In a normal world, the “Eastman memo” would be infamous by now, the way “Access Hollywood” became the popular shorthand in 2016 for the damning recording of Donald Trump’s bragging about groping women.
But it’s a good bet that most people have never even heard of the Eastman memo.
That says something troubling about how blasé the mainstream press has become about the attempted coup in the aftermath of the 2020 election - and how easily a coup could succeed next time.
The memo, unearthed in Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book, is a stunner. Written by Trump legal adviser John Eastman - a serious Establishment Type with Federalist Society cred and a law school deanship under his belt - it offered Mike Pence, then in his final days as vice president, a detailed plan to declare the 2020 election invalid and give the presidency to Trump.
In other words, how to run a coup in six easy steps.
Pretty huge stuff, right? You’d think so, but the mainstream press has largely looked the other way. Immediately after the memo was revealed, according to a study by left-leaning Media Matters for America, there was no on-air news coverage - literally zero on the three major broadcast networks: ABC, NBC and CBS. Not on the evening newscasts watched by more than 20 million Americans, far greater than the audience for cable news. Not on the morning shows the next day. And when Sunday rolled around, NBC’s “Meet the Press” was the only broadcast network show that bothered to mention it. (Some late-night hosts did manage to play it for laughs.)
The Washington Post reviewed the memo that was obtained for the Woodward-Costa book and wrote about it in a broader news story about the book’s revelations and in a news analysis. CNN got a copy, too, and more than most, gave it its due.
But largely, it fell upon a handful of opinion writers to provide the appropriate outrage.
“The Horrifying Legal Blueprint for Trump’s War on Democracy” read the headline on Jonathan Chait’s piece in New York magazine’s Intelligencer section. And in the New York Times, columnist Jamelle Bouie took it on with “Trump Had a Mob. He Also Had a Plan.” The Post’s Greg Sargent hammered away at it.
Some national newspapers paid attention, but not much. USA Today with a story; the New York Times with a few paragraphs dropped deep into a sweeping news analysis.
For the most part, the memo slipped past the public - just another piece of flotsam from the wreckage of American society, drifting by unnoticed.
Why wasn’t the Eastman memo treated as what it is: a flashing red alert, signaling that Trump’s allies were (and almost certainly still are) plotting the end of free and fair elections in America?
Here’s one theory:
“Trump and his ilk have flooded the zone with so many attacks on democracy that it’s paradoxically become less likely for journalists to focus on any specific case,” said Matthew Gertz, senior fellow at Media Matters.
But the former and current network executives I spoke with offered a different view - and largely agreed with decisions to downplay the memo.
For Tom Bettag, the document landed in his “shocked but not surprised” category. A former executive producer for “CBS Evening News” with stints at three other networks who now teaches at the University of Maryland, Bettag saw the story as merely “an unknown lawyer, who says he’s on the Trump legal team and had said Kamala Harris was not a citizen, wrote a crazy memo.”
He echoed the view of one network representative who told me: “After all, it didn’t happen.” In Bettag’s words: “There’s no indication that Pence considered it seriously.”
Others pointed out that there’s so much other news to cover these days: the brewing government shutdown, the aftermath of the Afghanistan troop withdrawal, and of course, the audience-riveting case of Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old woman whose remains were found in Wyoming last week.
You’d think, though, that a few seconds of precious airtime might be given to something as startling as the Eastman memo. In numbered steps subtitled the “January 6 scenario,” it outlined how Pence, charged by the Constitution with counting electoral ballots from the 2020 election on that day, could have simply ignored results from seven states that tipped the presidency to Biden. Pence would effectively throw away millions of votes from Arizona, Pennsylvania and any other state where fraudulent groups of “shadow electors” had challenged Biden’s victory based on no valid legal principle whatsoever.
“The main thing here is that Pence should do this without asking for permission - either from a vote of the joint session (of Congress) or from the Court,” Eastman wrote.
The Post’s Philip Bump summarized Eastman’s endgame: “Predicting ‘howls’ from Democrats, Pence says, fine, let the House decide, as is procedure when there’s a tie in the electoral college. In that case, each state gets one vote and, given that Republicans controlled 26 states, Trump wins again.”
One way or the other, a no-lose proposition for Trump.
“Scary,” observed John King on CNN.
Yes, it’s downright bone-chilling to think that this lawyer and legal scholar, who was enough of an insider to have a speaking role at Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, had gamed it out like this. (After protests by his colleagues at California’s Chapman University, where he once was the law school dean, Eastman retired.)
But the news coverage wasn’t nearly widespread or prominent enough to make “the Eastman memo” a household name or to strike that legitimate fear into the hearts of citizens. To raise that red alert.
It’s telling that we’ve become so inured to Trump’s flagrant disregard for the will of the electorate. As Robert Kagan wrote last week in a grim Post opinion piece that did seem to break through the noise, a Trump-fueled constitutional crisis is already upon us, although the warning signs “may be obscured by the distractions of politics, the pandemic, the economy and global crises, and by wishful thinking and denial.”
And still, some dismiss Eastman’s plan as not newsworthy. “After all, it didn’t happen.”
Well, no, it didn’t. But a riot at the Capitol did - on the same day, fueled by the same autocratic lust.
Eastman’s coup hasn’t happened yet. But given the media’s shrug-off, maybe all we have to do is wait.
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