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Trump ignored lack of election fraud, pressured DOJ officials to ‘just say’ election was ‘corrupt’

Trump said to play ball and ‘leave the rest’ to him and GOP members, some of whom later requested pardons

Former Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel, former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and former Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel are sworn in Thursday before the House Jan. 6 select committee.
Former Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel, former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and former Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel are sworn in Thursday before the House Jan. 6 select committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

After President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, he was told repeatedly by top Justice Department officials that his claims of widespread voter fraud were unfounded — but he repeatedly ignored those facts and steadily ramped up a pressure campaign, arguing that the agency should “just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”

Trump pursued numerous avenues to cling to power, including asking numerous Justice Department officials to intervene and work to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. On Thursday, the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot and the weeks leading up to it showed instances of Trump urging DOJ leadership to publicly — and falsely — say there was election fraud, to file lawsuits toward that end and to appoint a special counsel focused on it.

When the officials — including Jeffrey Rosen, then the acting attorney general, and Richard Donoghue, then the acting deputy attorney general — refused to go along, Trump threatened to install a replacement for Rosen who would do his bidding.

On Dec. 27, 2020, Trump, according to Donoghue, became more adamant that the Justice Department needed to act on his election corruption allegations, which the DOJ official told Trump “had no merit.” Donoghue walked Trump through an allegation about fraud at State Farm Arena in Fulton County, Ga., and others, telling him explicitly that each one was “not true.”

Trump focused his attention on Jeffrey Clark, an assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources, who was willing to produce evidence of widespread fraud that was quickly proven to not exist. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., brought Clark to the White House to meet with Trump on Dec. 22, 2020, a meeting that Rosen wasn’t aware of. Furthermore, Clark did not tell him until after the fact, which was “not appropriate,” Rosen said. Perry encouraged then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, a former GOP congressman from North Carolina, to speak with Clark. 

Perry was one of several GOP lawmakers who have requested pardons, according to an interview given to the select panel by Cassidy Hutchinson, a former special assistant to Trump. She told the Jan. 6 committee that Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Mo Brooks, R-Ga., Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and Perry asked for presidential pardons in the wake of the Capitol attack.

Clark proposed a draft letter on Justice Department letterhead dated Dec. 28, 2020, saying the agency had “identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple States, including the State of Georgia.” The letter also recommended that Georgia’s legislature convene a special session to address the election allegations raised. The special session would be for the legislature to take “whatever action is necessary” to ensure one of the slates of electors cast on Dec. 14 would be accepted by Congress.

Further, the document said alternate slates of electors from Georgia and other states supporting Trump had been sent to Washington, D.C., to be counted by Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 6, 2021, when Congress met to count states’ Electoral College votes; Trump and others pressed Pence to ensure that count was never finished, and the matter was sent back to enough states to make Trump the winner. That letter, which was never sent, was authored by Clark and Ken Klukowski, a former White House lawyer.

Eric Herschmann, a former White House lawyer, said Clark’s plan to overturn the election was not legal: “Congratulations, you just admitted your first step or act you take as attorney general would be committing a felony,” Herschmann said, although Trump never formally made Clark the acting attorney general.

‘Great deal to lose’

Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of two Republicans on the nine-member select committee, led Thursday’s witness questioning and the panel’s replaying of events inside DOJ — and how Trump sought to install Clark, who was seen as someone who would heed any and all of his orders. Clark’s only qualification was that “he would do whatever the president wanted him to do, including overthrowing a free and a fair democratic election,” Kinzinger said.

On Jan. 3, 2021, Donoghue, Rosen, Clark, Trump, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and others were in the Oval Office for a meeting in which they discussed whether Trump should remove Rosen and replace him with Clark.

Trump asked what he had to lose, and Donoghue responded that Trump, DOJ and the country had a “great deal to lose.” Everyone there expressed “how damaging this would be” to the country if Clark was installed, Donoghue said.

“He’s not competent,” Donoghue said of Clark during the meeting, noting that Clark, who had never tried a criminal case or conducted a criminal investigation, should not lead the DOJ, which includes the FBI.

Trump grew increasingly agitated by DOJ’s inaction, witnesses said Thursday.

“Well, one thing we know is you, Rosen, you aren’t going to do anything,” Trump said, according to Rosen’s account, noting that he was not in agreement with Trump on his false claims of election fraud, “and this other guy might do something,” Trump said of Clark.

Nobody in the room supported Clark’s promotion, according to Donoghue. He, along with Steven Engel, former assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel, said they would resign if Clark was installed in the top job at Justice.

“Yeah, this is a murder-suicide pact,” Cipollone said, referring to the Clark letter.

“Jeff Clark would be left leading a graveyard,” Engel chimed in, referring to the mass resignations he contends would have occurred within DOJ had Clark ascended to the top spot. That comment had an impact on Trump, Donoghue said. Trump ultimately decided not to promote Clark to do his bidding.

Clark invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination with the Jan. 6 committee.

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