The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Right-wing media helped elevate the Trump coup memo’s author before Jan. 6

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

This article has been updated.

We now know that Donald Trump’s scheme to steal the 2020 election was put into writing, and we can all read it. Call it the Trump coup memo: John Eastman, a lawyer representing Trump, wrote a memo outlining how Vice President Pence could supposedly subvert Trump’s election loss in Congress on Jan. 6, the day of the violent mob assault on the Capitol.

After the news broke that this memo existed, CNN posted the full text online. It further underscores the argument that schemes like this one illustrate the need for reforming how Congress counts the electoral college votes, lest something like this succeed in the future.

Now Matthew Gertz of Media Matters has examined how right-wing media helped elevate Eastman in the runup to Jan. 6. It’s unsettling stuff, and suggests another dimension to the problem: The seeming devotion of right-wing media propagandists to helping Trump and his supporters weaken democracy by validating sham legal arguments.

Election law expert Richard L. Hasen describes such arguments as having the potential to produce a “respectable bloodless coup.” In this case, right-wing media played a key role in laundering such arguments.

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As Gertz chronicles, Eastman made numerous Fox News appearances to promote the legal theories underlying that absurd lawsuit by Texas that sought to invalidate millions of votes for President Biden in four swing states he won.

In those appearances, Eastman suggested the Supreme Court would see great merit in Texas’ lawsuit. Soon after, of course, the high court curtly dismissed it, which Trump then attacked as a “legal disgrace, an embarrassment to the U.S.A.!”

There is nothing wrong with criticizing court rulings, of course. But note that before the ruling, on those shows Eastman didn’t face any serious cross-examining, which could have signaled to viewers how unserious the legal arguments on Trump’s behalf truly were. Instead, these arguments were valorized.

The result may have been that millions were duped into believing that arguments for invalidating the voting in four states had some sort of real merit. That in turn could lead those people to conclude that the courts failed the rule of law in some sense, when in fact Trump and his supporters were seeing to subvert the rule of law.

Similarly, Eastman also went on former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s podcast to discuss the specific scheme to get Pence to subvert the electoral college count. Here Eastman laid out what he detailed in his memo: How Pence could simply appropriate for himself the power to declare that key states had sent multiple slates of electors, allowing him to declare none of them valid, leaving Trump the “winner” of a majority of remaining electors.

This goes even farther than some of the other schemes Trump and his lawyers tried. As it is, all this generally shows how willing some bad actors are to find ways to game the system to subvert legitimate popular vote outcomes, which makes a strong case for revising the Electoral Count Act, among many other reforms.

Regardless, here again, Eastman faced no serious cross examination. Indeed, Bannon generally presented his efforts as akin to a noble and heroic crusade.

As it is, right-wing media figures went to extraordinary lengths to undermine confidence in the 2020 election in the runup to the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt. And then afterward they went to great lengths to whitewash the history of what had just happened.

This treatment of Eastman shows another side to this: Right-wing media figures are also perfectly happy to allow their platforms to be used to develop entire complex legal theories fake-justifying overturning an election with little to no serious push-back.

The other day, a Public Religion Research Institute found that overwhelming percentages of respondents who rely on Fox News and other right-wing media sources believe both that the election was stolen from Trump and that he bears little responsibility for inciting the Jan 6 mob.

If millions of Americans are getting persuaded that in some sense, Trump is the true victim in the story of 2020 and that the underlying cause of those who sought to reverse the outcome was a just one, this treatment of Eastman is the sort of thing that helps explain it.

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