The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot said in a court filing Wednesday that evidence suggests that former President Donald Trump and his allies may have "engaged in a criminal conspiracy" in their effort to overturn his election loss.
The committee told a California federal court that Trump "may have engaged in criminal acts" in his effort to prevent Congress from certifying the results of the election.
"The Select Committee also has a good-faith basis for concluding that the President and members of his Campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States," the committee said in a filing as it seeks to force John Eastman, an attorney who helped Trump try to overturn his loss, to turn over documents in the investigation.
The panel claimed that evidence it collected could lead to potential criminal charges against Trump, Eastman and others, including "obstructing an official proceeding of Congress and conspiracy to defraud the American people."
The filing came after Eastman, who reportedly sought to convince former Vice President Mike Pence that he had the authority to overturn the election by rejecting Electoral College votes, refused to turn over documents related to the post-election scheme, citing attorney-client privilege.
"We believe evidence in our possession justifies review of these documents," Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Vice-Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said in a joint statement. "The facts we've gathered strongly suggest that Dr. Eastman's emails may show that he helped Donald Trump advance a corrupt scheme to obstruct the counting of electoral college ballots and a conspiracy to impede the transfer of power."
Eastman's attorney Charles Burnham told Politico that his client has a "responsibility to protect client confidences, even at great personal risk and expense."
"The Select Committee has responded to Dr. Eastman's efforts to discharge this responsibility by accusing him of criminal activity," he said. "Because this is a civil matter, Dr. Eastman will not have the benefit of the Constitutional protections normally afforded to those accused by their government of criminal conduct. Nonetheless, we look forward to responding in due course."
The committee's filing, which included depositions from multiple aides to Trump and Pence and from Eastman, who invoked his Fifth Amendment rights nearly 150 times, suggested that Trump and his allies may have obstructed an official proceeding by pushing to interfere with the counting of electoral votes, defrauded the U.S. by interfering in the election certification, and violated common fraud laws in the District of Columbia.
The panel cited former Trump aide Jason Miller's testimony about a discussion in which Trump's aides explained to him that he was going to lose the election, "but the President nevertheless sought to use the Vice President to manipulate the results in his favor," the filing said.
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Eastman assisted Trump's efforts, insisting to Pence that he had the authority to block the certification of President Joe Biden's win. At one point, Pence counsel Greg Jacob sent a lengthy email refuting Eastman's claims. "Thanks to your bullshit, we are now under siege," Jacob wrote, according to court documents.
"The 'siege' is because YOU and your boss did not do what was necessary to allow this to be aired in a public way so the American people can see for themselves what happened," Eastman replied.
In another email, Eastman insisted to Pence's team that the vice president blocking the certification would only amount to a "relatively minor" violation of the Electoral Count Act, which governs the certification process.
"Plaintiff knew what he was proposing would violate the law, but he nonetheless urged the Vice President to take those actions," the committee said in the filing.
The committee has no power to charge anyone with a crime but the filing could put pressure on the Justice Department to pursue charges against Trump and his allies. The DOJ has charged hundreds of individuals who participated in the riot but has not targeted anyone in Trump's inner circle.
"Knock, knock, Merrick Garland, are you listening? This is clearly, to me, directed from the Jan. 6 committee over to the Justice Department," former federal prosecutor Elie Honig told CNN. "If you look at this document, it almost reads like what an internal DOJ prosecution memo would read as. You see all the facts laid out, you see the legal arguments … they lay it out with citations to case law."
Conservative attorney George Conway, a frequent Trump critic, told MSNBC that he doesn't see "how the Justice Department can pass on this."
"The problem for them is that the evidence is piling up and mounting and it fits these statutes like a glove," he said. "He knew he lost, which means he knew he was engaging in a fraud and knew he was engaging in a deceit," he added.
Former Solicitor General Neal Katyal said the committee's filing was effectively an "informal referral" to the Justice Department.
"I cannot remember the last time a Congressional Committee accused a President — in a court filing — of committing felonies," he tweeted. "This isn't loose talk, it is a solemn court document, subject to all sorts of sanctions for misrepresentations, and backed by evidence they have uncovered."