Judge calls 'illegality' of Trump plan to overturn election 'obvious,' in ruling for Jan. 6 committee

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WASHINGTON – A federal judge ruled Monday that former President Donald Trump likely “corruptly attempted to obstruct” Congress from certifying the 2020 election, in a case over whether a House committee will receive a lawyer’s emails while investigating the attack on the Capitol.

“The illegality of the plan was obvious,” U.S. District Judge David Carter in California wrote in approving the transfer of John Eastman’s emails to the committee. “Based on the evidence, the Court finds it more likely than not that President Trump corruptly attempted to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021.”

The ruling bolsters the committee’s investigation by providing access to the legal thinking behind how Trump’s flawed election challenges was wielded to slow down or prevent President Joe Biden from taking office. Lawmakers investigating the Capitol attack have argued that spurious claims of election fraud helped raise money and fueled the mob that ransacked the building.

The ruling also adds another facet to myriad legal challenges Trump faces. Lawmakers on the committee suggested criminal charges might be warranted for the Capitol attack, potentially for a conspiracy to prevent the peaceful transfer of power and to defraud the United States.

But the Justice Department – rather than the committee – would determine whether to charge Trump. Special counsel Robert Mueller made no decision whether to charge Trump during his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign because the department has a policy against charging sitting presidents. But lawmakers note Trump is now a private citizen.

Two lawyers in the New York District Attorney’s Office resigned recently over a decision not to pursue charges against Trump for his real estate dealings before becoming president. But New York Attorney General Letitia James continues to investigate.

Vice President Mike Pence presides over a joint session of Congress as it convenes to count the Electoral College votes cast in November's election, at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., stands at right. Pence did not bend to President Donald Trump’s extraordinary pressure to intervene and presided over the count in line with his ceremonial role. He announced the certification of Biden’s victory before dawn, hours after a mob of Trump’s supporters violently ransacked the building.

Committee leaders called Carter's decision a victory for the rule of law.

"The Court found that the then-President more likely than not committed multiple federal crimes in his attempt to overturn the election," Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said in a joint statement.

Charles Burnham, one of Eastman’s lawyers, issued a statement Monday saying Eastman intends to comply with the decision. Burnham said Eastman was trying “to protect the confidences of his clients to the fullest extent of the law.”

“It is not an attempt to ‘hide’ documents or ‘obstruct’ congressional investigations, as the January 6th committee falsely claims,” Burnham said. “Dr. Eastman has an unblemished record as an attorney and respectfully disagrees with the judge’s findings.”

Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich called the decision “absurd” and “baseless” from a judge appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

"The January 6 Committee, and related proceedings, is a circus of partisanship that is exposing public officials at every level of government for their willingness to put politics ahead of the law and the Constitution,” Budowich said.

Eastman is the lawyer who wrote a six-page memo for Trump explaining a potential strategy for overturning the election. Eastman had sued the committee to prevent the release of his emails as former law school dean at Chapman University.

The plan basically was to have then-Vice President Mike Pence refuse to recognize Electoral College votes from states with contested results, which would have thrown the race to the House of Representatives, where Trump might have won.

“I’m here asking you to reject the electors,” Eastman said at a meeting with Pence’s staff Jan. 5, 2021.

But Pence, who oversaw the count as president of the Senate, repeatedly refused to participate.

“It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not,” Pence said before the joint session of Congress began Jan. 6, 2021.

More: Who has been subpoenaed so far by the Jan. 6 committee?

Eastman acknowledged his argument “was contrary to historical practice” and said in his memo “we’re no longer laying by Queensbury Rules.”

Carter, the judge, ruled that Eastman was aware 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," Carter wrote.

More: For the first time, Jan. 6 committee alleges Trump, others engaged in criminal conspiracy to overturn election

The committee seeks Eastman's emails as part of its investigation into what led to the deadly riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. A mob of Trump supporters ransacked the building, injuring 140 police officers and temporarily halting the counting of Electoral College votes that certified President Joe Biden's victory.

Eastman had argued against releasing his emails from Chapman University under attorney-client privilege. Eastman appeared on behalf of Trump in a Georgia lawsuit about election results and he attended closed-door meetings with Trump to discuss his legal theories. Trump acknowledged Eastman's help during his speech Jan. 6, 2021.

But the committee argued Eastman's use of university email destroyed any attorney-client privilege to keep the documents confidential.

Carter ruled 19 documents should be released because they make no mention of litigation. Another 87 documents were created for distribution to Congress to persuade them to take action, so Carter released them.

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

Carter kept 10 contested documents confidential because they represented Eastman's legal arguments and were not pivotal to the committee's investigation.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Judge calls 'illegality' of Trump plan to overturn election 'obvious'