National Security

Anger and insults: Documents show DOJ pushed back bluntly at Trump effort

Court records filed by the House Jan. 6 committee reveal new details about the “blunt and direct” language used in a January 2021 meeting at the White House as then-President Trump weighed firing Justice Department leaders who would not carry out an investigation into his baseless claims of voter fraud.

Trump’s pressure campaign at the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been a key focus for the select committee, which Wednesday night alleged the former president “engaged in criminal conspiracy.”

The weighty accusation comes amid a case arguing a Trump campaign attorney cannot shield his records from the committee, as legal advice given with the intention of committing a crime is not protected under attorney-client privilege.

To back that assertion, the committee provided depositions with top Trump-era DOJ officials who speak candidly about the now-infamous January 2021 meeting where many threatened to resign as Trump mulled installing mid-level DOJ attorney Jeffrey Clark, one of his allies, as acting attorney general to forward an investigation.

That includes comments that Clark “wouldn’t even know how to find his way to [FBI Director] Chris Wray’s office, much less march in there and direct the FBI what to do.”

Then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and his deputy, Richard Donoghue, had for days been pushing back against a president increasingly fixated on meritless election fraud claims and baffled by his grumblings he should install Clark.

But they were still surprised to get an email from Clark shortly thereafter promoting “various theories that seemed to be derived from the internet,” according to Donoghue. They included a theory that the Chinese government may have hacked into Dominion voting machines through a smart thermostat.

That was followed with a request for an intelligence community briefing on the matter along with the request to have the Justice Department send a letter to Georgia asking it to stall certification of its election results pending a DOJ investigation. 

Donoghue said he had to read the letter more than once to digest what Clark was proposing, noting that the email made Rosen — a longtime colleague of Clark’s — “a little angry.” Donoghue called Clark, who during a conversation between the two men said that he had been doing his own investigation.

“Jeff Clark would have no way of knowing what investigations we had conducted or not because he was not involved in election matters,” Donoghue said, noting Clark’s longtime career as an environmental lawyer.

Frustration came to a peak on Jan. 3, 2021, when the men were summoned to the White House for a meeting with Trump, in which Clark openly pushed himself for the attorney general role.

“Jeff Clark certainly was advocating for change in leadership that would put him at the top of the Department, and everyone else in the room was advocating against that and talking about what a disaster this would be,” Donoghue said, noting that White House counsel were unified with DOJ lawyers in rejecting the idea.

“He repeatedly said to the president that, if he was put in the seat, he would conduct real investigations that would, in his view, uncover widespread fraud; he would send out the letter that he had drafted; and that this was a last opportunity to sort of set things straight with this defective election, and that he could do it, and he had the intelligence and the will and the desire to pursue these matters in the way that the President thought most appropriate.”

The deposition details the lawyers’ brutal assessments of Clark’s abilities. 

“I made the point that Jeff 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. He’s never been in front of a grand jury, much less a trial jury. And he kind of retorted by saying, ‘Well, I’ve done a lot of very complicated appeals and civil litigation, environmental litigation, and things like that.’ And 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,’” Donoghue said.

“I remember saying at some point that, you know, Jeff wouldn’t even know how to find his way to Chris Wray’s office, much less march in there and direct the FBI what to do, and that, ‘If you walked into Chris Wray’s office, he wouldn’t even know who you are. So we had these conversations that went around and around and were very blunt and direct,” he said.  

When asked by Trump how they would react if he installed Clark, each of the attorneys threatened to resign, with Donoghue saying he wouldn’t serve “one minute under this guy.” 

Steve Engel, another top DOJ official responded, said he would as well.

“Steve — I remember this because it was very vivid — said, ‘No, Mr. President. If you replace Jeff Rosen with Jeff Clark and send this letter, I would have no choice. I would have to resign,’” he said according to Rosen’s deposition.

Each of the attorneys sought to relay how damaging a mass resignation would be for the administration.

“Mr. President, these aren’t bureaucratic leftovers from another administration. You picked them. This is your leadership team. You sent every one of them to the Senate; you got them confirmed. What is that going to say about you, when we all walk out at the same time? … And what happens if, within 48 hours, we have hundreds of resignations from your Justice Department because of your actions? What does that say about your leadership?” Donoghue said.

Trump ultimately relented to leave things be, even as he said in reference to Rosen and Donoghue, “I know that these two here, they’re not going to do anything. They’re not going to fix this. But that’s the way it is, and I’m going to let it go anyway.”

Days earlier, Rosen and Donoghue had sought to calm Trump by saying they had reviewed his allegations.

“I said something to the effect of, ‘Sir, we’ve done dozens of investigations, hundreds of interviews. The major allegations are not supported by the evidence developed,’” Donoghue said.

“We are doing our job. Much of the info you’re getting is false.” 

Clark has largely refused to answer questions from the committee, though the House has not yet acted on the censure vote passed by the panel November as Clark has since said he would plead the fifth about his dealings.

“The January 6 Committee and its media allies assume it was impossible to have honestly questioned the election,” Clark’s attorney Harry MacDougald told The Hill in a statement, adding that evidence around the disputed claims is “piling up.”

Updated: 3:52 p.m. 

Tags 2000 presidential election Capitol riot Donald Trump Jan. 6 panel

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