WASHINGTON (CN) — Former President Donald Trump's relentless efforts to influence the Department of Justice into promoting baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election, and the refusal by former senior department officials to go along with his scheme, took center stage Thursday afternoon.
Lawmakers investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol held their fifth hearing with a focus on Trump's efforts to influence Justice Department officials and use the department for partisan purposes.
Trump attempted to get the department to publicly state there was fraud in the 2020 presidential election and he threatened to dismantle department leadership who rejected his lies.
The then-president pushed for the department to work in tandem with his campaign to contest the election results in court and tried to get conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell appointed as a special counsel to investigate claims of voter fraud that had no basis for existing.
Trump’s pressure also included a request that Justice Department officials send letters to six state legislatures, urging them to alter the election results in their states, which were legitimately won by Joe Biden.
Despite being told several times by attorneys, Justice Department staff and members of his administration that his allegations of fraud were baseless, Trump continued to back the claims and urge the very agency responsible for enforcing federal laws to do the same.
“Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican Congressmen,” Trump told former Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, according to Donoghue’s notes from a meeting with the president.
Senior officials in the department refused to give in to Trump’s requests.
Both Donoghue and former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen evaluated and publicly rejected Trump's baseless claims of election fraud, even as the president urged the department to publicly contest the election results.
Rosen came into office after Attorney General William Barr, who condemned Trump's conspiracies about the election, resigned in December 2020.
Barr had a Nov. 23 meeting with Trump in which he told the then-president that the Department of Justice did not have a role in pedaling his claims of election fraud and that Trump’s claims were “not meritorious.”
He suggested to the committee that if the department had not evaluated and rebutted Trump’s election lies, Trump would not have willingly left the White House.
“I am not sure we would have had a transition at all," Barr said in recorded testimony.
When Barr resigned, Trump turned his pressure tactics on Rosen, threatening to fire his new attorney general if he didn't follow his lead on the election fraud conspiracy theory.
Trump considered replacing Rosen with DOJ environmental attorney Jeffrey Clark, and Representative Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania, also lobbied for Clark to ascend to department leadership.
Perry was one of six Republican lawmakers who the committee revealed sought presidential pardons in the aftermath of Jan. 6. Former Meadows aide Cassidy Hutchinson told the committee that Representatives Matt Gaetz, Mo Brooks, Louie Gohmert and Marjorie Taylor Greene also asked the White House for pardons and Representative Jim Jordan talked about a pardon, but never formally asked Hutchinson for one.
Although Clark had the backing of Perry and Trump, several lawyers within the department, including Steven Engel threatened to resign if Trump appointed Clark to head the department.
Clark drafted a letter on Dec. 28 that Trump wanted the DOJ to send to the Georgia state legislature, requesting state lawmakers hold a special session and consider a new set of electors that would flip the state to vote for Trump, rather than Biden, who won the state’s electoral votes.
Donoghue said that it would be a “grave step” for the department to send the letter, a move that would have constitutional ramifications.
From the end of December through Jan. 3, Rosen said Trump called him “virtually every day,” asserting that the department had not done enough to investigate election fraud, while Rosen continued to reiterate there was no evidence of fraud.
Frustrated with Rosen’s refusal to back his election lies, Trump offered Clark the job of attorney general “with the understanding that Clark would send this letter to Georgia and other states,” Representative Liz Cheney said.
When White House Attorney Eric Hershmann talked to Clark about his plans to send the letter to Georgia and promote Trump’s election fraud claims should he take over the department, Herschmann was dumbfounded and told Clark:
“Fucking a-hole, congratulations, you just admitted your first step or act you would take as attorney general would be committing a felony,” Hershmann testified in recorded video. “You’re clearly the right candidate for this job.”
The tense conflict between Trump and DOJ officials turned into a direct confrontation during a Jan. 3 meeting in the Oval Office.
Before they even met on Jan. 3 to discuss the future of the department, the White House had already started calling Clark the acting attorney general, per White House call logs.
In that meeting, Clark expressed his desire to head the department and several DOJ officials threatened to resign if he became attorney general.
Donoghue said in recorded testimony that he told the president during the meeting that Clark, who had never conducted an investigation, was “not competent to serve as attorney general” and dig into election fraud claims.
Donoghue said White House attorney Pat Cipollone warned it was dangerous that Clark was willing to send a letter questioning the legitimacy of the election to Georgia and five other states.
“That letter is a murder-suicide pact; it’s going to hurt everyone it touches,” Cipollone said, according to Donoghue.
Donoghue told Trump that he would leave office if Trump nixed Rosen and replaced him with Clark.
"I said, 'sir, I would resign immediately. There is no way I'm serving one minute under this guy, Jeff Clark,'" Donoghue said in recorded testimony.
Clark complied with a subpoena to appear before the committee earlier this year and invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination dozens of times during his deposition.
Throughout their hearings, the committee has emphasized Trump's central role in the "Big Lie" and the dangers of his pressure campaign on then-Vice President Mike Pence to overturn Joe Biden's win in the 2020 presidential election. Those claims catalyzed hordes of Trump supporters to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6 — a riot that turned deadly.
Initially, the panel planned to hold all of its hearings in June, but Thursday's hearing was the last public presentation of evidence this month. The committee will hold additional hearings in the "coming weeks," according to committee aides.
The change in schedule comes as the committee combs through new evidence, including hours of video footage from Alex Holder, a documentarian who held interviews with Trump officials, including the former president himself and his daughter Ivanka Trump, before and after Jan. 6.Follow @@rosemwagner
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