WASHINGTON — Former President Trump pushed Department of Justice officials to falsely claim there was evidence of fraud in the 2020 election and attempted to replace the acting attorney general when he refused to comply with his demands, the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection detailed in its hearing Thursday.
The committee argued that such a declaration from Justice Department officials that fraud took place in the election would have cast doubt on the results and given GOP-controlled state legislatures a pretense to appoint alternate presidential electors and prevent President Biden’s victory.
“Donald Trump didn’t just want the Justice Department to investigate. He wanted the Justice Department to help legitimize his lies, to baselessly call the election corrupt, to appoint a special counsel to investigate alleged election fraud,” said Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).
Former acting Atty. Gen. Jeffrey A. Rosen, former acting Deputy Atty. Gen. Richard Donoghue and former Asst. Atty. Gen. for the Office of Legal Counsel Steven Engel testified before the committee that Trump asked the Justice Department in December to file legal briefs supporting election lawsuits brought by his campaign and allies. Testimony also detailed Trump’s request that Rosen appoint a special counsel to investigate election fraud though Justice Department investigations concluded there was no evidence of fraud on a scale that would change the election’s outcome.
“Between Dec. 23 (2020) and Jan. 3 (2021), the president either called me or met with me virtually every day,” Rosen said. “The Justice Department declined all of those requests because we did not think they were appropriate based on the facts and the law and we understood them.”
The panel also discussed a push by the former president to have the Justice Department challenge election results in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in the Supreme Court. Engel and the Office of Legal Counsel ruled there was no legal basis to bring such a lawsuit.
The committee focused on a handful of meetings in late December 2020 and early January 2021 in which Trump considered replacing Rosen with Jeffrey Clark, the head of the DOJ’s civil division, at the prompting of Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), including a Dec. 27 phone call in which Trump told Rosen and Donoghue to “just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” according to notes Donoghue took from the conversation.Donoghue said that the Dec. 27 conversation was “an escalation” of the pressure Trump had been putting on the department to intervene. Donoghue said he tried to be extremely blunt with Trump and tell him the department had investigated and there was nothing to any of the claims he was repeating because he saw there were many voices whispering in Trump’s ear.“As we got later in the month of December, the president’s entreaties became more urgent. He became more adamant that we weren’t doing our job,” Donoghue said.
Federal agents searched Clark’s Virginia home Wednesday. More than a dozen law enforcement officers seized Clark’s electronic devices as part of their search, according to his current boss, Russ Vought, former director of the Office of Management and Budget under Trump.
The panel also discussed a draft letter Clark circulated by email on Dec. 28, 2020, in which the Justice Department would urge the Georgia Legislature to hold a special session to scrutinize supposed “irregularities” in the state vote. The letter amounted to a road map for how Georgia could overturn its election results, suggesting the Legislature could ultimately choose a new slate of electors who would back Trump over Biden. Clark’s email indicates similar letters would be sent to officials in other states outlining allegations of fraud. Rosen and Donoghue refused.
Donoghue said he told Clark that “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.”
But Clark began calling witnesses and began conducting investigations of his own, Donoghue said.
Committee Vice Chair Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said that the letter was co-written by Ken Klukowski, who joined the Justice Department on Dec. 15, 2020, and was assigned to work under Clark. Klukowski previously worked with conservative California lawyer John Eastman. Cheney presented a Dec. 28 email that recommended Eastman and Klukowski brief Vice President Pence and his staff.
“The email suggests that Mr. Klukowski was simultaneously working with Jeffrey Clark to draft the proposed letter to Georgia officials to overturn their certified election, and working with Dr. Eastman to help pressure the vice president to overturn the election,” Cheney said.In a contentious Dec. 31 meeting, Trump asked Rosen to have the Justice Department seize voting machines. Rosen said he told Trump nothing improper had been seen with the machines and the Department of Homeland Security had already looked at election machines and debunked any fraud claims.“I don’t think there was legal authority” for the department to seize state election equipment, Rosen said.
On Jan. 3, 2021, Clark told Rosen that Trump had offered him the acting attorney general role, prompting Rosen, Donoghue, Engel, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Deputy White House Counsel Pat Philbin to meet with Trump and Clark in the Oval Office. They warn the president that the entire leadership of the Justice Department and the White House counsel’s office would resign en masse if Trump installed Clark to lead the Justice Department.
Donoghue told the committee in his deposition that Cipollone referred to the letter Clark wanted to send to states as “a murder-suicide pact. It’s going to damage everyone who touches it. And we should have nothing to do with that letter. “
Thursday’s hearing is expected to be the last for a few weeks. The committee will pause hearings for at least two weeks to examine new evidence it has obtained, Thompson said this week.