Former President Donald Trump has harassed the Justice Department to pursue his bogus claims of voter fraud, trying in vain to enlist the best law enforcement officials in his desperate bid to stay in power and staging a dramatic showdown in the Oval Office in which he weighed replacing the agency’s chief with a more docile, lower-level official, according to testimony Thursday before the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot .
Three Trump-era Justice Department officials recounted a relentless campaign of pressure by the president, including day-to-day directives to chase unsubstantiated claims that Democrat Joe Biden’s election had been stolen. Officials described the constant contact as a gross breach of protocol for a department that cherishes its independence from the White House, but said they rejected every request because there was no evidence of fraud. widespread election.
“For the department to insert itself into the political process in this way, I think it would have had serious consequences for the country which could very well have plunged us into a constitutional crisis,” said Richard Donoghue, the official No. 2 interim in the final. days of the Trump administration.
The president, he said, had this “arsenal of allegations. I went through them piece by piece to say, no, they weren’t true.”
The committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot released testimony revealing which members of Congress had asked former President Donald Trump for forgiveness, even though no known charges had been filed against them.
Another witness, Jeffrey Rosen, who was acting attorney general, said he had been called by Trump or met with him virtually every day since he took office in late December 2020 until early January 2021, the subject common being “dissatisfaction with what the Department of Justice had done to investigate voter fraud.
It all added up to a “brazen attempt” to use the Justice Department for its own political gain, said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and co-chair of the Jan. 6 committee.
“Donald Trump didn’t just want the Justice Department to investigate,” Thompson said. “He wanted the Justice Department to help him legitimize his lies, essentially label the election as corrupt” and appoint a special counsel. The Justice Department resisted every request.
As in previous hearings, the committee focused on lawmakers who aligned with Trump’s efforts. On Thursday, the panel aired taped interviews with Trump aides saying several Republican members of Congress had asked for pardons in the days following the violent riot on Capitol Hill.
The testimony also centered on a tense showdown in the Oval Office on Jan. 3, 2021, in which Trump considered replacing Rosen with a lower-level official, Jeffrey Clark, who wanted to defend Trump’s false claims of voter fraud. Donoghue and another senior Justice Department official, Steven Engel, warned Trump that there would be mass resignations at the department if Trump went through with his plan. Only then did Trump relent.
Clark’s name was mentioned early in the hearing, with Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, deriding him as a lawyer whose only qualification was his loyalty to Trump. A lawyer for Clark did not return an email ahead of the hearing.
“Who is Jeff Clark?” Kinzinger asked rhetorically. “He would do anything the president wants him to do, including overturning a free and fair democratic election.”
Just an hour before the hearing began, it was revealed that federal agents had searched Clark’s Virginia home this week, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss it by his name and spoke on condition of anonymity. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney confirmed the existence of law enforcement activity in Virginia, where Clark lives, but did not say what it was related to.
The panel hearing was the fifth this month by the House committee investigating the Capitol’s insurgency preparedness, when Trump loyalists stormed the building as lawmakers certified the results of the insurrection. election won by Biden. Among the witnesses are police officers attacked on Capitol Hill as well as lawyers, a television official and local election officials who have all resisted demands to change the results in favor of Trump.
Last week, the committee presented videotaped depositions from former attorney general William Barr, who blasted Trump’s fraud allegations and resigned after failing to convince the president.
Thursday’s hearing focused on what happened next as Rosen, Barr’s deputy principal, took control of the department and immediately found himself besieged by Trump’s demands for action.
In a phone conversation, according to handwritten notes taken by Donoghue and prominently displayed during Thursday’s hearing, Trump asked Rosen to “just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the members of the Congress R.”.
Around that time, Trump was introduced by a Republican congressman, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, to Clark, who had joined the department in 2018 as chief environmental attorney and was later named to lead its civil division. Clark was subpoenaed by the committee but was not among the witnesses Thursday. On Thursday, lawmakers released a videotaped deposition showing him repeatedly invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Clark, according to statements from other Justice Department officials, met with Trump despite being ordered not to by department bosses and presented himself as eager to help the president’s efforts to challenge the results. elections. A report released last year by the Senate Judiciary Committee that described Clark as a relentless defender of Trump included a draft letter urging Georgia officials to call a special legislative session to reconsider the election results.
Clark wanted the letter sent, but Justice Department superiors refused.
The situation came to a head on January 3, 2021, a Sunday, when Clark informed Rosen in a private meeting at the Justice Department that Trump wanted to replace him with Clark as acting attorney general. Rosen, resistant to the idea of being fired by a subordinate, said Thursday that he had contacted senior Justice Department officials to rally them and also requested a meeting at the White House.
That night, Rosen, Donoghue, and Engel, along with Clark, sat down with Trump and top White House lawyers for a contentious hours-long Oval Office meeting to discuss whether the president should follow through on his plans for a radical change of direction at the department.
According to Rosen’s testimony, Trump opened the meeting by saying, “One thing we know is that you, Rosen, will do nothing to nullify the election.
Donoghue and Engel made it clear to Trump that they and many other Justice Department officials would resign if Trump fired Rosen. White House lawyers said the same thing. Then-White House attorney Pat Cipollone said the letter Clark wanted to send was a “murder-suicide pact.”
“Steve Engel said at one point, ‘Jeff Clark will run a cemetery. And what are you going to do with a cemetery,’ there would be such an exodus of leadership,” Donoghue told the Senate Judiciary Committee “So it was very strongly indicated to the president that this would happen.”
Donoghue also sought to dissuade Trump from believing that Clark had the legal knowledge to do what the president wanted since he was not a prosecutor with the department.
“And he sort of shot back and said, ‘Well, I’ve done a lot of very complicated calls and civil litigation, environmental litigation and things like that,'” Donoghue said. “That’s right. You’re an environmental lawyer. How about going back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.”