Trump likely committed felony obstruction, federal judge rules

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Carter said that the plan Eastman helped develop was obviously illegal and that Trump knew it at the time.

“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.

The remarkable ruling may be the first in history in which a federal judge determined a president, while in office, appeared to commit a crime. The decision has no direct role in whether Trump will be charged criminally but could increase pressure on the Justice Department and its chief, Attorney General Merrick Garland, to conduct an aggressive investigation that could lead to such charges.

Thus far, Garland has promised to probe legal violations related to Jan. 6 “at any level,” but there have been virtually no outward signs that the Justice Department is investigating Trump or his top advisers over their roles in instigating the Capitol attack or otherwise scuttling or delay the electoral-vote-tallying session.

Justice Department spokespeople did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the ruling.

Eastman, a former professor at Chapman, helped develop the legal strategy Trump deployed to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence to single-handedly overturn the election when Congress convened on Jan. 6. Chapman University did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Carter ruled that the efforts by Trump and Eastman were obviously contrary to a federal law, the Electoral Count Act.

“Our nation was founded on the peaceful transition of power, epitomized by George Washington laying down his sword to make way for democratic elections,” Carter wrote in a 44-page ruling. “Ignoring this history, President Trump vigorously campaigned for the Vice President to single-handedly determine the results of the 2020 election. With a plan this ‘BOLD,’ President Trump knowingly tried to subvert this fundamental principle.”

The decision also helps shore up a theory increasingly embraced by members of the Jan. 6 select committee: that Trump seized on legal strategies he knew were meritless in order to subvert the transfer of power to Joe Biden — an effort that contributed to the violence that unfolded at the Capitol. Trump allies have long assailed the select committee as a political effort led by Democrats, but Carter’s analysis now gives the committee the imprimatur of a federal court.

In his ruling, Carter agreed that 10 of Eastman’s emails should remain shielded by attorney-client privilege. But he said none of the 10 appeared “pivotal” to the select committee’s investigation. Nine of them, he wrote, were about potential litigation, and the tenth captured Eastman’s “thoughts on the evening of January 6 about potential future actions.”

Carter, who sits in Los Angeles and is an appointee of President Bill Clinton, acknowledged long-shot arguments by Eastman that the 1887 law governing the tallying and certification of electoral votes was at odds with the Constitution. However, the judge said that did not permit Trump the right to defy the statute or to seek to persuade Pence to circumvent it.

“Believing the Electoral Count Act was unconstitutional did not give President Trump license to violate it,” Carter wrote. “Disagreeing with the law entitled President Trump to seek a remedy in court, not to disrupt a constitutionally-mandated process. And President Trump knew how to pursue election claims in court — after filing and losing more than sixty suits, this plan was a last-ditch attempt to secure the Presidency by any means.”

Eastman could try to appeal the decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and, from there, to the Supreme Court.


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