‘Just say the election was corrupt’: Trump pressure on Justice Department detailed
President Donald J. Trump walks with Presidential Advisor Ivanka Trump and his son Donald J. Trump Jr. to board Air Force One at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Ga. Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2021, for their return flight to Joint Base Andrews, Md. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)
President Donald Trump sought to use the U.S. Justice Department to create the illusion of a legitimate investigation into the validity of the 2020 election results, the Jan. 6 committee and former Justice Department leaders said Thursday in the panel’s fifth hearing this month.
In the weeks between Election Day 2020 and Jan. 6, 2021, the date of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the former president implored Justice Department officials to “just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and Republican congressmen,” according to former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue.
Several Republican House members appeared willing to play the role Trump proposed for them, publicly endorsing the president’s unfounded claims of a stolen election and privately strategizing about how to overturn the result.
At least five, including Andy Biggs of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, would later seek pardons for their roles in the scheme to overturn the election, a former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said in a revelation at the end of the U.S. House panel hearing. Perry, who had been identified as a pardon-seeker at an earlier hearing, has denied he asked for a pardon.
The panel presented evidence that Trump mounted an intense pressure campaign against top officials at the Justice Department in late December 2020 and early January 2021, seeking to have them launch a public investigation into nonexistent voter fraud in key swing states.
Failing to get DOJ officials to act, Trump threatened a major shakeup to install an environmental lawyer with no criminal experience at the top of the department, solely to advance his claims of voter fraud.
Trump decided against that move at the last minute as it became clear it would not be effective.
“It was a brazen attempt to use the U.S. Justice Department to advance the president’s personal political agenda,” Chairman Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, said in an opening statement.
Trump wanted the department to act because it would give legitimacy to his claims that the election was stolen from him, the panel said.
In a Dec. 27 call with acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and Donoghue, Trump was not interested in the actual results of a DOJ investigation, Donoghue said.
Rosen told Trump the department could not change the outcome of an election.
“He responded very quickly,” Donoghue said. “And he said, essentially, ‘That’s not what I’m asking you to do. What I’m asking you to do is to say it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.’”
The panel showed handwritten notes of Donoghue’s from the call that quoted Trump saying the same thing.
Trump’s Justice Department meddling centered on a draft letter acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark wrote that was to be sent to legislative leaders in Georgia, said committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican.
Other letters were prepared for other states, she added, though she did not name them.
The letter claimed that a federal DOJ investigation found significant fraud, possibly sufficient to reverse Trump’s loss in the state. The letter urged state lawmakers to convene and approve a slate of fake electors who would then cast their votes for Trump instead of the actual winner of the state, Joe Biden.
“Had this letter been released on official Department of Justice letterhead, it would have falsely informed all Americans, including those who might be inclined to come to Washington on January 6, that President Trump’s election fraud allegations were likely very real,” Cheney said.
Clark wrote the letter with three signature lines: for himself, acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and Donoghue. Rosen and Donoghue refused to sign the letter, and it was never sent. They both also appeared before the committee Thursday to detail the pressure Trump and allies put on the department to create the illusion of wrongdoing in the election.
In a taped deposition with the committee, Clark invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 125 times, committee member Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said.
In a “heated” Jan. 3 Oval Office meeting with Rosen, Donoghue, Clark, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel Steven Engel and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, Trump floated the idea of replacing Rosen with Clark because of Rosen’s unwillingness to legitimize his fraud claims.
Rosen had taken over from Attorney General Bill Barr, who investigated Trump’s fraud claims but found nothing substantive and argued with Trump about the claims’ validity. Barr resigned Dec. 23.
Clark had been angling for the job since around that time. He visited the White House with Pennsylvania’s Perry on Dec. 22.
Perry later told a local TV news station that Trump had asked him to introduce Clark to him. Clark is from Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer has reported.
The panel also showed texts from Perry, the leader of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, to Meadows, who held the same role as a House member from North Carolina before taking the White House job. In the texts, Perry appeared to advocate for elevating Clark within the department.
Clark’s sole qualification was that he would take orders from Trump to work to overturn the election, Kinzinger said.
“President Trump didn’t take no for an answer,” Kinzinger said. “He didn’t accept it from Attorney General Barr, and he wouldn’t accept it from Mr. Rosen, either. So he looked for another attorney general, his third in two weeks. He needed to find someone who was willing to ignore the facts.”
In the Oval Office meeting, Donoghue argued that Clark, an environmental attorney who had never tried a criminal case or led a criminal investigation, was not competent to hold the position. Clark objected, saying he had handled complex environmental litigation.
“And I said, ‘That’s right, you’re an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill,’” Donoghue testified he said in the Oval Office meeting.
Cipollone also argued against sending the Georgia letter, calling it “a murder-suicide pact” because it would “damage everyone who touches it,” Donoghue testified.
Donoghue and Engel both threatened to quit if Trump replaced Rosen with Clark. They said other assistant attorneys general would as well and Clark would have no help leading the department.
In addition to what they said was improper ethically about the Justice Department taking orders from the president’s campaign, Clark lacked the credibility and experience to effectively lead the department, Donoghue argued. Clark could not close an effective fraud investigation in the three days before the election would be certified, Donoghue said.
Trump then decided against the plan, Donoghue said.
Near the close of the hearing, the panel played parts of a taped deposition of Cassidy Hutchinson, who was an aide to Meadows. Hutchinson said GOP members of Congress reached out to the White House chief of staff seeking pardons related to planning to overturn the election.
Hutchinson named Biggs, Gaetz, Perry, Mo Brooks of Alabama and Louie Gohmert of Texas as having sought pardons directly from Meadows.
In a written statement, Perry flatly denied Hutchinson’s account.
“I stand by my statement that I never sought a Presidential pardon for myself or other Members of Congress,” he said. “At no time did I speak with Miss Hutchinson, a White House scheduler, nor any White House staff about a pardon for myself or any other Member of Congress — this never happened.”
The panel also produced a Jan. 11 email from Brooks to the White House asking that all members who voted against certifying Biden’s election victory be pardoned. Brooks said that Trump asked him to send the email and that it was “also pursuant to a request from Matt Gaetz.”
Eric Herschmann, a Trump White House attorney, said in a taped deposition that Gaetz sought an extremely broad pardon “for any and all things.”
Gaetz had been seeking a pardon since early December, Hutchinson said, adding she didn’t know why.
John McEntee, the former White House director for presidential pardons, said in a taped deposition that Gaetz told him he had sought a pardon.
Gaetz and Brooks both pushed for “a blanket pardon” for members involved in a Dec. 21 meeting, and “a handful of other members,” Hutchinson said.
Asked if the accounts of Gaetz seeking a pardon were true, a spokesman sent a tweet from Gaetz criticizing the committee but not addressing the pardon question.
U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, inquired with Meadows’ office about the blanket pardon, Hutchinson said.
A tweet from the House Judiciary Republicans’ account, which Jordan leads, said Hutchinson’s testimony that Jordan “talked about congressional pardons, but he never asked me for one” was “100% fake news.”
Asked if U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green sought a pardon, Hutchinson said she had “heard” that the Georgia Republican sought a pardon from the White House counsel’s office, but didn’t contact Hutchinson about it.
“Saying ‘I heard’ means you don’t know,” Green tweeted following the hearing. “Spreading gossip and lies is exactly what the January 6th Witch Hunt Committee is all about.”
A spokesman for Biggs did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The committee has not made any official statement about its upcoming schedule, but Thursday’s hearing was expected to be the last until after the July 4 holiday.
Future hearings, “in coming weeks,” will focus on Trump’s direction of violence toward the Capitol in an effort to stop the certification of the presidential election, Thompson said Thursday.
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