Former President Trump’s plan to overturn the 2020 election by installing a loyalist at the top of the Justice Department would have led to mass resignations at the agency and, ultimately, sparked an unprecedented constitutional crisis, former DOJ leaders testified Thursday on Capitol Hill.
Appearing before the House panel investigating last year’s attack on the Capitol, the former officials — acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, his deputy Richard Donoghue and Steven Engel, then head of the Office of Legal Counsel — described weeks of chaos inside the Trump White House as the president scrambled to reverse his electoral defeat and grew ever more frustrated they wouldn’t help him to do it.
In a crescendo of desperation leading up to Jan. 6, they testified, Trump pressed them to investigate a series of sensational fraud allegations — all of them examined and debunked — and when they refused to endorse his false claims of a stolen election, he tried to promote someone who would.
That figure was a mid-level lawyer at the DOJ, Jeffrey Clark, whose willingness to adopt Trump’s false narrative about widespread fraud had endeared him to the former president — so much so that Trump sought to install Clark as acting attorney general, replacing Rosen, in the final weeks of his presidency.
That campaign culminated in an explosive Jan. 3 meeting with Trump, his top lawyers and the DOJ officials in the Oval Office, where Trump threatened an ultimatum: Help reverse the election results or Clark would be promoted. All three figures threatened to quit.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, you’re talking about putting a man in that seat who has never tried a criminal case, who has 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,” Donoghue testified.
“It’s impossible. It’s absurd. It’s not going to happen, and it’s going to fail.”
Clark, a longtime environmental lawyer only recently tapped to lead DOJ’s civil division, was introduced to the president by Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), who accompanied Clark to the White House on Dec. 22, 2020, the day after Trump met with a group of Republican lawmakers to hone a strategy to “fight back against mounting evidence of voter fraud,” according to a tweet from then-chief of staff Mark Meadows.
The hearing, the fifth chapter in an ongoing series of public presentations, kicked off just hours after the Justice Department served a warrant at Clark’s home in suburban Virginia.
While the committee dished out a few bombshells — including new revelations about Republican lawmakers seeking presidential pardons for their role in keeping Trump in power — it largely pivoted away from its past format of heavy reliance on video clips from a wide suite of aides.
Instead, the panel afforded the three former officials a platform for hours to detail how close the country came to what Donoghue said would have “spiraled us into a constitutional crisis.”
Rosen detailed a barrage of requests from Trump, who began calling him even before he officially took over the role in the week between former Attorney General Bill Barr’s resignation announcement and departure.
“At one point he had raised the question of having a special counsel for election fraud. At a number of points, he raised requests that I meet with his campaign counsel, Mr. Giuliani. At one point, he raised whether the Justice Department would file a lawsuit in the Supreme Court. At a couple of junctures, there were questions about making public statements or about holding a press conference. At one of the later junctures was this issue of sending a letter to state legislatures in Georgia or other states,” Rosen said.
“There were different things raised at different parts or different intervals with the common theme being his dissatisfaction about what the Justice Department had done to investigate election fraud.”
As Trump’s requests were repeatedly rejected by DOJ leadership, he became increasingly fixated on Clark, whom Rep. Adam Kizinger (R-Ill.) describes as an “environmental lawyer with no experience relevant to leading the entire Department of Justice.”
The committee offered new details as to how and why Clark was suddenly brought into the president’s orbit. Namely, he was willing to endorse the claims of voter fraud that the other officials rejected.
“I do recall saying to people that somebody should be put in charge of the Justice Department who isn’t frightened of what’s going to be done to their reputation, because the Justice Department was filled with people like that,” Trump campaign attorney Rudy Giuliani told investigators in a pre-recorded deposition.
It also revealed that Trump had considered tapping campaign attorney Sidney Powell — who is now facing disbarment based on faulty voter fraud allegations she presented in court — as a special counsel for investigating election fraud.
Clark was nearly referred for contempt of Congress charges after he walked out of his first deposition with the committee. While he later returned, he largely pleaded the Fifth Amendment, leaving much of what is known about the episode from testimony of DOJ and White House officials.
Clark had a series of calls with Trump unbeknownst to Rosen and Donoghue, who he had promised to inform of his activity after they told him his White House contact was inappropriate.
But things came to a head on Jan. 3 when Clark told Rosen that Trump was going to promote him to acting attorney general. Clark then offered Rosen a chance to serve as his deputy.
“I wasn’t going to accept being fired by my subordinate,” Rosen said.
“I thought that was preposterous. I told him that was nonsensical and that there was no universe where I was going to do that to stay on and support someone else doing things that were not consistent with what I thought should be done. So I didn’t accept that offer, if I can put it that way.”
White House call logs revealed by the committee show Clark and Trump spoke multiple times that day, with a call after 4 p.m. logged as a conversation with “acting Attorney General Jeffrey Clark.”
Justice Department lawyers and even his own White House counsel were able to talk Trump off the plan, largely by berating Clark, noting they would call him when there was an “oil spill” or joking that even if he walked into the FBI director’s office, he wouldn’t know who Clark was.
But they also leaned heavily on the fact that nearly all the top assistant attorneys general at DOJ would join Donoghue in resigning.
“Jeff Clark will be left leading a graveyard,” Donoghue said, relaying Engel’s Jan. 3 message to Trump.
Engel said Trump would not get the voter fraud newsline he was hoping for.
“All anyone is going to think is that you went through two attorneys general in two weeks until you found the environmental guy to sign this thing. And so, the story is not going to be that the Department of Justice has found massive corruption that would have changed the result of the election. It’s going to be the disaster of Jeff Clark,” he said.
“And I think at that point Pat Cipollone said, ‘Yeah, this is a murder suicide pact, this letter.’”
White House lawyer Eric Herschmann, whose salty language-filled deposition has appeared throughout the hearings in numerous video clips, was also in attendance at the Oval Office meeting and told Clark his plan was illegal.
“When he finished discussing what he planned on doing, I said good f—ing — excuse me, sorry — effing A-hole, congratulations. You just admitted your first step or act you take as attorney general would be committing a felony,” he said.
“You’re clearly the right candidate for this job,” he added sarcastically.
Trump was ultimately dissuaded from installing Clark, and DOJ leadership left the Oval Office feeling relieved.
But just 90 minutes later, Donoghue got a call from Trump, this time raising a new unsubstantiated allegation of truckloads of shredded ballots.