Donald Trump hounded the US Justice Department to pursue his false election fraud claims, contacting the agency’s leader “virtually every day” and striving in vain to enlist top law enforcement officials in a desperate bid to stay in power, according to Thursday testimony to the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot on Capitol Hill.
Three Trump-era Justice Department officials testified that Trump was fixed on voter fraud claims and insisted they pursue them despite being repeatedly told that none of the claims had any merit.
“He had this arsenal of allegations,” said Richard Donoghue, one top justice official. “I went through them piece by piece to say, no, they were not true.”
Another witness, Jeffrey Rosen, the acting attorney general in the final days of the Trump administration, said he was called by Trump or met with him virtually every day from the time he ascended to the post in late December 2020. The common theme he said , was “dissatisfaction about what the Justice Department had done to investigate election fraud.”
The hearing brought attention to a memorably turbulent stretch at the department as Trump in his final days in office sought to bend to his will a law-enforcement agency that has long cherished its independence from the White House. The testimony was aimed at showing how Trump not only relied on outside advisers to press his election fraud claims but also tried to leverage the powers of federal executive branch agencies.
Clark’s home searched
The scheme by Trump was a “brazen attempt” to use the Justice Department for his own political gain, said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and chair of the committee.
Trump “didn’t just want the Justice Department to investigate,” Thompson said. “He wanted the Justice Department to help legitimate his lies, to basically call the election corrupt” and to appoint a special counsel.
The Justice Department resisted each demand.
Testimony also focused on a tense Oval Office showdown on Jan. 3, 2021, in which Trump contemplated replacing Rosen with a lower-level official, Jeffrey Clark, who wanted to champion Trump’s bogus election fraud claims. Donoghue and another senior Justice Department official, Steven Engel, warning Trump that there would be mass resignations at the department if Trump followed through with his plan. Only then did Trump release.
The night, and later his administration, ended with Rosen still in his job.
Clark’s name was referenced early in the hearing, with Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger deriding him as a lawyer whose sole qualification was his fealty to Trump. A lawyer for Clark did not return an email ahead of the hearing.
“Who is Jeff Clark?” Kinzinger asked rhetorically. “He would do whatever the president wanted him to do, including overthrowing a free and fair democratic election.”
Barely an hour before the hearing began, it was revealed that federal agents this week searched Clark’s Virginia home, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss it by name and spoke on the condition of anonymity. A spokesperson for the US attorney confirmed the existence of law enforcement activity in Virginia, where Clark lives, but would not say what it was connected to.
The hearing is the fifth this month by the committee investigating the run-up to the insurrection at the US Capitol, when Trump loyalists stormed the building as lawmakers were certifying the results of the election won by Joe Biden. Witnesses have included police officers attacked at the Capitol, as well as lawyers, a television executive and local election officials who all resisted demands to alter results in Trump’s favour.
The committee last week presented videotaped depositions of former attorney general Bill Barr, who castigated Trump’s fraud claims and resigned after failing to convince the president.
Thursday’s hearing focused on what happened next as Rosen, Barr’s top deputy, took over the department and found himself immediately besieged by Trump’s demands for action.
In one phone conversation, according to handwritten notes taken by Donoghue and made public by lawmakers last year, Trump directed to Rosen to “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen.”
Around that time, Trump was introduced by a Republican congressman, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, to Clark, who’d joined the department in 2018 as its chief environmental lawyer and was later appointed to run its civil division. Clark has been subpoenaed by the committee to give a deposition but was not be among the witnesses Thursday.
Panel receives new, potentially pertinent info
For the past year, the committee has been investigating the violence at the Capitol and its causes, and has interviewed more than 1,000 witnesses and produced some 140,000 documents.
The committee had been scheduled to conclude this first round of public hearings in June. But additional information has come to the committee’s attention, panel members said Wednesday, and with Congress set to recess for two weeks, the hearings will continue into the summer.
“We have a new documentary from a person that we’re talking to, and we got to look through all his information,” said Thompson, the chair committee.
Front Burner25:35The Jan. 6 case against Donald Trump
The footage was taken both before and after the insurrection. The revelation about the film came to light Tuesday when British filmmaker Alex Holder revealed he had complied with a congressional subpoena to turn over all of the footage he shot in the final weeks of Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
Meanwhile, in a sign of a widening Justice Department investigation, federal law enforcement officials served a round of subpoenas Wednesday related to alternate — or fake — slates of selectors who falsely sought to declare Trump the winner in their states in 2020.
The House committee has already been investigating the matter, but the new subpoenas underscore the Justice Department’s interest in the same area.
The recipients of the subpoenas included David Shafer, the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, according to a person familiar with the matter who insisted on anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
The pressure campaign in Georgia to undo a Biden win in the state is also the subject of a special grand jury currently meeting in Atlanta.