By ERIC TUCKER
WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump hounded the Justice Department to go ahead with his false claims of voter fraud, striving in vain to recruit top law enforcement officials in his desperate bid to stay in power and caving in. only when he was warned in the Oval Office of mass resignations, according to Thursday testimony before the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
Three Trump-era Justice Department officials recounted the president’s persistent insistence, including day after day of directives to pursue baseless allegations that the election won by Democrat Joe Biden had been stolen. They said they brushed aside every Trump lawsuit because there was no evidence of widespread fraud, then banded together as the president weighed whether to replace the department’s top lawyer with a lower-level official willing to help undo the results.
The hearing, the fifth this month for the panel that investigated the assault on Capitol Hill, made clear that Trump’s wide-ranging pressure campaign targeted not only state election officials but also his own executive branch 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 steered clear of partisan politics in investigative decisions.
“When you damage our fundamental institutions, it’s not easy to fix them,” said Jeffrey Rosen, the acting attorney general in the closing days of the Trump administration. “So I thought this was a really important issue, to try to make sure that the Justice Department could stay on the right course.”
The hearing focused on a memorably tumultuous moment in the department after 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 could have changed the results of the elections. He was replaced by his top aide, Rosen, who said that for a period of about two weeks after taking office, Trump met or called him virtually every day. The common theme, he said, was “dissatisfaction with what the Justice Department had done to investigate voter fraud.”
Trump presented the department with an “arsenal of allegations,” none of them true, said Richard Donoghue, another senior official who testified Thursday. Still, Trump urged the department at various points to seize voting machines, appoint a special attorney to investigate allegations of fraud and simply declare the election corrupt.
The department did none of those things.
“If the department inserted itself into the political process in this way, I think it would have had serious consequences for the country that could very well have led to a constitutional crisis,” Donoghue said.
The testimony made it clear that Trump nonetheless found a willing ally within the department, in the form of an environmental enforcement attorney who would become the head of the agency’s civil division. The attorney, Jeffrey Clark, was introduced to Trump in late December by a Republican congressman and was willing to defend allegations of voter fraud. In a contentious Oval Office meeting on the night of Jan. 3, 2021, just three days before the election, Trump toyed with replacing Rosen with Clark, but backed out amid threats of mass resignations.
Clark’s name was mentioned early and often in the hearing, with Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican and committee member, mocking him as a lawyer whose only qualification was his loyalty to Trump. An attorney for Clark did not return messages seeking comment.
“Who is Jeff Clark?” Kinzinger asked rhetorically. “He would do whatever the president wanted him to do, including overthrowing a free and fair democratic election.”
Just an hour before the hearing was to begin, it was revealed that federal agents searched Clark’s Virginia home on Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity. It was not clear what the agents were looking for.
The latest hearing focused less on the violence on Capitol Hill than on Trump’s legal push to undo the election results. In a phone conversation, according to handwritten notes taken by Donoghue and highlighted at Thursday’s hearing, Trump instructed Rosen to “just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the congressional Republicans.”
Around that time, Trump was introduced by a Republican congressman, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, to Clark, who joined the department in 2018 as its top environmental attorney and was later appointed to lead its civil division. Clark has been subpoenaed by the committee but was not among the witnesses Thursday. Lawmakers on Thursday played a videotaped statement showing him repeatedly invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Perry’s name surfaced later in the hearing, when the committee played videotaped statements from Trump aides saying he and several other Republican members of Congress were seeking pardons from the president that would shield them from criminal prosecution, testimony revealed. .
Perry and fellow Republican representatives Andy Biggs of Arizona, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Matt Gaetz of Florida, and Louie Gohmert of Texas had been involved in efforts to reject the electoral recount or introduce “false voters.” Gaetz tweeted Thursday that the hearing was a “political sideshow.”
The situation came to a head on January 3, 2021, a Sunday, when Clark informed Rosen in a private meeting at the Justice Department that Trump wanted to replace him with Clark as acting attorney general. Rosen, resisting the idea of being fired for a subordinate, testified that he contacted top Justice Department officials to bring them together. He also requested a meeting at the White House.
That night, he showed up at the White House for what would be a dramatic hour-long meeting centered on whether Trump should go ahead with his plans for a radical leadership change in the department. Also in attendance were Steven Engel, another senior Justice Department official and Rosen ally who testified Thursday, and Clark.
At the beginning of the meeting, Rosen testified Thursday: “The president turned to me and said, ‘All we know is that you, Rosen, are not going to do anything. You don’t even agree with the claims of voter fraud and this guy could at least do something.”
Donoghue made it clear to Engel that he would resign if Trump replaced Rosen with Clark. Trump asked Engel if he would do the same, and Engel replied that he absolutely would because he would have no choice.
The president stepped back. The night, and later his Republican administration, ended with Rosen still at the top of the Justice Department.
Donoghue also tried to dissuade Trump from believing that Clark had the legal background to do what the president wanted, since he was not a criminal prosecutor in the department.
“And he responded by saying, ‘Well, I’ve done a lot of very complicated appeals and civil litigation, environmental litigation and things like that,’” Donoghue said. “And I said, ‘That’s right. You are an environmental lawyer. How about he comes back to his office and we call him when there’s an oil spill?
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, Lisa Mascaro, Mary Clare Jalonick and Farnoush Amiri in Washington contributed to this report.
To view full coverage of the January 6 hearings, visit https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege.