Five takeaways about Trump's pressure campaign at DOJ
(The Hill) — The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack turned its focus on Thursday to the internal turmoil that swept the Department of Justice (DOJ) and White House in the weeks after the 2020 election as then-President Donald Trump pushed baseless claims of widespread election fraud and tried to use federal law enforcement in his scheme to stay in office.
The hearing featured witness testimony from three Justice Department leaders at the time — acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue and Steve Engel, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel — who pushed back against Trump’s claims and eventually warned a mass resignation would take place if the president tried to install a loyalist as attorney general.
The select committee showed how Trump’s pick to lead the department, Jeffrey Clark, the acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil division, pushed the election fraud claims within the administration and was at the center of a confrontation between DOJ leaders and the president.
Here are five takeaways from the select committee’s DOJ hearing.
At least four GOP House members — Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Mo Brooks (Ala.), Louie Gohmert (Texas) and Andy Biggs (Ariz.) — asked Trump for pardons in the final days of the administration, the select committee revealed Thursday.
At a hearing earlier this month, the panel showed evidence that Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) had asked for a pardon as well. And it also revealed Trump’s legal adviser, John Eastman, had requested to be included on any potential pardon list.
The requests came on the heels of the attack on the Capitol, suggesting a fear of criminal liability in the ensuing law enforcement scrutiny.
“The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is because you think you’ve committed a crime,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said during the hearing.
Responding to the select committee’s hearing Thursday, Brooks said he and other Republicans were worried that a Democratic administration would exploit federal law enforcement to pursue politically motivated prosecutions against those who stood by Trump.
“The email request says it all. There was a concern Democrats would abuse the judicial system by prosecuting and jailing Republicans who acted pursuant to their Constitutional or statutory duties under 3 USC 15,” Brooks said in a statement, citing the statutory provision laying out the Electoral College certification process.
The asks of the Justice Department ranged from bizarre to inappropriate
Rosen said he began fielding calls from Trump even before he officially stepped into his role.
The Department of Justice was met with a barrage of requests from Trump: that they publicly back his baseless claims of election fraud; that they file lawsuits alongside his campaign; that they announce a special legal counsel to investigate the matter; and, later, that they send letters to states asking them to hold off on certifying their election results while the DOJ investigated alleged fraud.
Engel dismissed the idea of joining any lawsuit after being handed a draft prepared by the campaign.
“Obviously, you know, the person who drafted this lawsuit didn’t really understand, in my view, the law and or how the Supreme Court works or the Department of Justice. So it was just not something we were going to do,” he said.
Trump also wanted the department to appoint a special counsel to investigate voter fraud — something officials were unwilling to do because they could not verify any allegations of fraud.
The committee revealed it was his own campaign attorney Sidney Powell, who is now facing disbarment based on faulty voter fraud allegations she presented in court, that Trump wanted to appoint special counsel for investigating election fraud.
Still, the allegations of voter fraud kept coming, including one alleging that an Italian defense contractor hacked a satellite to switch votes from Trump to President Joe Biden.
When the DOJ dismissed the theory as “absurd,” Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows forwarded the idea to Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, who evidently asked a high-ranking official based in Italy to follow up on the allegations.
“The ask for him was can you call out the defense attache Rome and find out what the heck’s going on? Because I’m getting all these weird crazy reports and probably the guy on the ground knows more than anything,” Miller said, according to a clip of his videotaped deposition.
As DOJ officials repeatedly dismissed Trump’s demands, he turned to one official who would forward a baseless investigation into his election fraud claims.
Trump was increasingly desperate as Jan. 6 approached
Thursday’s witnesses portrayed Trump as increasingly desperate to reverse the election results as Jan. 6 got closer, ramping up his pressure campaign through a series of conversations that would culminate in an explosive White House meeting on Jan. 3.
The officials met with Trump on Dec. 15, the day Barr announced his resignation, when Trump presented a bogus report claiming that voting machines in a Michigan county had a 68 percent error rate. (A DOJ investigation found the actual error rate to be .0063 percent).
By Dec. 21, Trump was airing his DOJ grievances publicly, urging his supporters to “fight” and calling on Justice officials “to finally step up.”
The next day he was introduced to Clark, a longtime environmental lawyer only recently tapped to lead the DOJ’s civil division. Clark vowed to lead Trump’s charge, drafting a letter to Georgia officials asking them to hold off on certification of their election results pending a DOJ investigation.
By Dec. 23, Rosen said, Trump “either called me or met with me virtually every day with one or two exceptions,” often bringing new allegations of voter fraud or making new requests.
But as the month came to a close, Kinzinger said, Trump “looked for another attorney general, his third in two weeks.”
In a Dec. 27 meeting, DOJ officials said Trump’s behavior was an “escalation of the earlier conversation.”
“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.
The pressure campaign exploded in the Jan. 3 meeting, with the committee revealing that the White House already considered Clark to be fulfilling the role. White House call logs shared by the committee reveal a conversation with “acting Attorney General Jeffrey Clark.”
DOJ leaders rallied against Clark
Anticipating that Trump might try to install Clark as acting attorney general in a last-ditch effort, Rosen, Donoghue and Engel said they worked fervently to head off the possibility.
Donoghue and Engel quickly decided that they would resign should Trump replace Rosen with Clark.
Ahead of what would turn out to be an explosive Jan. 3 meeting in the Oval Office, they reached out to a group of assistant attorneys general and found that most of the group would quickly follow suit if Clark took over the DOJ.
It turned out to be a key piece of leverage when Trump asked the three DOJ officials about what would happen if he replaced Rosen with his ally. Donoghue and Engel promised it would lead to a mass resignation beginning at the top of the department and potentially sweeping across the nation’s U.S. Attorneys’ offices.
“Jeff Clark will be left leading a graveyard,” Donoghue told Trump.
“All anyone is going to think is that you went through two attorneys general in two weeks until you found the environmental guy to sign this thing,” Engel added. “And so, the story is not going to be that the Department of Justice has found massive corruption that would have changed the result of the election. It’s going to be the disaster of Jeff Clark.”
Donoghue, Engel and White House lawyers present at the Jan. 3 meeting did not hold back when it became clear that they had to make their case against Clark and his plan to use the DOJ’s resources to undermine the election results.
“When he finished discussing what he planned on doing, I said good f—ing — excuse me, sorry — effing A-hole, congratulations,” White House lawyer Eric Herschmann said in a taped deposition with the committee. “You just admitted your first step or act you take as attorney general would be committing a felony.”
New figure emerges linking Trump’s campaign lawyer to internal DOJ scheme
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) revealed new details about an attorney at the Department of Justice who helped Clark draft a letter to state officials in Georgia requesting they delay certifying their votes while prosecutors investigated election fraud allegations.
Kenneth Klukowski began serving at the DOJ just 36 days before President Biden’s inauguration, joining Clark’s staff on December 15, 2020.
Cheney said that Klukowski had been working with Eastman, the legal adviser seeking to provide a justification for overturning the election, prior to joining the department and showed evidence suggesting their relationship continued while Klukowski was working under Clark.
She presented a Dec. 28 email from Trump ally Ken Blackwell requesting that then-Vice President Mike Pence receive a briefing from Klukowski and Eastman and warning “to make sure we don’t over expose Ken given his new position.”
“This 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.
Klukowski’s involvement in the draft Georgia letter had come out during the course of the committee’s investigation, but his apparent role as a bridge between Eastman and Clark was not previously known.