Politics

How John Eastman's Seized Phone Could Bring More Shame on CU Boulder

Professor John Eastman, circled, being touted by Trump advisor Rudy Giuliani at a rally prior to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Professor John Eastman, circled, being touted by Trump advisor Rudy Giuliani at a rally prior to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. CBS Los Angeles via YouTube
On June 28, the January 6 committee will hold what's been described as a surprise hearing "to present recently obtained evidence and receive witness testimony." No details have been revealed, but only hours after the announcement of the extra congressional session, news broke that John Eastman, the alleged mastermind of a plan to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election and keep President Donald Trump in office, had filed court papers over the seizure of his phone by the FBI.

No matter what data the phone contains, the Eastman matter is likely to bring more embarrassment to the University of Colorado Boulder. At the time of the January 6, 2021, insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol, Eastman was a visiting scholar at the Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization, a privately funded branch of CU Boulder that was launched in the early 2000s as a way to add conservative voices at the famously liberal institution. The university subsequently cut ties with Eastman, who's threatened to sue over the way he was bounced; no such complaint has been filed, however. Back in April, the advocacy organization New Era Colorado launched a petition calling for the Benson Center to be closed — and the institution's association with the embattled prof was a big reason why.

The latest Eastman scoop comes courtesy of CNN, which obtained a June 24 filing by Eastman's attorneys, Charles Burnham and Joseph Gribble, in United States District Court for the District of New Mexico.

The document is written in particularly dense legalese, with Eastman typically referred to as "Movant," the technical term for a party who makes a motion in a case. But it reveals that on the evening of June 22, federal agents served a search warrant on Eastman as he was exiting a New Mexico restaurant. Eastman is said to have asked to see the warrant, but the "executing officer" refused; a copy was later provided to him. He was then frisked and his iPhone Pro 12 seized; Eastman "was forced to provide biometric data to open said phone" — presumably unlocking it by way of a facial scan.

The motion surmises that the law enforcement officials were working "at the behest of the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General" and the phone was slated for transport "to Washington, D.C., or to the DOJ-OIG forensic laboratory in Northern Virginia." Eastman's lawyers argue that the Inspector General's office "outstripped its mandate by targeting a person outside of the Department of Justice," and the vaguely written warrant "resulted in a violation of Movant’s Fifth Amendment rights, as well as rights secured by the First Amendment, privileges that protect the right to counsel contained in the Sixth Amendment, and fundamental privacy interests."

Legal commentators discussing the phone seizure on MSNBC scoffed at these claims, contending that they're as flimsy as Eastman's theory that former Vice President Mike Pence could have unilaterally invalidated the 2020 election results. The fallout from that Eastman strategy has provided some of the grabbiest revelations before the January 6 committee thus far. For instance, onetime White House attorney Eric Herschmann recommended that Eastman "get a great fucking criminal defense lawyer," after which the professor noted in an email that he "should be on the pardon list, if that is still in the works."

Even before this information came out, the New Era petition portrayed Eastman as a symbol of everything that's wrong with the Benson Center. After contending that the center "promotes white supremacy culture," it argued that "the annual appointment of visiting scholars who frequently champion harmful language and actions...has debased the standards of this institution." It continued: "John Eastman's direct and personal role in the near-destruction of American democracy while serving as the Benson Center's visiting scholar has exposed the broken reasoning at the heart of the Center's existence. This goes against the values of CU students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members. Harmful and destructive white supremacist and insurrectionist teachings have no place on CU's campus."

But CU spokesperson Andrew Sorensen pushed back on this conclusion at the time. "The Benson Center plays a valuable role in fostering a wider consideration of various perspectives, and CU Boulder expects that it will continue to do so," he said, adding that "the center regularly hosts bipartisan events with academics, thought leaders and policymakers on important topics," such as "Is Civil Discourse Dead?," a conversation with conservative scholar Robert George and progressive author and activist Cornell West that took place on January 21, 2021, shortly after the actions of January 6, and a discussion about bipartisan climate solutions on April 14 that included U.S. Representative Joe Neguse, a Democrat, and Utah Congressman John Curtis, a Republican.

As for Eastman, Sorensen noted that "Chancellor [Phil] DiStefano made his views clear on January 7, 2021," when he wrote that "Professor Eastman’s conduct does not reflect the values of our university. He has embarrassed our institution. CU Boulder is committed to the free exchange of ideas and the pursuit of knowledge, and Professor Eastman has contributed nothing of value to support the ideals of either the Benson Center or CU Boulder."

Nonetheless, Eastman and CU Boulder are inextricably linked — and each time Eastman's name is mentioned during the January 6 committee hearings, Colorado's flagship university takes a hit.

Click to read the John Eastman motion for return of property and the New Era Colorado petition to close the Benson Center.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts