CNN Host Confronts Trump Lawyer Denying Rally Speech Incited Deadly Capitol Riot

On Saturday, CNN host Michael Smerconish confronted John Eastman, who had been an attorney for former President Donald Trump in one of his lawsuits related to the election results, asking about inciting rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6, which led to the five people's deaths.

CNN’s @smerconish presses attorney John Eastman, who represented Trump in a lawsuit trying to block states from certifying Biden’s victory, on his statements at the rally before the Capitol riot.

— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) January 23, 2021

In the tense exchange, Eastman, who spoke at the January 6 "Save America" rally, told Smerconish there was not a connection between the protesters he addressed and the rioters who breached the Capitol.

Smerconish asked about language that Eastman and Rudy Giuliani, another of Trump's attorneys, used during the rally, and about his responsibility in the rioters' attack on the Capitol. He played a clip of Eastman telling rally-goers, "This is bigger than President Trump. It is the very essence of our republican form of government, and it has to be done, and anybody who is not willing to stand up to do it, does not deserve to be in the office." Eastman had seconds before insisted that Vice President Mike Pence "let the legislatures of the state[s] look into this so we get to the bottom of" whether elections had been certified illegally.

Smerconish, after confirming that one of the people Eastman was referring to in the video was Pence, then showed a clip of rioters chanting, "Hang Mike Pence." The host asked if there was any connection between his words and those chanted at the Capitol. Eastman denied responsibility, in part by noting the distance between the rally and the Capitol, though rioters could of course watch the rally speeches on their cellphones.

"That was two miles away. To make that causal connection, you've got to show that any of those people had anything to do with hearing my statement two miles away in front of the ellipse, but I'm not gonna let you get away with taking that out of context. What was said...immediately before that statement you've now read and then played? It was that Pence would've been asked by legislatures merely to delay the proceedings enough so that those legislatures can determine whether their illegally certified electors should nevertheless stand. That's what we were talking about. So don't take it out of context to make it appear as if I was saying something I was not," Eastman responded.

Smerconish asked if those who stormed the Capitol understood the point about electors that he meant. "The people that stormed the Capitol were not in the earshot of what I said. Yes, it was grasped by the...people on the mall up at the White House," Eastman said before trying to explain his stance on electors again.

Eastman called for those who did storm the Capitol to be brought to justice. "What happened at the Capitol was a travesty, and everybody that involved in breaching that Capitol should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," he said. "It ought not to apply to people who were peacefully expressing their views that something was wonky and wrong with this election, and we ought to get to the bottom of it."

Eastman concluded by stressing the importance of fair elections and ensuring that state laws weren't violated. At this, Smerconish replied, "As my parents raised me: time and a place, time and a place, and that was not the role of the Congress on January the 6th."

Earlier in the interview, the CNN host asked if Eastman or other rally speakers knew that those attending would invade the Capitol. Eastman said the rally-goers were not part of the incursion that was going on in the Capitol, which had already begun before the speeches at the ellipse in front of the White House had even concluded," he said.

When Smerconish pointed out that the two were in walking in distance of each other, Eastman asked for evidence of protesters joining the riot and accused the host of assuming. The host reworded his question to be more all-encompassing, and Eastman said militias and Antifa were organizing unbeknownst to those involved in the rally.

"What we've learned from The Washington Post just two days ago was that there was a para-military group, as well as Antifa groups, that were organizing [storming the Capitol] three to four days ahead of time. We had no knowledge of that," he said.

Despite some conspiracy theorists sharing the idea that Antifa members posing as Trump supporters were actually the ones invading the Capitol, the FBI said on January 8 that it had no evidence of that. When asked for members of Antifa that had been arrested in relation to the riots, Eastman appeared to reference one left-wing activist who was arrested in relation to the riot.

CNN political pundit Sophia A. Nelson criticized Smerconish for having Eastman on the show at all in a tweet. She called the lawyer "a traitor. A liar. A Trumpthuglican," the latter a portmanteau of the words Trump, thug, and Republican.

It is wrong to give platform to Trump liars @smerconish and who blame the seditious riot on #Antifa or #Blacklivesmatter it’s furthering the #BigLie John Eastman is a traitor. A liar. A Trumpthuglican!!! This man is lying and gaslighting on LIVE TV @CNN

— Sophia A. Nelson (@IAmSophiaNelson) January 23, 2021

Eastman, a visiting professor that the University of Colorado Boulder, was recently relieved "of duties related to outreach and speaking as a representative of the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization." Having him perform these duties may be "disruptive and damage the interests of the campus and the Benson Center," according to a statement from the college.

Newsweek reached out to the Claremont Institute, a conservative think thank which Eastman is a member of, for comment.

Donald Trump Save America Rally Capitol Riots
Supporters of President Donald Trump flock to the National Mall for the rally preceding the deadly Capitol riot on January 6 in Washington, D.C. Samuel Corum/Getty