National Security

Jan. 6 panel recommends contempt charges for Trump DOJ official

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol voted Wednesday night to refer Trump Justice Department lawyer Jeffrey Clark for prosecution by the very agency where he once worked, the second such censure by the panel.

The unanimous vote comes as the committee is now planning to convene a second hearing for Clark on Saturday following a note at 8 p.m. Tuesday from his lawyer asking for a chance to plead his Fifth Amendment right to protection against self-incrimination before the committee. 

The vote advances the contempt process. Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) called Clark's offer to return a "last-ditch attempt to delay the Select Committee's proceedings," noting that the committee would still forward the matter for consideration by the full House. The Saturday meeting will allow Clark to plead the Fifth on a question-by-question basis.

Clark, a midlevel attorney at the Department of Justice (DOJ), became a central figure in former President Trump's quest to have the Justice Department investigate his baseless claims of voter fraud, with Clark pushing superiors to send a letter encouraging states to delay certification of their election results. Trump weighed installing him as acting attorney general as other DOJ officials resisted his efforts.

In a contempt of Congress report released Tuesday, the committee released a transcript of its brief Nov. 5 deposition with Clark, who, alongside his attorney, largely refused to answer the committee's questions. 

They have argued that the DOJ official should be exempt from responding due to executive privilege concerns - an assertion Trump himself has not made in regard to Clark.

But the committee said Clark's behavior is willful defiance of its subpoena, which sought information on a wide range of topics, including other ways Trump may have planned to overturn the election. 

"If you want to know what contempt of Congress really looks like, read the transcript of Mr. Clark's deposition and his attorney's correspondence with the Select Committee. Because what you find there is contempt for Congress and for the American people. ... Faced with specific questions, he refused to offer any specific claim of privilege that could shield him from answering. Instead, he hid. Again and again and again. Behind his attorney's 12-page letter and vague claims of privilege. Then he said, and I'm quoting, 'I think that we're done.' And he walked out," Thompson said Wednesday evening.

In forwarding its contempt of Congress report, the matter will now go to the full House, which will weigh whether to formally recommend DOJ file charges for criminal contempt of Congress. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) suggested such a vote would take place this week, but the Saturday deposition will likely delay the vote.

The move is hardly an empty gesture - the DOJ is currently pursuing a case against onetime White House strategist Stephen Bannon, who now faces two charges for failing to provide documents or sit to testify, together carrying as much as two years of jail time and up to $200,000 in fines.

Unlike Bannon, Clark did make a physical appearance before the committee, but Wednesday's vote could serve as a warning shot to future witnesses who may attempt to thread the needle by showing up for the deposition only to fail to answer questions.

At the deposition, Clark's lawyer Harry MacDougald handed investigators the 12-page letter presenting a complicated argument to suggest that Clark should be covered by earlier claims of executive privilege from Trump.

It also suggests his conversations with Trump should be covered by attorney-client privilege, portraying Clark as a regular legal adviser to Trump - something that would be unusual for someone who primarily worked on environmental issues during his time at the DOJ.

The committee has flatly rejected the idea that Trump has the power to limit compliance with congressional subpoenas, saying only the sitting president can wield executive power.

But even Trump's attorney at the time notified Clark and other DOJ officials in August that they should feel free to speak with the committee. 

The report also includes a July 26 letter from the Department of Justice encouraging Clark to cooperate with congressional investigators from other committees, highlighting "exceptional circumstances warranting an accommodation to Congress in this case."

Clark and his lawyer refused to give the committee an hour to review the letter, leaving their meeting with investigators at 11:30 that morning. They also failed to return for a 4 p.m. meeting, which the committee asked for shortly after 12:30 p.m. MacDougald responded a few hours later to say he was already flying back to his office in Atlanta.

Clark also refused to sit with investigators from the Senate Judiciary Committee report that offered the most detailed picture yet of how top DOJ officials, including former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and his deputy, Richard Donohue, threatened to resigned as Clark relayed Trump's plans to install him amid his push to unwind the election results.

"How did this plan with Mr. Clark originate? Who else was involved? How did it progress so far? The American people are entitled to all of these answers. And we need the full story in order to legislate effectively," Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said at the meeting.

The full subpoena to Clark, released for the first time in the contempt report, details the extent that the Jan. 6 committee planned to follow up on the Senate panel's work.

It asks whether Trump weighed "filing documents in the United States Supreme Court regarding allegations of election fraud and/or the certification of the results of the election" and whether Clark knew about any plans to seize Dominion voting equipment.

It also asks for a wide range of Clark's communications, including any discussions with former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, a central figure in several of Trump's election efforts who has also been subpoenaed by the committee. It also inquires about conversations with Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), who introduced Clark to Trump, or any other member of Congress about delaying certification of election results.

Finally, it asks Clark about any communication with John Eastman, another figure subpoenaed by the committee who crafted the memos outlining Trump's alleged ability to challenge the election through state electors and by having former Vice President Mike Pence buck his ceremonial duty to certify the election results.

The vote to censure Clark comes as Meadows has reached a tentative agreement to cooperate with the committee.  

Thompson pointed to Meadows's cooperation as a reason Clark should as well.

"There's nothing extraordinary about Congress seeking the testimony of a former Executive Branch official. Even the former White House Chief of Staff is now cooperating with our investigation," he said.

Thompson expressed frustration with Clark for not asserting his Fifth Amendment rights at his original deposition.

"Of course, Mr. Clark had the opportunity to assert this privilege and any other in response to questions we intended to ask him at his November 5th deposition. He declined to do so. He walked out," Thompson said.

"Even though Mr. Clark previously had the opportunity to make these claims on the record, the Select Committee will provide him another chance to do so. I have informed Mr. Clark's attorney that I am willing to convene another deposition at which Mr. Clark can assert that privilege on a question-by-question basis, which is what the law requires of someone who asserts the privilege against self-incrimination. Mr. Clark has agreed to do so," he added.

Updated 7:56 p.m.

Outbrain