In this Alaska Court System screenshot, Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, takes the witness stand (bottom left window) on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, during his legislative eligibility trial in Palmer. (Screenshot)
As Alaska Rep. David Eastman defends himself against a lawsuit claiming that his membership in the Oath Keepers militia violates the Alaska Constitution, his defense strategy through the first four days of the trial has at times mimicked the unsuccessful legal defense of Stewart Rhodes, the group’s convicted founder.
In offering witnesses, exhibits and in cross-examination, Eastman attorney Joe Miller has attempted to make the argument that members of the Oath Keepers who were convicted of crimes associated with the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol were not acting as part of an organized plan, did not seek to overthrow the U.S. government and were aberrations who do not represent the group or the majority of its members.
One of those aberrant members was Rhodes himself, Miller has argued.
Rhodes’ trial was a criminal prosecution, and Eastman’s trial stems from a civil lawsuit, but the course of Eastman’s case has been dictated by the arguments of plaintiff Randall Kowalke, whose attorney rested his arguments Thursday after arguing that the events of Jan. 6 and Rhodes’ role in leading the Oath Keepers before his conviction demonstrate that the Oath Keepers advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government.
That’s the key test in Eastman’s trial. Alaska’s constitution includes a clause dating from the 1950s Red Scare, which states that anyone who belongs to or aids an organization advocating the forcible overthrow of the U.S. government is ineligible to work for the state or hold public office.
So far, the arguments of Kowalke’s attorneys have been persuasive.
On Thursday, when Miller introduced a motion asking Judge Jack McKenna to dismiss the case, saying the plaintiff hasn’t proven his argument, McKenna declined.
He said Eastman is “clearly” a member of the Oath Keepers and that the plaintiff has introduced “sufficient evidence for a fair-minded juror” to conclude that the Oath Keepers advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government.
Miller’s motion required McKenna to view the plaintiff’s evidence in the “most favorable light” possible.
On Friday, Miller said he expects to spend at least two more days presenting witnesses, possibly including Rhodes, with closing arguments tentatively scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
Defense witnesses offer familiar arguments
On Thursday and Friday, Miller called former FBI employee and current police trainer John Guandolo to testify in defense as an expert on the Oath Keepers.
On the stand, Guandolo said Oath Keepers are not anti-government but are expressing themselves in a way they believe is lawful.
Previous witnesses had discussed a stockpile of weapons that Oath Keepers’ members had created in Virginia before the Jan. 6 insurrection. If the Oath Keepers truly intended to overthrow the government, Guandolo said on Thursday, they would have gotten their guns.
A similar argument was made during Rhodes’ trial.
He characterized the atmosphere of the Jan. 6 insurrection as something like a “tailgate party,” with people being “very friendly, very courteous to each other.”
Attempts to downplay the violence of the insurrection were used by the defense team during the Rhodes trial as well. Nine deaths have been linked to the events of that day.
Under cross-examination, Guandolo said he has a 10-year-old acquaintance with Eastman and would consider him a friend. He also spoke at length about his belief that the federal government is being infiltrated by Chinese Communist agents and labeled Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, as one of those agents.
After Guandolo, Miller called on Michael Nichols, an Oath Keeper who testified that he believes members of the group were in the Capitol on Jan. 6 to assist police.
Nichols’ position was used in prior Oath Keepers trials but was excluded from the Rhodes trial, in part because Nichols was not in communication with the leaders of the group.
Nichols completed his testimony Friday, with cross-examination scheduled for Monday morning. Eastman himself, who was called to testify by the plaintiff, will also testify in his own defense early next week. Pat Martin, who traveled to Washington, D.C. with Eastman before Jan. 6 and chairs Alaska Right to Life, is also expected to testify next week.
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