The fifth hearing of the House select committee investigating on January 6 focused Thursday on how then-President Trump tried to use the Justice Department to convince states and courts that there was widespread voter fraud.
Led by Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), alongside Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Vice President Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the hearing featured testimony from senior US Department officials. that detailed Trump’s exhaustive effort to get the department to embrace conspiracy theories on the internet and explained how close the president came to installing at the top of his ranks an official whose main qualification was his allegiance to Trump.
Here are some of the key findings from the audience:
Members of Congress from the Republican Party asked for forgiveness
Several Republican members of Congress asked for presidential pardons before Trump left office, moves that suggest the elected officials who embraced and perpetuated the so-called Big Lie had at least some concern that their involvement could get them into legal trouble.
In a Jan. 11 email obtained by the committee, Representative Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) recommended “pursuant to a request by Matt Gaetz” that Trump “grant general (all-purpose) pardons” to “all congressmen and senators who voted to reject the Arizona and Pennsylvania electoral college submissions.”
“The general tone was, ‘We could be prosecuted because we were defensive, you know, the president’s positions on these things,'” former White House attorney Eric Herschmann told investigators in recorded testimony. “The forgiveness that [Gaetz] was discussing the request was as broad as you can describe from the beginning of time to this day for any and all things.”
Altogether, Trump White House officials told the committee that the list of members of Congress who asked for a pardon included Representatives Brooks, Gaetz (R-Fla.), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas. ), Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) also spoke about pardons, according to Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. But Jordan never asked her about a pardon for himself, Hutchinson told investigators.
“It was more of an update on whether the White House would pardon members of Congress,” she said.
Trump’s “congress friends,” as Kinzinger described them, asked for forgiveness because “they knew that everything they did was a lie and was wrong.”
Just ‘say it was corrupt’, Trump told Justice Department
Trump apparently reached a point in his unsuccessful effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election where he didn’t care whether the Justice Department was able to corroborate any of his campaign’s allegations of fraud. He just wanted the department to create enough doubt in the election to allow his Republican Party allies in Congress to do their part to keep him in office.
Trump requested a meeting with Justice Department leaders Jeffrey Rosen and Richard Donoghue on December 15, 2020, after learning that Rosen would become acting attorney general with Donoghue as his deputy. Rosen testified that Trump called or met with him “pretty much every day, with one or two exceptions, like Christmas Day,” between December 23, 2020, and January 3, 2021.
Testifying at Thursday’s hearing, Rosen and Donoghue said Trump became increasingly convinced that the Justice Department was not doing its job. They said they had repeatedly steered him away from online conspiracy theories and requests to appoint a special election fraud attorney, meet with his campaign attorney, file a lawsuit in the Supreme Court and send a letter to state legislatures alleging fraud in the election.
When Donoghue informed the president that the Justice Department could not change the outcome of an election, he said Trump responded quickly.
“That’s not what I’m asking you to do,” Trump said, according to Donoghue, who took notes during the conversation. “What I’m asking is that you say you were corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen. (…) We have an obligation to tell people that this was an illegal and corrupt election”.
Of course, the election was free and fair, and Joe Biden won the electoral college vote, along with the national popular vote by millions.
Trump came incredibly close to naming an environmental lawyer as interim attorney general, but a group of White House and Justice Department officials eventually convinced him. After the attorney, Jeffrey Clark, told Rosen that he had offered and accepted the president’s offer to serve as interim attorney general, Rosen requested a meeting with the president.
This meeting on Sunday, January 3, 2021, in the Oval Office was attended by Rosen, Donoghue, Clark, Assistant Atty. Gen. Steven Engel, Herschmann and two attorneys from the White House Council Office. Their objective was to determine whether there should be a change in leadership in the department.
Clark told the room that he would conduct investigations that would uncover widespread fraud if he took over the department and that he would submit a letter he drafted claiming the Justice Department was “investigating various irregularities in the 2020 election” and found “significant concerns that it may have impacted the result of the election in several states”.
“I said, ‘Well, [expletive]. Congratulations,’” Herschmann told investigators. “’You’ve just admitted that your first step or act as attorney general would be to commit a crime. … You are clearly the right candidate for this job.’”
In fact, Department of Justice officials testified that Clark had no support inside the Oval Office.
“I stated that Jeff Clark is not even competent to serve as attorney general,” Donoghue told investigators. “He was never a criminal lawyer. He never conducted a criminal investigation in his life. He has never been in front of a grand jury, let alone a jury.”
When Clark praised his experience with complicated appeals and civil and environmental litigation, Donoghue said, “That’s right. You are an environmental advocate. How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.”
White House attorney Pat Cipollone described the letter Clark wanted the Justice Department to send as a “murder and suicide pact” that would “harm everyone who touches it,” Donoghue recalls.
Herschmann called Clark’s proposal “crazy” and joked that “‘the only thing you know about environmental and electoral challenges is that they both start with E, and based on your answers tonight, I’m not even sure you know that.” ‘”.
Justice Department officials told the president they would resign if Clark was chosen to lead the department, and said a wave of other department leaders would follow.
“Within 24, 48, 72 hours, you could have hundreds and hundreds of resignations from the leadership of your entire Department of Justice because of your actions,” Donoghue told the president. “What will that say about you?”
“No one is going to read this letter,” Engel told Trump. “All everyone will think is that you went through two attorneys general in two weeks until you found the environment guy to sign this thing. And so the story is not going to be that the Justice Department found massive corruption that would have changed the outcome of the election. It’s going to be Jeff Clark’s disaster.”
Donoghue intervened, noting that, “Steve [Engel] pointed out that Jeff Clark would be left leading a graveyard, and that comment clearly had an impact on the president: Leadership would disappear; Jeff Clark would be left leading a cemetery.”
Perry pushed Clark for attorney general
Perry, Greene and other members of Congress met with Trump in the Oval Office on December 21, 2020. The next day, according to White House visitor records, Perry brought Clark into the White House. Later, Perry told a local news station that Trump had asked Clark to introduce himself, so he complied.
Two days later, Rosen began his first official day as acting attorney general. He recalled a “peculiar reference” during a Christmas Eve call with Trump that lasted about 15 or 20 minutes.
In that call, Trump went on to claim that the election was stolen and that there was widespread fraud. Trump said the Justice Department should do more and asked in passing if he knew Clark or who he was.
“I told him yes, and then the conversation continued,” Rosen said. “But when I hung up, I was curious about how the president knows Mr. Clark? I did not know that they had already met or that the president was involved with any of the issues in the civil division.”
Clark was acting head of the civilian division and head of the Department of Justice’s environmental and natural resources division, neither of whom had any role in the election fraud investigation.
In an affidavit, Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani told investigators, “I remember telling people that someone should be put in charge of the Department of Justice who is not afraid of what will be done to their reputation, because justice has been filled. with people like that.”
Hutchinson, Meadows’ aide, told investigators that Perry “wanted Mr. Clark, Mr. Jeff Clark, take over the Department of Justice.”
On December 26, 2020, Clark was “apologetic” and “contrite” in a meeting with Rosen and Donoghue, telling them that he would notify them if anyone asked him to attend another meeting like this.
That same day, however, Perry was pushing Meadows in text messages to elevate Clark in the Justice Department.
Donoghue warned that Clark’s draft memo “could have tremendous constitutional, political and social ramifications for the country,” and he told Clark. “What you are doing is nothing less than the United States Department of Justice meddling in the outcome of a presidential election.”
In what was described as a “contentious” meeting between Clark and the department’s two top officials, Clark continued to press their positions, including calling witnesses and conducting investigations on his own.
At the end of a meeting with Trump, the president said people told him he should “get rid of” Rosen and Donoghue and promote Clark.
“Maybe something will finally be done,” Trump said, according to Donoghue, who said he responded this way: “Mr. President, you must have the leadership you desire. But understand that the US Department of Justice works on facts, evidence, and laws, and that’s not going to change. So you can have whatever leadership you want, but the department’s position is not going to change.”