On December 27, 2020, there was a call between then-President Trump, Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, and Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue. Trump’s pressure was relentless. They needed to do more to investigate his claims of voter fraud, he urged.
Donoghue responded by telling Trump that the Justice Department cannot simply snap its fingers and change the results of the election. Trump snapped back, demanding ominously: “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the congressional Republicans.” That was an exact quote. Donoghue took notes.
Today’s Committee hearing on January 6 focused on the former president’s effort to turn the Justice Department into his personal coup machine. The committee showed how Trump sought to force the Justice Department to help his multi-level lobbying campaign to nullify the 2020 election. And when top officials refused, Trump tried to appoint someone to do so, culminating in a showdown in the Oval Office that could have changed the course of history. All of this happened with the help of Republican lawmakers who later sought pardons.
The in-person witness testimony we heard was from Jeffrey Rosen, Richard Donoghue, and Steven Engel, the former Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel. These witnesses continued the Committee’s formula of January 6 to present Trump’s Republican appointees.
Although he was not present, Jeffrey Clark, the man Trump sought to replace Rosen with, was the star of the audience. Just hours before the hearing began, several news organizations reported that Clark’s house had been raided by federal agents in connection with their investigation on January 6. After hearing today’s testimony, it’s clear why the Justice Department is interested in him.
Between Dec. 23, 2020, and Jan. 3, 2021, Trump called or met with Rosen “pretty much every day.” What Trump wanted to do was nothing short of crazy. Despite both Rosen and Donoghue telling him in “blunt” terms that his claims of voter fraud were “not true,” he persisted. He asked the Justice Department if he could confiscate the voting machines and appoint a special attorney (Sidney Powell testified that he was promised the job). Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) even tried to get the Justice Department to investigate a conspiracy theory about how Italian satellites stole the US election. Donoghue called it “pure madness”.
At the time of the Dec. 27 call, in which Trump asked the Justice Department to simply announce that the election was corrupt, it was clear that Rosen and Donoghue were not going to do Trump’s bidding. Enter Jeffrey Clark.
Clark was a Justice Department environmental attorney who was introduced to Trump by Representative Perry during a visit to the White House on December 22 (a visit that was not authorized by the department). On December 26, 2020, Rep. Perry texted Mark Meadows asking for Clark to be elevated to AG. Representative Perry also called Donoghue, lobbying for Clark. Clark then made a big move to get even more attention from Trump.
Clark and his deputy Ken Klukowski wrote a five-page letter and emailed it to Donoghue on December 28, 2020. The letter falsely claimed that the Justice Department had discovered voter fraud and that several states needed to suspend their voters and certify an alternative list of voters, which John Eastman and the Trump campaign had organized.
Rosen and Donoghue refused to sign the letter. Donoghue told Clark: “What you are doing is nothing less than the meddling of the United States Department of Justice in the outcome of an election.” After this, Clark continued to double down, culminating in a Game of Thrones in the Oval Office on Sunday, January 3.
Clark caused a frenzy at the Justice Department earlier that Sunday by telling Rosen that Trump had offered him the Attorney General job. According to White House call logs from Jan. 3, Jeffrey Clark was already being referred to as acting attorney general by then.
Rosen moved fiercely. He called Meadows to schedule a meeting in the Oval Office for 6:15 pm that same night. He asked then-White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Steve Engel and Donoghue to attend. Herschmann also called Rosen to tell him that he would be attending the meeting. Donoghue called the deputy attorneys general to inform them. They all told Donoghue that they would resign if he appointed Clark.
The meeting began. Clark was in the room. Trump began by complaining that Rosen was not “going to do anything to nullify the election” and that Clark would. The conversation lasted two and a half hours. Donoghue and Engel told Trump they would resign if Clark took office and that they would not be the only ones. Donoghue said all of the assistant attorney generals would resign, and that would lead to hundreds of resignations in the department within 48 hours. Clark would be leading a “cemetery,” they said. Trump made the decision for him at the end of the meeting.
Trump did not name Clark, but proceeded to stand on stage on Jan. 6 and repeat the same voter fraud lies his Justice Department had debunked for months before inciting a violent mob on Capitol Hill. As Trump watched the violence unfold at the White House, Rosen and Donoghue restored order. The Justice Department sent 500 FBI and ATF agents and officers, as well as US Marshals, to Capitol Hill. Rosen spoke to Pence twice. Donoghue helped reconvene the Joint Session of Congress at 8 p.m. Neither Rosen nor Donoghue heard from Trump on Jan. 6.
So what was the role of congressional Republicans in all of this? On Dec. 21, several Republican lawmakers met with Trump in the Oval Office to discuss how they might fight voter fraud. At the beginning of the hearing, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) played footage of his fellow Republican lawmakers publicly pressing the Justice Department to do more to nullify the 2020 election. Clips included Rep. Jim Jordan (OH), Rep. Matt Gaetz (FL), Mo Brooks (AL), Paul Gosar (AZ), Louie Gohmert (TX) and Andy Biggs (AZ).
At the end of the hearing, this footage was put into perspective. Many of those same Republican lawmakers who fueled Trump’s efforts to nullify the election have also apologized. The committee disclosed a January 11, 2021, email from Mo Brooks asking for forgiveness for himself, Matt Gaetz, and “all congressmen and senators who voted to reject the electoral college vote.” Mark Meadows’s former assistant, Cassidy Hutchinson, testified that Brooks, Gaetz, Biggs, Gohmert and Scott Perry asked for pardons. Hutchinson says she, too, heard Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) apologized to the White House counsel. Jim Jordan also asked about the status of the pardons.
Trump has always understood the clouds of doubt that an investigation can generate and how those clouds can cover his own corrupt acts. Trump wanted the Justice Department to announce that the election was corrupt for the same reason he blackmailed Ukraine for an announced investigation of Biden. He needed to sow doubt so he could weaponize that doubt as fuel for his multi-tiered pressure campaign.
The soon-to-be-infamous ex-president’s quote, “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the congressional Republicans,” highlights this. He cared little for a legitimate investigation. The ad would suffice. He simply wanted the disguise of corruption to carry out a campaign. Instead, he was accused and his own corruption was highlighted.
The same goal clearly underpinned his effort to force the Justice Department to announce an investigation and send Clark’s letter. If Trump could sow enough doubt, perhaps that would give him and his Republican allies more tools to pressure state legislatures to unseat their constituents with fake constituents. Perhaps it would get more Republican congressmen to vote against certifying certain voters. Perhaps he would add more pressure on former Vice President Mike Pence. Perhaps, Trump thought, he could help him pull off this coup.
If this wasn’t clear before, it certainly is after tonight’s hearing: The only widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election was Donald Trump’s widespread effort to overturn it.