Four lawyers who gave Donald Trump erroneous legal advice that aided his drive to overturn the 2020 US election now face heightened prospects of criminal charges after a House panel released an exhaustive report on the January 6 insurrection, and referred the lawyers for possible prosecution to the justice department, say ex-federal prosecutors.
John Eastman, Jeff Clark, Rudy Giuliani and Kenneth Chesebro played overlapping roles, offering Trump bogus legal cover that included promoting a fake electors ploy to replace electors Joe Biden won with ones for Trump, in an effort to block Congress from certifying Biden on 6 January.
The lawyers’ actions and schemes were cited in an 845-page report last month by the House select committee investigating the events of 6 January, and in the referrals to the justice department, for giving various types of legal support to Trump that enabled parts of his attempted coup.
The report accused Trump of criminally engaging in “a multi-part conspiracy”, and cited four criminal offenses: making false statements, obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and aiding or comforting insurrection, all of which were referred to the DoJ for prosecution.
The specific referrals to the DoJ differ somewhat for the four lawyers. All of them were referred for conspiring to defraud the United States. Except for Giuliani, the other three were referred for conspiring to obstruct an official proceeding, a reference to Congress certifying Biden’s win on 6 January.
Several legal schemes devised by the lawyers to further Trump’s botched coup were detailed in the referrals and in the panel’s exhaustive report. For instance, Eastman, a law professor in California, authored a “coup memo” that suggested avenues the former vice-president Mike Pence could take to help Trump reverse his election loss, including unilaterally throwing out certain state electoral college votes.
Along with Giuliani, Eastman also addressed the “Stop the Steal” rally immediately before the Capitol attack, where he floated a baseless conspiracy theory about “secret folders” in voting machines that helped cast votes for Democrats.
The panel’s report and referrals noted, too, that Clark, who was acting head of the DoJ’s civil division, “stands out as a participant in the conspiracy” to defraud the United States. The report cited evidence that Clark drafted a letter with false information urging some state officials to name new slates of electors, as part of a plan that involved Trump installing Clark as acting attorney general at the DoJ.
Last summer, Clark and Eastman had their cellphones seized by federal agents, in an early indication of the serious scrutiny prosecutors were affording them.
Giuliani, who served as Trump’s personal attorney and pushed his false claims about widespread election fraud, was subpoenaed by the US attorney in DC in November to testify and provide documents about his payments from Trump and his campaign, according to a Reuters report this week.
Although the House panel’s referrals to the DoJ are only recommendations and do not require filing charges against the lawyers, former prosecutors said the extensive evidence that they conspired with Trump to stop Biden from taking office could help spur DoJ legal action against them.
“The corrupt involvement of lawyers in various aspects of the January 6 insurrection is surely one of the low points in the history of the legal profession in America,” said former DoJ inspector general Michael Bromwich.
“From filing bogus lawsuits, to trying to hijack the justice department, to devising the fake electors scheme – lawyers were at the center of the illegitimate attempts to keep Donald Trump in power. Any lawyer who cares about the reputation of the profession should be disgusted at their behavior, and hope they will be held accountable by the very legal system they abused.”
Other former prosecutors offered scathing views about Trump’s legal loyalists.
“While professional status often shields lawyers from criminal liability, I would expect prosecutors to use it as a sword here: this crew knew congressional procedures and concocted an attack on the weak spots, drawing in many others who knew far less,” said Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor at Columbia law school.
“While there may be prudential reasons not to make Trump a criminal defendant, those don’t argue against charging this group with a conspiracy to defraud the United States. The broad title of that offense doesn’t often capture the conduct of defendants charged with it, but it certainly does here, And a full factual presentation of this conspiracy might also reveal Trump’s own role.”
Similarly, Michael Zeldin, an ex-DoJ prosecutor, said: “The Jan 6 committee’s referrals to the DoJ regarding the role Trump-aligned attorneys played in the run-up to the assault on the Capitol laid out a compelling case.”
“[The] DoJ now has to test that evidence against a standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to determine whether indictments are warranted,” he added.
Eastman and the other lawyers accused in the House panel’s referrals to DoJ have all denied improper conduct. But well before the panel’s referrals and report, evidence was mounting about the sizable roles Eastman and the other lawyers played in promoting Trump’s conspiracy to block Biden from taking office.
Federal judge David Carter last March in a key ruling involving Eastman, stated that Trump “more likely than not” broke the law in his weeks-long drive to stop Biden from taking office.
“Dr Eastman and President Trump launched a campaign to overturn a democratic election, an action unprecedented in American history,” Carter wrote in a civil case that led to an order for Eastman to release over 100 emails he had withheld from the House panel.
The panel last year also heard stunning testimony from Greg Jacob, Mike Pence’s counsel. Jacob testified that Eastman acknowledged to him that he was aware that his efforts to get Pence to reject Biden’s winning electoral college count would violate the Electoral Count Act, and that Trump, too, was informed it would be unlawful for Pence to block Biden’s certification.
Clark’s role in trying to help Trump promote false claims of election fraud also prompted strong condemnation at a House panel hearing last year. Former acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue was scathing in recounting Trump’s efforts to replace the acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, with Clark in late December 2020, to increase pressure on state legislators to reject Biden electors by pushing baseless charges of widespread fraud.
Donoghue testified that he warned Trump at a bizarre 3 January White House meeting that drew Rosen, Trump White House counsel Pat Cipollone and other top lawyers. Elevating Clark to be acting AG would spark mass resignations, and Clark would be “left leading a graveyard”, at the DoJ, Donoghue said
Cipollone, who testified before a federal grand jury last fall, also threatened to resign if Trump replaced Rosen with Clark.
Former Georgia US attorney Michael Moore said he believes the panel assembled a “substantial” case against some of Trump’s leading lawyer loyalists, who “were actually involved in an unprecedented and unlawful effort to overturn the election, providing fallacious legal arguments as part of the conspiracy”.
“A lawyer who tells his client how to crack open the vault is just as guilty as the robber who enters the bank,” Moore added.
Still, Richman cautioned that DoJ prosecutors face challenges before charging any of the lawyers.
“I suspect prosecutors would want to more clearly nail down the degree to which these lawyers were truly aware that their theories lacked the slightest factual support or legal basis. It helps, but may not be enough, that many around them were saying that.”
Regardless of whether or not the DoJ charges some of the lawyers, they all should suffer professionally for scheming with Trump, Bromwich stressed.
“Although it’s not yet clear which of the lawyers can be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal prosecutions, they all should become outcasts in their chosen profession, and at a minimum never practice law again.”