Election 2020 Politics

Echoes of Watergate: Trump’s appointees reveal his push to topple Justice Dept.

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Richard Donoghue, President Donald Trump’s acting deputy attorney general, picked up the phone at home in December 2020 to hear the president of the United States insist once again that the election he had just lost was filled with fraud.

He reached to his wife’s nightstand, picked up pad and pen, and took precise notes, scribbling in loose cursive as Trump spoke: “Just say the election was corrupt + leave to the rest to me and the R. Congressman.”

On Thursday, those same handwritten notes flashed on an oversize video panel in a hearing room amid a riveting afternoon of testimony before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

New details emerge of Oval Office confrontation three days before Jan. 6

Donoghue and two other former top Justice Department officials also told the committee in extraordinary detail about how he — along with the acting attorney general and Trump’s own White House counsel and others — confronted the president in an explosive Oval Office meeting on Jan. 3, 2021.

The meeting centered on a plan by a mid-level Justice official, Jeffrey Clark, to become attorney general. New details released at the hearing revealed just how close the Justice Department came to collapsing and throwing the country into an unprecedented constitutional crisis.

Among those details: a possible link between Clark, another Justice official and John Eastman, a conservative attorney running a parallel effort on Trump’s behalf to push states to overturn the election. And, White House phone logs that at one point listed Clark as the acting attorney general, showing how close he came to getting the position.

Much of the dramatic testimony on this Washington summer afternoon had already been detailed in dry depositions and previously released court documents. But delivered with raw emotion on Tuesday, those details landed with new gravity as some of Trump’s former top aides called out his falsehoods about the election, still sounding shocked and disdainful at what they had witnessed.

In a series of striking moments, nationally televised to millions, the damning testimony from the nation’s top law enforcement officials was the closest that the investigation has come to events that unfolded a half-century ago in the Watergate scandal.

Instead of White House tapes, there were the handwritten notes and fly-on-the-wall testimony about Oval Office conversations by Donoghue, former acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen and others. Instead of President Richard M. Nixon’s White House counsel warning that there was a “cancer on the presidency,” there was an account of Trump White House Counsel Pat Cipollone saying that an effort to overturn the election was like a “murder-suicide pact” that would affect everyone involved.

And, in an echo of how Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” led to the resignations of his attorney general and deputy attorney general, Donoghue warned Trump that hundreds of Justice Department officials could resign if the president replaced his attorney general with a mid-level official who had vowed to pursue Trump’s claims.

“Suppose I do this. Suppose I replace him, Jeff Rosen, with him, Jeff Clark, what would you do?” Donoghue recalled Trump asking him. “And I said, ‘Mr. President, we resign immediately. I’m not working one minute for this guy who I just declared was completely incompetent.’”

At the center of Thursday’s hearing was the extraordinary clash set in motion by the mid-level Justice official, Clark, who had once overseen environmental litigation and then became acting head of the civil division.

After William P. Barr resigned in late December 2020 as attorney general, he was replaced by Rosen, who along with his deputy, Donoghue, testified about the numerous efforts by Trump to convince them that the election was fraudulent. When Rosen and Donoghue checked out every allegation and told Trump they all were baseless, Trump began focusing on whether Rosen should be replaced by the little-known Clark.

Clark had an ally in Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), who arranged a meeting with Trump at the White House. The committee displayed texts from Perry to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in which Perry said: “Mark, you should call Jeff. I just got off the phone with him,” explaining how Clark needed more authority. Perry then texted Meadows that he “just sent you something on Signal,” an app that sends encrypted messages.

When Rosen found out that Clark had met with Trump, he was livid. Rosen testified that he believed Clark wouldn’t meet with Trump again — but Clark did, despite being told not to by Rosen and Donoghue, according to the testimony.

The committee outlined how Trump’s requests to his Justice Department grew more outlandish. On New Year’s Eve, the Justice Department’s former top officials testified, they were summoned to a meeting with Trump, who had rushed back to Washington from vacationing at his Florida estate Mar-a-Lago.

During the meeting, Donoghue testified that Trump said he wanted to appoint a special counsel to investigate the election, though he had been told repeatedly by Justice Department officials that no special counsel was warranted. Then, Trump turned his attention to voting machines. “There was a point at which the president said something about why don’t you guys see these machines?Donoghue testified.

The Justice officials explained they had no authority to seize voting machines — and there was no evidence anything had gone wrong with the machines, as had been confirmed by Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security.

Trump then called Ken Cuccinelli, the DHS acting deputy secretary, and falsely told him that the acting attorney general had just said that it was Cuccinelli’s job to seize voting machines “and you’re not doing your job.”

The following day, Jan. 1, Meadows sent a series of increasingly desperate emails to Rosen. In one, he suggested that Rosen send Clark to Georgia to oversee election matters there. In another, Meadows asked Rosen to look into a bizarre theory that an Italian defense contractor had used satellites to flip votes from Trump to Biden.

The committee revealed that Meadows had learned of the baseless conspiracy theory from Perry, who texted Meadows about it on Dec. 31.

Rosen testified that he told Meadows he would not meet with a man who was pushing the theory, nor with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who Meadows said was also interested in the Italy conspiracy. “Pure insanity,” Donoghue emailed to Rosen about the pressure at the time.

Rosen testified that he thought his refusals had put an end to the issue.

Instead, Donoghue testified that he received a call from Defense Department official Kash Patel about the matter. The committee played recorded testimony from former acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller confirming he too fielded calls about the bizarre conspiracy theory. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said the committee had confirmed that Miller placed a phone call to an attache in Italy to inquire about the allegation.

Clark, meanwhile, had come up with a proposed letter that would be sent to key states urging the legislatures to take steps that could have overturned the election. The letter said that the Justice Department had “identified significant concerns” about the vote and that the states should consider sending “a separate slate of electors supporting Donald J. Trump” for Congress to approve.

A draft of the letter had been sent to Clark by a recently arrived Justice official, Ken Klukowski. Committee Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said Thursday that Klukowski had been assigned “to work under Jeffrey Clark” and that he helped draft the letter to key states. In addition, Cheney said that Klukowski “also worked with John Eastman,” the Trump legal adviser who was involved in other plans seeking to overturn the election. Cheney said the letter echoed some of Eastman’s theories. Two sources said Klukowski has cooperated with the committee, but it did not release his testimony; his lawyer declined to comment on Thursday night. Eastman and his lawyer could not be reached.

At the bottom of the letter was a place for it to be signed not only by Clark, but also by Rosen and Donoghue. The two top Justice officials were outraged and told Clark there was no such evidence and that they would never sign the letter. They thought the matter was dead.

Donoghue told the committee that at one point he told Clark what he was doing would have “grave consequences for the country” adding, “I wanted to make sure that he understood the gravity of the situation because he didn’t seem to really appreciate it.”

Clark persisted in his efforts to win over Trump, who had warmed to the idea.

By Jan. 3, 2020, Trump was so fed up with Rosen and Donoghue that he told Clark to be ready to be named attorney general. Call logs released by the committee Thursday show that Clark called the White House four times on that day as it seemed he would take over the Justice Department.

At 7:07 a.m. and again at 7:38 a.m., logs show calls from “Mr. Jeffrey Clark.” Again at 1:13 p.m., the log reflects a call from “Mr. Jeffrey Clark.”

But when Clark called again at 4:19 p.m., the logs showed different. This time, Clark was recorded as “acting Attorney General Jeffrey Clark.” The log detail provided a striking window how close the country came to Trump going through with his plan.

In fact, at that time, Rosen had not resigned or been ousted. He had instead demanded a meeting with Trump rather than agreeing to step down simply at the request of Clark. Rosen called Donoghue, who had been walking on the muddy National Mall and was still dressed in an Army T-shirt, and they rushed to the Oval Office to intervene.

For two and a half hours, Trump met with Clark, Rosen, Donoghue and White House lawyers. Clark told the president that “history is calling” and that “this is our opportunity. We can get this done,” according to prior testimony.

Rosen and Donoghue testified that they pushed back relentlessly, warning that there would be mass resignations at the Justice Department. Donoghue, in a previously recorded portion of his testimony, recalled that he told Trump that Clark “is not even competent to serve as the attorney general. He’s never been a criminal attorney. He’s never conducted a criminal investigation in his life.”

Clark retorted that he had done things like environmental litigation, to which Donoghue sent a stinging rejoinder.

“I said, ‘That’s right. You’re an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill?’”

A White House lawyer, Eric Herschmann, who gave his testimony in recorded video, provided a new account, saying that he thought Clark’s proposal was “nuts” and that when Clark finished discussing his plan, he told Clark: “Congratulations. You just admitted your first step or act that you take as attorney general would be committing a felony,” adding sarcastically, “You’re clearly the right candidate for this job.”

Trump was eventually convinced that putting Clark atop the Justice Department would result in mass resignations.

As the committee members told it, the actions by Rosen, Donoghue and others showed the value of government officials who aren’t simply loyal to a single person, the president. Instead, they defied the president and told their story to the nation Thursday.

Clark has taken the Fifth Amendment and declined to address many of the committee’s questions. His home was raided Wednesday by law enforcement officials.

Clark, appearing Thursday night on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, said he was told to exit his home in his pajamas by armed agents, saying, “Increasingly, Tucker, I don’t recognize the country anymore with these kinds of Stasi-like things happening.” He said he didn’t think it was a coincidence that the raid happened shortly before the hearing.

The committee then set the stage for the next chapter of the story, to be examined in a future hearing, about what happened three days later, when the president waited hours to intervene as a mob broke into the Capitol, shouting Trump’s name.

“We’re going to show,” said committee chairman Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), “how Donald Trump tapped into the threat of violence, how he summoned the mob to Washington and how, after corruption and political pressure failed to keep Donald Trump in office, violence became the last option.”

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