On the evening of Jan. 3, 2021, a a group of top Department of Justice officials stopped then-President Donald Trump from installing an ally to take over the Justice Department and enact a plan that might have illegally kept Trump in power, according to testimony Thursday before the House Jan. 6 committee.
Former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and two of his top deputies, Richard Donoghue and Steven Engel, detailed at length the pivotal showdown where they stopped a lower-level environmental lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, from pressuring state legislatures to send fake electors to Washington as part of Trump’s attempt to overturn his 2020 election loss — an effort lawmakers on the Jan. 6 committee have called an attempted coup.
“For the department to insert itself into the political process this way, I think would have had grave consequences for the country. It very may well have spiraled us into a constitutional crisis,” Donoghue told members of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
Behind the scenes, Clark had rocketed from overseeing the civil division of the Justice Department to Trump’s pick to take over as the nation’s top prosecutor in the final days of his administration, after others including former Attorney General William Barr flatly told Trump that he had lost the election and his election fraud theories were baseless.
Late in December 2020, a few days after a small group of Trump’s lawyers, including Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell had met with Trump urging him to focus his efforts on disrupting the final certification of Joe Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., started pitching Trump on elevating Clark to run the DOJ and investigate his bogus claims, according to testimony at Thursday’s hearing.
Clark had a clandestine meeting at the White House with Trump on Dec. 26, 2020, according to testimony, and began conducting witness interviews and sought details from Trump’s director of national intelligence on internet rumors of foreign governments allegedly changing votes.
Trump himself kept up his pressure campaign to try to convince Donoghue and others that the election had been stolen from him. In a Dec. 27 call, Trump argued to Donoghue, “You guys may not be following the internet the way I do,” Donoghue said.
On Dec. 28, according to testimony, Clark drafted a letter on DOJ letterhead with the intention of sending it to contested states, urging them to drop electors for Biden and send slates of electors to Washington that would throw the election to Trump.
Donoghue testified that when he first received the letter via email from Clark, he felt compelled to respond right away to make clear that “this was not the department’s role, but more importantly, this was not based on fact. This was contrary to the facts.”
The jockeying by Trump and his allies to take over the DOJ and outflank his own officials culminated in a showdown in the Oval Office on a cold Sunday in Washington.
“I wanted to try to convince the president not to go down the wrong path that Mr. Clark seemed to be advocating,” Rosen testified Thursday.
Donoghue showed up a few minutes late to the White House meeting after rushing over. He attempted to find a seat on one of the couches just outside Trump’s direct line of sight, across the president’s desk, but Trump beckoned him to sit dead center across from him and the other DOJ officials found a seat for him.
After a little less than two weeks, Clark was prepared to take over as acting attorney general and help lead Trump’s effort to hold on to the White House. A White House call log from that day listed Clark as “acting attorney general” even though Rosen was still serving in that role.
Trump “looked at me and he underscored, ‘Well, the one thing we know is you’re not going to do anything,’” Rosen recounted Trump telling him in the meeting.
“‘You don’t even agree that the concerns that are being presented are valid. And here’s someone who has a different view, so why shouldn’t I do that?’” Rosen quoted Trump saying, referring to potentially replacing Rosen with Clark.
Clark “repeatedly said to the president that if he was put in the seat, he would conduct real investigations that would uncover widespread fraud,” Donoghue said. Clark promised, according to Donoghue, that he would pursue the investigation “in the way the president thought most appropriate.”
But Trump’s own White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, strongly fought Trump against sending an official missive to the states urging them to enact the fake electors plot.
“‘That letter that this guy wants to send, that letter is a murder-suicide pact, it’s going to damage everyone who touches it. And we should have nothing to do with it,’” Cipollone said in the meeting, per Donoghue.
As Trump queried the group on their thoughts, each man said he would resign if Trump installed Clark. Another group of assistant attorneys general who had dialed into the meeting also said they would resign en masse if Trump installed Clark.
“It was at that point in the conversation that Engel pointed out that Jeff Clark would be left leading a graveyard,” Donoghue said.
Donoghue recalled shutting down Clark, an environmental lawyer, in the meeting by saying he was unqualified to lead the Justice Department. Donoghue said, “‘How about you go back to your office and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.’”
Clark sat for an interview with the House Jan. 6 committee, but repeatedly pleaded the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. On Wednesday, federal agents raided Clark’s Virginia home.