Former President Donald Trump has again been indicted by a federal grand jury. The four-count indictment lays out how Trump refused to accept that he lost the 2020 election. It describes how he contested the election in court and, when that failed, he supported a fake electors scheme. It explains how he pressured his vice president to ignore his own oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution. Finally, it reveals, in gripping detail, how he instigated and failed to stop the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
But Trump did not try to steal the 2020 election alone. The indictment lists six co-conspirators in his attack on democracy, all of whom “used knowingly false claims of election fraud to get state legislators and election officials to subvert the legitimate election results.” Five of them are attorneys.
The indictment makes clear that this was not a conspiracy of sleazy political operatives or even violent insurrectionists. Instead, the indictment reveals that this attack on democracy was effectuated by lawyers using bad faith legal maneuvers and intentional acts.
Over and over, the indictment alleges that these lawyers enabled and carried out a criminal conspiracy against democracy in an attempt to “disenfranchise millions of voters.” Trump may have been the ringleader, but he alone could not have filed frivolous lawsuits, enticed fake electors with concocted legal theories or used the law to try to pressure the vice president.
It was these lawyers’ status as lawyers that made them so effective in carrying out the scheme. While some on Jan. 6 wielded knives and bats, the chosen weapon for these five individuals were their law degrees, which they shamelessly used to subvert our country’s free and fair elections.
In the intervening years since the 2020 election, many of these lawyers have become objects of ridicule, the punchline in jokes. But mocking the lawyers who facilitated Trump’s criminal conduct risks minimizing their culpability. More importantly, it obscures the deep and problematic culture that appears to pervade the ranks of the Republican legal establishment.
Rudy Giuliani, presumed co-conspirator 1, is remembered for the hair dye dripping down his face and the fact that he held a press conference in a landscaping parking lot. But, in 2020, Giuliani was not a joke. He was a successful federal prosecutor and U.S attorney who successfully prosecuted the mob and Wall Street corruption. He became the mayor of New York City and ultimately ran for president.
Jeffrey Clark was a high ranking official at the U.S. Department of Justice, where he had also served in the Bush Administration. He had been a longtime partner at one of the most prestigious law firms in the country. John Eastman was a former clerk to Judge Michael Luttig and Justice Clarence Thomas. He had worked at a top law firm and eventually became the dean of a law school. Sidney Powell had been a federal prosecutor for a decade and, after leaving government, represented high profile defendants in complex white collar criminal cases. Similarly, Kenneth Chesebro was a Harvard trained lawyer with decades of litigation experience.
These five attorneys were not fringe players; nor were they too inexperienced to know better. Each of them was an experienced trial lawyer who knew better. They had achieved levels of professional success that made them capable of resisting Trump’s entreaties. None of them were campaign operatives set to lose their jobs, or otherwise suffer professional setbacks, had Trump accepted that he lost the election.
Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the indictment is that it was not the political and campaign staff that were pushing the lawyers to falsely claim fraud — it was the reverse. Time and time again, the indictment includes instances where campaign and Republican state and federal employees and officials who were not lawyers are telling the attorneys there is no basis to contest or challenge the election.
On Dec. 8, 2020, Jason Miller, one of Trump’s chief political sycophants, wrote to the former president: “When our research and campaign legal team can’t back up any of the claims made by our Elite Strike Force Legal Team, you can see why we’re 0-32 on our cases. I’ll obviously hustle to help on all fronts, but it’s tough to own any of this when it’s all just conspiracy shit beamed down from the mothership.”
Little did Miller know, Trump and his co-conspirators were only halfway done. By the time President Joe Biden took office, Trump and his allies would file and lose more than 60 separate post-election cases challenging the results of the 2020 election. In each of those cases, Republican lawyers, often multiple attorneys, signed their names to pleadings that were “just conspiracy shit.” Most of those lawyers are not named in this indictment. While some face consequences with the bar, most will never suffer any professional sanction.
Too many Republican lawyers still peddle election lies and conspiracy theories today without consequences from their party. They are invited to Republican Party events, headline conservative gatherings and still capture legal work from the parties’ candidates and elite. It is notable that on the same day that Trump was indicted in Washington, D.C. the Republican’s former nominee for Michigan attorney general, Matthew DePerno, was separately indicted for tampering with voting machines.
But to be honest, even the mainstream GOP lawyers — those that don’t openly defend explicit election subversion — faithfully traffic in the pernicious lies that underpin it — false claims of fraud and excusing voter suppression. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) recently described voter suppression as a “cancer [that] metastasized” from the “Big Lie” and Jan. 6.
Republican lawyers don’t see it that way. They want to believe that you can vilify voting and engage in tactics to suppress the votes of minority and young voters and then turn it off the day after the election. Worse still, they want us to believe that it is moral to draw that distinction.
There is no question that Trump is the ultimate villain of the Jan. 6 insurrection. But he didn’t act alone. As the indictment makes clear, Trump was aided by at least five individual Republican lawyers who deployed their credentials and status as attorneys to subvert the 2020 election, and most detrimentally, the will of the people.