WASHINGTON — A federal judge ruled Monday that former President Donald J. Trump and a lawyer who advised him on how to void the 2020 election most likely committed crimes, including obstructing the work of Congress and conspiring to defraud the United States.
The judge’s comments in the civil case of attorney John Eastman marked a significant step forward for the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The committee, which is considering making a criminal referral to the Justice Department, had used a record in the case to expose crimes it believed Mr Trump may have committed.
Mr. Trump was not charged with any crime and the judge’s decision had no immediate and practical legal effect on him. But he essentially endorsed the committee’s argument that Mr. Trump’s efforts to prevent Congress from certifying Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s Electoral College victory may well rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy.
“The illegality of the plan was evident,” wrote Judge David O. Carter of the Central District of California. “Our nation was founded on the peaceful transition of power, epitomized by George Washington laying down his sword to make way for democratic elections. Unaware of this history, President Trump vigorously campaigned for the Vice President to single-handedly determine the results of the 2020 election.”
The actions taken by Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman, Justice Carter concluded, amounted to “a coup in search of legal theory.”
The Justice Department conducted an extensive investigation into the Capitol storming, but gave no public indication that it was considering a criminal case against Mr. Trump. A criminal removal from the House committee could increase pressure on Attorney General Merrick B. Garland to do so.
The judge’s decision came as the committee continued its investigation. Just this week, people familiar with the investigation said, the panel collated testimony from four senior Trump White House officials, including Jared Kushner, son-in-law and adviser to the former president, whose interview was scheduled Thursday.
The committee also voted 9-0 Monday night to recommend criminal contempt of Congress charges against two other Trump allies — Peter Navarro, a former White House adviser, and Dan Scavino Jr., a former chief executive. deputy cabinet — for their participation in efforts to nullify the 2020 election and their subsequent refusal to comply with panel subpoenas. The matter now goes to the Rules Committee and then to the whole House. If successful, the Justice Department will decide whether to charge the men. A charge of contempt of Congress carries a sentence of up to one year in prison.
But Judge Carter’s decision was perhaps the biggest development in the investigation to date, suggesting his investigators have built a case strong enough to convince a federal judge of Mr Trump’s guilt and draw up a score sheet. route for possible criminal dismissal.
Justice Carter’s decision ordered Mr Eastman, a Conservative lawyer who had drafted a memo that members of both parties likened to a coup plan, to turn over more than 100 emails to the committee.
A lawyer for Mr Eastman said in a statement on Monday that he “respectfully disagrees” with Justice Carter’s findings but will comply with the order to turn over the documents.
In a statement welcoming the judge’s decision, House committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, and his vice-chairman, Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming, said the nation must not allow what happened on January 6, 2021. , “be minimized and cannot accept as normal these threats to our democracy.” Mr. Trump has made no public statement about the decision.
Many of the documents the committee will now receive relate to a proposed legal strategy by Mr. Eastman to pressure Vice President Mike Pence into not certifying voters in several key states when convening Congress on January 6, 2021. “The real driving force behind these emails was advancing political strategy: persuading Vice President Pence to take unilateral action on January 6,” Justice Carter wrote.
One of the documents, according to the ruling, is an email containing a draft memo written for another Mr. Trump lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, recommending that Mr. Pence “reject voters from Disputed States”.
“This was perhaps the first time members of President Trump’s team turned a legal interpretation of the Voter Count Act into a day-to-day plan of action,” Justice Carter wrote.
Mr Eastman had sued the panel, trying to persuade a judge to block the committee’s subpoena for the documents in its possession. As part of the lawsuit, Mr. Eastman sought to protect release documents that he claimed were covered by solicitor-client privilege.
In response, the committee argued – under the legal theory known as the criminal fraud exception – that the privilege did not cover information passed from a client to an attorney if it was part of the promotion or concealment of a crime.
The panel said its investigators had amassed evidence showing that Mr. Trump, Mr. Eastman and other allies could be charged with criminal offenses, including obstructing an official congressional process and conspiracy to defraud. the American people.
Judge Carter, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, agreed, writing that he believed it was “likely” that the men not only conspired to defraud the United States, but “dishonestly conspired to obstruct the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021.”
“Dr. Eastman and President Trump have launched a campaign to void a Democratic election, an action unprecedented in American history,” he wrote.
In deciding that Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman “more likely than not” broke the law — the legal standard for determining whether Mr. Eastman could claim solicitor-client privilege — Judge Carter noted that the former President had facilitated two meetings in the days before Jan. 6 that were “explicitly related to persuading Vice President Pence to disrupt the joint session of Congress.”
The Aftermath of Capitol Riot: Key Developments
Judge says Trump likely committed crimes. In a court filing in a civil case, the House committee on Jan. 6 laid out the crimes it believed former President Donald J. Trump may have committed. The federal judge hearing the case ruled Mr Trump most likely committed crimes while trying to overturn the 2020 election.
At the first meeting, on Jan. 4, Mr. Trump and Mr. Eastman invited Mr. Pence and two of his top aides, Greg Jacob and Marc Short, to the Oval Office. There, Justice Carter wrote, Mr. Eastman “presented his plan to Vice President Pence, focusing either on rejecting voters or delaying the count.”
That meeting was followed by another, Justice Carter wrote, on January 5, in which Mr. Eastman again sought to persuade Mr. Jacob to agree to the scheme.
Mr. Trump continued to pressure Mr. Pence even on Jan. 6, Justice Carter wrote, noting that the former president had made several last-minute calls to Mr. Pence. on Twitter. Mr. Trump called Mr. Pence by phone, Justice Carter wrote, and “again urged him ‘to make the call’ and go through with the plan.”
While the House committee does not have the power to directly bring charges against Mr. Trump, and Mr. Trump was not a party to the Eastman civil case, Judge Carter’s decision on Monday underscored the issues lingering questions about whether Mr. Trump could face criminal culpability for both his business dealings and his efforts to overturn the election result.
Last week, The New York Times reported that a New York prosecutor investigating Mr Trump’s financial dealings believed the former president was guilty of ‘numerous crimes’ in the way he handled his real estate deal. and commercial before taking office. Mr. Trump’s assessment by prosecutor Mark F. Pomerantz came last month in a letter in which Mr. Pomerantz announced he was resigning from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which had stopped prosecuting the case. indictment of Mr. Trump.
Mr Trump is also facing an investigation from the Atlanta District Attorney who recently convened a special grand jury to help investigate the former president’s attempts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results.
This investigation centers on Mr. Trump’s actions in the two months between his election defeat and the certification of the results by Congress, including an appeal he made to Georgian Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to pressuring him to “find 11,780 votes” – the margin by which Mr. Trump lost the state.
The House committee sought to piece together a definitive account of Mr. Trump’s efforts to retain the White House and how they led to the assault on the Capitol. Among the documents the committee will now receive from Mr. Eastman is an email that outlined “a series of events for the days leading up to and following January 6, should Vice President Pence delay the count or reject electoral votes,” Carter said. wrote.
The email “lists potential Supreme Court lawsuits and the impact of various court decisions” was Mr Pence to enact the plan.
The committee will also obtain documents related to state lawmakers who participated in efforts to persuade Mr. Pence not to certify certain electoral votes. One of them, Justice Carter wrote, is a letter from Republican members of the Arizona Legislature to Mr. Pence. Two others are letters from a Georgia state senator to Mr. Trump.
The committee has already heard from over 750 witnesses. John McEntee, the former president’s chief of staff, testified Monday; Anthony Ornato, the former White House operations chief, was scheduled to testify Tuesday; and Matthew Pottinger, a former deputy national security adviser, will do so at a later date, people familiar with the investigation said.
Mr. Navarro and Mr. Scavino both argued that they were precluded from testifying by Mr. Trump’s assertions of executive privilege, and that President Biden – who waived executive privilege to the two men – does not have the authority to waive executive privilege on the testimony of a former president’s senior aide.