Trump Told DOJ to Say Election Corrupt 06/24 06:03
Donald Trump hounded the Justice Department to pursue his false election
fraud claims, striving in vain to enlist top law enforcement officials in his
desperate bid to stay in power and relenting only when warned in the Oval
Office of mass resignations, according to testimony Thursday to the House panel
investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Donald Trump hounded the Justice Department to pursue his
false election fraud claims, striving in vain to enlist top law enforcement
officials in his desperate bid to stay in power and relenting only when warned
in the Oval Office of mass resignations, according to testimony Thursday to the
House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
Three Trump-era Justice Department officials recounted persistent badgering
from the president, including day after day of directives to chase baseless
allegations that the election won by Democrat Joe Biden had been stolen. They
said they swept aside each demand from Trump because there was no evidence of
widespread fraud, then banded together when the president weighed whether to
replace the department's top lawyer with a lower-level official eager to help
undo the results.
All the while, Republican loyalists in Congress trumpeted the president's
claims -- and several later sought pardons from the White House after the
effort failed and the Capitol was breached in a day of violence, the committee
The hearing, the fifth by the panel probing the assault on the Capitol, made
clear that Trump's sweeping pressure campaign targeted not only statewide
election officials but also his own executive branch agencies. The witnesses
solemnly described the constant contact from the president as an extraordinary
breach of protocol, especially since the Justice Department has long cherished
its independence from the White House and looked to steer clear of partisan
considerations in investigative decisions.
"When you damage our fundamental institutions, it's not easy to repair
them," said Jeffrey Rosen, the acting attorney general in the final days of the
Trump administration. "So I thought this was a really important issue, to try
to make sure that the Justice Department was able to stay on the right course."
The hearing focused on a memorably tumultuous time at the department after
the December 2020 departure of Attorney General William Barr, who drew Trump's
ire with his public proclamation that there was no evidence of fraud that could
have changed the election results.
He was replaced by his top deputy, Rosen, who said that for a roughly
two-week period after taking the job, he either met with or was called by Trump
virtually every day. The common theme, he said, was "dissatisfaction that the
Justice Department, in his view, had not done enough to investigate election
Trump presented the department with an "arsenal of allegations," none of
them true, said Richard Donoghue, another top official who testified Thursday.
Even so, Trump prodded the department at various points to seize voting
machines, to appoint a special counsel to probe fraud claims and to simply
declare the election corrupt.
The department did none of those things.
"For the department to insert itself into the political process this way, I
think would have had grave consequences for the country. It may very well have
spiraled us into a constitutional crisis," Donoghue said.
The testimony showed that Trump did, however, find a willing ally inside the
department in the form of an environmental enforcement lawyer who'd become the
leader of the agency's civil division.
The attorney, Jeffrey Clark, had been introduced to Trump by a Republican
congressman and postured himself as an eager advocate for election fraud
claims. In a contentious Oval Office meeting on the night of Jan. 3, 2021, just
three days before the insurrection, Trump even toyed with replacing Rosen with
Clark but backed down amid warnings of mass resignations.
Clark's name was referenced often Thursday, with Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an
Illinois Republican and committee member, deriding him as a lawyer whose sole
qualification was his fealty to Trump and his willingness to do whatever the
president wanted, "including overthrowing a free and fair democratic election."
A lawyer for Clark did not return messages seeking comment.
Barely an hour before the hearing began, it was revealed that federal agents
on Wednesday had searched Clark's Virginia home, according to a person familiar
with the matter. It was not clear what agents were seeking.
The latest hearing centered less on the violence at the Capitol than on the
legal push by Trump to undo the election results, as the panel makes the case
that the defeated president's "big lie" over the election led to the
insurrection. That included specific asks by Trump but also more general ones.
In one phone conversation, according to handwritten notes taken by Donoghue
and highlighted at Thursday's hearing, Trump directed Rosen to "Just say the
election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen."
Around that time, Trump was connected by a Republican congressman, Rep.
Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, to Clark, who'd joined the department in 2018 as
its chief environmental lawyer and later set about aiding efforts to challenge
the election results.
At one point, Clark presented colleagues with a draft letter pushing Georgia
officials to convene a special legislative session on the election results.
Clark wanted the letter sent, but Justice Department superiors refused.
Clark was not among the hearing witnesses. He earlier appeared in private
before the committee, though lawmakers Thursday played a videotaped deposition
showing him repeatedly invoking his constitutional right against
self-incrimination in response to questions.
Perry's name surfaced later in the hearing, when the committee played
videotaped statements from Trump aides saying he and several other Republican
members of Congress sought pardons from the president that would shield them
from criminal prosecution.
Perry and fellow GOP Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Matt
Gaetz of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas were all involved in efforts to
reject the electoral tally or submit "fake electors." Gaetz tweeted Thursday
that the hearing was a "political sideshow," and Perry denied in a statement
Thursday having ever sought a pardon.
The situation came to a head on Jan. 3, 2021, a Sunday, when Clark informed
Rosen that Trump wanted to replace him with Clark as acting attorney general.
Rosen, resisting the idea of being fired by a subordinate, testified that he
swiftly contacted senior Justice Department officials to rally them together.
He also requested a White House meeting, where he and his allies could make
That night, he showed up at the White House for what would be a dramatic,
hours-long meeting centered on whether Trump should proceed with plans for a
radical leadership change. Clark was present, as were Donoghue and Steven
Engel, a Rosen ally and senior Justice Department official who also testified
At the start of the meeting, Rosen said, "The president turned to me and he
said: 'The one thing we know is you, Rosen, you aren't going to do anything.
You don't even agree with the claims of election fraud, and this other guy at
least might do something.'"
Rosen told Trump he was correct, and said he wouldn't let the Justice
Department do anything to overturn the election.
Donoghue made clear he'd resign if Trump fired Rosen. Trump asked Engel
whether he would do the same. Engel responded that, absolutely, he would. The
entire leadership team would resign, Trump was told. Hundreds of staffers would
walk out too.
Donoghue also sought to dissuade Trump from believing Clark had the legal
background to do what the president wanted, saying Clark had "never tried a
criminal case" or conducted a criminal investigation.
"He's telling you that he's going to take charge of the department, 115,000
employees, including the entire FBI, and turn the place on a dime and conduct
nationwide criminal investigations that will produce results in a matter of
days,'" Donoghue said.
"It's impossible," he added, "it's absurd, it's not going to happen, and
it's going to fail."
The president backed down. The night, and his Republican administration,
ended with Rosen atop the Justice Department.