WASHINGTON — Donald Trump told his Justice Department to falsely announce that the 2020 presidential election was “corrupt” and then leave the rest to him and his Republican allies in Congress, according to dramatic testimony Thursday from the latest Jan. 6 committee hearing.
Richard Donoghue, the acting deputy attorney general at the time, recounted a 90-minute conversation with Trump on Dec. 27 in which Trump brought up false conspiracy theory after false conspiracy theory, complaining that the department was not investigating them.
Donoghue said he told Trump that “based on actual investigation, actual interviews with witnesses, actual review of documents,” what Trump was saying was not accurate.
“These allegations were simply not true,” he said, adding that Trump eventually said: “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”
His testimony was illustrated by a photo of his handwritten notes taken during that conversation with Trump ― who notoriously dislikes it when lawyers take notes as he speaks.
The episode was just one recounted by Trump’s own Justice Department appointees detailing his attempt to subvert the department into supporting his scheme to overturn democracy and remain in power. Trump ultimately backed down from his demands when the officials threatened to resign en masse.
“He wanted the Justice Department to help legitimize his lies,” said committee Chair Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi.
Trump had wanted to install a department lawyer willing to lie for him in letters to a half-dozen states where Trump had narrowly lost to Democrat Joe Biden. The letters falsely claimed that the department had found evidence of voter fraud and urged state officials to reverse Biden’s victory.
“In fact, Donald Trump knew this was a lie,” Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney, the committee’s vice chair, said.
Because acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen refused to send out the false letters, Trump wanted to fire him and replace him with Jeffrey Clark, who headed the department’s environmental division but whose eagerness to carry out Trump’s demands was brought to his attention by Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Scott Perry.
Eric Herschmann, a top Trump White House lawyer who previously appeared via videotape advising leading coup-plotter John Eastman to get a “f**king” good criminal defense lawyer, returned to the video screen Thursday, explaining that he told Clark, after hearing his proposal, that his first action as attorney general would be committing a felony.
“I thought the proposal was asinine,” he said in the clip.
At a Jan. 3, 2021, Sunday evening, White House meeting with Trump, though, Rosen’s deputy, Donoghue, told Trump that he and others in top leadership would all resign in protest should he follow through.
Donoghue told the committee that he had previously convened a conference call to poll the assistant attorneys general to see how they would react to Clark, and then relayed that to Trump.
“I’m telling you what’s going to happen. Your entire leadership is going to resign,” Donoghue told Trump, adding that hundreds of prosecutors around the country would follow suit with 72 hours. “The leadership will be gone. Jeff Clark will be leading a graveyard.”
Trump wound up backing down.
Clark, whose home was searched by FBI agents Thursday, had been subpoenaed by the committee but, according to video showed by the committee, had a one-word answer to questions: “Fifth,” referring to the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate oneself.
Rosen also testified Thursday, as did Steven Engel, the former head of the department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
“Thanks largely to each of them, President Trump’s coup failed,” said committee member Adam Kinzinger, the Illinois Republican who handled most of Thursday’s questioning.
Rosen and Donoghue pushed back against a variety of Trump schemes, including the seizing of voting machines so as to “re-run” elections in states Trump had lost to appointing conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell as special counsel to investigate voter fraud to running down a claim that Italian satellites had switched votes from Trump to Biden. Donoghue said that even after that lengthy Jan. 3 meeting, Trump called him 90 minutes later on his cellphone with a tip about a truck found in Georgia filled with shredded ballots.
Prior to Trump’s overt attempt to install a pro-coup official to run the department, he had repeatedly pressured his hand-picked Attorney General Bill Barr into pursuing “fraud” investigations that would help him delegitimize the election results in a handful of states he had narrowly lost.
Barr — who on numerous previous occasions had zealously defended Trump’s actions, including when he falsely stated that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation had effectively cleared the president of wrongdoing — told Trump his post-election demand was out of line, he told committee investigators.
“I said, you know, that has to be the campaign that raises that with the state,” Barr said in videotaped testimony revealed in the committee’s June 13 hearing. “The department doesn’t take sides in elections, and the department is not an extension of your legal team.”
Committee members closed the meeting with clips showing videotaped witness testimony naming the various Republican House members who had asked for pardons after helping with Trump’s coup attempt, including Alabama’s Mo Brooks, Florida’s Matt Gaetz, Texas’ Louie Gohmert and Perry.
Thursday’s was the fifth in the series of public hearings the select committee has held this month to lay out in detail Trump’s attempt to remain in power that led to the Jan. 6 attack he incited on the U.S. Capitol. The committee had originally planned to wrap up the hearings in June, with a final report later this summer or autumn. But Thompson told reporters Wednesday that with so much new information coming to the panel in recent days — from new video of interviews with Trump himself to more of his White House’s documents from the National Archives — the committee would resume hearings in mid-July after Congress’ July 4 recess.
Trump, despite losing the election by 7 million votes nationally and 306-232 in the Electoral College, became the first president in more than two centuries of elections to refuse to hand over power peacefully. His incitement of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol — his last-ditch attempt to remain in office — killed five, including one police officer, injured another 140 officers and led to four police suicides.
Nevertheless, Trump remains the dominant figure in the Republican Party and is openly speaking about running for the presidency again in 2024.
In statements on his personal social media platform, Trump has continued to lie about the election and the Jan. 6 committee’s work, calling it a “hoax” similar to previous investigations into his 2016 campaign’s acceptance of Russian assistance and his attempted extortion of Ukraine into helping his 2020 campaign.