Former President Trump nearly replaced the head of the Department of Justice with a supporter of his fraud theories after the acting attorney general refused to comply with his persistent demands to falsely claim there was evidence of fraud in the 2020 election, the House panel investigating the Capitol insurrection detailed in its hearing Thursday.
Using testimony from three former top Justice Department officials, the committee laid out Trump’s unremitting pressure on department leaders as he demanded they lend credence to his unsubstantiated claims of fraud in order to subvert the will of voters and keep him in office.
“He hoped that law enforcement officials would give the appearance of legitimacy to his lies so he and his allies had some veneer of credibility when they told the country that the election was stolen,” said the panel’s chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).
A declaration from Justice Department officials that fraud had taken place in the election would have cast serious doubt on the results and given Republican-controlled state legislatures a pretense for appointing alternate presidential electors to reverse President Biden’s victory, he said.
“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, ”Thompson said.
On Thursday, the committee also revealed the names of multiple Republican members of Congress who asked for presidential pardons from Trump for their actions surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, including Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania.
Former acting Atty. Gen. Jeffrey Rosen, former acting Deputy Atty. Gen. Richard Donoghue and former Asst. Atty. Gen. Steven Engel testified before the committee that Trump had asked the Justice Department in December 2020 to file legal briefs supporting election lawsuits brought by his campaign and allies.
Testimony on Thursday also detailed Trump’s request that Rosen appoint a special counsel to investigate election fraud, though Justice Department investigations had concluded there was no evidence of fraud on a scale that would change the election’s outcome.
“Between Dec. 23  and Jan. 3 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 as we understood them,” he said.
The former president also pressured the Justice Department to challenge election results in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in the Supreme Court, the witnesses said. Engel and the department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which he led, ruled there was no legal basis for such lawsuits.
The committee focused on a handful of meetings in late December 2020 and early January 2021 in which Trump, at Perry’s prompting, considered replacing Rosen with Jeffrey Clark, head of the Justice Department’s civil division, 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 Donoghue’s notes on the conversation.
Donoghue said the Dec. 27 conversation was “an escalation” of the pressure Trump had been putting on the department to intervene. After noticing many people were whispering in the president’s ear, Donoghue said, he tried to be extremely blunt with Trump, and told him there was nothing to any of the claims he was repeating.
“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 his electronic devices during the search, according to Clark’s current employer, Russ Vought, former director of the Office of Management and Budget under Trump.
The panel also discussed a draft letter Clark asked Rosen and Donoghue to sign on Dec. 28, 2020, in which it was proposed that the Justice Department 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 Biden’s victory there, suggesting the Legislature could choose a new slate of electors who would back Trump over Biden. Clark indicated similar letters outlining allegations of fraud would be sent to officials in other states. Rosen and Donoghue refused to add their signatures to the document.
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. ”
Nevertheless, Clark began calling witnesses and conducting investigations of his own, looking into fringe theories of fraud, Donoghue said.
Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) Said 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, who was behind the theory that the vice president could reject states’ electors or send results back to the states for more consideration.
At Thursday’s hearing, Cheney presented a Dec. 28 email recommending that Eastman and Klukowski brief Vice President Mike 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 that nothing improper had been found with the machines, and that the Department of Homeland Security had already looked into and debunked fraud claims involving election machines.
“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.
White House logs show frequent calls between Clark and Trump starting at 7 am Jan. 3. The logs note that Clark was referred to as “acting attorney general” by 4:19 pm that day, hours before Rosen met with Trump in the Oval Office to discuss the change.
Rosen, Donoghue, Engel, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Deputy White House Counsel Pat Philbin met with Trump and Clark in the Oval Office for several hours that evening.
Donoghue said he felt obligated to point out to the president that Clark’s background in environmental law didn’t prepare him to run the department.
“I said,‘ Mr. President, you’re talking about putting a man in that seat who has never tried a criminal case. Who’s never conducted a criminal investigation. He’s telling you that he’s going to take charge of the department – 115,000 employees, including the entire FBI – and turn the place on a dime and conduct nationwide criminal investigations that will produce results in a matter of days. It’s impossible. It’s absurd. It’s not going to happen and it’s going to fail, ‘”Donoghue said.
Those at the meeting warned Trump that the entire leadership of the Justice Department and the White House counsel’s office would resign en masse if he installed Clark to lead the Justice Department. Donoghue said he emphasized that U.S. attorneys and department employees around the country might follow suit, putting the agency on the brink of collapse.
“I said,‘ Mr. President, within 24, 48, 72 hours, you could have hundreds and hundreds of resignations and [lose] the leadership of your entire Justice Department because of your actions. What’s that going to say about you? ‘”Donoghue said at the hearing, noting that Engel warned Trump that Clark would be“ leading a graveyard. ”
Donoghue told the committee that Cipollone referred to the letter Clark wanted to send to several states as “a murder-suicide pact.”
“It’s going to damage everyone who touches it,” Cipollone added, according to Donoghue. “And we should have nothing to do with that letter. “
White House lawyer Eric Herschmann said in a deposition that he had cautioned Clark against acting on the letter should he become attorney general.
“Congratulations. You just admitted your first act as attorney general would be committing a felony, ”he said.
Rosen said in his deposition that after that Jan. 3 meeting, he did not speak to Trump again until Jan. 19, not even as the department was coordinating with Pence and congressional leaders during the Jan. 6 attack.
The committee also provided evidence of its allegation in the first hearing that multiple Republican members of Congress had asked Trump for pardons before and after Jan. 6. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama sent an email to the White House five days after the attack asking for a pardon for himself and all 147 Republicans who had voted to overturn the election.
The panel also showed parts of video depositions from White House staff members, who said that Perry, Gaetz, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Louie Gohmert of Texas had asked Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows for pardons, and that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia had asked the White House counsel’s office for one.
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.
The next hearings will focus on domestic terrorism and extremism, and what Trump was doing in the 187 minutes between the start of the insurrection and when he called on his supporters to go home, Thompson told reporters after the hearing.
“At this point with the hearings we’ve had, we think we have done a good job of telling the story as to what happened,” he said. “We would love to have former Vice President Pence’s testimony. We have sought it – we have talked to his attorneys in the past – but we’re moving on with the work. ”
Times staff writer Anumita Kaur contributed to this report.