Political News

Jan. 6 Panel Outlines Trump’s Bid to Coerce Justice Dept. Officials

Posted June 23, 2022 9:21 p.m. EDT
Updated June 23, 2022 9:24 p.m. EDT

Jeffrey Rosen, left, the former acting attorney general, and Richard Donoghue, the former acting deputy attorney general, testify during the fifth day of hearings held by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, in Washington on Thursday, June 23, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol painted a vivid picture Thursday of how President Donald Trump directed a wide-ranging bid to strong-arm the Justice Department into overturning the 2020 election, the most brazen attempt by a sitting president since Watergate to manipulate the nation’s law enforcement apparatus to keep himself in power.

In a stunning display of evidence, including testimony from top officials who resisted the former president’s efforts, the committee laid out how Trump tried repeatedly to use the Justice Department to interfere in the election on his behalf. In near-daily conversations, he badgered its leaders to act on unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, including wild internet hoaxes, accusing them of failing to do their jobs. He explored naming a conspiracy theorist who was circulating outlandish stories of voting irregularities to be a special counsel to look into possible election misdeeds.

“Why don’t you guys just seize machines?” Trump demanded to know at one point, later calling a top official at the Department of Homeland Security when informed that voting machines fell under that agency’s purview, not the Justice Department’s.

When top Justice Department officials repeatedly told him that they had investigated and debunked his allegations of widespread election fraud, Trump said they need not find evidence. “Just say the election is corrupt and leave the rest to me,” he told them.

And when the officials refused to comply, Trump embraced a plan to run out the acting attorney general and install a loyalist, Jeffrey Clark, to do his bidding. During a heated showdown in the Oval Office, only the threat of a mass resignation at the department persuaded Trump to back down.

With testimony and new documents, the committee used its fifth public hearing to present a portrait of an embattled Justice Department that worked frantically to stave off a constitutional crisis driven by a president who refused to relinquish his power, and showed how close the country came to such a breakdown.

“He pressured the Justice Department to act as an arm of his reelection campaign,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chair of the committee, said of Trump. “He hoped law enforcement officials would give the appearance of legitimacy to his lies, so he and his allies had some veneer of credibility when they told the country that the election was stolen.”

Just three days before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack, White House call logs show, Clark was referred to as the acting attorney general, suggesting that parts of the White House already believed that Trump had gone through with his plan and ousted Jeffrey Rosen, the acting attorney general.

Rosen testified Thursday that he attended a meeting in the Oval Office later that afternoon in efforts to save his job and stave off a calamity that would have engulfed the nation.

“I wanted to try to convince the president not to go down the wrong path that Mr. Clark seemed to be advocating,” Rosen said. “I did not want for the Justice Department to be put in a posture where it would be doing things that were not consistent with the truth or not consistent with its own appropriate role or were not consistent with the Constitution.”

But Trump appeared unmoved by the implications of what he was asking. “What do I have to lose?” he asked the top department officials, according to testimony Thursday from Richard Donoghue, who was acting deputy attorney general.

The panel also presented evidence that after the Jan. 6 attack, at least six Republican members of the House who played leading roles in Trump’s efforts to use Congress to overturn the election sought pardons for themselves and for all the Republicans who voted to reject electoral votes for Joe Biden. The list, according to the testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, included Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Louie Gohmert of Texas and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.

Biggs, Perry and Gohmert denied that they had ever sought pardons for themselves. Greene called the testimony about her “gossip and lies.” Brooks acknowledged that he had sought pardons for more than 100 Republicans in Congress after the violence of Jan. 6, but said he did so because he was concerned that the “Democrats would abuse the judicial system by prosecuting and jailing Republicans who acted pursuant to their constitutional or statutory duties.”

Gaetz did not immediately respond to a request for comment. While these representatives were not all directly tied to the pressure on the Justice Department, the committee shed more light on the prominent role Perry played in Trump’s effort to weaponize the agency.

Perry introduced Clark to Trump the day after he and other Republicans met at the White House to discuss ways to overturn the election outcome. He pushed Meadows to have Trump install Clark as attorney general. And he encouraged Donoghue to give Clark more ability to “do something” about Trump’s fraud claims.

The session also fleshed out the role of Clark, a little-known department official who was the key man in Trump’s plan to wield the agency’s power to accomplish his goals. Clark was head of the environmental and natural resources division, and acting head of the civil division. He not only embraced Trump’s false election fraud claims, he also pushed Rosen to send a letter to Georgia election officials that falsely claimed that the Justice Department “identified significant concerns” that would affect the state’s election results.

The committee presented evidence that the White House knew that the plan was unlawful. “Congratulations, you just admitted your first step or act you’d take as attorney general would be committing a felony,” Eric Herschmann, a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office, told Clark upon hearing of it, according to a taped deposition played Thursday.

Federal agents obtained a warrant to search Clark’s home Wednesday and seize his phones. What they were looking for remains unclear. Clark did not respond to requests for comment about the search warrant or about the hearing. The hearing also made clear that Trump had a second secret ally inside the department, a former lawyer in the White House budget office named Ken Klukowski. After the election, Klukowski worked with John Eastman, a lawyer who helped create “alternate” slates of electors in swing states that would falsely say Trump had won.

After working with Eastman, Klukowski joined the Justice Department on Dec. 15, 2020, and was specifically assigned to work under Clark, said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the committee’s vice chair. There, he helped Clark draft the Georgia letter, which included some of Eastman’s theories about alternate slates of electors.

Trump’s allies drafted a lawsuit for the department to present to the Supreme Court, a request that Steven Engel, former head of the Office of Legal Counsel, described as “certainly unusual” and “meritless.”

The panel reiterated how Trump and his allies searched for any theory to try to keep him in power, even persuading the acting defense secretary to call the Italian government to investigate the debunked “Italygate” conspiracy that Italian defense contractors had used satellite technology to flip votes for Trump to Biden.

In mid-December, he asked Powell, a former federal prosecutor who was circulating an array of groundless theories of widespread election fraud, to be a special counsel to investigate such allegations, according to testimony by Powell that the panel played Thursday.

The hearing captured in vivid detail how Rosen and Donoghue fought conspiracy theories and false claims of fraud, playing a high-stakes game of whack-a-mole against an array of figures who were responding to Trump’s demand for evidence of wrongdoing by feeding him a steady stream of dubious material.

After receiving a video detailing the Italygate theory, Donoghue wrote in an email that it was “pure insanity,” and on Thursday he told the committee that it was “patently absurd.”

There was audible laughter in the hearing room when Donoghue recounted how he told Clark he was unqualified to be attorney general: “You’re an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill?”

The story of how Trump tried to intervene in the Justice Department has been well documented by news reports, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Jan. 6 committee. But some of that evidence took on fresh urgency in the context of the hearing.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who led the questioning, explored Trump’s most infamous response to being told that the department had not found evidence of election fraud. “That is not what I’m asking you to do,” Trump replied, according to Donoghue’s testimony. “I’m asking you to say it was corrupt and leave it to me and the Republican Congress.”

Trump wanted the department to “declare the election was corrupt even though he knew there was absolutely no evidence to support that statement,” Kinzinger said. “The president didn’t care about actually investigating the facts. He just wanted the Department of Justice to put its stamp of approval on the lies.”

The panel is planning at least two more hearings for July, according to Thompson. Those sessions are expected to detail how a mob of violent extremists attacked Congress in Trump’s name and how Trump did nothing for more than three hours to call off his supporters. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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