The fifth hearing of the House select committee investigating Jan. 6 focused Thursday on how then-President Trump sought to misuse the Justice Department to convince states and the courts that there was widespread election fraud.
Led by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), alongside committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the hearing featured testimony from top Justice Department officials who detailed Trump’s exhaustive effort to get the department to embrace internet conspiracy theories, and explained how close the president came to installing atop its ranks an official whose primary qualification was his fealty to Trump.
Here are some key takeaways from the hearing:
GOP Congress members sought pardons
Several Republican members of Congress sought presidential pardons before Trump left office, moves that suggest elected officials who embraced and perpetuated the so-called Big Lie had at least some concern that their involvement could land them in legal trouble.
In a Jan. 11 email obtained by the committee, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) recommended “pursuant to a request from Matt Gaetz” that Trump “give general (all purpose) pardons” to “every Congressman and Senator who voted to reject the electoral college vote submissions of Arizona and Pennsylvania.”
“The general tone was, ‘We may get prosecuted because we were defensive of, you know, the president’s positions on these things,’” former White House lawyer Eric Herschmann told investigators in a taped deposition. “The pardon that [Gaetz] was discussing requesting was as broad as you can describe from the beginning of time up until today for any and all things.”
In all, Trump White House officials told the committee the list of members of Congress who requested pardons included Reps. Brooks, Gaetz (R-Fla.), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) also talked about pardons, according Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. But Jordan never asked her about a pardon for himself, Hutchinson told investigators.
“It was more for an update on whether the White House was going to pardon members of Congress,” she said.
Trump’s “congressional friends,” as Kinzinger described them, sought pardons because “they knew that every bit of what they did was a lie, and it was wrong.”
Just ‘say it was corrupt,’ Trump told Justice Department
Trump seemingly reached a point in his unsuccessful effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election where he didn’t care whether the Justice Department was able to corroborate any of his campaign’s claims of fraud. He just wanted the department to create enough doubt in the election to allow his GOP allies in Congress do their part to keep him in office.
Trump requested a meeting with Justice Department leaders Jeffrey Rosen and Richard Donoghue on Dec. 15, 2020, after he learned Rosen would become acting attorney general with Donoghue as his acting deputy. Rosen testified that Trump called him or met with him “virtually every day, with one or two exceptions, like Christmas Day,” between Dec. 23, 2020, and Jan. 3, 2021.
Testifying at Thursday’s hearing, Rosen and Donoghue said Trump became increasingly adamant that the Justice Department wasn’t doing its job. They said they repeatedly steered him away from online conspiracy theories and requests to appoint a special counsel for election fraud, meet with his campaign counsel, file a lawsuit to the Supreme Court and send a letter to state legislatures claiming there was fraud in the election.
When Donoghue informed the president that the Justice Department couldn’t change the outcome of an election, he said Trump responded swiftly.
“That’s not what I’m asking you to do,” Trump said, according to Donoghue, who took notes during the conversation. “What I’m just asking you to do is say it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen. … We have an obligation to tell people that this was an illegal, corrupt election.”
Of course, the election was free and fair, and Joe Biden won the electoral college vote, along with the national popular vote by millions.
Trump came incredibly close to appointing an environmental attorney as acting attorney general, but a group of White House and Justice Department officials eventually talked him down. After the lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, told Rosen he offered and accepted the president’s offer to serve as acting attorney general, Rosen requested a meeting with the president.
That meeting on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in the Oval Office was attended by Rosen, Donoghue, Clark, Assistant Atty. Gen. Steven Engel, Herschmann and two lawyers from the White House counsel’s office. Its purpose was to determine whether there should be a leadership change at the department.
Clark told the room he would conduct investigations that would uncover widespread fraud if he took over the department, and that he would send a letter he drafted that claimed the Justice Department was “investigating various irregularities in the 2020 election” and found “significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple States.”
“I said: ‘Good, [expletive]. Congratulations,’” Herschmann told investigators. “’You just admitted your first step or act you take as attorney general would be committing a felony. … You’re clearly the right candidate for this job.’”
In reality, Justice Department officials testified that Clark had no support whatsoever inside the Oval Office.
“I made the point that Jeff Clark is not even competent to serve as the attorney general,” Donoghue told investigators. “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.”
When Clark touted his experience with complicated appeals and civil and environmental litigation, Donoghue 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.”
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone described the letter Clark wanted the Justice Department to send as a “murder-suicide pact” that would “damage everyone who touches it,” according to Donoghue’s recollection.
Herschmann called Clark’s proposal “nuts” and quipped that “‘the only thing you know about environmental and elections challenges is they both start with E, and based on your answers tonight, I’m not even sure if you know that.’”
Justice Department officials told the president they’d resign if Clark was tapped to lead the department, and they said a wave of other department leaders would follow them.
“Within 24, 48, 72 hours, you could have hundreds and hundreds of resignations of the leadership of your entire Justice Department because of your actions,” Donoghue said he told the president. “What’s that going to say about you?”
“No one is going to read this letter,” Engel recalled telling Trump. “All anyone is going to think is that you went through two attorneys general in two weeks until you found the environmental guy to sign this thing. And so the story is not going to be that the Department of Justice has found massive corruption that would’ve changed the result of the election. It’s going to be the disaster of Jeff Clark.”
Donoghue interjected, noting that, “Steve [Engel] pointed out that Jeff Clark would be left leading a graveyard, and that comment clearly had an impact on the president: The leadership would be gone; Jeff Clark would be left leading a graveyard.”
Perry pushed Clark for attorney general
Perry, Greene and other members of Congress met with Trump in the Oval Office on Dec. 21, 2020. The following day, according to the White House visitor logs, Perry brought Clark to the White House. Perry later told a local news station that Trump had asked for an introduction to Clark, so he obliged.
Two days later, Rosen began his first official day as acting attorney general. He recalled a “peculiar reference” during a Christmas Eve call with Trump that lasted about 15 or 20 minutes.
In that call, Trump continued to claim that the election was stolen and that there was widespread fraud. Trump said the Justice Department should be doing more and asked in passing whether he knew Clark or who he was.
“I told him I did, and then the conversation just moved on,” Rosen said. “But when I hung up, I was quizzical as to how does the president even know Mr. Clark? I was not aware that they had ever met or that the president had been involved with any of the issues in the civil division.”
Clark was acting head of the civil division and head of the environmental and natural resources division at the Justice Department, neither of which had any role in investigating election fraud.
In a deposition, Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani told investigators, “I do recall saying to people that somebody should be put in charge of the Justice Department who isn’t frightened of what’s going to be done to their reputation, because Justice was filled with people like that.”
Hutchinson, the Meadows aide, told investigators that Perry “wanted Mr. Clark, Mr. Jeff Clark, to take over the Department of Justice.”
On Dec. 26, 2020, Clark was “apologetic” and “contrite” in a meeting with Rosen and Donoghue, telling them he would notify them if anyone asked him to attend another meeting like that.
That same day, however, Perry was pushing Meadows in text messages to elevate Clark at the Justice Department.
Donoghue warned that Clark’s draft memo “could have tremendous constitutional, political and social ramifications for the country,” and he told Clark. “What you are doing is nothing less than the United States Justice Department meddling in the outcome of a presidential election.”
In what was described as a “contentious” meeting between Clark and the top two department officials, Clark continued to push his positions, including calling witnesses and conducting probes on his own.
Toward the end of a meeting with Trump, the president said people have told him he should “get rid of” Rosen and Donoghue and promote Clark.
“Maybe something will finally get done,” Trump said, according to Donoghue, who said he responded this way: “Mr. President, you should have the leadership that you want. But understand the United States Justice Department functions on facts, evidence and law, and those are not going to change. So you can have whatever leadership you want, but the department’s position is not going to change.”