By ERIC TUCKER
WASHINGTON (AP) – Donald Trump has hounded the Justice Department to pursue his false allegations of voter fraud, vainly striving to recruit top law enforcement officers in his desperate bid to stay in power, and relenting only when warned in the Oval Office of mass resignations, second to testify Thursday to the House panel investigating the January 6, 2021 riot on Capitol Hill.
Three Trump-era Justice Department officials reported persistent insistence from the president, including day-by-day guidelines to pursue baseless claims that the election won by Democrat Joe Biden had been stolen. They said they set aside all of Trump’s demands because there was no evidence of widespread fraud, and then joined forces as the president pondered whether to replace the department’s top attorney with a lower-level official willing to help undo the results.
The hearing, the fifth this month by the panel investigating the Capitol Hill attack, made clear that Trump’s broad lobbying campaign was aimed not just at state election officials but also at his own executive branch agencies. Witnesses solemnly described the president’s constant contact as an extraordinary breach of protocol, especially as the Justice Department has long prized its independence from the White House and eschewed partisan politics in investigative decisions.
“When you damage our fundamental institutions, it’s not easy to repair them,” said Jeffrey Rosen, acting attorney general in the final days of the Trump administration. “So I thought this was a really important issue, to try and make sure the Department of Justice can stay on track.”
The hearing focused on a memorably tumultuous period in the department following the departure of Attorney General William Barr in December 2020, who drew the ire of Trump with his public proclamation that there was no evidence of fraud that could have altered the results of the investigations. elections. He was replaced by his vice president, Rosen, who said that for a period of approximately two weeks after taking office, he met or was called by Trump virtually every day. The common theme, he said, was “dissatisfaction with what the Justice Department has done to investigate election fraud.”
Trump presented the department with an “arsenal of allegations,” none of them true, said Richard Donoghue, another senior official who testified on Thursday. Even so, Trump urged the department at various points to seize voting machines, appoint a special attorney to investigate allegations of fraud, and simply declare the election corrupt.
The department did none of these things.
“For the department to insert itself into the political process in this way, I think it would have serious consequences for the country that could very well lead to a constitutional crisis,” Donoghue said.
The testimony made it clear that Trump nevertheless found a willing ally within the department, in the form of an environmental enforcement attorney who became the head of the agency’s civilian division. The lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, was introduced to Trump in late December by a Republican congressman and has positioned himself as willing to defend the election fraud allegations. At a controversial Oval Office meeting on the night of January 3, 2021, just three days before the election, Trump toyed with replacing Rosen with Clark, but backed off amid threats of mass layoffs.
Clark’s name was mentioned early and often in the hearing, with Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican and committee member, deriding him as a lawyer whose only qualification was his allegiance to Trump. A lawyer for Clark did not return messages seeking comment.
“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.”
Just an hour before the hearing began, it was revealed that federal agents had searched Clark’s Virginia home on Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition that anonymity. It was unclear what the agents were looking for.
The latest hearing focused less on the violence on Capitol Hill than on Trump’s legal pressure to undo the election results. In a telephone conversation, according to handwritten notes made by Donoghue and highlighted at Thursday’s hearing, Trump directed Rosen to “just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and congressmen.”
At that time, Trump was introduced by a Republican congressman, Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, to Clark, who joined the department in 2018 as its lead environmental attorney and was later appointed to run its civilian division. Clark was subpoenaed by the committee but was not among the witnesses on Thursday. On Thursday, lawmakers aired a video deposition that showed him repeatedly invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Perry’s name came up later in the hearing, when the committee played recorded statements from Trump aides saying he and several other Republican members of Congress had asked the president for pardon to protect them from criminal prosecution, the testimony revealed.
Perry and fellow Republicans Andy Biggs of Arizona, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas have been involved in efforts to overturn the voter count or present “false voters”. Gaetz tweeted on Thursday that the hearing was a “political secondary aspect”.
The situation came to a head on Sunday, January 3, 2021, when Clark informed Rosen in a private meeting at the Department of Justice that Trump wanted to replace him with Clark as acting attorney general. Rosen, resisting the idea of being fired by a subordinate, testified that he contacted senior Justice Department officials to bring them together. He also requested a meeting at the White House.
That night, he showed up at the White House for what would be an hours-long dramatic meeting centering on whether Trump should follow through with his plans for a radical change of leadership in the department. There was also Steven Engel, another senior Justice Department official and Rosen ally who testified on Thursday, and Clark.
At the start of the meeting, Rosen testified on Thursday: “The president turned to me and said, ‘The only thing we know is that you, Rosen, are not going to do anything. You don’t even agree with the election fraud allegations and this guy at least can do something.”
Donoghue made it clear to Engel that he would resign if Trump replaced Rosen with Clark. Trump asked Engel if he would do the same, and Engel replied that he would, because he would have no choice.
The president backed off. The night, and later his Republican administration, ended with Rosen still at the top of the Justice Department.
Donoghue also tried to dissuade Trump from believing that Clark had the legal basis to do what the president wanted, as he was not the department’s criminal prosecutor.
“And he kind of snapped back by saying, ‘Well, I’ve done a lot of very complicated appeals and civil litigation and environmental litigation and things like that,’” Donoghue said. “And I 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.’”
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, Lisa Mascaro, Mary Clare Jalonick, and Farnoush Amiri in Washington contributed to this report.
For full coverage of the January 6 hearings, visit https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege.