Three former Justice Department officials who threatened to resign rather than help then-President Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election testified Thursday before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
During the fifth in an ongoing series of public hearings, the committee heard from former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue and Steven Engel, who served as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Trump administration. All three recounted how Trump sought to use the department to promote his false claims of voter fraud and subvert the results of the 2020 election during his final weeks in the White House.
After opening remarks from committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., committee member Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., took the lead in questioning the witnesses and presenting evidence of Trump’s pressure campaign against the Justice Department. Kinzinger and Cheney are the only two Republican members of the committee.
What were some of the most shocking revelations?
Trump tried to get the Justice Department to file a lawsuit alleging fraud in the 2020 election.
Engel and Rosen told the committee that, because Trump’s attorneys were failing to challenge the election outcome in the courts, the president asked the Justice Department to file a lawsuit alleging widespread fraud in the election. At one point, Engel said that Trump forwarded to the department leadership a draft lawsuit that had been prepared by outside attorneys.
“It was a meritless lawsuit that was not something the department could or would bring,” Engel said, adding that “Obviously, the person who drafted this lawsuit didn’t really understand, in my view, the law and how the [Supreme Court] works or the Department of Justice.”
Engel said he was asked to write a memo explaining why the DOJ “doesn't have any standing to bring such a lawsuit.”
Trump wanted to appoint a special counsel to investigate fraud in the election.
Engel recalled that in the middle of December 2020, before he stepped down, former Attorney General Bill Barr had sought his legal advice about whether he could appoint Louisiana’s state attorney general as a special counsel to conduct an investigation into election fraud. Engel concluded that under Louisiana state law, the state attorney general was precluded from accepting such an appointment, and Barr stated publicly before he left office that he would not be appointing a special counsel to investigate fraud, which the department had found no evidence to substantiate.
Rosen, who assumed the role of acting attorney general after Barr’s departure, said that Trump also raised the issue of appointing a special counsel with him after he’d taken over.
Kinzinger said that the committee’s investigation had found that Trump promised the job to Sidney Powell, the “now disgraced” campaign attorney, and presented a clip of Powell’s taped deposition in which she said Trump had asked her to serve as special counsel.
“He was extremely frustrated by the lack of, I would call it, law enforcement by any of the government agencies,” Powell told the committee. In the aftermath of the election, Powell emerged as a prominent proponent of some of the most outlandish conspiracy theories about rigged voting machines and foreign election interference schemes, none of which were substantiated.
Trump wanted to install a loyalist at the head of the Justice Department
Much of Thursday's testimony focused on how, after Rosen and other senior Justice Department officials repeatedly refused his requests to legitimize his bogus claims of election fraud, Trump sought to install a loyalist as acting attorney general who would be willing to do his bidding.
All three witnesses, and other officials appearing via video, described a meeting at the White House on Jan. 4, 2021, in which Trump threatened to fire Rosen and replace him with Jeffrey Clark, a little-known Justice Department official who once served as the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil division and as assistant attorney general of the environment and natural resources division.
“How does the president even know Mr. Clark?” Rosen said he wondered when Trump first mentioned Clark’s name. Clark, who, Kinzinger noted, was “an environmental lawyer with no experience relevant to leading the Department of Justice,” had been introduced to Trump by Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., and had made it clear that he was willing to weaponize the DOJ to help Trump overturn the election, Kinzinger said.
On Jan. 3, Rosen said Clark told him that Trump had offered him Rosen’s job, which prompted the acting attorney general to set up a meeting with the president the following day. At the meeting, Donoghue, Engel, and others threatened to quit in protest – ultimately forcing Trump to back off the plan to install Clark.
Donoghue, who said he had contacted several other senior DOJ officials prior to the meeting, said he told Trump, “Mr. President, within 24, 48, 72 hours you’re going to have hundreds of resignations of the leadership of your Justice Department because of your actions. What’s that going to say about you?”
Clark wanted to send a letter to state legislatures that one witness said might have 'spiraled us into a constitutional crisis.'
Among other things, Clark was willing to send a letter he had drafted to the Georgia state Legislature, which stated, without evidence, that the DOJ had identified “significant concerns” about the legitimacy of the “outcome of the election” in Georgia and several other states. Rosen and Donoghue had previously refused to sign the letter, which urged the Georgia Legislature to convene a special legislative session to create “a separate slate of electors supporting Donald J. Trump.”
Donoghue said that when he first received the letter via email from Clark on Dec. 28, 2020, he felt compelled to respond right away to make clear that “this was not the department’s role,” to get involved in the outcome of an election, “but more importantly, this was not based on fact. This was contrary to the facts.”
In an email responding to Clark, Donoghue wrote that sending such a letter could have “grave consequences for the country,” arguing, “it may have spiraled us into a constitutional crisis.”
Clark has resisted cooperating with the committee, reportedly pleading the Fifth Amendment more than 100 times during a deposition after the panel voted to refer him for criminal contempt charges in December. Federal agents searched Clark’s home ahead of the hearing on Wednesday morning, according to multiple reports, but the purpose of the search wasn’t immediately clear.
Brooks, Gaetz and other Republican members of Congress sought pardons
At the initial primetime hearing on June 9, Cheney said the committee had obtained evidence that, in the wake of Jan. 6, “multiple” Republican members of Congress pursued pardons from the outgoing president.
At Thursday's hearing, the committee presented some of that evidence, including an email that Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., sent to the White House on Jan. 11, 2021, inquiring about a pardon for himself, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, and the 147 Republican members of Congress “who voted to reject the electoral college vote submissions of Arizona and Pennsylvania.”
The committee also showed clips of depositions in which former White House officials, including Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, testified about receiving requests for pardons from Republican members of Congress.
In addition to Brooks and Gaetz, Hutchinson said Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs had also asked for a pardon, as had Rep. Louie Gohmert, of Texas, and Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry. Hutchinson also said that Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan had inquired about whether Trump was planning to issue pardons for members of Congress, but that he never personally requested one. She testified that while Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., had not contacted her personally for a pardon, she had “heard that [Greene] had asked the White House Counsel’s Office for a pardon from [deputy counsel Pat Philbin].”
Who were the witnesses?
As with the committee’s previous hearings, Thursday’s presentation featured a mix of live and taped testimony from a wide variety of witnesses.
In addition to Rosen, Donoghue and Engel, viewers heard more from the taped deposition of former Attorney General Bill Barr, who has appeared on video at earlier hearings, as well as Trump White House lawyer Eric Herschmann, and Hutchinson. The committee also presented clips of video testimony provided by Trump attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell.
As Thompson and Cheney have reiterated throughout the past two weeks, the select committee’s investigation is still ongoing, meaning the hearing schedule is subject to change based on new developments in the probe.
Thompson told reporters Wednesday that the committee will need to take a break after Thursday to go through a variety of new evidence it has received since the start of this recent round of hearings. That includes never-before-seen video footage of Trump and his family from a British documentarian, Alex Holder, new documents from the National Archive and a number of tips.
The committee is also still hoping to hear from additional witnesses. Specifically, Cheney noted earlier this week that the panel is working to secure testimony from former Trump White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who, based on the accounts of other witnesses, was among the senior officials who pushed back on Trump’s schemes to overturn the election.
In closing remarks, Thompson said that the committee’s future hearings will examine “how 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.”