A Senate Judiciary Committee report released on Thursday recommended that Congress strengthen oversight of White House contacts with the Justice Department, as it aired new details about former President Donald Trump’s actions in the wake of his 2020 election defeat.
That includes legislation to require the Justice Department keep a log of contacts with White House officials, and give the department’s watchdog regular access to that log and a path to notify lawmakers about any “urgent concern.”
Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said the interim report and previously unreleased testimony, at 394 pages, shows just how close the United States came to a constitutional crisis when Trump relentlessly tried to enlist the Justice Department’s help to overturn the election results.
“Donald Trump would have shredded the Constitution to stay in power,” Durbin said in a release announcing the report. “We must never allow this unprecedented abuse of power to happen again.”
The DOJ and the White House have policies for contact with each other on specific law enforcement matters to help ensure that improper political pressure does not influence — or appear to influence — criminal investigations and prosecutions.
The report concludes that DOJ official Jeffrey Clark, then the Senate-confirmed assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources and the acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Division, “blatantly violated” those policies by having unauthorized meetings with Trump.
Even after a DOJ official admonished Clark for an unauthorized meeting in the Oval Office, and even though Clark assured DOJ officials that he would not meet with the president again, “Clark brazenly violated the policy at least once more,” the report states.
Then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, a former House lawmaker from North Carolina, repeatedly violated the White House version of that policy, the report found. The policy requires that communications with DOJ about pending or contemplated investigations or cases be only with the president, vice president or certain White House lawyers.
Meadows violated the policy each time he contacted then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to request that DOJ look into election fraud allegations, whether in Georgia, New Mexico or elsewhere, the report states.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and White House Counsel Dana Remus updated and reissued DOJ and White House versions of the contact policies in July. But the report concludes that a stricter oversight regime is needed, particularly because an attorney general does not have the authority to fire a Senate-confirmed DOJ official who violates it.
One bill already proposes that the Justice Department keep a log of contacts that would be shared with the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General every six months. But the report says that “would not have alerted OIG or Congress of Clark’s violations until well after they occurred.”
The report recommends that Congress instead set up an immediate “urgent concern” transmission system to the Senate and House Judiciary committees, similar to the one in place for whistleblower complaints in the intelligence community for the House and Senate Intelligence committees.
Congress also could expand the jurisdiction of the DOJ inspector general to cover matters of attorney misconduct, the report states, and similar legislation has previously advanced out of committee on a bipartisan basis.
The report did not make findings or recommendations concerning possible criminal liability for actions taken in the wake of the November 2020 election, because the “investigation is not yet complete and more documents and interviews are still being pursued.”
But the report suggests that Congress consider legislation to clarify criminal statutes on obstruction of justice. One prohibits the obstruction of proceedings before departments, agencies and committees, and another prohibits corruptly obstructing, influencing or impeding any official proceeding.
The committee report recommends amendments to clarify that those laws apply to state proceedings related to federal elections.