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What we've learned from pro-Trump attorney John Eastman's state bar trial

Attorney John Eastman stands outside the California State Bar Court in downtown Los Angeles. The State Bar is seeking to revoke Eastman's law license over his work on former President Donald Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election.
Jae C. Hong
Attorney John Eastman stands outside the California State Bar Court in downtown Los Angeles. The State Bar is seeking to revoke Eastman's law license over his work on former President Donald Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election.

Attorney John Eastman fought to overturn the 2020 presidential election and keep Donald Trump in power.

Now, he's fighting to keep his law license.

The State Bar of California opened its case this week against Eastman in State Bar Court in downtown Los Angeles, arguing he knowingly and willfully pushed false and outlandish allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election, promoted an "unlawful" scheme to overturn the election results, and should lose his law license. The trial continues today with additional testimony from the State Bar's witnesses.

"Dr. Eastman and President Trump conspired to disrupt the electoral count on Jan. 6," said Duncan Carling, an attorney with the State Bar's Office of Chief Trial Counsel, in his opening statement. Eastman has a Ph.D. in government from Claremont Graduate University, and both sides in the case refer to him as Dr. Eastman.

A former dean of the law school at Chapman University, Eastman was a key player in Trump's effort to block Joe Biden's victory in the Electoral College, including the plan to send alternate slates of pro-Trump electors to Congress. In addition to working on Trump's legal challenges, he appeared at the Jan. 6, 2021, pro-Trump rally alongside former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, fired up the crowd with claims of voter fraud, and pressured then-Vice President Mike Pence to toss out Biden's Electoral College victory. Hours later, a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Carling said Eastman's conduct related to the election was "fundamentally dishonest" and the legal theory he advanced "was baseless, completely unsupported by historical precedent or law, and contrary to our values as a nation."

Eastman's attorney, Randy Miller, said in his opening statement that Eastman's legal theories were "tenable," and that the vice president's supposed ability to intervene in the Electoral College count that took place in Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, was a matter of "scholarly debate."

"Lawyers get to argue debatable issues," Miller said. "The State Bar cannot discipline a lawyer for advancing tenable positions."

As part of his case, Eastman intends to call a number of far-right figures who have pushed claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. Among the people on his witness list are Mark Finchem, an Arizona politician and member of the Oath Keepers militia group, who ran unsuccessfully for Arizona secretary of state, and Douglas Frank, a former high school math and science teacher who has traveled the country promoting allegations of election fraud.

At the start of the trial, Judge Yvette Roland blocked testimony from multiple people Eastman wanted to call as expert witnesses. Among them was Joseph Fried, a Certified Public Accountant who wrote an e-book about the 2020 election. Judge Roland said that Fried had no specific training or expertise in elections, and ruled that his testimony was irrelevant. The State Bar has filed motions to block testimony from other election deniers on Eastman's witness list, which Roland has yet to rule on. The State Bar plans to call a number of election officials from across the country.

Eastman's conduct has already faced investigation from the January 6th Select Committee in Congress, and, separately, FBI agents seized Eastman's phone last year.

But while Eastman repeatedly asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in his deposition with the January 6th Committee and refused to answer investigators' questions, Eastman has testified under oath in his bar trial.

Carling, the State Bar's lead attorney on the case, questioned Eastman about the sources of information Eastman used when he was alleging fraud and other irregularities in the 2020 election. In several instances, Eastman testified that he did not vet that information himself, but relied on his colleagues on the Trump legal team. He also testified that he generally disregarded evidence from election experts who debunked the Trump team's fraud claims. Eastman said that every case features "competing experts."

Eastman is expected to face further questioning about his role in pressuring Pence to block Biden's victory when Congress counted the electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021.

On Wednesday, the State Bar called Greg Jacob, counsel to Vice President Pence, as a witness, and Jacob testified about his interactions with Eastman in the days leading up to Jan. 6.

According to Jacob, Eastman admitted that the Supreme Court would likely block his plan for Pence to reject several states' electors by a vote of nine-to-zero. (Though Jacob testified Eastman initially thought he could possibly win the vote of conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, for whom Eastman worked as a law clerk.)

Jacob was in the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection, and while under lockdown due to the violence, Jacob sent an email to Eastman that ended by saying: "Thanks to your [bulls***] we are now under siege."

Eastman responded that the evidence that the election was "stolen" was "already overwhelming."

"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 that the American people can see for themselves what happened," Eastman wrote.

In court, Jacob said he thought Eastman's theories and pressure campaign on Pence helped inspire rioters to descend on the Capitol, even though Pence's role in the electoral count was essentially ceremonial.

"It was apparent to me that the people who marched on the Capitol did so because they believed that there was a momentous decision that was going to decide who was going to be president of the United States to be made in that building that day," Jacob said.

Jacob testified that he was offended by Eastman's conduct as a lawyer, and said he "brought our profession into disrepute."

Other pro-Trump attorneys who worked on election-related challenges have also faced disciplinary action from state legal authorities, including Giuliani, Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell.

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, told NPR in an interview that those actions represent an attempt by the legal community to uphold professional standards.

"Lawyers hold positions of public trust in our society," Levinson said. "There's a reason that we have to take and pass moral character exams, that we have to agree to certain rules of the profession. Because we do have a lot of control over our clients' lives and their finances and even on larger policy issues."

Levinson said Eastman's defense faces serious challenges.

"I think that John Eastman has an uphill battle here in the sense that his particular views have been discredited," Levinson said. "The election was not stolen, there was not rampant fraud, there was no basis for sending alternative slates of electors to the Electoral College."

Eastman's trial is expected to take about two weeks, after which the judge will issue a ruling. That ruling could be appealed, and ultimately, the California Supreme Court has the final say as to the status of Eastman's law license.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Dreisbach
Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.