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WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump sought inside help from the Justice Department to execute his campaign to reverse the the 2020 election, according to evidence presented by the House Jan. 6 committee Thursday.
“Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” Trump implored top Justice officials in a Dec. 27, 2020, conversation memorialized in then-acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue’s contemporaneous notes.
After Donoghue and then-Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen repeatedly rebuffed Trump’s pressure, they testified Thursday, he threatened to replace Rosen with Jeff Clark, an inexperienced loyalist who had drafted a letter asserting that the outcome of the election was in doubt and urging states to certify slates of fake electors.
That letter amounted to a “murder-suicide pact” that would “damage everyone who touches it,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone said during an intense Jan. 3 Oval Office meeting, according to multiple witnesses. In that same discussion, held three days before the official count of electors in Congress, Trump weighed the pros and cons of placing Clark atop the Justice Department to ensure the letter would be sent to pivotal states.
Trump’s treatment of Justice officials represents one piece of an emerging historical record that committee members say proves he orchestrated a sprawling campaign to invalidate his defeat. At the same time he was trying to strong-arm the Justice Department, Trump’s campaign lawyers were pressuring state officials to overturn results and organizing slates of fake electors.
Since the Watergate scandal, most presidents have worked to project a laissez-faire approach to the Justice Department, allowing the agency to operate independently and as apolitically as possible. But throughout his time in office, Trump ignored those norms and sought to treat the agency as his own legal department.
“It was a brazen attempt to use the Justice Department to advance the president’s personal political agenda,” Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said Thursday.
During the Jan. 3 meeting — just three days before the official certification of electors in Congress — Trump wrestled with whether to make a change at the top of the department.
“What do I have to lose?” he asked.
But the conversation occurred in a moment in which he was trying to project strength and stability. He was told by advisers that there would be an embarrassing spate of resignations at Justice if he put Clark in charge. Advisers told him Clark — who was in the room — was not competent to run the agency.
Trump relented. Clark was not promoted. The letter was never sent.
But Trump’s effort to enlist the nation’s top law enforcement officials fits into the committee’s case that he intended to use all available tools — regardless of laws, norms or precedent — to defy voters and cling to power.
Clark has become a central figure to the investigation around Jan. 6. Federal agents visited Clark’s home Wednesday, according to a U.S. attorney’s office spokesman. In a statement, Russ Vought, a former Trump administration official and Clark’s employer at the Center for Renewing America, criticized the “raid” as political.
Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the panel, led the questioning of three witnesses Thursday: Rosen, Donoghue and former Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel Steven Engel.
The panel has already aired recorded testimony from former Attorney General Bill Barr, who said he told Trump in December 2020 that the election was not stolen. Barr, who had said in an interview with The Associated Press that Justice had uncovered no evidence of fraud, resigned before the year was out.
In its four previous public hearings, the committee presented evidence — through documents and witness testimony — about the physical attack on the Capitol, Trump being advised that he had lost, Trump’s efforts to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence and state officials to aid his effort to stop Joe Biden from taking office, and his team’s scheme to replace official electors from seven states with slates of “fake electors.”
At an earlier hearing, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., promised to name lawmakers who had sought pardons from Trump in the waning days of his presidency. The committee delivered on Thursday, playing recordings of testimony about Rep. Matt Gaetz’s effort to secure a broad pardon from Trump.
A federal grand jury is investigating whether Gaetz, R-Fla., committed any crimes in connection with a sex-trafficking case. He has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.
It is not yet clear whether the hearings are having a significant effect on public opinion about Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection or his fitness for office, but some committee members say they see signs of a shift against the former president.
“There are a lot of folks around the edge, particularly in the Republican Party and elsewhere, that didn’t know the complete story,” Kinzinger told NBC News in an interview. “And now when they see the complete story, they’re really awestruck by it, and how close we got and how brazen this attempt was to change the election.”fspra
Garrett Haake, Haley Talbot, Kyle Stewart and Ryan J. Reilly contributed.