WASHINGTON — John C. Eastman, a legal architect of Donald J. Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss, invoked the Fifth Amendment more than 100 times under questioning by the House Jan. 6 committee.
But in recently released testimony from the committee’s investigation, other witnesses had plenty to say about him.
Many White House lawyers expressed contempt for Mr. Eastman, portraying him as an academic with little grasp of the real world. Greg Jacob, the legal counsel to former Vice President Mike Pence, characterized Mr. Eastman’s legal advice as “gravely, gravely irresponsible,” calling him the “serpent in the ear” of Mr. Trump. Eric Herschmann, a Trump White House lawyer, recounted “chewing out” Mr. Eastman. Pat A. Cipollone, the chief White House counsel, is described calling Mr. Eastman’s ideas “nutty.”
In the coming months, Mr. Eastman will be facing a legal reckoning. He has been drawn into the criminal investigation into election interference in Atlanta, which is nearing a decision on potential indictments. The F.B.I. seized his iPhone. And the Jan. 6 committee, in one of its last acts, asked the Justice Department to investigate Mr. Eastman on a range of criminal charges, including obstructing a congressional proceeding. For good measure, he faces a disciplinary bar proceeding in California.
A once-obscure scholar at the right-wing Claremont Institute, Mr. Eastman joined the Trump camp shortly after the election and was soon among a group of lawyers who, with the president’s blessing, largely commandeered decision-making from lawyers at the White House and on the Trump campaign.
He championed a two-pronged strategy that the Jan. 6 committee portrayed as a coup plot. The first was enlisting party officials to organize slates of bogus electors in swing states where Mr. Trump lost, even after the results had been certified and recertified, as in Georgia. The second was pressuring Mr. Pence to deviate from the vice president’s traditionally ceremonial role and decline to certify all the electoral votes on Jan. 6.
While Mr. Eastman refused to answer most of the committee’s questions, he has hardly been at a loss for words. At the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2021, held on the Ellipse moments before Trump supporters marched toward the Capitol, he spoke ominously of stolen elections, voting machine chicanery and ballots stuffed in a “secret folder.” Over the last two years he has remained defiant in a string of public appearances and interviews, and painted a picture sharply at odds with other accounts, most notably those of Mr. Pence and two of his aides who cooperated with the House committee.
In Mr. Eastman’s telling of the lead-up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, he was far from a criminal. In fact, in a recent interview — a fuller version of one he gave to The New York Times in the fall of 2021 — he says he was helping to head off a potentially more perilous outcome.
He claims that in an Oval Office meeting on Jan. 4, he helped convince Mr. Trump that Mr. Pence did not have the power to pick whomever he wanted as president. And Mr. Eastman said his advice to the president and vice president was only that Mr. Pence should pause the certification of the election, giving legislatures more time to consider fraud allegations in certain states where Mr. Trump had lost.
“I think my greatest contribution to this conversation is to have backed Trump away from the notion that Pence could just simply gavel him as re-elected,” Mr. Eastman said during the interview at his lawyer’s office in Washington, just blocks from the White House. “And, you know, you look at some of his tweets before that Jan. 4 meeting, he’s saying things like that, because that’s what people out there are saying. But if you look at his speech on Jan. 6, after I weigh in at that meeting, he’s saying exactly the opposite.”
Understand the Events on Jan. 6
- Timeline: On Jan. 6, 2021, 64 days after Election Day 2020, a mob of supporters of President Donald J. Trump raided the Capitol. Here is a close look at how the attack unfolded.
- A Day of Rage: Using thousands of videos and police radio communications, a Times investigation reconstructed in detail what happened — and why.
- Lost Lives: A bipartisan Senate report found that at least seven people died in connection with the attack.
- Jan. 6 Attendees: To many of those who attended the Trump rally but never breached the Capitol, that date wasn’t a dark day for the nation. It was a new start.
Few in the White House, however, saw him as anything close to a voice of moderation amid the riot that followed. And Mr. Eastman’s account differs in significant ways from those provided by Mr. Pence and his aides.
The former vice president refused to cooperate with the Jan. 6 committee but addressed the issue in a recent opinion essay in The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Pence wrote that on Jan. 5, a day after first meeting with Mr. Eastman in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump summoned the vice president for another meeting where “the president’s lawyers, including Mr. Eastman, were now requesting that I simply reject the electors.”
He said that he “later learned that Mr. Eastman had conceded to my general counsel that rejecting electoral votes was a bad idea and any attempt to do so would be quickly overturned by a unanimous Supreme Court. This guy didn’t even believe what he was telling the president.”
The crux of Mr. Eastman’s defense is that he was simply a lawyer offering advice, and that he was acting in good faith, since he still believes many of the fraud claims that were made. “I’m not backing down on that,” he said. “I mean, the amount of evidence, even if I’m wrong about it, was certainly enough to have warranted further review.”
Asked what he based such claims on, he cited a report issued last year by Michael J. Gableman, a former Wisconsin judge who was hired, and later fired, by the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, Robin Vos. The report endorsed a host of debunked claims. He also cited the deeply flawed documentary “2000 Mules,” directed by Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative activist who once pleaded guilty to felony campaign finance fraud. (He was later pardoned by Mr. Trump.)
In recent weeks, Mr. Eastman has continued to assert himself as a far-right stalwart, signing a letter endorsing dissident Republicans’ ultimately failed efforts to block Representative Kevin McCarthy of California from becoming speaker of the House. Among the other signatories to the letter was Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for whom Mr. Eastman once clerked. In her own testimony to the Jan. 6 committee, Ms. Thomas referred to Mr. Eastman as “an active participant with the ‘Thomas clique’ clerks” who keep in touch.
Perhaps Mr. Eastman’s most immediate potential exposure comes in the criminal investigation into election interference in Fulton County, Ga., which encompasses most of Atlanta. One of Mr. Eastman’s lawyers said last year that his client was “probably a target” in the inquiry, but his lawyers said this month that he had received no notification that he is one.
Robert Sinners, the Trump campaign’s state director of Election Day operations in Georgia, testified to the Jan. 6 committee that he later felt “ashamed” at having taken part in the plan orchestrated by Mr. Eastman and Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, to assemble bogus slates of Trump electors in Georgia and other states that Mr. Trump had lost.
“I don’t think Rudy Giuliani’s intent was ever about legal challenges,” he said. “It was clear to me that he was working with folks like John Eastman and wanted to put pressure on the vice president to accept these slates of electors just regardless, without any approval from a governor, without any approval from, you know, the voters or a court, or anything like that.”
Clark D. Cunningham, a professor at Georgia State University College of Law, said in an email that “if Sinner’s testimony, or similar testimony, is deemed credible, then John Eastman faces considerable risk of prosecution.”
“If Eastman was part of a conspiracy to trick Georgia citizens into signing false election documents, neither his role as an attorney nor a personal belief that election results were tainted by fraud could justify such criminal conduct,” he added.
In addition to his central role in the electors plan, Mr. Eastman appeared remotely before a Georgia State Senate panel on Dec. 3, 2020, and made several false claims about the election. Among them was the assertion that “the number of underaged individuals who were allowed to register” in the state “amounts allegedly up to approximately 66,000 people.”
Asked about the claim during the interview last month, Mr. Eastman said that he had relied on a consultant who made an error that was later corrected, and that the actual number was about 2,000 who “were only 16 when they registered.” The new figure, he said, came from the same consultant. In a statement, the Georgia Secretary of State’s office said that “the system literally does not allow a person to register if they don’t have a birth date that makes them at least 17.5 years old.”
A review of the data used by Mr. Eastman showed that he was referring to any Georgians who were recorded as having registered early going back to the 1920s; data entry errors appeared to be a common culprit, with many people’s registration year listed in place of their birth year. A review by The Times found only about a dozen Georgians who were recorded as having registered in 2020 when they were 16, in what appeared most likely to be another data-entry problem.
Norman Eisen, special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the first Trump impeachment and co-author of a lengthy report on the Fulton County inquiry, said Mr. Eastman “was referred for criminal prosecution by the Jan. 6 committee, with good reason,” adding that if charges are brought in Georgia “it’s hard to imagine that D.A. Fani Willis does not include him.”
Jack Begg contributed reporting.