Well, it’s finally here: The Indictment We’ve All Been Waiting For, detailing charges against former President Donald Trump for the role that he played in the events that led to January 6. The legal case against Trump rightly focuses on his use of election lies as a vehicle to thwart the functions of the U.S. government, obstruct Congress, and deprive voters of their right to have their votes properly counted. But as someone who writes and teaches about information warfare, I have been interested in the details surrounding how Trump tried to institutionalize these lies to create a veneer of legality for his attempt to retain power. Trump is a master of propaganda and disinformation, and the indictment is an excellent case study in the growing trend of authoritarians and demagogues (ab)using the legal system and its processes as cover to get and stay in power.
The key to looking at Trump’s scheme as a finely-tuned information warfare operation is to understand the concept of legitimizing propaganda. Legitimizing propaganda attempts to leverage the credibility of a third-party source to provide corroboration for a false narrative. The OG of disinformation, Russia, did this quite effectively in the lead-up to the 2016 election, creating accounts, for example, that posed as “real” Americans promoting Trump and denigrating Hillary Clinton. Clearly, the voters exposed to these accounts gave them more credibility than they would have if they knew they were coming from Boris in St. Petersburg. Trump mimicked this tactic in his “perfect” phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, asking that Ukraine ‘“announce an investigation” into Joe and Hunter Biden for corruption. Trump didn’t really need an actual investigation – just the appearance that a totally independent country was looking into suspicious activity, which Trump could then refer to as “proof” of his own allegations.
By now, most people are familiar with the central legal “blueprint” for the attempted scheme concocted by John Eastman, a.k.a. Co-Conspirator 2. This basically entailed a willful misreading of the Constitution and the Electoral Count Act (ECA) to posit that the Vice President has the power to unilaterally disqualify certified electors from states because of “ongoing disputes,” setting in motion a chain of chess moves that would allow the Vice President to declare Trump as the winner of the election. I have written previously about how Eastman’s plan gave members of Congress the legal smokescreen to become complicit in the coup attempt. As the indictment describes, it also offered Trump the avenue to use his lies to pressure Vice President Pence and to mobilize a mob against him when Pence didn’t comply. What many people don’t know is that one of the things Eastman was also counting on was the complicity of the Supreme Court itself. Though Eastman knew that his plan was a misreading of both the Constitution and the ECA, he believed Trump would get away with it because the Supreme Court would ultimately pass on ruling on its legality by declaring the issue a non-justiciable “political question.”