WASHINGTON — Donald Trump has harassed the Justice Department to pursue his bogus claims of voter fraud, trying in vain to enlist top law enforcement officials in his desperate bid to stay in power and only backing down when he was warned in the Oval Office of mass resignations, according to testimony Thursday to the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot.
Three Trump-era Justice Department officials have recounted the president’s persistent harassment, including day-to-day directives to chase baseless claims that Democrat Joe Biden’s election was stolen. They said they brushed aside every request from Trump because there was no evidence of widespread fraud, then regrouped when the president considered whether to replace the department’s top lawyer with an official from lower level ready to help undo the results.
All the while, Republican loyalists in Congress trumpeted the president’s claims — and several later begged the White House for forgiveness after the effort failed and the Capitol was breached in a day of violence, revealed the committee on Thursday.
The hearing, the fifth on the panel investigating the assault on the Capitol, made it clear that Trump’s extensive lobbying campaign targeted not only election officials across the state, but also his own executive agencies. Witnesses solemnly described the president’s constant contact as an extraordinary breach of protocol, especially since the Justice Department has long cherished its independence from the White House and avoided partisan politics in decisions. of investigation.
“When you damage our fundamental institutions, it’s not easy to fix them,” said Jeffrey Rosen, the Trump administration’s late acting attorney general. “So I thought that was a really important question, to try to make sure the Department of Justice was able to stay on track.”
The hearing focused on a memorably tumultuous time at the department following the December 2020 departure of Attorney General William Barr, who drew Trump’s ire with his public proclamation that there was no evidence of fraud that would have could change the election results. He was replaced by his deputy principal, Rosen, who said that for about two weeks after taking office, he met or was called upon by Trump virtually every day. The common theme, he said, was “displeasure that the Justice Department, in his view, did not do enough to investigate voter fraud.”
Trump presented the department with an “arsenal of allegations,” none of which are true, said Richard Donoghue, another senior official who testified Thursday. Despite this, Trump has pushed the department at various times to seize voting machines, appoint a special counsel to investigate allegations of fraud, and simply declare the election corrupt.
The department did none of that.
“For the ministry to insert itself into the political process in this way, I think it would have had serious consequences for the country. It could very well have dragged us into a constitutional crisis,” Donoghue said.
Testimony showed Trump found a willing ally in the department, however, in the form of an environmental enforcement attorney who became the head of the agency’s civil division. The attorney, Jeffrey Clark, had been introduced to Trump by a Republican congressman and presented himself as a strong defender of the voter fraud allegations. In a contentious Oval Office meeting on the night of January 3, 2021, just three days before the election, Trump even considered replacing Rosen with Clark, but backed down in the face of threats of mass resignations.
Clark’s name was mentioned often on Thursday, with Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican and committee member, deriding him as a lawyer whose only qualification was his loyalty to Trump and his willingness to do anything. the president wanted, “including the overthrow of a free and fair regime”. democratic elections. A lawyer for Clark did not return messages seeking comment.
Just an hour before the hearing began, it was revealed that federal agents searched Clark’s home in Virginia on Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the matter. 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 overturn the election results, as the panel argues that the defeated president’s “big lie” about the election led to the insurgency. This included specific requests from Trump, but also more general requests.
In a phone conversation, according to handwritten notes taken by Donoghue and prominently displayed during Thursday’s hearing, Trump ordered Rosen to “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the members of Congress.” A..”
Around this time, Trump was connected by a Republican congressman, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, with Clark, who had joined the department in 2018 as chief environmental attorney and made it known that would help challenge the election results. At one point, Clark presented his colleagues with a draft letter urging Georgian officials to convene a special legislative session on the election results. Clark wanted the letter sent, but Justice Department superiors refused.
Clark was not among the witnesses at the hearing. He appeared privately before the committee, although lawmakers released videotaped deposition Thursday showing him repeatedly invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Perry’s name surfaced later during the hearing, when the committee released videotaped statements from Trump aides saying he and several other Republican members of Congress had asked the president for pardons that would would protect them from criminal prosecution, the testimony revealed.
Perry and fellow GOP Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas have all been involved in efforts to dismiss the voter count or submit “fake voters.” “. Gaetz tweeted Thursday that the hearing was a “political spectacle” and Perry denied in a statement Thursday ever asking for forgiveness.
The situation came to a head on January 3, 2021, a Sunday, when Clark informed Rosen that Trump wanted Clark to replace him as acting attorney general. Rosen, resistant to the idea of being fired by a subordinate, said he quickly reached out to senior Justice Department officials to rally them. He also requested a meeting at the White House, where he and his allies could make their case.
That night, he reported to the White House for what would be a dramatic, hours-long meeting centered on whether Trump should proceed with his plans for a sweeping change in leadership. Clark was present, as were Donoghue and Steven Engel, an ally of Rosen and a senior Justice Department official who also testified Thursday.
At the start of the meeting, Rosen said: “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 claims and this guy could at least do something.”
Donoghue made it clear he would resign if Trump fired Rosen. Trump asked Engel if he would do the same. Engel replied that, absolutely, he would because he would have no choice. The entire management team would resign, Trump was told. Hundreds of staff would also come out.
The president backed off. The night and his Republican administration ended with Rosen atop the Justice Department.
Donoghue also sought to dissuade Trump from believing that Clark had the legal knowledge to do what the president wanted.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, you’re talking about putting a man in this seat who’s never tried a criminal case, who’s never conducted a criminal investigation. He’s telling you he’s going to take charge the department, 115,000 employees, including the entire FBI, and turn the place into a dime and conduct nationwide criminal investigations that will produce results in days,” Donoghue said.
“It’s impossible,” he added, “it’s absurd, it won’t happen, and it will fail.”
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington contributed to this report.
For full coverage of the January 6 hearings, visit https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege.
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