Jonathan P. Baird: Jonathan Karl’s new book unveils more on lawyer misconduct, Jan. 6 and the Trump presidency

For the Monitor
Published: 12/6/2021 6:00:42 AM
Modified: 12/6/2021 6:00:14 AM

Jan. 6 is a story that keeps unspooling. There are layers and layers and we keep finding out more. Jonathan Karl’s new book, Betrayal, is a treasure trove of revealing details.

Our former president was obsessed with staying in power. As Karl shows, his coup attempt went deeper than has been recognized. Much planning, especially by lawyers, went into the coup effort.

We recently learned that not only Trump lawyer John Eastman had a blueprint for a coup but so did Jenna Ellis, a promoter of biblical law and another member of the Trump legal team. Ellis’s memo was very much like Eastman’s.

Ellis saw Vice President Mike Pence as potentially the key Jan. 6 actor. Ellis believes that the vice president has unilateral power as president of the Senate to decline to count electors sent to Congress by the states. She wanted Pence on Jan. 6 to reject electoral votes from Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Her notion was very outside the traditional view that the constitutionally prescribed role of vice presidents is ceremonial during the electoral vote count. Ellis’s memo argued that Pence should halt the Electoral College vote count on Jan. 6 and give until Jan. 15 for states to send a new set of votes. If no new votes arrived by Jan. 15, Ellis argued those states’ votes would not be counted.

At that point, with no candidate having 270 electoral votes, the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives pursuant to the 12th Amendment. Because each state gets one vote and because the Republicans controlled a majority of state delegations, Ellis argued that throwing the election to Congress would result in a Trump victory. She conveniently overlooked the fact that Joe Biden won the six battleground states she cited.

On New Year’s Eve last year, Mark Meadows, Trump’s last Chief of Staff, emailed Ellis’s memo to Vice President Pence. Trump’s plan was to ratchet up the pressure on Pence. Trump also had his baggage handler turned head of presidential personnel, Johnny McEntee, write a historically inaccurate memo to Pence entitled “Jefferson used his position as Vice President to win.” McEntee passed this memo along to Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, on Jan. 1.

At the rally on Jan. 6, Trump told supporters, “If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election. Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us, and if he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country.”

I also should mention the scheme engineered by lawyer Jeffrey Clark that preceded Jan. 6. Clark was head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division and he was in cahoots with Trump. On Jan. 3, Clark told Jeffrey Rosen, the Acting Attorney General, that Trump was planning on installing him in place of Rosen. Clark wanted the Department of Justice to send a letter to state legislatures suggesting they convene special sessions and appoint new electors due to alleged election improprieties.

Rosen and Acting Deputy Attorney General, Richard Donoghue nixed Clark’s proposal. Donoghue told Clark that the Justice Department leadership would resign en masse if Trump appointed Clark. According to Donoghue, White House counsel Pat Cipollone referred to Clark’s proposal as a “murder-suicide pact.”

The actions of Eastman, Ellis and Clark are in a different realm than simply offering crackpot advice. They were furthering a criminal scheme to use pseudo-legal theories to overturn the will of the people. Trump was attempting to stay in power despite losing. To try and achieve their goals, Trump’s lawyers consistently pushed the Big Lie of election fraud. Over 60 court decisions later, no court supported any allegation of voter fraud.

Lawyer misconduct usually is about mundane things like stealing client money, routine incompetence, conflict of interest and failing to advise clients in their cases. Lawyers sometimes get fined, suspended from practicing or disbarred.

There seems to be a problem though when the lawyer crimes are bigger. It is almost like we lack the words to describe the crimes because the crimes are supersized. Professional conduct committees that oversee lawyer conduct are unfamiliar with cases where lawyers lie to advance seditious conspiracies designed to obstruct Congressional proceedings like the Electoral College.

I would suggest that lawyers like Eastman, Ellis and Clark are not engaged in offering “legal” advice. Professional lying to advance the fascist overthrow of a constitutional republic is something else.

It is entirely predictable that these lawyers will claim executive and attorney-client privilege but privilege does not extend to communications by lawyers who are participating in a crime.

One federal judge who has had the courage to call out what is going on is Judge Linda Parker of Michigan. She ordered Trump lawyers, Sidney Powell and Lin Wood, to pay legal costs of state and local officials in Michigan who had to respond to the phony voter fraud allegations.

In her opinion, Judge Parker wrote, “This lawsuit represents a historic and profound abuse of the judicial process. It is one thing to take on the charge of vindicating rights associated with an allegedly fraudulent election. It is another to take on the charge of deceiving a federal court and the American public into believing that rights were infringed, without regard to whether any laws or rights were in fact violated. This is what happened here.”

Judge Parker lambasted lawyers Powell and Wood for building a case on “fantastical claims and conspiracy theories.”

She ordered them to complete twelve hours of continuing legal education on litigation and election law. She also ordered that copies of her opinion be sent to authorities where Powell and Wood are licensed to investigate attorney misconduct. Judge Parker found Powell and Wood violated their obligation to the Court and the ethical rules they are bound to follow as licensed attorneys.

Broadly speaking, the response by the American Bar and Judiciary to the authoritarian threat posed by the coup-engaged lawyers has been weak, almost somnolent. The best response I have seen was a December 2020 letter signed by over 1,500 lawyers and two former American Bar Association presidents who called for an ethical probe of lawyers making false claims of election fraud.

After January 6, the American Bar Association President, Patricia Lee Refo, released a statement condemning the assault on the Capitol and supporting the peaceful transition of power. Since then, from what I can see, the response from the legal community has mostly been silence. You have to ask, where is the outrage?

Normalizing the behavior of the Trump lawyers who routinely file frivolous claims and make false statements only guarantees more of the same. History shows that the best cover for the advance of authoritarianism is the appearance of legality.

The constellation of Trump lawyers has run the gamut from conventional Republican establishment (Cleta Mitchell), publicity-seeking (Rudy Giuliani), irrational (Powell), conspiracist (Wood) to far-right ideological (Eastman and Ellis). Karl reported that no less than William Barr, Trump’s previous Attorney General, told Trump his legal team was a “clown show.”

To one degree or another, all violated their ethical duty of candor to the tribunal by spreading a false narrative on behalf of Trump. Some like Eastman and Ellis furthered a conspiracy to interfere with the electoral vote count.

In California, the States United Democracy Center, a non-partisan organization advancing free, fair and secure elections, has requested an investigation of whether Eastman violated California’s Rules of Professional Conduct. I am unaware of any proceedings against Ellis or Clark.

The Trump lawyers, especially those most involved in the coup attempt should face discipline up to and including disbarment. Being a hired gun should not mean you get a pass on conspiring to kill democracy.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.)




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