Editor’s note: Elliot Williams is a CNN legal analyst. He is a former Assistant Deputy Attorney General in the Department of Justice and is currently Director of The Raben Group, a public affairs firm. Follow him on Twitter @elliotcwilliams. He served as a Justice Department prosecutor from 2004 to 2007 and Assistant Deputy Attorney General from 2013 to 2017. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.
Walt Disney once said that achieving his vision “requires people to make the dream a reality”.
Former President Donald Trump had a vision: to overturn the results of a free and fair election in 2020 and stay in power for at least another term. On Thursday, we learned how close he was to having people he handpicked at the Justice Department to make that vision a reality.
Thursday’s hearing of the congressional select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack featured testimony from three men who are not known but who held jobs of untold importance in the American legal system: Jeffrey A. Rosen, former acting attorney general; Richard Donoghue, former acting deputy attorney general; and Steven Engel, former assistant attorney general in the legal counsel’s office.
During my tenure at the Department of Justice, I have worked closely with several men and women who have held each of these positions. While the three offices oversee deep-seated issues that touch on national security, human rights, and public safety, even the informal decisions of whoever holds them can affect the lives of millions of Americans.
Over five hearings, the committee effectively laid out its central theory: that Trump led a months-long, multi-stage coordinated effort to overturn the 2020 election results and halt the transfer of power. The latest hearing illustrated a particularly nasty tactic: trying to roam and sideline senior Justice Department officials until he ends up with accomplices.
In their testimony, the three were explicit about the President’s shameful conduct. In perhaps the most vivid moment of the day, Donoghue — citing notes he took at the time — testified that in a phone call, President Trump ordered him and the ministry of Justice, to “simply say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and Republican congressmen.
At this point, I don’t know which is worse: a president trying to bully the Justice Department into investigating, or trying to use him as a mouthpiece.
It may not be intuitive for everyone that there is a wall between elected officials and prosecutors. Many local prosecutors run for partisanship, and in the federal system the president — as political a figure as any — appoints the attorney general. Yet for the public to have confidence that the work of the Justice Department is being done without the appearance of undue political influence, there must be a clear separation between its work and that of the White House.
The principle is nothing new or novel — Trump’s own White House attorney, Don McGahn, laid it out in a Jan. 27, 2017, memo to all White House staff, in which he set out clear limits on communications between White House staff and Justice Department staff.
Rosen and Donoghue spoke today about attending near-daily meetings or phone calls, initiated by the president, in the weeks leading up to January 6. These calls were flagrant violations of long-standing standards of government conduct.
And when Trump didn’t get the result he expected from the two, he simply sought to sideline them.
Trump’s attempts to replace Rosen with Jeffrey Clark – whose home federal agents were raided on Thursday – were particularly troubling. Clark had authored a draft letter offered to several states that falsely claimed that the DOJ had found voting irregularities in it and ordered them to call special legislative sessions. Rosen, to whom Clark had emailed the letter for his signature, testified that it would have had “enormous constitutional, political and social ramifications for the country.”
Clark declined to answer questions about the letter, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
It is now clear that the department’s non-compliant senior staff might have been the only thing that stopped Trump from plunging the country headlong into a constitutional crisis. Unfortunately, the revelations from Thursday’s hearing should come as no surprise. Trump, while in office, amassed a lot of experience alienating, removing, or firing senior law enforcement officials who chose not to carry out his bids.
For example, Trump forced the resignation of Byung “BJay” Pak, a United States Attorney in Georgia who Trump said was not doing enough to respond to false allegations of voter fraud (and who testified before the committee on 13 June).
Notably, Rosen had the title of “acting” attorney general on January 6. That was because his predecessor, William Barr, had resigned days earlier after repeatedly failing to make Trump understand that his voter fraud allegations were “bullshit.” (Trump had also expelled the last Senate-confirmed attorney general before Barr, Jeff Sessions, over frustration that Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation.)
And before Jan. 6, there was former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump allegedly demanded “loyalty”; Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whom Trump publicly criticized for appointing a special counsel to investigate 2016 election interference; FBI Director Christopher Wray, who reportedly considered resigning after being pressured to make leadership changes at the FBI. And so on.
I hope we never see another January 6th. But Thursday’s hearing reminded us how dangerously close we were to two more disasters that week in the days leading up to January 6. First, if Trump had gone through and replaced Rosen with Clark, countless Justice Department leaders would have resigned, leaving a leadership vacuum in a critical government agency at a time when America needed it more than ever. .
More importantly, if allowed to lead the department, Clark may well have been the legal catalyst that made Trump’s illegal vision come true.
It’s safe to say that America was a few quits away from a coup.
Trump was incredibly close to seizing power in defiance of democratic standards and creating an unimaginable crisis for the nation. America is just lucky not to have the right people in place.