WASHINGTON (AP) — Jan. 6, a committee is hearing former Justice Department officials who have faced a relentless campaign of pressure from Donald Trump over the 2020 presidential election results while quelling a bizarre challenge within their ranks.
Thursday’s hearing drew attention to a memorable period of turmoil in the department as Trump, in his last days in office, sought to bend to his will a law enforcement agency that had long cherished its independence from the White House. The testimonies are intended to show how Trump not only relied on outside advisers to push his false claims of election fraud, but also attempted to use the powers of the federal executive branch.
Witnesses include Jeffrey Rosen, who served as Acting Attorney General during the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Three days earlier, Rosen had been involved in a tense showdown in the Oval Office in which Trump intended to replace him with a lower-level official, Jeffrey Clark, who wanted to support Trump’s bogus claims of electoral fraud.
Trump’s scheme was a “brazen attempt” to use the Justice Department for its own political gain, Rep. Benny Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the committee, said Jan. 6.
“Donald Trump didn’t just want the Justice Department to investigate,” Thompson said. “He wanted the Justice Department to help justify his lies, effectively call the election corrupt” and appoint a special prosecutor.
Just an hour before the hearing began, it emerged that federal agents had searched Clark’s home in Virginia this week, according to a person familiar with the matter, who was not authorized to discuss it by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. A spokesman for the US Attorney confirmed the presence of law enforcement activity in Virginia, where Clark lives, but did not say what it was about.
In a written statement prepared for the committee and obtained by the Associated Press, Rosen said that no evidence of fraud was presented to the Justice Department that could affect the outcome of the election, and therefore it was not involved in any efforts by the Trump campaign to reverse the decision. results, instead insisting on an orderly transfer of power.
“Some have claimed to the former president and the public that the election was corrupt and stolen,” Rosen said in a statement. “That view was wrong then and wrong today, and I hope that our presence here today will help confirm that fact.”
Two other former employees of the department, Rosen’s first deputy, Richard Donoghue and Stephen Engel, were scheduled to testify. Both warned Trump at the White House meeting that they would resign and that many of the department’s lawyers would follow suit if he replaced Rosen with Clark.
“You can have this situation, within 24 hours, hundreds of people will resign from the Department of Justice,” Donoghue told Trump. “Is this good for someone? Is it good for the department? Is it good for the country? It’s good for you. Is not.”
Only then did Trump relent. The night, and then his Republican administration, ended with Rosen still in power.
Hours before the hearing, lawmakers privately interviewed British director Alex Holder, his lawyer Russell Smith confirmed to AP. On Tuesday, Holder said he had handed over to the committee footage he filmed from Trump’s last six weeks in office, including on Jan. 6. He said the footage includes interviews with Trump, his family and then Vice President Mike Pence during the 2020 trail and before the deadly uprising.
The commission’s hearing is the fifth this month by a House committee investigating preparations for an uprising at the Capitol when Trump supporters stormed the building as lawmakers certified the results of an election won by Democrat Joe Biden. Witnesses included police officers attacked at the Capitol, as well as lawyers, a television executive and local election officials who resisted demands to change the results in favor of Trump.
Last week, the committee released a videotaped testimony of former Attorney General William Barr, who criticized Trump’s allegations of fraud and resigned after failing to convince the president.
Thursday’s hearing focused on what happened next as Rosen, Barr’s first deputy, took over the department and immediately found himself under siege from Trump’s demands for action.
In one phone call, according to handwritten notes taken by Donoghue and released by lawmakers last year, Trump asked Rosen to “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the congressmen.”
Around the same time, Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania introduced Trump to Clark, who joined the department in 2018 as its chief environmental lawyer and was later appointed head of its civilian division. The committee called Clarke into court to testify, but he was not among the witnesses on Thursday.
Clark, according to statements by other Justice Department officials, met with Trump despite being ordered not to by the Department of Justice officials and said he was seeking to help the president in his efforts to challenge the election results. A report released last year by the Senate Judiciary Committee that portrayed Clark as a tireless supporter of Trump included a draft letter urging Georgian officials to call a special legislative session to review the election results.
Clarke wanted the letter to be sent, but his superiors at the Justice Department refused.
Things came to a head on Sunday, January 3, 2021, when Clark told Rosen in a private meeting at the Justice Department that Trump wanted to replace him with Clark as acting attorney general. Rosen, according to the Senate report, replied that “I could not imagine any universe in which this could ever happen”, and that he would not allow a subordinate to be fired.
Rosen then contacted the White House to request a meeting. That night, Rosen, Donoghue, and Engel, along with Clark, gathered with Trump and top White House lawyers for hours in the Oval Office debating whether the president should go ahead with his plans for a sweeping leadership change in the department.
According to Rosen’s testimony, Trump opened the meeting by saying, “One thing we know is that you, Rosen, are not going to do anything to cancel the election.”
Donoghue and Engel made it clear to Trump that they and many other Justice Department officials would resign if Trump fired Rosen. The same was stated by the White House lawyers. Pat Cipollone, then a White House adviser, said the letter Clarke wanted to send was “a murder-suicide pact.”
“Steve Engel said at one point, “Jeff Clarke will run the cemetery. And what are you going to do with the cemetery?” what will be the outcome of the leadership,” Donoghue told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “So the president was told very bluntly that this was going to happen.”
Donoghue also tried to dissuade Trump from thinking that Clark had a legal basis for doing what the president wanted because he was not a criminal prosecutor for the department.
“And he kind of retorted, saying, ‘Well, I’ve filed a lot of very complicated appeals and civil lawsuits, environmental lawsuits and things like that,’” Donoghue said. “And I said, ‘That’s right. You are an environmental lawyer. How about we go back to your office and we’ll call you when the oil spill happens?
Associated Press contributors Michael Balsamo and Farnoush Amiri of Washington contributed to this report.
For full coverage of the January 6 hearing, see below.