WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump pursued the Justice Department to investigate its false allegations of electoral fraud, trying in vain to enlist the support of senior law enforcement officials in his desperate bid to stay in power, only relenting after Oval Office warnings of mass resignations , according to testify Thursday for a House committee investigating the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots.
Three Trump-era Justice Department officials spoke of constant harassment by the president, including day-by-day directives to pursue baseless allegations that an election won by Democrat Joe Biden was stolen. They said they rejected Trump’s every claim because there was no evidence of widespread fraud, and then banded together as the president weighed whether to replace the department’s chief legal officer with a lower-level official willing to help overturn the results.
The hearing, the fifth this month for the group investigating the Capitol attack, made it clear that Trump’s wide-ranging pressure campaign was aimed not only at state election officials, but also at his own executive branch. Witnesses solemnly characterized the president’s constant contact as an extreme breach of protocol, especially since the Justice Department has long cherished its independence from the White House and avoided partisan politics in making investigative decisions.
“When you damage our fundamental institutions, it’s not easy to repair them,” said Jeffrey Rosen, who served as acting attorney general during the final days of the Trump administration. “So I thought it was a really important issue to try and make sure the Justice Department can stay on track.”
The hearings focused on a memorably tumultuous period in the department following the December 2020 departure of Attorney General William Barr, who drew Trump’s ire with his public announcement that there was no evidence of fraud that could have changed the election. He was replaced by his top deputy, Rosen, who said that for about a two-week period after taking office, he either met or called Trump virtually every day. According to him, a common theme was “dissatisfaction with the actions of the Ministry of Justice in investigating electoral fraud.”
Trump has presented the ministry with an “arsenal of allegations” none of which are true, said Richard Donoghue, another senior official who testified Thursday. However, Trump has repeatedly pushed the department to seize voting machines, appoint a special adviser to investigate allegations of fraud, and simply declare the election corrupt.
The department did none of this.
“I think that if the department intervened in the political process in this way, it would have serious consequences for the country, which could well lead us to a constitutional crisis,” Donoghue said.
It was clear from the testimony that Trump did, however, find a willing ally within the department in an environmental lawyer who became head of the agency’s civil division. Attorney Jeffrey Clark was introduced to Trump in late December by a Republican congressman and said he was ready to defend allegations of electoral fraud. At a controversial meeting in the Oval Office on the night of January 3, 2021, just three days before the election, Trump tried to replace Rosen with Clark but backed down amid threats of mass resignations.
Clark’s name came up early and often in hearings, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican and committee member, derided him as a lawyer whose only qualification was his loyalty to Trump. Clark’s attorney did not respond to messages asking for comment.
Who is Jeff Clark? Kinzinger asked rhetorically. “He would do anything the president would want him to do, including overthrowing free and fair democratic elections.”
Just an hour before the hearing began, it emerged that federal agents had searched Clark’s home in Virginia on Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the matter, who was not authorized to discuss it by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. It is unclear what the agents were looking for.
The latest hearing focused less on the Capitol violence and more on Trump’s legal pressure to cancel the election results. In one phone call, according to handwritten notes taken by Donoghue and highlighted in Thursday’s hearing, Trump told Rosen, “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and R. 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. Clark was subpoenaed by the committee but was not among the witnesses on Thursday. Lawmakers on Thursday released video footage of testimony in which he repeatedly invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Perry’s name surfaced later in a hearing when the committee showed video footage of statements by Trump aides saying that he and several other Republican members of Congress were seeking a presidential pardon that would protect them from criminal prosecution, testimony showed.
Perry and other GOP representatives Andy Biggs of Arizona, Moe Brooks of Alabama, Matt Goetz of Florida, and Louis Gomert of Texas have all been involved in attempts to overturn the election results or present “fake voters.” On Thursday, Gaetz tweeted that the hearings were a “political sideshow.”
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, resisting the idea of being fired by subordinates, testified that he contacted high-ranking Justice Department officials to rally them together. He also demanded a meeting at the White House.
That night, he showed up at the White House for a dramatic, hours-long meeting over the question of whether Trump should go ahead with his plans for a sweeping leadership change in the department. Also there were Steven Engel, another senior DOJ official and Rosen ally who testified on Thursday, and Clarke.
At the start of the meeting, Rosen testified on Thursday: “The President turned to me and said, ‘The only thing we know is that you, Rosen, are not going to do anything. You don’t even agree with the allegations of electoral fraud, and this guy can at least do something.”
Donoghue made it clear to Engel that he would resign if Trump replaced Rosen with Clark. Trump asked Engel if he would do the same, and Engel replied that he would definitely do it because he would have no choice.
The President stepped back. The night, and then his Republican administration, ended with Rosen still in charge of the Justice Department.
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?
Olx Praca contributors Michael Balsamo, Lisa Mascaro, Mary Claire Jalonik, and Farnoush Amiri of Washington contributed to this report.
For full coverage of the January 6 hearing, see