by David Catron
Among the unusual features of last week’s arraignment of former President Trump in Miami involved the difficulty he had finding a qualified attorney to represent him in the classified documents case brought by Special Counsel Jack Smith. The corporate media inevitably made much of this issue. The Washington Post, for example, quoted various anonymous sources who claimed that Trump’s reputation as a “challenging client” caused several prominent lawyers to turn him down. In reality, the problem resulted from an intimidation campaign by a radical pressure group called the 65 Project, whose explicit mission is to ruin any lawyer willing to represent Trump.
According to Influence Watch, the group was founded by former Clinton administration official Melissa Moss and its managing director is former Perkins Coie attorney Michael Teter. It gets worse: “The 65 Project’s Senior Advisor is David Brock, the founder of Media Matters for America and American Bridge 21st Century.” The group initially went after 111 attorneys in 26 states for representing Trump or questioning the irregularities associated with the 2020 election. They included Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and Harvard Law Professor Emeritus Alan Dershowitz. The latter described how the 65 Project has intimidated potential Trump lawyers in a recent Substack column:
They have threatened to file bar charges against any such lawyers. When these threats first emerged, I wrote an op-ed offering to defend pro bono any lawyers that The 65 Project goes after. So The 65 Project immediately went after me, and contrived a charge based on a case in which I was a constitutional consultant, but designed to send a message to potential Trump lawyers: if you defend Trump or anyone associated with him, we will target you and find something to charge you with. The lawyers to whom I spoke are fully aware of this threat — and they are taking it seriously.
A typical example of the group’s tactics can be found in its attack on Georgia attorney Kurt Hilbert. As recently as February of 2023, Teter wrote to the State Bar of Georgia requesting an investigation into Hilbert pursuant to his representation of Trump and other plaintiffs in four lawsuits resulting from the state’s incompetent management of the 2020 election. “We write to request that the Office of General Counsel investigate the actions taken by Kurt Hilbert relating to his effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election.” Such ethics complaints, no matter how spurious, inevitably lead to protracted inquiries that damage the reputations of their targets regardless of whether or not the charges possess any genuine merit.
This is, of course, the point. Many lawyers will think twice before inviting an ethics complaint by representing disfavored clients. The resultant chilling effect has now spread to other GOP candidates in races unrelated to 2020. Kari Lake, for example, had difficulty retaining attorneys when she contested the 2022 Arizona gubernatorial results. Bloomberg quotes her thus: “We had attorneys who did walk away because the left is threatening them with their ability to make a living and practice law.” The 65 Project filed an ethics complaint against Kurt B. Olsen, who represented Lake in two lawsuits pursuant to her 2022 race. The following excerpt is typical of the inflammatory language used in these complaints:
Mr. Olsen attempted to overturn the 2020 election and now seeks to overturn the 2022 Arizona midterm. A full investigation by the Office of Bar Counsel will demonstrate the egregious nature of Mr. Olsen’s actions, especially when considered in light of his purposes, the direct and possible consequences of his behavior, and the serious risk that Mr. Olsen will repeat such conduct unless disciplined. This supplemental complaint demonstrates that Mr. Olsen is already a repeat offender of the Rules of Professional Conduct, and can only be stopped through disciplinary action.
Each of these complaint letters begins with this introduction: “The 65 Project is a bipartisan, nonprofit effort to protect democracy from abuse of the legal system by holding accountable lawyers who engage in fraudulent, unethical conduct seeking to overturn legitimate election results.” Despite this claim to bipartisanship, the group’s website contains zero complaints on lawyers who represent Democratic candidates. There is nothing, for example, involving scandal-plagued attorney Marc Elias or his attempt to overturn the 2020 election of Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District. Elias is no stranger to ethics sanctions, yet the 65 Project has never questioned his veracity.
The mission of the 65 Project extends beyond ruining the careers of individual lawyers who dare to represent Republicans in election disputes. The group also purports to be protecting future elections: “We are working closely with law professors and professional responsibility practitioners to develop model rules, and we will push state bar associations to adopt them.” This push will include a robust effort “to revitalize the state bar disciplinary process so that lawyers, including public officials, who lie about election results and who fuel insurrection will face professional consequences.” The irony-free use of “insurrection” makes it all too obvious which lawyers and public officials will face “professional consequences.”
The 65 Project has filed ethics complaints against 15 state attorneys general — all Republican. Many amount to little more than election interference. A particularly egregious example involved Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, whom the group went after during her 2022 campaign to become the state’s lieutenant governor. Less than two months before Election Day, the 65 Project filed a complaint alleging that Rutledge was involved in a dark plot to overthrow the 2020 presidential election. This claim was leaked to local media, of course, making it a campaign issue. Fortunately, the voters of Arkansas recognized the smear for what it was and Rutledge trounced her Democratic opponent by 32 points.
All of which brings us back to former President Trump. It’s abundantly clear that the Biden Justice Department plans to keep him tied up in legal battles throughout the 2024 election cycle. It is equally obvious that the 65 Project will try to prevent him from retaining qualified attorneys, interfering with his 6th Amendment right to legal counsel. Yet, according to a new Harvard CAPS / Harris poll, 55 percent of voters say Trump’s recent indictment is politically motivated — including 83 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Independents. This suggests that, as in Arkansas, the voters are smarter than the Democrats realize. The latter have outsmarted themselves before and a lot can happen between now and November of 2024.
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David Catron is a recovering health care consultant and frequent contributor to The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter at @Catronicus.
Photo “Donald Trump” by GPA Photo Archive. Background Photo “Courtroom” by Carol M. Highsmith.