A culture of intimidation pervaded the Department of Justice in 2020.
Trump had spent four years blurring the lines between the executive branch and the judicial branch, but never was it as murky as it became after he lost the election.
At the center of this muck was Jeffrey Clark, an environmental lawyer introduced to Trump by Rep. Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican long sympathetic to Trump’s election fraud conspiracy theories.
Clark was appointed to the Department of Justice by Trump just like Rosen, Donoghue, and Engel. But once inside, Clark kept an alliance with the president and engaged in what Thursday’s witnesses have previously described to the Senate Judiciary Committee as a campaign to oust officials who dared go against Trump.
According to records and interviews, it was Jan. 3, 2021 when Clark met with Trump in the Oval Office and presented the president with a letter.
It was a draft intended to go to the leaders of various legislatures in states that Trump had lost, like Georgia. The Justice Department identified fraud in the election, the draft falsely claimed, and it encouraged its recipient to send a slate of “Trump electors”—though they were unsanctioned—to Congress on Jan. 6.
Trump had already lost dozens of lawsuits at this point and the deadline for states to submit their electors to Congress had long passed.
Clark had shown this letter to Rosen days before the meeting in the Oval with Trump. Rosen rejected it wholesale, telling Clark the fraud claims were unsubstantiated and he could not back it.
The men had already met the month before and Rosen made his positions clear: The claims were dubious. But at that December meeting, Rosen had also learned that Clark had sessions with Trump in secret, something forbidden by department protocol. Rosen ordered Clark not to do it again. Clark disobeyed him.
A day before the Jan. 3 meeting in the Oval Office, Clark asked to meet with Rosen in private. Rosen agreed, but he didn’t want to go alone. He asked Donoghue to join them.
It was there that Clark—their subordinate—informed them that Trump wanted to replace Rosen. And Clark would be the one to do it.
He wanted that letter out.
Rosen and Donoghue refused.
According to a transcript of Donoghue’s interview with the Senate Judiciary Committee, the conversation became “very heated.” Rosen and Donoghue blasted Clark for violating White House-Department of Justice contact policies.
That was when Clark turned to Rosen and said: “Well, the president has offered me the position of acting attorney general. I told him I would let him know my decision on Monday. I need to think about a little more,” Clark said.
As word of this had spread, Donoghue and others at the department were prepared to resign in protest. They would not serve under Clark.
White House attorney Pat Cipollone was looped in. Cipollone scrambled to turn the temperature down and asked the men to wait.
But on Jan. 3, Clark was in the Oval Office with Trump.
Rosen called Donoghue and they dropped everything to meet them there. Engel would also join them.
Clark had shown Trump the letter. Rosen and Donoghue had already urged Trump to understand there just wasn’t any credibility to the claims of fraud.
“We checked that out,” Donoghue said. “There’s nothing to it.”
Rosen and Donoghue were plain: If the letter went out, they would resign and others would follow, triggering a wave of mass resignations.
“I do recall Pat Cipollone earlier saying ‘That letter,’ meaning the draft letter to Georgia, ‘is a murder-suicide pact.’ And it will damage anyone and anything that it touches,” Donoghue once testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The spectacle that the mass resignations would create appeared to be the only thing that stopped Trump from firing Rosen.
“We’re not going to do this,” Trump said, according to Donoghue. “He looked at Jeff Clark and said, ‘I appreciate you being willing to do this. I appreciate you being willing to step up and take all the abuse, but the reality is it’s not worth the breakage. We’re going to have mass resignations. It’s going to be a disaster. You’re not going to be able to get this stuff done anyway, and the bureaucracy will eat you alive. So we’re not going to do this.”
Clark was insistent.
“Mr. President, we can do this. We can get this done. History is calling,” Donoghue recalls Clark saying.
Clark will not appear in person during Thursday’s committee hearing. Clips of his video deposition may be shown, but those specific clips aren’t likely to tell America very much. Clark invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when he met with the committee this February. He refused to answer over 100 questions.
He was first subpoenaed in October and balked at the order, citing executive privilege. But Trump never asserted executive privilege over the materials sought after by the committee and in Clark’s possession. All of this eventually led to Clark being held in contempt by the select committee’s probe. It was his 11th-hour cooperation, unhelpful as it may be, that staved off a full contempt vote by the House.
Testimony from Rosen, Donoghue, and Engel is expected to be illuminating, to say the least.
A senior aide to the select committee told Daily Kos that what America will see in sharp detail is that Trump’s attempt to co-opt the Justice Department only failed because senior leadership “stood up and threatened to resign rather than help Trump interrupt the peaceful transfer of power.”
This hearing will mark the last one for June. More are coming in July, Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson announced Wednesday. The exact dates have not yet been set, but the committee said so much new credible evidence continues to trickle in that investigators must keep following the trail where it leads them.
Recently, the committee asked British filmmaker Alex Holder to produce all of the footage he shot for a documentary about Trump’s final weeks in office. Holder interviewed Trump multiple times, including right after the insurrection at the Capitol. Holder also interviewed key officials like then-Vice President Mike Pence and members of Trump’s family, including his daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump and his two adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, as well as Ivanka’s husband and White House adviser, Jared Kushner.
Thompson said Wednesday that the tip line the committee has opened has also provided new information since the hearings began.
It is expected that the hearings in July will dive into matters such as how Trump summoned the mob and directed them to illegally enter the Capitol. Another hearing is expected to parse out the 187 minutes of silence from Trump as the Capitol was under siege.
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