Subpoenas to Trump campaign aide in MI, Shawn Flynn, as well as Carver, Lane, and Shafer
  • CBS: Search warrants for NV GOP Chair Michael McDonald and Secretary James DeGraffenreid
  • CNN: Subpoena for Shafer, a warrant for David Carver’s phone, information on a GA Signal chat

Even though some of these reports cite the late January batch of subpoenas DOJ sent to people who had declined to participate in the fake elector scheme, the timing of the action — taking place one day after the hearing on the scheme — has set off the usual set of whinging that DOJ isn’t doing as much as the January 6 Committee.

Yet even the first of these stories — the WaPo one — provides reason to believe that DOJ is not chasing the January 6 Committee on this investigation at all. And as I keep pointing out, in April 2021, DOJ took steps — starting on Lisa Monaco’s first day in office — that will be critical to this investigation.

I’ve laid out how, by seizing Rudy Giuliani’s phones in conjunction with his Ukraine influence peddling investigation on April 28, DOJ has made the content available for the January 6 investigation at whatever time they were able to show probable cause for a warrant. That’s because the privilege review covered all content from the phones that post-dates January 1, 2018 and the privilege review was conducted prior to any review for relevance, so it would cover content whether or not it related to Ukraine.

As this table lays out, the review on half the devices DOJ was able to get into (there were two the passwords for which it had not cracked by April) included content to date of seizure on April 28, 2021.

Special Master Barbara Jones turned over the last of this material on January 21, days before Monaco confirmed that DOJ is investigating the fake elector scheme. In April, purportedly to conduct an interview in advance of an imminent decision on Rudy’s Ukraine influence-peddling, DOJ asked for his help to get into the last several phones (the numbers in this story don’t match Barbara Jones’ reports, but CNN may suggest there were two newly discovered phones; there has been no overt activity in the Special Master docket since then).

All of which is to say that whatever material Rudy, a prolific texter, had on his phones about the fake elector scheme he was central to would have been available to DOJ with a warrant since January, but that’s only true because DOJ started this process on Monaco’s first day on the job.

Even in spite of that (and the timing of Monaco’s announcement of the investigation into the fake electors), like many people, I believed DOJ might have been chasing the January 6 Committee investigation. Except several details revealed in recent days makes it clear that DOJ had developed information independent of the Committee.

For example, I first learned that Boris Epshteyn was involved from this slide in Tuesday’s hearing, which left Epshteyn’s name unredacted whereas the copy docketed in the John Eastman litigation redacts it.

But Kyle Cheney noted that Epshteyn’s name was first made public in a footnote in the associated court filing. That filing was dated May 26.

Before May 26, according to earlier NYT and CNN stories on DOJ’s investigation into the fake electors, prosecutors were already asking about Epshteyn’s role. Here’s CNN:

Former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, adviser Boris Epshteyn and campaign lawyer Justin Clark are among the list of names the witness was asked about, the source said.

Yesterday’s WaPo story similarly described prosecutors asking about the involvement of someone — Bernie Kerik — whose role the January 6 Committee has not yet (as far as I’m aware) public disclosed.

Those earlier subpoenas sought all documents since Oct. 1, 2020, related to the electoral college vote, as well as any election-related communications with roughly a dozen people in Trump’s inner circle, including Rudy Giuliani, Bernard Kerik, Boris Epshteyn, Jenna Ellis and John Eastman.

One would-be Trump elector in Georgia, Patrick Gartland, had been appointed to the Cobb County Board of Elections and Registration and believed that post meant serving as an elector would have created a conflict of interest for him. Still, two FBI agents recently came to his home with a subpoena and asked whether he had any contact with Trump advisers around the time of the November election. “They wanted to know if I had talked to Giuliani,” Gartland said.

One possible explanation (though not the only one) is that DOJ has a more Rudy-focused understanding of the elector scheme than the Committee, which would make sense if they had materials from Rudy’s devices that the Committee doesn’t have.

To be clear: I think it likely that DOJ has or will exploit the January 6 investigation into the same topic in at least two ways.

First, I think it likely that DOJ piggybacked on the Committee’s privilege fight with Eastman. They’ve always had the ability to serve a warrant on Chapman University for the same emails the Committee has been receiving covertly, after all, which is the kind of thing DOJ loves to do in an investigation. But by doing so in the wake of Judge David Carter’s privilege decisions, DOJ can get crime-fraud excepted communications without a Special Master process like the one they used with Rudy.

And, because the January 6 Committee is obtaining sworn depositions from some of the people involved, DOJ may get evidence of false statements — from people claiming to have no knowledge of the larger scheme or corrupt intent of the fake electors — that they could use to coerce cooperation down the road.

With the warrants in NV and GA, DOJ is taking the kind of overt acts that sometimes precede arrests. Because DOJ can get email and social media content covertly, it almost always does that before serving subpoenas (to minimize the chance someone will destroy evidence in response). Only after that, usually, do they seize someone’s phone. That kind of stuff takes months. So there’s no way DOJ could have gotten there overnight based entirely off watching the January 6 hearing.

In Tuesday’s hearing, it became clear that the GOP will try to, institutionally, blame Trump for all this. That may not be true. But it may be useful for DOJ investigators.

Update: Fixed the names of the NV GOPers.

The Evidence Needed for a Trump Prosecution

It would be easier to prosecute Trump for January 6 than Peter Navarro. I say that (in advance of today’s debate about referring Navarro and Dan Scavino for contempt) because it is far easier to tie Trump’s actions directly to the successful obstruction of the vote certification on January 6 than it would Navarro’s, and Navarro’s actions are fairly tangential to the proof that Trump’s actions met the elements of obstruction of the vote certification.

Months ago, I laid out how to prosecute Trump using the framework that DOJ has already used with hundreds of January 6 defendants. But in this post, I will show how much evidence DOJ has already collected proving the case against Trump by using the framework for Trump’s criminal exposure laid out by Judges Amit Mehta and David Carter, incorporating a key point made by Judge Reggie Walton.

In his opinion upholding the lawsuits against Trump, Amit Mehta found that it was plausible Trump conspired with the militias and also that he bore aid-and-abet liability for assaults at the Capitol (see this post and this post). He found that:

  • Trump and the militias jointly pursued an effort to disrupt the vote certification
  • Trump planned the unpermitted march to the Capitol
  • Trump encouraged the use of force and threats to thwart the certification from proceeding
  • Trump knew supporters would respond to his calls to come to DC and march on the Capitol
  • Trump called for collective action
  • Trump intended his “fight like hell” comment to be taken literally and rioters did take it literally
  • Trump ratified the riot

In his opinion finding that one email from John Eastman must be turned over to the January 6 Committee on a crime-fraud exception (see this post), Carter laid out the following proof that Trump obstructed the vote certification:

  • Trump tried to persuade Pence to disrupt the vote certification
  • He publicly appealed to Pence to do so
  • He called on his followers to walk to Congress to pressure Pence and Congress

Carter laid out this evidence that Trump had corrupt intent:

  • Proof that he had been told the vote fraud claims were false and his own request of Brad Raffensperger showed he knew he had lost
  • Trump had been told the Eastman’s plan was not legal

Carter laid out this evidence he had entered into a conspiracy:

  • Trump held lots of meetings to talk about plans to obstruct the vote count
  • Trump ratified Eastman’s plan in his Ellipse speech

To those two frameworks finding that Trump probably conspired to obstruct the vote certification, Judge Walton held that you cannot point to back-room plotting to get to the intentions of the actual rioters; you can only look at what the rioters themselves accessed, Trump’s public speech and Tweets (see this post).

This table (which is still very much a work in progress) lays out what evidence would be needed to prosecute Trump. The horizontal Elements of 1512(c)(2)/Relevant to Motive and Co-Conspirators sections show what is necessary given the elements of the offense as laid out by the judges and in DOJ filings, versus what might provide evidence of a broader conspiracy. The Must Have/Nice to Have columns show that for each kind of proof, there’s what is necessary and what would be really useful before indicting a former President.

In other words, the things in the yellow boxes are the things that would be necessary to show that Trump obstructed the vote certification. They basically amount to proof that things that Trump did brought the rioters to DC and to the Capitol and that he had the corrupt mens rea to charge with obstruction. I include there proof that Trump conspired with the militias, which I consider necessary because the Proud Boys, especially, took the bodies that Trump sent them and made those bodies tactically effective.

While prosecutors are still working on tying Roger Stone to both militias and tying Alex Jones and Ali Alexander into the crimes at the Capitol, much of the rest of this evidence has already been collected and rolled out in charging papers. For example, I showed some of the proof that rioters responded to Trump’s attacks on Pence by targeting their own attacks on Pence. There are a number of Trump comments that directly led hundreds of rioters to start making plans to come to DC, including arming themselves; NYT recently laid out the most central communication, a Tweet on December 19, 2020, though not only is that focus not new, it’s the tweet and response to which Arieh Kovler predicted the attack on the Capitol in real time.

A number of the other things you’d want to have before you charged Trump are available to DOJ:

  • Details of how the march to the Capitol happened and why it — and Ali Alexander’s permitted rallies at the Capitol — made a riot more likely
  • Explanations why Ellipse rally organizers balked at including people like Ali Alexander and Roger Stone
  • Testimony from Pence’s aides about how Trump pressured his Vice President in private

It is true that the testimony of several people — those involved in selling the Big Lie and Scavino’s coordination of the riot (including a particular focus on The Donald) — would be really useful. But that testimony is as important to proving that they were part of the conspiracy along with Trump.

Pat Cipollone’s tesitmony would be incredibly useful to that case, too. Normally, he could invoke privilege, but Trump already waived some of that privilege by sharing details about his conversations with Cipollone with Sean Hannity. If Cipollone did cooperate with DOJ, I don’t think he would leak that.

Similarly, the Relevant to Motive and Co-Conspirators rows — showing Trump’s coordination with Congress or his prior planning of it — would be really useful to have in prosecuting Trump. But ultimately, as Judge Walton held, what Trump did in private could not have influenced most of the rioters, because they never knew those details. As such, some of that information — precisely the kinds of stuff that TV lawyers say would be the first overt signs that Trump was a subject of the investigation — is more useful for including others in the conspiracy.

The most important of this evidence — communications from the December 18 meeting and comms during the day of the riot — are already in DOJ’s possession from Rudy’s seized phones, whether or not they obtained a warrant for that content yet.

Update: I’ve tweaked the horizontal headings on the table to clarify that the top half of the table stems from the elements of offense for 1512(c)(2), whereas the bottom half is clearly related and may help prove mens rea or incorporate other co-conspirators, but is not necessary (in my opinion) to meeting the elements of obstruction.

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

 

All the Scheming at the Willard Only Matters because of the Bodies Occupying the Capitol and Threatening Pence

In a post wondering whether DOJ hasn’t opened an investigation into Donald Trump for his role in obstructing the vote count, Ben Wittes provides this description of Judge David Carter’s opinion ruling that John Eastman and Trump had likely conspired to obstruct the vote certification.

The opinion’s first section—entitled “A. Facts”—begins on page three of Judge Carter’s opinion and runs through the middle of page 12. In a footnote attached to the word “Facts” in the subhead leading the section, Judge Carter notes in a fashion characteristic of the section’s understatement, “In this discussion, the Court relies solely on facts provided by Dr. Eastman and the Select Committee in their briefing and attached exhibits.”

He is not exaggerating. The section contains no judgments, no legal interpretations, no conclusions. It contains virtually no rhetoric at all. What’s more, the section does not contain a whole lot of new facts. The story of Eastman and Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, the relationship between that effort and Trump’s concurrent plot to decapitate the Justice Department, and ultimately to the insurrectionary activity of January 6, 2021, has dribbled out bit by bit over the months already. And to the extent the current litigation has revealed new material, that mostly emerged in the committee’s briefing and the accompanying exhibits a few weeks ago.

What makes Judge Carter’s account so powerful is that it is linked tightly to record evidence, that it tells the story in an end-to-end fashion crisply and efficiently, and that it thus assembles the evidence into a coherent account of the big picture. I cannot do Judge Carter’s account justice; please do read it. For present purposes, let me just say that it leaves the fair-minded reader in no doubt that the events that took place between Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump at the polls and congressional certification of Biden’s victory on Jan. 6 were an all-out effort by the lame duck president to seize and retain power in unapologetic defiance of the law using extra-constitutional means—up to and including violence directed against a coordinate branch of government.

As Ben tells it, Carter’s description of the conspiracy to obstruct the vote certification focuses on attempts to overturn the election, his attempt to “decapitate” DOJ, and only then to the “insurrectionary activity” on January 6 that included using “violence directed against a coordinate branch of government.”

Mike Pence’s name not only doesn’t appear in this passage, it appears nowhere in Ben’s piece. Pence is named 24 times in those nine pages of Carter’s narrative. I think the difference in emphasis is instructive.

It’s not that the things Ben focuses on — lawsuits attempting to discredit the electoral outcome and the attempt to install Jeffrey Clark to pursue more efforts to discredit the electoral outcome — didn’t appear in Carter’s narrative. It’s that they serve a different function than Ben accords them, not as independent criminal behavior, but as actions in the first of a three-part plot all of which ends up in an attack on the Capitol.

  1. Election fraud claims
  2. Plan to disrupt electoral count
  3. Attack on the Capitol

As noted, in Carter’s description of the attack on the Capitol, the pressure on, followed by the verbal attacks on and physical threats to Mike Pence are central.

President Trump returned to the White House after his speech. At 2:02 pm, Mark Meadows, the White House Chief of Staff, was informed about the violence unfolding at the Capitol.50 Mr. Meadows immediately went to relay that message to President Trump.51 Even as the rioters continued to break into the Capitol, President Trump tweeted at 2:24 pm: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”52

During the riot, Vice President Pence, Members of Congress, and workers across the Capitol were forced to flee for safety.53 Seeking shelter during the attack, Vice President Pence’s counsel Greg Jacob emailed Dr. Eastman that the rioters “believed with all their hearts the theory they were sold about the powers that could legitimately be exercised at the Capitol on this day.”54 Mr. Jacob continued, “[a]nd thanks to your bullshit, we are now under siege.”55

I point this out because I think it is the easiest way to point out what I think is problematic with Ben’s search for an investigation — a separate investigation just for Trump, with leaks about grand jury subpoenas — like so many others. Even in portraying a document of which Ben claims, “the history of the United States has never seen an account of a president’s conduct quite so devastating,” Ben appears to misread the subject described, though later in his piece, he fully recognizes the question of Trump’s criminal liability discussed here is just about obstructing the vote certification.

Carter’s is not a story of an attempt to overturn the election. Judge Carter tells the story of an attempt to obstruct a vote certification. All the lawsuits matter because (on top of proving mens rea) the election fraud claims are what Eastman used to pressure Pence to throw out the vote and what Trump used to incite his mob. In fact that’s what, in my opinion, Carter laid out far better in his opinion than the Committee did in their brief, which argued that had Pence taken the steps Eastman wanted, the vote count would have been obstructed, and not that the false claims of fraud themselves led to a “siege” that in fact did obstruct the vote count.

There are, surely, other crimes that Trump might be investigated for — most notably his attempt to pressure Brad Raffensperger. But the way DOJ has been conceiving of the crime of January 6 from the start was as that successful (but temporary) obstruction of the vote count. All the people who seem to think an investigation into Trump would be somehow separate from that seem to be conceiving all that other corruption as separate from the dual effort to pressure Mike Pence with literal death threats and to occupy the Capitol and prevent the vote certification from taking place. This is why the people who claim you’ll never get to Trump through Alex Jones and Roger Stone are so mistaken: because it’s the actions Jones took leading the mob to add bodies to the attack and Stone took coordinating with the militias that most directly tie Trump to the actual effect on the official proceeding.

I am certain, and have been since well before August, that DOJ is investigating the ways that Donald Trump played a central role in getting bodies to the Capitol that had the effect of threatening the life of his Vice President (and Nancy Pelosi and even Mitch McConnell) and temporarily obstructing the vote certification. The overt signs of that investigation are not, as Ben has been looking for, subpoenas to witnesses in the Willard (in part because Roger Stone would never be subpoenaed). Rather, it is in getting sworn testimony that after Donald Trump sent out tweets about the riot in December, people took that as an order from Trump, and set themselves to buying plane tickets and buying body armor. It is in getting cooperating witnesses about the ways that militias that gave structure to the mob were working in tandem with Trump’s rat-fucker. It is in developing evidence that Trump’s false claim that he would join them at the Capitol — repeated by his Pied Piper Alex Jones — convinced people who otherwise would never have gone to the Capitol to do so. It is in getting sworn testimony that after Trump attacked Pence in his speech, people responded by decrying Pence while still at the rally and then continued to threaten Pence once they had moved to the Capitol.

I’m less certain DOJ is investigating Eastman but if they are, it would be for the reasons that Greg Jacob laid out: that Eastman’s lies played a part in getting bodies to the Capitol to threaten Pence’s life and that Eastman and Trump had the intent of using such threats to convince Pence to throw out the legal votes. It’s not his bad faith legal arguments that are illegal, it’s the way those bad faith legal arguments served to get bodies to the Capitol on January 6.

As Greg Jacob described it in real time, “whipping large numbers of people into a frenzy over something with no chance of ever attaining legal force through actual process of law, has led us to where we are.” That is the crime under investigation. And because it involves mobilizing a mob, the investigation necessarily focuses on the means by which Trump orchestrated the mob.

Most of that evidence is not in the Willard Hotel, but in actions members of the mob took in direct response to Trump’s actions.

The rest of the commentariat has finally caught up to the point I made in August, that DOJ is investigating the obstruction of the vote certification. But I’m not sure they understand that everything, therefore, works backward from the bodies at the Capitol.

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.

John Eastman’s Blank Documents

I wrote about the substance of Judge David Carter’s ruling that it was more likely than not that Trump obstructed the vote certification on January 6 here.

The opinion is as interesting for what it says about the documents John Eastman attempted to withhold from the January 6 Committee as his decision that Trump is more likely than not a criminal.

At issue were the 111 documents he had dated January 4 through 7 involving January 6 over which he claimed some kind of privilege. I’ve summarized Carter’s decision making process in this table.

Carter’s overall findings were that:

Only the last category — documents prepared in anticipation of legislation — were really considered for a privilege claim. Of those, two were issued by a state court, so were excluded from Carter’s review, and privilege over two had been waived (one was the Electoral Count Act plan Eastman had already published).

That left just 11 documents for review. Of those, nine actually were part of ongoing litigation, and one was sent during the riot (but not in furtherance of it). So while Judge Carter ruled that Eastman and Trump probably conspired to defraud the US, just one document was liberated by that decision. I’ll return to that document.

What I’m most struck by is the frivolity of some of the other documents Eastman went to court (and included in a privilege log) to try to protect. One category — connecting third parties — included a number of resumes of people offering to help. Another consisted of news releases (two of which reflect comment on coverage of the riot). Much of the Electoral Count Act involved academic discussion.

It’s this category, though, I’m most fascinated by:

To begin, the Court excludes ten of the 111 documents because they are entirely nonsubstantive.130 Seven of these documents are only images of logos attached to email signatures, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.131 One document is a blank page132 and two are blank emails.133 These ten documents do not contain any information protected by the work product doctrine and the Court ORDERS that they must be disclosed.134

John Eastman took the January 6 Committee to court to withhold a blank page and two blank emails.

That might reflect the substance of his own scholarship.

Or it’s possible Eastman was triggering others by sending nothing.

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.