WASHINGTON — After four years in office, Donald Trump has never understood that government is not meant to be a tool to promote self-interest, the Jan. 6 committee argued as it presented evidence Thursday of his efforts to undo the 2020 elections.
Witnesses have described Trump’s desperate efforts to engage the Justice Department in a plot to nullify the election – trying at every turn to persuade government lawyers to act as an extension of his campaign.
Senior officials Trump had appointed testified that they had tried to explain to him the department’s unique role: they worked for the American people and represented the federal government. The message never stayed.
Frustrated that department leadership did not falsely claim the election was “corrupt,” Trump nearly replaced the acting attorney general with a loyalist, backing down when told the move would trigger a cascade of resignations.
He sought to use the prestige and power of the department to cast doubt on the validity of the election, the committee showed. Lost on Trump was the department’s singular focus: to enforce the law – not to do its bidding.
“He wanted the Justice Department to help him legitimize his lies, baselessly label the election corrupt, appoint a special counsel to investigate alleged voter fraud, send a letter to six state legislatures urging them to consider altering the election results,” said committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.
Some excerpts from the hearing:
Government officials have repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories for Trump
The Justice Department investigated various allegations of voter fraud and found nothing that would have overturned the results.
Trump never let go.
He bullied department heads, increasingly insisting they weren’t looking for fraud enough as Jan. 6, 2021, approached and Congress would certify Joe Biden’s victory.
Jeffrey Rosen, the acting attorney general, said that from Dec. 23, 2020, to Jan. 3, 2021, he heard about Trump virtually every day, with the president taking a Christmas break. Trump would focus on baseless allegations.
Richard Donoghue, the acting deputy attorney general, described several meetings in which Trump pointed to a report alleging voter fraud in County Antrim, Michigan. The report claimed that the error rate in the county was 68%. Trump wanted the Justice Department to use the report to show the results “were not trustworthy,” Donoghue said.
Donoghue said the report was wrong and the actual error rate turned out to be less than 0.01%. He said he told Trump it was an example “of what people tell you isn’t true and you can’t and shouldn’t rely on it.”
On another occasion, Trump told him about allegations of voter fraud in Pennsylvania, where there had been about 200,000 more votes than there were voters.
Donoghue said he asked a US attorney in Pennsylvania, Scott Brady, to investigate. Brady concluded there was no wrongdoing — just a state election website that hadn’t been updated.
“In the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, the Justice Department responded almost daily to requests from the president to investigate allegations of voter fraud,” said committee member Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill. “Each assertion has been repeatedly refuted, an effort [former] Attorney General Barr described it as a “mole shot.”
Trump never found his Roy Cohn
Early in his term, Trump would complain about not having an attorney general in the mold of Roy Cohn, his former personal attorney, who worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin in the 1950s. Trump criticized his first attorney general , Jeff Sessions, for appointing a special adviser to investigate Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election. Bar resigned. And Trump nearly fired Rosen for failing to produce evidence of voter fraud.
Rosen told the committee that the “common element” of his meetings with Trump “was the president expressing his displeasure that the Justice Department had not done enough, in his view, to investigate voter fraud.”
A person willing to welcome Trump never got the job. Jeffrey Clark was a Justice Department environmental official whom the president was considering appointing acting attorney general in the final weeks of his term, replacing Rosen. The committee showed how Clark was prepared to send letters urging officials in Georgia and other swing states to reject Biden’s victory because of “significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election.”
In a job audition of sorts, Trump met with Clark and other top Justice Department officials on January 3, 2021. Sitting in front of Trump, Clark explained why he should be promoted. He told the President that he would “conduct genuine investigations which he believed would reveal widespread fraud” and that he had “the intelligence, the will and the desire to pursue these cases in the way that the President saw fit.” more appropriate”. said Donoghue.
Trump was tempted. Pointing to Donoghue and Rosen, he said, “‘You two didn’t do anything,'” Donoghue recalled.
In the end, Trump backed down and held Rosen in place. Raising Clark would have triggered mass resignations, crippling the department.
Even though the DOJ remained publicly silent, a battle was brewing
As the battle brewed behind the scenes at the Justice Department, officials who testified Thursday went public. After Barr stepped down in December 2020, the new leadership remained silent as Trump and his campaign spread lies about the election and worked behind the scenes to bend the Justice Department to his will.
Justice Department leaders typically try to stay out of politics, and officials may have thought their best bet was to say nothing publicly and try to ensure a smooth transition.
But silence from the FBI and Justice Department at the time allowed Trump’s claims to gain momentum in conservative media.
The fact that Justice Department officials remained silent for so long made Thursday’s hearing all the more telling. Speaking publicly gave their testimony additional drama.