A federal judge has said former United States President Donald Trump “more likely than not” committed a crime in his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Judge David Carter of the Central District of California made the remarkable statement in a civil case ruling pertaining to whether Trump’s lawyer John Eastman must release documents and testimony to the congressional committee investigating the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol and the campaign by Trump and his allies to overturn the victory of President Joe Biden.
The language in the ruling has no direct legal implications for Trump.
Carter ruled that Eastman must turn over 100 emails to the congressional committee, saying the documents were not protected from subpoena because of the “crime-fraud exception”, which means documents are not protected by shields like lawyer-client privilege if they are related to furthering future or ongoing criminal activity or fraud.
He described the attempt to overturn the results of the elections as “a coup in search of a legal theory”, arguing the president and his allies sought to criminally obstruct the work of Congress.
“If Dr Eastman and President Trump’s plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution,” Carter wrote. “If the country does not commit to investigating and pursuing accountability for those responsible, the Court fears January 6 will repeat itself.”
However, Carter stressed that his ruling affected only the direct question of whether Eastman must release the documents to the committee.
“More than a year after the attack on our Capitol, the public is still searching for accountability. This case cannot provide it,” he wrote, adding “This is not a criminal prosecution; this is not even a civil liability suit.”
Still, the ruling could further ignite the congressional committee investigating the January 6 riot. The panel, which has been gathering thousands of documents and interviewing hundreds of witnesses, is weighing whether to criminally refer Trump to the Justice Department. The agency has been conducting a wide-ranging inquiry into the Capitol assault, but has not, to date, indicated that it is building a criminal case against Trump.
In a statement to National Public Radio (NPR), Eastman’s lawyer said his client plans to comply with the judge’s ruling, but noted that the civil case is only subject to a standard of a “preponderance of evidence”, meaning it is more likely than not that the alleged act occurred. Criminal cases in the US are decided on “proof beyond a reasonable doubt”, a higher standard.
The ruling came as the House committee voted on Monday to recommend criminal contempt of Congress charges against two Trump allies – former White House adviser Peter Navarro and former Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino Jr – for their refusal to comply with subpoenas. If the recommendation passes the House Committee on Rules and a full House vote, the Justice Department will decide whether to criminally charge the aides.
The full House previously approved contempt of Congress referrals against Trump ally Steve Bannon and former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Bannon was later charged with a crime and is awaiting prosecution by the Justice Department. The agency has not taken any action against Meadows.
Trump continues to face several investigations related to his attempts to overturn the election and his business dealings.
The Fulton County district attorney in Georgia is investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the election results there. The investigation was launched after details of a call emerged in which Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” the votes needed to declare Trump the victor in the state.
The New York attorney general and the New York district attorney are also investigating the business dealings of the Trump Organization.