John Eastman - Photo courtesy of Colorado.edu

A federal judge in Santa Ana ruled Monday that former President Donald Trump “more likely than not” attempted to illegally block Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 election, and he likely conspired with a former Chapman University law professor to do it.

In a 44-page ruling, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter ordered ex-Chapman professor John Eastman to turn over 101 emails requested by a House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He found that 10 emails requested by the committee were privileged and did not have to be surrendered.

During a hearing earlier this month, Douglas Letter, the attorney for the Jan. 6 committee said the “easy” way to release the mails would be to find that Eastman violated the university’s policy against working for a political candidate, and that he had no expectation of privacy due to the university’s unusual policies regarding its email servers.

But Carter knocked down most of those arguments and instead opted for the more politically charged allegations that the former president and Eastman engaged in a criminal conspiracy to halt the election of President Joseph Biden.

“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. The plan spurred violent attacks on the seat of our nation’s government, led to the deaths of several law enforcement officers, and deepened public distrust in our political process.”

Carter added, “More than a year after the attack on our Capitol, the public is still searching for accountability. This case cannot provide it. The Court is tasked only with deciding a dispute over a handful of emails. This is not a criminal prosecution; this is not even a civil liability suit. At most, this case is a warning about the dangers of `legal theories’ gone wrong, the powerful abusing public platforms, and desperation to win at all costs.”

If Trump and Eastman had succeeded, Carter ruled, “It would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution. If the country does not commit to investigating and pursuing accountability for those responsible, the court fears Jan. 6 will repeat itself.”

Letter argued that Eastman could only come up with one unsigned agreement from Trump hiring Eastman to be his campaign attorney, but Carter said that did not matter since Eastman appeared for Trump in court and was involved in various meetings in the White House discussing the various lawsuits challenging the election results.

In his ruling, Carter makes plain that there was a likely conspiracy between Trump and Eastman to obstruct Congress.

His ruling cited meetings that occurred in the White House in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection, all aimed at pressuring then-Vice President Mike Pence and his staff to carry out a plan aimed at derailing the congressional certification of the election.

“Based on these repeated meetings and statements, the evidence shows that an agreement to enact the electoral count plan likely existed between President Trump and Dr. Eastman,” Carter wrote.

The judge also wrote that evidence shows that Eastman “was aware that his plan violated the Electoral Count Act,” and that he “likely acted deceitfully and dishonestly” in pressing a legally suspect plan to stall the certification of the vote.

Carter refers to an email chain including a memo written by another Trump attorney, Rudy Giuliani.

“The memo recommended that Vice President Pence reject electors from contested states on Jan. 6,” Carter wrote. “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 Jan. 6, 2021.”

Carter said the memo “furthered the crimes of obstruction of an official proceeding and conspiracy to defraud the United States,” so it cannot be kept privileged, or secret, because it meets the guidelines under a “crime-fraud exception.”

Carter rejected Eastman’s arguments that his interpretation of the Electoral Count Act was in “good faith,” and added that he found them to be a “partisan distortion of the democratic process. His plan was driven not by preserving the Constitution, but by winning the 2020 election.”

Carter said Eastman knew his plan violated the Electoral Count Act and that he “deceitfully and dishonestly… pushed an outcome-driven plan that knew was unsupported by the law.” Carter noted that even a federal judge Eastman clerked for said his plan was “incorrect at every turn.”

According to the Carter’s ruling, Eastman himself acknowledged that his proposal sidestepped the law and that the U.S. Supreme Court would unanimously reject it, though he also argued that it was legally justified as a “good-faith interpretation of the Constitution.”

Carter, however, said “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” and that Trump believing the Electoral Count Act was unconstitutional did not justify the plan.

“Disagreeing with the law entitled President Trump to seek a remedy in court, not to disrupt a constitutionally mandated process,” Carter wrote. “And President Trump knew how to pursue election claims in court — after filing and losing more than 60 suits, this plan was a last-ditch attempt to secure the presidency by any means.”

Carter wrote that the “illegality of the plan was obvious. Our nation was founded on the peaceful transition of power, epitomized by George Washington laying down his sword to make way for democratic elections. Ignoring this history, President Trump vigorously campaigned for the vice president to single-handedly determine the results of the 2020 election. As Vice President Pence stated, `no vice president in American history has ever asserted such authority.’ Every American — and certainly the President of the United States — knows that in a democracy, leaders are elected, not installed. With a plan this `BOLD,’ President Trump knowingly tried to subvert this fundamental principle.”

The emails that prompted the legal action were written between Jan. 4-7 on Eastman’s Chapman University email account. Chapman officials were willing to turn over all of the former professor’s emails to the House committee, which amounted to about 30,000, but Eastman sued to block the handing over of the emails to the select committee.

Carter eventually agreed to privately review 111 emails the House committee was requesting as it investigates the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The select committee argued that it needs the emails and revealed that it was investigating the possibility that Trump — with Eastman’s help — was in charge of a criminal conspiracy to overturn the election of Biden.

Eastman’s attorney, Charles Burnham, said earlier he did not think the emails in question would show any evidence of an intent to commit criminal fraud in seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election result.

Letter emphasized that there is a substantial need for the emails in what he said was one of the most important investigations in the history of Congress.

Eastman was forced out of Chapman when faculty and students objected to his attendance at a rally before the violent insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and his work on behalf of Trump’s campaign to undo the election results in the courts with claims of fraud that were repeatedly rejected. Eastman is also facing a state bar ethics investigation related to his work for Trump.

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