Election 2020 Politics

5 takeaways from the Jan. 6 hearing on Trump’s DOJ plot

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The Jan. 6 committee held its fifth hearing Thursday, this one focused on then-President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign on the Justice Department to help him overturn the election.

The plot was spearheaded within the DOJ by an official named Jeffrey Clark, whose home federal agents searched Wednesday in a significant development that reflects the increasing legal jeopardy faced by Trump’s allies and perhaps Trump himself. Trump at one point considered installing Clark as acting attorney general to further the plot — which prompted mass resignation threats.

Timeline: Trump’s pressure on the Justice Department to overturn the election

Below, some takeaways from the hearing.

1. The pardon picture, filled out

The committee has repeatedly previewed evidence that certain key players in Trump’s plot sought pardons. Last week, one of them was revealed to be Trump lawyer John Eastman, who asked to be put on “the pardon list.” The implication from that email was that there was indeed a list which seemingly might have other names.

The committee built out its own list Thursday, adding several House Republicans to it. Here are the names and the evidence:

  • Reps. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) — In a Jan. 11 email from Brooks, he said he and Gaetz were suggesting pardons for everyone who objected to the election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania. White House lawyer Eric Herschmann also said he “believe[d] so” that Gaetz had requested a pardon. White House aide John McEntee said Gaetz told him he asked for one from White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Meadows, also testified to the effort by Brooks and Gaetz, saying Gaetz had been seeking a pardon “since early December” and that he reached out to her personally.
  • Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) — Hutchinson testified that he requested a pardon.
  • Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) — Hutchinson testified that he requested a pardon.
  • Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — Hutchinson said she had heard that Greene had asked the White House Counsel’s Office for a pardon from deputy counsel Pat Philbin, but that Greene hadn’t asked her personally.
  • Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) — Hutchinson testified that he requested a pardon.

Perry has flatly denied seeking a pardon, calling it “a shameless, soulless lie,” but Hutchinson said he talked to her directly about it.

Hutchinson also said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), whom House Republicans tried to put on the committee before Democrats objected, talked with the White House about congressional pardons but that she was unaware of him asking for one.

What John Eastman and ‘the pardon list’ means

Asking for a pardon doesn’t equal admitting guilt, and Eastman in particular argued that his request was meant as a precaution. But given how far-fetched this plot was and how often those involved were told their plot was illegal, that fact that people were trying to cover their backsides on the way out is important.

And crucially, some of these requests came even before the plot failed on Jan. 6.

2. A new link between Trump and DOJ plotters?

At another point, the committee indicated for apparently the first time that there might have been coordination in the plotting between Trump’s legal team and certain members of the Justice Department.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) shared a Dec. 28 email from longtime Ohio Republican Party politician Ken Blackwell recommending a briefing for Vice President Mike Pence from Eastman and former Trump aide Klukowski, who had recently joined the Justice Department. The email added that “we want to make sure we don’t overexpose Ken, given his new position.”

Klukowski has already been implicated in helping draft Clark’s draft letter seeking to have the Justice Department legitimize Trump’s false voter-fraud claims. This would indicate more of a link between that DOJ effort and the Trump legal team.

“This email suggests that Mr. Klukowski was simultaneously working with Jeffrey Clark to draft the proposed letter to Georgia officials to overturn their certified election and working with Dr. Eastman to help pressure the vice president to overturn the election,” Cheney said.

The Jan. 6 committee connects two strands of Trump’s effort to retain power

We know elements of both Trump’s legal team and the DOJ plotted in different ways. But this suggests there might have been more coordination in the entire plot than we know. That’s particularly remarkable, given how much this effort within the DOJ wasn’t sanctioned by superiors and how it would amount to government lawyers working with political aides to subvert democracy.

Stay tuned to this space.

3. Clark was warned about illegality, too

Yet again, we have been presented with evidence that those involved in this plot were told they would be breaking the law — and by no less than their own colleagues and allies.

This time, it was Clark.

Early in the hearing, the committee again played video Herschmann’s testimony. In the clip, Herschmann said he offered a vulgar response when Clark laid out his plan to have the Justice Department intervene in the election dispute.

“When he finished discussing what he planned on doing, I said, … ‘Congratulations, you’ve just admitted your first step you’d take as attorney general would be committing a felony and violating Rule 6(e). You’re clearly the right candidate for this job.”

Precisely which portion of Clark’s plan this referred to or why Herschmann thought it would break the law wasn’t clear, which is relevant. (Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e) prohibits a government attorney from disclosing matters occurring before a grand jury.)

But yet again, we know of people who might otherwise be sympathetic to Trump telling those involved in the plot that what they were advocating was illegal.

Herschmann previously said Rudy Giuliani admitted that their plan probably wouldn’t hold up in court. And Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R) testified that he told Giuliani that Giuliani was asking him to violate the law by overturning Arizona’s results. There is also a volume of evidence that Eastman also knew what he was advocating was illegal, including by his own admission.

All of this plays into efforts to argue that this plot was “corrupt,” which is a key element of the law the Jan. 6 committee has focused on.

4. Another DOJ official testified he debunked fraud claims to Trump

The other key element that the committee has keyed on while trying to prove corruption is how much Trump was told his voter fraud claims were false. The committee has shown extensive evidence that both Attorney General William P. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue told him that — both broadly and when it came to multiple specific claims Trump made.

On Thursday, Barr’s successor as acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, said he told Trump much the same thing on his first day on the job in late December 2020.

“He thought the election had been stolen or was corrupt and that there was widespread fraud,” Rosen said. “And I had told him that our reviews had not shown that to be the case.”

Donoghue, who testified in person, also said Clark was told that his allegations — specifically, on foreign interference — were baseless and that he was briefed on that by the director of national intelligence.

But he said Clark pressed ahead with trying to get the draft letter sent anyway.

“We thought perhaps once it was explained to him that there was no basis for that part of his concern, that he would retreat,” Donoghue said. “But instead he doubled down and said, ‘Well, okay, so there’s no foreign interference. I still think there are enough allegations out there that we should go ahead and send this letter.’ Which shocked me even more than the initial one, because you would think after a couple of days of looking at this, he like we would have come to the same conclusion that it was completely unfounded.”

Donoghue has said he repeatedly told Clark that what he was doing was tantamount to having the Justice Department meddle in the presidential election. Donoghue said Clark responded, “I think a lot of people meddled in this election.”

Again, all of this comes back to corrupt intent — that those involved knew what they were saying was false and even illegal, and pressed forward anyway.

5. Everyone hates Jeff Clark

It’s already been a bad week for Clark, and it got no better Thursday. In addition to having his role in the plot detailed so extensively and having his home searched, it became clear how little regard his fellow government lawyers had for him.

Herschmann said in a video clip: “I thought Jeff’s proposal was nuts. I said, at a certain point, ‘Listen, the best I can tell is the only thing you know about environmental and elections challenges as they both start with E. And based on your answers tonight, I’m not even sure if you know that.’ ”

Donoghue recalled a meeting that involved both Trump and Clark:

And so I said, ‘Mr. President, you’re talking about putting a man in that seat who has never tried a criminal case, who’s never conducted a criminal investigation. He’s telling you that he’s going to take charge of the department — 115,000 employees, including the entire FBI, and turn the place on a dime and conduct a nationwide criminal investigations that will produce results in a matter of days? It’s impossible. It’s absurd. It’s not going to happen. It’s going to fail. He has never been in front of a trial jury, a grand jury. He’s never even been to [FBI Director Christopher] Wray’s office.’ … ‘It’s not going to happen. He’s not competent.’

Donoghue was asked whether anyone in the room thought Clark had the appropriate background or supported Clark as acting attorney general. He responded: “No one.”

The picture painted was of a dilettante being completely out of his depth and striving for power by any means necessary.

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