Former officials working in the Trump-era Department of Justice painted a grim and damning picture of the agency in the weeks after the 2020 election: a former president who wanted to install an attorney general who would elevate his unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and a revolt of mass resignations if Trump followed through with the decision.
In its fifth hearing, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on Thursday shared some of its most explosive findings yet. Lawmakers explored the efforts within the White House as well as Congress to convince the Justice Department to get involved, despite top DOJ officials denying evidence of widespread fraud. Most notably, the panel shared taped testimony that described half a dozen GOP members and Trump allies seeking presidential pardons.
Attorneys general serve in a president’s Cabinet, but the Justice Department is expected to operate independently from an administration. During his time in office, Trump faced frequent accusations of a politicized DOJ. The committee sought to hammer home that criticism as witnesses shared how Trump wanted them to use their legal authority to interfere and how they prevented the former president from using DOJ as a political arm of the White House.
They recounted an Oval Office meeting three days before the Jan. 6 riots where the former president floated firing then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and replacing him with another DOJ official, Jeffrey Clark. The idea was met with fury from top aides at the department, who threatened to resign if Trump acted on it.
“Jeff Clark will be left leading a graveyard,” Richard Donoghue, former acting deputy attorney general, testified before the select committee. He described Clark as “completely incompetent,” and Donoghue told Trump he’d immediately resign if Clark took over, as would most top staffers.
Clark was a central focus of Thursday’s hearing and an integral part of the panel’s investigation. Hours earlier, NBC News reported that federal law enforcement searched Clark’s home in Virginia on Wednesday. Committee members and witnesses described him as an environmental lawyer with no experience in conducting criminal investigations or trying a criminal case.
The committee also highlighted a letter drafted by Clark from Dec. 28, 2020, that said there were “significant concerns” about fraud and called on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and other GOP state lawmakers to convene a special session to invalidate the results, which showed President Joe Biden narrowly winning.
“Who is Jeff Clark? An environmental lawyer with no experience relevant to leading the entire Department of Justice,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of two Republicans on the panel. “What was his only qualification? That he would do whatever the president wanted him to do, including overthrowing a free and fair democratic election.”
Rosen took over the Justice Department on an acting basis after Attorney General Bill Barr resigned from the administration in December 2020. Barr has been a prominent witness for investigators and his taped testimony has been played every hearing.
Barr denied widespread claims of voter fraud a month after the election. And in his interview with the Jan. 6 committee, he said that Trump’s unsubstantiated narrative of fraud prompted his resignation. Barr described his former boss as becoming “detached from reality if he really believes this stuff” and called the claims “bull—.”
Rosen said he spoke or met with Trump almost every day between Dec. 23, 2020, and Jan. 3, 2021. He said the former president made a number of requests, including the possibility of naming a special counsel to investigate voter fraud, a meeting between Rosen and former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and the department filing lawsuits in the Supreme Court. All were dismissed by Rosen.
“The common element of all of this was the president expressing his dissatisfaction that the Justice Department … had not done enough to investigate election fraud,” Rosen testified on Thursday. “The Justice Department declined all of those requests because we did not think they were appropriate based on the facts and law as we understood them.”
Donoghue said he was confronted with similar requests from the former president. He detailed a two-hour call with Trump on Dec. 27, 2020, calling it an “escalation” of previous conversations about the fraud claims.
“I wanted to try to cut through the noise,” Donoghue said, adding that he was being “very blunt … to make it clear to the president these allegations were simply not true.”
The committee featured 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 largely focused on efforts from Trump and others at the White House to intervene, several pro-Trump Republican lawmakers were also in the spotlight on Thursday.
In interviews with former White House staffers and lawyers, the committee shared which GOP lawmakers asked for presidential pardons: Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. Brooks said Thursday he’s open to appear before the committee if certain criteria are met like a deposition at a public hearing.
Perry specifically played a significant role at the hearing. He’s a close ally of Trump who was subpoenaed by the committee, though Perry has objected to 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 behest of the president” where he mainly discussed allegations that Pennsylvania’s secretary of state certified more votes than were cast.
But as the three witnesses – including former assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel Steven Engel – said on Thursday, most DOJ officials weren’t going to bend to the whims of the former president and get involved in personal and political matters that bore no real evidence.
“There’s obviously been a lot of misinformation out there, but to hear it from Republican appointees, people appointed by Donald Trump, how he tried to use the Department of Justice as yet another prong to overcome the will of the people, it was powerful,” Kinzinger, who’s retiring this term, said at a press conference after the hearing. “I hope that people can look at that and understand, again, the attempt was to take away your vote – no matter who you voted for.”