Jan. 6 panel focuses on Trump pressuring Justice Department

Former President Trump nearly replaced the head of the Justice Department with a supporter of his fraud theories after the acting attorney general refused to comply with his persistent demands to falsely claim there were evidence of fraud in the 2020 election, the House panel investigating the Capitol insurrection detailed during its hearing on Thursday.

Using the testimony of three former top Justice Department officials, the committee exposed Trump’s relentless pressure on department heads as he demanded they give credence to his unsubstantiated fraud allegations in order to overturn the will of the voters and keep him in office.

“He hoped that law enforcement officials would give his lies an appearance of legitimacy so that he and his allies would have some credibility veneer when they told the country the election was stolen,” he said. panel chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

A statement by Justice Department officials that fraud occurred in the election would have cast serious doubt on the results and given Republican-controlled state legislatures a pretext to appoint alternate presidential voters to reverse the president’s victory. Biden, he said.

“Donald Trump didn’t just want the Justice Department to investigate. He wanted the Department of Justice to help him legitimize his lies, call the corrupt election groundless, appoint a special counsel to investigate alleged voter fraud,” Thompson said.

On Thursday, the committee also revealed the names of several Republican members of Congress who have sought Trump’s presidential pardon for their actions surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising, including Representatives Matt Gaetz of Florida and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania.

Former acting prosecutor. Gen. Jeffrey Rosen, former acting assistant district attorney. Gen. Richard Donoghue and former Asst. Atti. Gen. Steven Engel testified before the committee that Trump asked the Justice Department in December 2020 to file legal briefs supporting campaign lawsuits by his campaign and allies.

Thursday’s testimony also detailed Trump’s request for Rosen to appoint a special counsel to investigate voter fraud, though Justice Department investigations concluded there was no evidence of fraud on any scale. that would change the outcome of the election.

“Between December 23 [2020] and January 3 [2021]the president called or met with me practically every day,” Rosen said.

“The Department of Justice denied all of these requests because we did not believe they were appropriate based on the facts and the law as we understood them,” he said.

The former president also lobbied the Justice Department to challenge election results in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in the Supreme Court, witnesses said. Engel and the office of the department’s legal counsel, which he headed, ruled there was no legal basis for such lawsuits.

The committee focused on a handful of meetings in late December 2020 and early January 2021 in which Trump, at Perry’s instigation, considered replacing Rosen with Justice Department Civilian Chief Jeffrey Clark. including a Dec. 27 phone call in which Trump told Rosen and Donoghue to “just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” according to Donoghue’s notes of the conversation.

Donoghue said the Dec. 27 conversation was “an escalation” of pressure Trump had put on the department to intervene. After noticing many people whispering in the president’s ear, Donoghue said, he tried to be extremely blunt with Trump and told him there was nothing to any of the claims he was repeating.

“Later in December, the president’s pleas became more urgent. He became more adamant that we weren’t doing our job,” Donoghue said.

On Wednesday, federal agents searched Clark’s home in Virginia. More than a dozen law enforcement officers seized his electronic devices during the search, according to Clark’s current employer, Russ Vought, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget under Trump.

The panel also discussed a draft letter Clark asked Rosen and Donoghue to sign on December 28, 2020, in which it was proposed that the Justice Department urge the Georgia Legislature to hold a special session to consider alleged “irregularities” in the vote of the State. The letter amounted to a roadmap outlining how Georgia could undo Biden’s victory there, suggesting the Legislature could choose a new slate of voters who would support Trump over Biden. Clark said similar letters outlining allegations of fraud would be sent to officials in other states. Rosen and Donoghue declined to add their signatures to the document.

Donoghue said he told Clark that “if the department inserted itself into the political process in this way, I think it would have had serious consequences for the country. This could very well have led us into a constitutional crisis. »

Nonetheless, Clark began calling witnesses and conducting his own investigations, examining fringe theories of fraud, Donoghue said.

Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) Said the letter was co-authored by Ken Klukowski, who joined the Justice Department on Dec. 15, 2020 and was assigned to work under Clark . Klukowski previously worked with conservative California lawyer John Eastman, who originated the theory that the vice president could reject state voters or return results to states for further consideration.

During Thursday’s hearing, Cheney presented a Dec. 28 email recommending that Eastman and Klukowski brief Vice President Mike Pence and his team.

“The email suggests that Mr. Klukowski was simultaneously working with Jeffrey Clark to draft the proposed letter to Georgian officials to rescind their certified election, and was working with Dr. Eastman to help lobby the vice president to rescind the election,” Cheney said.

In a contentious Dec. 31 meeting, Trump asked Rosen to have the voting machines seized by the Justice Department. Rosen said he told Trump that nothing inappropriate was found with the machines and that the Department of Homeland Security had already investigated and debunked allegations of fraud involving election machines.

“I don’t think there was any legal authority” for the department to seize election materials from the state, Rosen said.

On January 3, 2021, Clark told Rosen that Trump had offered him the position of acting attorney general.

White House logs show frequent calls between Clark and Trump beginning at 7 a.m. on Jan. 3. The papers note that Clark was called “acting attorney general” at 4:19 p.m. that day, hours before Rosen met with Trump in the Oval Office. to discuss the change.

Rosen, Donoghue, Engel, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, and Deputy White House Counsel Pat Philbin met with Trump and Clark in the Oval Office for several hours that evening.

Donoghue said he felt compelled to point out to the chairman that Clark’s background in environmental law had not prepared him to lead the department.

“I said, ‘Mr. President, you talk about putting a man in this seat who has never tried a criminal case. Who has never conducted a criminal investigation. He tells you he’s going to take over the department – 115,000 employees, including the entire FBI – and turn the place into a dime and run nationwide criminal investigations that will produce results in days. . It’s impossible. It’s absurd. It won’t happen and it will fail,” Donoghue said.

Those present at the meeting warned Trump that the entire Justice Department leadership and the White House Counsel’s Office would resign en masse if he installed Clark as head of the Justice Department. Donoghue said he pointed out that U.S. attorneys and department employees across the country could follow suit, putting the agency on the brink of collapse.

“I said, ‘Mr. President, within 24, 48, 72 hours you could have hundreds and hundreds of resignations and [lose] the direction of your entire Department of Justice because of your actions. What will that say about you? “Donoghue said during the hearing, noting that Engel had warned Trump that Clark would be “heading a graveyard.”

Donoghue told the committee that Cipollone called the letter Clark wanted to send to multiple states a “murder-suicide pact.”

“It will damage anyone who touches it,” added Cipollone, according to Donoghue. “And we should have nothing to do with this letter. “

White House attorney Eric Herschmann said in a deposition that he warned Clark against acting on the letter if he became attorney general.

“Congratulations. You just admitted that your first act as attorney general would be to commit a crime,” he said.

Rosen said in his deposition that after that Jan. 3 meeting, he did not speak to Trump again until Jan. 19, not even while the department was coordinating with Pence and congressional leaders during the Jan. 6 attack. January.

The committee also provided evidence for its allegation in the first hearing that several Republican members of Congress had asked Trump for forgiveness before and after Jan. 6. Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama sent an email to the White House five days after the attack asking for a pardon for himself and all 147 Republicans who had voted to void the election.

The panel also showed portions of video depositions from White House staffers, who said Perry, Gaetz, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Louie Gohmert of Texas had asked for a pardon from Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia requested one from the White House Counsel’s Office.

Thursday’s hearing is expected to be the last for a few weeks. The committee will adjourn hearings for at least two weeks to review the new evidence it has obtained, Thompson said.

Upcoming hearings will focus on domestic terrorism and extremism, and what Trump did in the 187 minutes between the start of the insurgency and when he called on his supporters to go home, Thompson told reporters. after the hearing.

“At this point, with the audiences we’ve had, we think we’ve done a good job of telling the story of what happened,” he said. “We would love to have testimony from former Vice President Pence. We have sought it out – we have spoken to his lawyers in the past – but we are continuing the work.

Times editor Anumita Kaur contributed to this report.

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