Former Trump-era Justice Department officials drew a bleak, condemnatory image of the agency in the weeks following the 2020 election: a former president who wanted to install a Attorney General who would raise his unfounded allegations of electoral fraud and revolt. of mass resignations if Trump continued with the decision.
At its fifth hearing, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on Thursday shared some of its most explosive findings to date. Lawmakers explored efforts in the White House and Congress to convince the Justice Department to get involved, despite top DOJ officials denying evidence of widespread fraud. Above all, the panel shared a recorded testimony describing half a dozen members of the GOP and Trump allies calling for presidential pardons.
Attorneys general serve in a president’s office, but the Justice Department is expected to function independently of an administration. During his time in office, Trump faced frequent accusations from a politicized DOJ. The committee sought to clarify these criticisms, as witnesses shared how Trump wanted them to use his legal authority to interfere and how they prevented the former president from using the DOJ as the political arm of the White House.
They recounted a meeting of the Oval Office three days before the January 6 riots where the former president floated dismissing incumbent Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and replaced him with another DOJ official, Jeffrey Clark. The idea was received with the fury of the department’s top aides, who threatened to resign if Trump acted accordingly.
“Jeff Clark will be at the head of a cemetery,” Richard Donoghue, a former deputy attorney general in office, told the select committee. He described Clark as “completely incompetent” and Donoghue told Trump he would resign immediately if Clark took over, as would most key employees.
Clark was a central focus of Thursday’s hearing and an integral part of the panel’s investigation. Hours before, NBC News reported Wednesday that federal police searched Clark’s home in Virginia. Committee members and witnesses described him as an environmental lawyer with no experience in conducting criminal investigations or prosecuting a criminal case.
The committee also highlighted a letter written by Clark on December 28, 2020, which said there were “major concerns” about the fraud and called on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and other GOP state lawmakers to convene a special session to invalidate the results, which showed that President Joe Biden was narrowly winning.
“Who is Jeff Clark? An environmental lawyer with no relevant experience to lead the entire Department of Justice,” said Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of the two Republicans on the panel. “What was your only qualification? That he would do what the president wanted him to do, including overthrowing a free and fair democratic election. “
Rosen took over the Justice Department on an interim basis after Attorney General Bill Barr resigned from the administration in December 2020. Barr has been a prominent witness for investigators and his recorded testimony has been reproduced in all the audiences.
Barr denied widespread allegations of election fraud a month after the election. And in his interview with the Jan. 6 committee, he said Trump’s unfounded narrative about fraud led to his resignation. Barr described his former boss as “detached from reality if he really believes these things” and called the allegations “bull …”.
Rosen said he spoke to or met with Trump almost every day between December 23, 2020 and January 3, 2021. He said the former president made several requests, including the possibility of appointing a special attorney for investigating election fraud, a meeting between Rosen and former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, and the department filing a lawsuit in the Supreme Court. All were dismissed by Rosen.
“The common element of all of this was that the president expressed his dissatisfaction because the Justice Department … had not done enough to investigate election fraud,” Rosen said Thursday. “The Department of Justice rejected all of these requests because we didn’t think they were appropriate under the facts and the law as we understood them.”
Donoghue said he faced similar requests from the former president. He detailed a two-hour call with Trump on December 27, 2020, calling it an “escalation” of previous conversations about fraud claims.
“I wanted to try to cut the noise,” Donoghue said, adding that he was being “very blunt … to make it clear to the president that these accusations were simply not true.”
The committee included handwritten notes that Donoghue took during his Dec. 27 conversation with Trump. According to the notes, Trump told the former DOJ official to “just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”
While the committee has focused heavily on the efforts of Trump and others in the White House to intervene, several pro-Trump Republican lawmakers were also in the spotlight Thursday.
In interviews with former White House employees and lawyers, the committee shared which Republican lawmakers called for presidential pardons: Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, representative. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. Brooks said Thursday he is open to appearing before the committee if certain criteria are met, such as a statement at a public hearing.
Perry specifically played an important role in the audience. He is a close ally of Trump who was cited by the committee, although Perry has opposed the demand for a deposition. Kinzinger showed a text exchange where Perry repeatedly urged Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, to contact Clark.
In a separate conversation, Perry called Donoghue “at the request of the president” where he primarily discussed allegations that the Pennsylvania secretary of state certified more votes than were cast.
But, as the three witnesses said Thursday, including former Deputy Attorney General of the Office of the Lawyer Steven Engel, most DOJ officials were not going to bow to the whims of the former president and they will involve no personal evidence in personal and political matters.
“Obviously, there has been a lot of misinformation, but hearing it from Republican nominees, people nominated by Donald Trump, as he tried to use the Justice Department as another point to override the will of the people, was powerful.” Kinzinger, retiring this term, he said at a news conference after the hearing. “I hope people can look at it and understand, again, the attempt was to get your vote, regardless of who you voted for.”