Below is my column in The Messenger on the emerging controversy in the Trump prosecutions over the testimony of former counsel to the former president. Various lawyers have now accepted plea bargains. However, Special Counsel Jack Smith and the Fulton County District Attorney appear to be arguing that, while Trump was assured of these claims by counsel, he should never have listened to them. It is a type of “Siren’s Call” theory of criminality.
Here is the column:
In Homer’s “Odyssey,” Odysseus faces one of his most fearsome threats — the three Sirens, beautiful sea creatures who lure sailors to their ruin with their seductive songs.
Special Counsel Jack Smith and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis have offered a modern version of the Sirens in the lure of bad lawyering. Three lawyers have recently pleaded guilty in Georgia, and they may join other former counsel in testifying against their former client.
What is novel is the criminal “Siren’s call” theory of these cases. Former President Donald Trump is being prosecuted for following the advice of his counsel, who are now effectively saying that he should not have believed what they were telling him.
This is not to say that Trump is an unwitting victim of bad legal advice. He steadfastly ignored the overwhelming advice of lawyers in the White House and many of us in the media. He pushed for counsel who would support these claims. Indeed, some of the lawyers sound like they were lured by the Siren call of Trump, led astray from their better legal judgment.
Kenneth Chesebro’s attorney, Scott Grubman, says that “Mr. Chesebro never believed in ‘the Big Lie’” and believes that Biden won the election.
Likewise, Sidney Powell has argued that “no reasonable person would conclude that my statements were truly statements of fact” as opposed to opinions.
Jenna Ellis recently stated “Why I have chosen to distance is because of that frankly malignant narcissistic tendency to simply say that he’s never done anything wrong.”
However, the question is whether a client should be subject to criminal prosecution in following such advice. These lawyers were not just confident but enthusiastic after the election in pursuing the claims they now repudiate. Moreover, their plea agreements had a number of notable omissions. First, none pleaded guilty to a conspiracy with Trump or to racketeering. Second, none will face jail time, and the prosecution has agreed that they did not commit crimes of moral turpitude. All three could keep their licenses.
It is also not clear that these attorneys would implicate Trump if called. They could prove more damaging to other defendants such as Rudy Giuliani, or they could still prove harmful to the prosecution’s overall theory. They secured no jail deals, but only agreed to testify truthfully. Some, like Ellis, may now have animus but lack evidence against Trump in establishing a conspiracy or racketeering claim.
Both the federal and state prosecutions are premised on the claim that Trump never believed what he was saying about a stolen election. If Trump actually did believe he had viable claims in the courts or Congress, the prosecutions would collapse. Even Smith admits that Trump’s early election claims were protected political speech, but at some point became a criminal conspiracy when Trump had to know that his claims were baseless.
The most dangerous aspect to the federal indictment is that Smith leaves the line entirely undefined for future cases. If Trump crossed the Rubicon into criminal conduct in his election claims, Smith should be able to point to the river on the map. Instead, Smith offers no limiting principle on when election claims move from the sensational to the criminal.
That is particularly concerning, since many election claims in the courts or Congress have been unfounded. For example, Marc Elias, who served as general counsel to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and played a key role in its secret funding of the infamous Steele dossier, challenged past elections on such grounds. After the 2020 election, he challenged a New York election by claiming that voting machines had flipped the results in favor of the Republicans through mistabulations.
Likewise, leading Democrats such as Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) sought to block certification of Donald Trump’s 2106 election victory despite lacking any evidence of fraud or legal or factual basis. None of these challenges were raised as potential crimes or even considered unethical.
Smith and Willis are seeking to use Trump’s own counsel to prove that he eventually knew that the election claims were bogus. This remains uncharted territory. Presidents often make unconstitutional claims.
Indeed, President Joe Biden admitted that, in seeking to reinstate the flagrantly unconstitutional national eviction moratorium, his White House counsel and every other lawyer told him that it violated the Constitution. He admitted that he was able to find only one lawyer — Harvard Professor Larry Tribe — who told him that he could do it. He went ahead, and it was found unconstitutional. It did not matter that Tribe has often been proven wrong on such claims or that Biden appeared to have doubts himself. It was enough that he thought it might have a slight chance of success to, according to Biden, get some relief before any injunction.
Many of us disagreed with Trump’s election claims and the theories put forward by this legal team. Indeed, I criticized Trump’s Jan. 6 speech as he was still giving it. Moreover, Trump clearly evinced impatience and even anger with those (like Attorney General Bill Barr) who dismissed the claims. Finally, there is no question that clients often look for lawyers who will tell them what they want to hear. However, it is also clear that Trump found such lawyers.
While Sam Bankman-Fried insisted that he relied on the advice of counsel for his decisions as head of FTX, he could not recall any specific instances of such advice. That is not a problem for Trump, since his counsel was speaking in public on an almost daily basis as to the legal and factual foundations for his claims. They would have to now argue that, despite all the assurances they gave, Trump would have been a fool to believe them.
Yet, accounts from inside the Oval Office show that Trump’s lawyers are going head to head with other lawyers in making the case that their theories could prevail in court. It appears that they were saying privately exactly what they were saying publicly.
The question is how far this Siren’s theory of criminality will go. It is not uncommon for campaigns to seek novel or low-likelihood claims in court. Moreover, since when are clients criminally culpable for following the advice of a team of lawyers?
To resist the Sirens, Odysseus forced his crew to lash him to the mast and fill their own ears with wax, because the “high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him.” Short of lashing a president to his chair in the Oval Office, the question is when the lure of lawyers can lead to actual prison time. For as Homer warned, “those creatures…spellbind any man alive.”
Jonathan Turley is the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at the George Washington University Law School.