John Eastman, an architect of Donald Trump’s last-ditch bid to subvert the 2020 election on Jan. 6, is about to go on trial — but not in a criminal court.
Rather, the attorney is fighting to save his California bar license from authorities who say he repeatedly breached professional ethics — and possibly the law — in his bid to keep a defeated Trump in power. And those proceedings, while not as prominent as the Jan. 6 select committee or as potentially punitive as a criminal prosecution, are slated to elicit some of the most revealing and comprehensive testimony from figures who aided Trump’s effort to derail the transfer of power.
That’s because Eastman and the California State Bar have amassed witness lists that include figures who have rarely spoken publicly about Jan. 6 but may hold valuable evidence — including Eastman himself, who is listed as a potential witness by the state bar’s trial counsel and by his own defense team. Their lists also include other high-profile figures, like former Bush administration lawyer John Yoo and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who are slated to testify as experts about constitutional law or election administration.
Eastman’s list features Kurt Olsen, a lawyer who spoke with Trump multiple times on Jan. 6 and who helmed legal efforts to unravel the election results in multiple states; Peter Navarro, the former Trump trade adviser who authored discredited reports on election integrity during the final weeks of 2020; Kurt Hilbert, a lawyer who worked on Trump’s post-election litigation in Georgia; Linda Kerns, a lawyer who worked on Trump’s post-election lawsuit in Pennsylvania; former Georgia State Sen. William Ligon; Doug Logan, the CEO of far-right election “audit” firm Cyber Ninjas; and Russell Ramsland, who was involved with a review of voting machines in Antrim County, Michigan, that became the source of pro-Trump conspiracy theories.
Trump talked to Olsen three times Jan. 6, 2021, including twice in the evening for a total of 21 minutes, according to White House logs obtained by the Jan. 6 select committee. But the content of those calls, as Congress was poised to reconvene after the riot had been largely pacified, remains unknown.
Meanwhile, the state bar plans to call its own notable list of witnesses, beginning with Greg Jacob, who on Jan. 6 was counsel to then-Vice President Mike Pence. Jacob tangled with Eastman in the days before Jan. 6 over Eastman’s claim that Pence could single-handedly prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election.
That theory is at the heart of the state’s case to punish Eastman on 11 professional charges, which include failure to support the laws and Constitution, seeking to mislead a court, misrepresentations to other Trump aides and the public, and moral turpitude.
“It is no overstatement that democracy stood on the precipice. Had Vice President Pence followed [Eastman’s] baseless advice … the country would have plunged into a ‘profound constitutional crisis,’” writes Duncan Carling of the California State Bar’s office of trial counsel in a pretrial brief. “[Eastman] and Trump’s plan violated our Nation’s most fundamental commitments to the rule of law and the orderly transition of power. And it rested upon transparently false claims of election fraud that continue to harm our democracy to this day.”
The bar proceedings, including a pretrial conference Monday and two weeks of testimony later in the month, are an example of the myriad forms of accountability facing those in Trump’s orbit Jan. 6 — particularly lawyers, whose roles are often shrouded in the murky domain of legal advice and attorney-client privilege. Though national attention has been riveted to the potential prosecutions of Trump and his allies in Washington and Georgia, state bars have also been marshaled to pursue investigations of these matters and in some cases have produced much quicker results.
For example, amid pressure from bar authorities in Colorado, Trump attorney Jenna Ellis admitted in March that she had repeatedly misrepresented evidence about the integrity of the 2020 election. Rudy Giuliani’s law license was suspended in December after D.C. bar discipline proceedings resulted in a finding that he violated professional ethics and rules. And former Justice Department attorney Jeffrey Clark is awaiting similar proceedings in Washington, which were cleared to proceed last week after an eight-month delay.
Eastman spent the final weeks of the Trump administration stoking false claims of election fraud in order to put pressure on GOP-led state legislatures to appoint alternate slates of presidential electors. In Eastman’s view, those alternate slates would form the basis of a dispute that only Pence could resolve Jan. 6, when he presided over the joint session of Congress to count electoral votes and finalize the results of the election.
But no state legislatures agreed to appoint those alternate electors. Instead, in five states, groups of pro-Trump activists signed false documents claiming to be legitimate presidential electors — but without the backing of their state governments, which had certified the results in favor of Biden. Eastman would ultimately change tack, arguing that the false electors presented enough of a controversy for Pence to decide which ones to count — or at the very least refuse to count Biden’s votes and call for a delay in finalizing the election to permit those GOP-run states to revisit the outcome.
Jacob and Pence fiercely rejected that strategy, which they contended would require violating several provisions of longstanding election law with no credible evidence to support reversing the outcome.
But Eastman, undeterred, fought with Jacob even as rioters — infuriated by Pence’s refusal to acquiesce to Trump’s pressure — ransacked the Capitol. Jacob testified to the Jan. 6 select committee about his interactions with Eastman, even as the riot raged, and his email correspondence with Eastman from that day formed some of the most compelling evidence about Eastman’s efforts. Jacob has also testified to a federal grand jury in Washington.
Efforts by the Jan. 6 select committee to obtain Eastman’s emails from his former employer, Chapman University, also resulted in one of the most remarkable court rulings of the post-Jan. 6 era: A federal judge’s determination that Eastman and Trump likely conspired to obstruct congressional proceedings and defraud the public. That ruling, by California-based jurist David Carter, was part of long-running litigation that gave the select committee access to thousands of Eastman’s emails, including some after Carter applied the “crime-fraud” exception to attorney-client privilege.
In addition to Jacob, the California bar counsel plans to call election officials from five states, including Benson and Stephen Richer, the county recorder of Maricopa County, Ariz. The bar authorities also plan to call at least two constitutional experts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Eastman’s interpretation of the law and Constitution.
Eastman has tapped Yoo to argue about his interpretation of the 12th Amendment. Carling indicated in a recent filing, however, that Yoo sat for a May 26 deposition and provided testimony that undercuts some of Eastman’s claims.
Carling and his colleagues are asking the judge presiding over the case, Yvette Roland, to prevent Yoo from opining on Eastman’s advice to Pence, which Yoo has already said in a deposition he was unprepared to delve into.
Roland has already agreed to prohibit at least some of the testimony of another expert Eastman intended to call, former Washington federal appeals court Judge Janice Rogers Brown.
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