Judge says Trump likely broke the law by trying to obstruct Congress from confirming Biden win

Key Points
  • Ex-President Donald Trump likely broke the law by "corruptly" attempting to obstruct the confirmation of Joe Biden's Electoral College win by Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, a federal judge said.
  • Judge David Carter wrote that Trump with his ally, lawyer John Eastman, "launched a campaign to overturn a democratic election, an action unprecedented in American history."
  • Eastman wrote a memo detailing how Vice President Mike Pence could reject the certification of Biden's White House win by a joint session of Congress.
  • "Their campaign was not confined to the ivory tower — it was a coup in search of a legal theory," Carter wrote.
  • The judge rejected Eastman's bid to withhold documents from a select House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Federal judge says Trump likely committed crimes related to 2020 election

Ex-President Donald Trump likely broke the law by "corruptly" attempting to obstruct the certification by Congress of President Joe Biden's Electoral College win on Jan. 6, 2021, a federal judge said in a civil court ruling Monday.

Judge David Carter wrote that Trump with his ally, lawyer John Eastman, "launched a campaign to overturn a democratic election, an action unprecedented in American history."

"Their campaign was not confined to the ivory tower — it was a coup in search of a legal theory," Carter wrote in the ruling upholding a subpoena for nearly all of 111 documents from Eastman sought by the select House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

If the plan "had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution," wrote Carter in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruling.

The decision does not mean that Trump or Eastman will be prosecuted for the suspected crime.

Eastman, while a professor at Chapman University, had written a memo that had detailed how Vice President Mike Pence could reject the certification of Biden's election wins in seven states by a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6.

Attorney John Eastman gestures as he speaks next to U.S. President Donald Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, as Trump supporters gather ahead of the president’s speech to contest the certification by the U.S. Congress of the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election on the Ellipse in Washington, U.S, January 6, 2021.
Jim Bourg | Reuters

If that had happened, Congress could say Trump won the Electoral College, or send the election to the House of Representatives, which could have picked Trump as the winner due to the fact that Republicans controlled a majority of state delegations in that chamber.

Pence did not go along with that plan, saying he did not have such power to reject individual states' election results. The vice president's decision infuriated Trump, who with Eastman has falsely claimed that Biden's victory was a sham enabled by widespread ballot fraud.

Carter noted that Trump and Eastman, according to the select House committee, on Jan. 2, 2021, hosted a briefing that urged several hundred state legislators from states won by Biden "to 'decertify' electors" for Biden.

The judge also cited the fact that Trump that same day called Georgia's secretary of state and urged him to "find" enough votes for Trump to overturn Biden's election in that state, warning of "public anger and threatened criminal consequences" when that official, Brad Raffensperger, pushed back on the requests.

Two days later, Eastman met with Trump in the Oval Office, along with Pence and the vice president's chief of staff and counsel, where Eastman "presented only two courses of action for the Vice President on January 6: to reject electors or delay the count."

On Jan. 5, a day before Congress was due to confirm Biden as the next president, Eastman again met with Pence's counsel and chief of staff, saying, "I'm here asking you to reject the electors," the ruling noted.

"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," Carter wrote in his 44-page ruling.

"If the country does not commit to investigating and pursuing accountability for those responsible, the Court fears January 6 will repeat itself."

Carter's stinging comments came in his decision that ordered Eastman to disclose 101 documents to the select House committee.

The judge wrote that 10 other documents should not be turned over to the committee, finding that they are privileged because they constitute attorney work product.

Eastman's lawyer Charles Burnham said in a statement that Eastman intends to comply with Carter's order, but also said that the judge's ruling relied on evidence "cherry picked by the committee."

"Dr. Eastman has an unblemished record as an attorney and respectfully disagrees with the judge's findings," Burnham said. "Dr. Eastman asks all persons interested in this case to join him in calling upon the January 6tth committee to release all the evidence so the courts and the public can reach accurate conclusions about the matters involved."

Trump's spokeswoman did not return a request for comment on Carter's characterization of his actions.

The House committee's chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and its vice-chair, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wy., in a statement called the judge's decision "a victory for the rule of law and clears the way for the Select Committee to obtain materials important to our investigation."

"The Court found that the then-President of the United States more likely than not committed multiple federal crimes in his attempt to overturn the election," the lawmakers said.

"The Court's opinion also includes a warning: that a failure to pursue accountability could set the stage for a repeat of January 6th. America must not allow what happened on that day to be minimized and cannot accept as normal these threats to our democracy. The committee takes the warning seriously as we push ahead in our work to get answers about January 6th and its causes and to make recommendations to help ensure nothing like it ever happens again."

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.

Eastman spoke at a rally for Trump held outside the White House on Jan, 6, 2021, where the then-president and his allies called on Congress and Pence to block Biden's victory.

"And all we are demanding of Vice President Pence is this afternoon at 1:00 he let the legislators of the state look into this so we get to the bottom of it, and the American people know whether we have control of the direction of our government, or not," Eastman told the crow that day.

"We no longer live in a self-governing republic if we can't get the answer to this question. This is bigger than President Trump. It is a very essence of our republican form of government, and it has to be done," Eastman said.

"And anybody that is not willing to stand up to do it, does not deserve to be in the office. It is that simple."

Trump soon after took the podium, where he praised Eastman and his plan.

"John is one of the most brilliant lawyers in the country, and he looked at this and he said, 'What an absolute disgrace that this can be happening to our Constitution,'" Trump said.

"Because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election. All he has to do, all this is, this is from the No. 1, or certainly one of the top, constitutional lawyers in our country. He has the absolute right to do it," Trump said.

Shortly afterward, a mob of Trump supporters invaded the Capitol complex and swarmed the halls of Congress.

The riot disrupted for hours the proceedings confirming that Biden would become president later that month. Five people died in connection with the riot, including a Capitol Police officer, and more than 100 other cops were injured.

"As the attack progressed, Dr. Eastman continued to urge Vice President Pence to reconsider his decision not to delay the count," Carter wrote in his ruling.

"In an email to Vice President Pence's counsel Greg Jacob at 2:25 pm on January 6, Dr. Eastman wrote: 'The 'siege' is because YOU and your boss did not do what was necessary to allow this to be aired in a public way so the American people can see for themselves what happened,' " the ruling noted.

Eastman later refused to willingly produce any documents sought by the House committee investigating the riot, and asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination 146 times when he was deposed by that panel, Carter wrote in his ruling.

 — Additional reporting by Kevin Breuninger.

Correction: Brad Raffensperger is Georgia's secretary of state. An earlier version misspelled his name.