ERIC TUCKER and FARNUSH AMIRI
WASHINGTON ( Associated Press) — Donald Trump pursued the Justice Department to investigate its false allegations of electoral fraud, trying in vain to enlist the support of senior law enforcement officials in his desperate bid to stay in power, only relenting after Oval Office warnings of mass resignations , according to testify Thursday for a House committee investigating the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots.
Three Trump-era Justice Department officials spoke of constant harassment by the president, including day-by-day directives to pursue baseless allegations that an election won by Democrat Joe Biden was stolen. They said they rejected every Trump demand because there was no evidence of widespread fraud, then banded together as the president weighed whether to replace the department’s chief legal officer with a lower-level official eager to help overturn the results.
All the while, Republican supporters in Congress trumpeted the president’s statements, and later appealed for a White House pardon after the attempt failed and the Capitol was breached on the day of the violence, the committee said Thursday.
The hearing, the fifth in a row of the commission investigating the attack on the Capitol, made it clear that Trump’s wide-ranging pressure campaign was aimed not only at state election officials, but also at his own executive branch. Witnesses solemnly characterized the president’s constant contact as an extreme breach of protocol, especially since the Justice Department has long cherished its independence from the White House and sought to avoid biased considerations in its investigative decisions.
“When you damage our fundamental institutions, it’s not easy to repair them,” said Jeffrey Rosen, who served as acting attorney general during the final days of the Trump administration. “So I thought it was a really important issue to try and make sure the Justice Department can stay on track.”
The hearings focused on a memorably tumultuous period in the department following the December 2020 departure of Attorney General William Barr, who drew Trump’s ire with his public announcement that there was no evidence of fraud that could have changed the election.
He was replaced by his top deputy, Rosen, who said that for about a two-week period after taking office, he either met or called Trump virtually every day. According to him, a common theme was “displeasure that the Department of Justice, in its opinion, did not do enough to investigate electoral fraud.”
Trump has presented the ministry with an “arsenal of allegations” none of which are true, said Richard Donoghue, another senior official who testified Thursday. However, Trump has repeatedly pushed the department to seize voting machines, appoint a special adviser to investigate allegations of fraud, and simply declare the election corrupt.
The department did none of this.
“I think that such an inclusion of the department in the political process would have serious consequences for the country. It is quite possible that this led us to a constitutional crisis, ”Donoghue said.
Testimony showed that Trump did, however, find a willing ally within the department in an environmental lawyer who became head of the agency’s civil division.
Attorney Jeffrey Clark was introduced to Trump by a Republican congressman and positioned himself as a vocal defender of the election fraud charges. At a controversial meeting in the Oval Office on the night of January 3, 2021, just three days before the uprising, Trump even tried to replace Rosen with Clark, but backed down amid warnings of mass resignations.
Clark’s name came up frequently on Thursday when Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican and committee member, derided him as a lawyer whose only qualification was his loyalty to Trump and his willingness to do whatever the president wanted, “including overthrowing a free and fair Democratic elections”.
Clark’s attorney did not respond to messages asking for comment.
Just an hour before the hearing began, it emerged that federal agents had searched Clark’s home in Virginia on Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the matter. It is unclear what the agents were looking for.
The latest hearing focused less on the violence in the Capitol than on Trump’s legal pressure to overturn the election results as the panel claims the defeated president’s “big lies” about the election led to the uprising. This included specific questions from Trump as well as more general questions.
In one phone call, according to handwritten notes taken by Donoghue and highlighted in Thursday’s hearing, Trump told Rosen, “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and R. Congressmen.”
Around the same time, Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania connected Trump with Clark, who joined the department in 2018 as its chief environmental lawyer and then proceeded to help efforts to challenge the election.
At one point, Clark presented colleagues with a draft letter urging Georgian officials to convene a special legislative session following the election results. Clarke wanted the letter to be sent, but Justice Department officials refused.
Clark was not among the hearing witnesses. He had previously appeared before the committee in private, though lawmakers on Thursday showed a videotaped testimony showing him repeatedly invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination in response to questions.
Perry’s name surfaced later in the hearing, when the committee showed video footage of statements by Trump aides saying that he and several other Republican members of Congress were asking for a presidential pardon that would protect them from criminal prosecution.
Perry and other GOP representatives Andy Biggs of Arizona, Moe Brooks of Alabama, Matt Gaetz of Florida, and Louis Gomert of Texas were involved in attempts to overturn the election results or present “fake voters.” On Thursday, Gaetz tweeted that the hearing was a “political sideshow” and Perry, in a statement Thursday, denied ever seeking a pardon.
Things came to a head on Sunday, January 3, 2021, when Clark informed Rosen that Trump wanted to replace him with Clark as acting attorney general. Rosen, resisting the idea of being fired by subordinates, revealed that he quickly contacted senior Justice Department officials to rally them. He also demanded a meeting at the White House where he and his allies could present their position.
That night, he showed up at the White House for a dramatic, hours-long meeting over whether Trump should embark on plans for a sweeping leadership change. Clarke was present, as were Donoghue and Steven Engel, a Rosen ally and a senior Justice Department official, who also testified on 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 allegations of election fraud, and this other guy can at least do something.”
Rosen told Trump he was right and said he would not let the Justice Department do anything to cancel the election.
Donoghue has made it clear that he will resign if Trump fires Rosen. Trump asked Engel if he would do the same. Engel replied that he certainly would. Trump was told that the entire leadership team would resign. Hundreds of employees will also leave.
Donoghue also tried to dissuade Trump from thinking that Clark had a legal basis for doing what the President wanted, saying that Clark “never took a criminal case” or conducted a criminal investigation.
“He tells you that he will lead a department, 115,000 employees, including the entire FBI, and conduct nationwide criminal investigations that will yield results in a matter of days,” Donoghue said.
“It’s impossible,” he added, “it’s absurd, it won’t happen and it will fail.”
The President stepped back. The night and his Republican administration ended with Rosen taking over the Justice Department.
Associated Press contributors Michael Balsamo, Lisa Mascaro, and Mary Claire Jalonik in Washington contributed to this report.
Full coverage of the January 6 hearing can be found at https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege.