Former Assistant U.S. Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel Steven Engel, former Acting U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, and former Acting U.S. Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue are sworn in to testify during the fifth hearing held by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol on June 23, 2022 in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, DC. Credit - Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images
Donald Trump and his allies in Congress relentlessly tried to corrupt the Department of Justice to help overturn the 2020 presidential election, according to former top department officials, who testified before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol on Thursday.
Three of the Justice Department’s leaders during the Trump administration’s final, chaotic weeks headlined the committee’s fifth hearing, explaining the different ways they deflected efforts by the former President and his associates to use the agency as a pawn in Trump’s efforts to reverse Joe Biden’s win.
Former Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue testified that Trump told him in a Dec. 27, 2020, meeting, “Just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”
While much of the hearing focused on the testimony of the former department officials, one of the most striking moments came afterward, when the committee aired taped testimony from White House lawyer Eric Hershmann and a top aide to former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, both of whom said that several Republicans in Congress sought presidential pardons after Jan. 6, including Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
Previously, the committee had only named Perry as one of the members of Congress who had sought a pardon. Most of the lawmakers attended a Dec. 21, 2020, meeting at the White House where they discussed last-ditch plans to block the transfer of power to Biden, including objecting to the electoral votes of decisive states Biden won during the congressional certification of the Electoral College on Jan. 6, 2021.
“The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is because you think you’ve committed a crime,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois and a member of the Jan. 6 panel, who led questioning on Thursday.
While no such pardons were ever revealed, it’s not clear whether Trump may have granted any of the lawmakers clemency in secret. Former U.S. Pardon Attorney Margaret Love told TIME the president could have issued pardons to members of Congress without ever publicizing them or even notifying the Justice Department.
Much of the hearing centered on former Justice Department lawyer Jeffrey Clark, whose efforts to exploit the nation’s top law enforcement agency to push baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud quickly brought him to Trump’s attention. In December 2020, Trump and Clark pushed for the DOJ to send Georgia election officials a letter that falsely said the department had “identified significant concerns” that would throw the state’s election results into doubt.
After Donoghue and other high-ranking officials resisted Trump’s pressure, the former president and several Republican members of Congress mobilized a campaign to replace the current acting attorney general at the time, Jeff Rosen, with Clark. They argued that promoting Clark would ensure that the Justice Department would use its authority to question the election outcome. Trump’s plan to install Clark in that role came close enough to fruition that by Jan. 3, 2021, the White House was already referring to him by that title, according to evidence the committee presented.
When asked why Trump wanted Clark, Rudy Guiliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, told committee investigators during a taped deposition that the thinking was “someone should be put in charge of the Justice Department who isn’t going to be frightened of what’s going to be done to their reputation” by working to toss out the election outcome.
The only reason Clark wasn’t ultimately promoted was because several of the Justice Department’s top officials vowed to resign, according to testimony on Thursday from Donoghue, Rosen, and former Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel Steven Engel. “People tell me I should just get rid of both of you and make a change of leadership,” Donoghue recalled Trump saying to them. “Put Jeff Clark in and something will finally get done.”
Donoghue said he responded by telling the president, “Every single acting AG will walk out.”
On that same day, Engel said he had a three-hour meeting with Trump in which he told the President it would be wrong to fire Rosen for being unwilling to lie to the American people about voter fraud in the 2020 election.
All of the witnesses who testified Thursday expressed grave concerns over Trump’s frequent communications with Clark throughout December 2020 and January 2021. Clark’s main focus at the DOJ was on the environment; he had no experience with election litigation. “How does the president even know Mr. Clark?” Rosen recalled wondering.
“You’re an environmental lawyer,” Donoghue said he told Clark at one point. “How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.”
Other White House officials testified that they were alarmed by Clark’s scheme to capitalize on the Justice Department’s credibility to overturn an election.
“When he finished discussing what he planned on doing, I said, ‘Good, f-cking a-hole, congratulations, you just admitted your first step or act you would take as attorney general would be committing a felony,’” Herschmann said he told Clark, according to taped testimony aired on Thursday. “The only thing you know about environmental and election challenges is that they both start with E,” he went on. “And I’m not even sure you know that.”
The committee also presented video evidence to demonstrate how Trump and Republican lawmakers whipped up their supporters against the Justice Department, falsely claiming that the department was refusing to investigate voter fraud. In an interview, Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo asked Trump why the DOJ wasn’t doing anything about his spurious claims of voter fraud. “Missing in action,” he said. Gaetz likewise eviscerated the agency at a conservative conference in December. And on the morning of Jan. 6, Capitol rioters showed up outside the Department of Justice building in Washington chanting, “Do your job!”
Members of the panel lauded the witnesses for standing up to Trump and for refusing to cede to the pressure campaign. Kinzinger asked Americans to consider what would have befell the country if people with less integrity were in their positions at the time.
“Imagine a future where the president could screen applicants to the Justice Department with one question: Are you loyal to me or to the Constitution?” Kinzinger said. “It wouldn’t take long to find people willing to pledge their loyalty to the man.”
The next hearing had been previously slated for Monday but the committee announced this week it was pushing back the remaining hearings to July as it gathers new information and decides how to factor it into its final proceedings.
Though the committee had initially planned six hearings, multiple sources told TIME the panel is already planning to hold at least one more additional hearing before issuing its final report. Rep. Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, said that the televised hearings have inspired more people to come forward.
Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming and vice chair of the committee, echoed the same sentiment on Thursday. “There is much more evidence to come,” she said.