John Eastman’s coup memo was the result of the Fox-Trump feedback loop

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Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters / Trump image credit: Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons

The prominent conservative lawyer behind a memo explaining how to subvert the 2020 election for President Donald Trump reportedly first caught Trump’s attention while shilling on the president’s behalf during an interview on Fox News.

Trump’s obsession with Fox programming is well-documented. Throughout his presidency, he regularly tweeted in response to shows he was watching; staffed his administration and legal defense teams with Fox regulars; and shaped his decision-making around advice he received from its personalities, both in person and on the air. On issues as diverse as border wall contracting, pandemic response, and pardons, federal policy responded to what the president was seeing on the right-wing propaganda network.

John Eastman, a Claremont Institute senior fellow who spoke to the pro-Trump mob in the hours before the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, apparently put himself on Trump’s radar in similar fashion. 

“Trump, who had never met Mr. Eastman, saw him on the Fox News talk show of the far-right commentator Mark Levin railing against the Russia investigation” in mid-2019, The New York Times reported Saturday. “Within two months, Mr. Eastman was sitting in the Oval Office for an hourlong meeting.”

Eastman remained in Trump’s orbit over the next year and a half, according to the Times, and, after Trump lost the 2020 election, the right-wing attorney created a plan by which Vice President Mike Pence and congressional Republicans could use bogus claims of voter fraud to keep Trump in power. Eastman’s six-step scheme to end American democracy, revealed last month by The Washington Post and CNN, was foiled largely because Pence was ultimately unwilling to go through with it. 

“Mr. Eastman’s appeal to Mr. Trump,” the Times reported, “rested in large part on his expansive views of presidential power — and his willingness to tell Mr. Trump what he wanted to hear.”

That description matches Eastman’s performance during the Fox interview that initially captured Trump’s attention. That appearance, for the May 12, 2019, edition of Life, Liberty, and Levin, followed the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report detailing his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump and his supporters tried to spin that document as vindicating him. But it was actually incredibly damning, documenting, among other things, a variety of ways Trump had sought to obstruct the probe.

Over the course of his hour-long sitdown with Levin, who introduced him as a “brilliant” legal scholar, Eastman explained how the Constitution and federal law supported all of Trump’s most corrupt and bigoted impulses, while decrying Mueller’s team as biased political partisans whose probe was itself illegal and perhaps deliberately “set up to create a media frenzy.” 

According to Eastman, it is impossible for a president to violate the law by interfering with a federal investigation, even if that investigation’s purpose was to review his activities or those of his associates. “The notion that the president can’t determine the course of an investigation is the most basic violation of separation of powers,” he claimed. Even if Trump had successfully fired Mueller himself it would be legal, according to Eastman, because “the entire executive branch is headed by one guy and the only constitutional check on that is through an impeachment power, not through statutes and not through regulations internal to the Department of Justice, because the president has the authority to change those whenever he wants.”

After Levin described one such incident mentioned in the report, when Trump allegedly ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller, Eastman said that “directing McGahn to fire him is no different than him picking up the phone himself, and even that would not have been obstruction.”

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Citation From the May 12, 2019, edition of Fox News' Life, Liberty, and Levin.

Eastman went on to agree with Levin’s claim that the Mueller investigation was itself “fundamentally illegal” because “nobody in the administration itself [was] accused with any evidence of a crime,” which is required under the special counsel statute. In reality, Trump’s 2016 campaign chair and his first White House national security adviser were among the litany of presidential associates who were ultimately convicted or entered guilty pleas through the probe.

When Levin asked later in the program, “This is really a rejection by the Democrat Party and the media and the rest of them, a rejection of the 2016 election, isn't it?” Eastman replied, “I think so. They still can't believe that they lost that election and they're trying to rationalize that there must've been something nefarious in order to produce it.” 

He went on to say that “this is really a challenge to the results of the last election, which means it is a challenge to the American people and the very notion that we govern ourselves,” and that the intent is to create a “tyranny of the majority.”

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Citation From the May 12, 2019, edition of Fox News' Life, Liberty, and Levin.

Eastman also expressed support for Trump on a variety of other legal issues. He rejected the notion that payments foreign countries make to Trump through his hotel are violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, and decried federal judges who blocked versions of Trump’s Muslim travel ban as “part of a resistance movement to undo the results of the 2016 election.”

At the conclusion of the interview, Eastman said that nothing Trump has done rises to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” required for impeachment under the Constitution.

“I've been stunned at how scrupulous Trump and his team have been in staying within the legal lines that they had,” he said, contrasting to how President Barack Obama “blew through the lines on executive power and constitutional authority on numerous occasions."

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Citation From the May 12, 2019, edition of Fox News' Life, Liberty, and Levin.

Eastman was able to turn an interview on a Sunday night Fox show into a position of real political power because the president himself had been glued to the set. And after Trump and his propagandists at Fox created a web of lies about a “rigged” election, he was there to concoct a legal pretext to keep Trump in office. The coup plot failed -- but it did result in deadly violence when a crowd incited by speeches from Trump, Eastman, and others stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in hopes of preventing the peaceful transition of power.  

Since then, the situation has only grown more dire, as the Republican Party and right-wing disinformation apparatus have institutionalized Trump’s lie that the election was stolen, laying the groundwork to rig future elections in favor of the GOP, through Eastman’s strategy or another one. And Fox was at the root of it all.