The fifth House committee hearing focused on President Donald J. Trump’s attempts to exploit the powers of the Justice Department to stay in office. Drawing on the testimony of three former senior Justice Department officials who played central roles in the episode, the committee detailed how Mr. Trump and his allies in the department and on Capitol Hill sought to install a loyalist atop the Justice Department and reverse the election results of a key swing state.
Here are five takeaways.
It was the most blatant attempt to use the Department of Justice for political purposes at least since Watergate.
Mr. Trump aggressively pursued a plan to install as acting attorney general a little-known Justice Department official, Jeffrey Clark, who was prepared to take action to reverse the election results. As they fought to avert the move, a group of White House lawyers and Justice Department leadership feared the plan was so ill-conceived and dishonest that it would have dragged the country into a constitutional crisis s he had succeeded.
The president came so close to nominating Mr. Clark that the White House had already begun naming him as the acting attorney general in the Jan. 3, 2021, call logs. Later that day, Mr. Trump had a dramatic confrontation with the Oval Office. Justice Department officials and White House lawyers, who told Mr. Trump there would be a “graveyard” in the Justice Department if he appointed Mr. Clark because so many senior officials would resign .
At the meeting, Mr. Trump chastised Acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen for refusing to do more to help him find voter fraud. Only after hours of argument – partly over the lack of substance behind Mr Trump’s voter fraud claims, but also over the political ramifications for him if he took action that led to the exodus senior Justice Department officials — which Mr. Trump caved in and backed off. of his plan to replace Mr. Rosen with Mr. Clark.
The core of the scheme was a draft letter to Georgian officials.
At the center of the plan was a letter written by Mr. Clark and another Trump loyalist that they hoped to send to state officials in Georgia. The letter falsely claimed the department had evidence of voter fraud that could cause the state to rethink its certification of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory there. The letter recommended the state convene its legislature to study the voter fraud allegations and consider naming another slate of voters promised to Mr. Trump.
Senior department officials and Mr. Trump’s White House legal team were all appalled by the letter because it would give the imprimatur of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies to allegations of voter fraud that the department had repeatedly investigated and found to be unsubstantiated. The letter was so outrageous that one of the White House’s top lawyers, Eric Herschmann, testified that he told Mr. Clark that if he became attorney general and sent the letter, he would be committing a crime.
Acting Justice Department Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue testified at the hearing that sending him would have been tantamount to the Justice Department intervening in the election outcome.
“For the ministry to insert itself into the political process in this way, I think it would have had serious consequences for the country,” Donoghue said. “It may have dragged us into a constitutional crisis.”
Trump would not back down from his fraud allegations.
Time and again, the White House has presented baseless and sometimes absurd allegations of voter fraud — including Internet conspiracy theories — to Justice Department officials so they can use law enforcement powers. of the country to investigate them. And time and time again, the department and the FBI have discovered that the claims have no validity.
The pattern became so extraordinary that at one point White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows sent a YouTube video to officials in the department of Rep. Scott Perry, Republican of Pennsylvania, which claimed that a contractor Italian defense had uploaded software to a satellite that switched Mr. Trump’s votes.
The themes of the January 6 House committee hearings
A senior Department of Defense official, Kashyap Patel, has followed Donoghue over the allegation, and Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller has contacted a defense attaché in Italy to discuss the allegation, which was never substantiated.
About 90 minutes after Mr. Donoghue helped persuade Mr. Trump not to install Mr. Clark as acting attorney general, Mr. Trump still wouldn’t let go, calling Mr. Donoghue on his cell phone with another request : Examine a report that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer in Georgia had seized a truckload of shredded ballots. It turned out there was nothing to it, Mr Donoghue said.
Trump considered appointing a loyalist attorney as special adviser.
As Mr Trump searched for a way to back up the false allegations of fraud, he tried to install a loyalist as special counsel to investigate them. One of Mr Trump’s personal lawyers, Sidney Powell – who had become a public face of Mr Trump’s attempts to void the election – said in testimony released by the committee that Mr Trump had spoken with her the possibility of assuming this position in December. .
The committee also heard testimony from William P. Barr, who served as attorney general until mid-December 2020, saying there was no reason to appoint a special advocate. And the committee suggested the idea was part of a broader effort to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Mr Biden’s victory and open the door for Congress to consider alternative lists of Trump voters from states. swing.
“So let’s think here, what would a special advocate do?” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, who led the day’s questioning. “With only a few days until the certification of the elections, it was not to investigate anything. An investigation, led by a special counsel, would only create an illusion of legitimacy and provide false cover for those who would oppose it, including those who stormed the Capitol on January 6.
Mr Kinzinger added: “All of President Trump’s plans for the Justice Department have been pushed back.”
Members of Congress have asked for forgiveness – and Trump has considered the requests.
In the days following Jan. 6, several of Mr. Trump’s political allies on Capitol Hill, who had helped fuel the false election claims and efforts to nullify the results, apologized to Mr. Trump, who was planning to grant them, according to testimony on Thursday.
Among those seeking a pardon was Rep. Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida. Mr. Gaetz was asking for a blanket pardon that would have essentially covered any crime he committed during his entire life. Although not publicly known at the time, Mr Gaetz was under investigation by the Justice Department for paying a 17-year-old girl for sex.
“The general tone was, ‘We could be sued because we were defending, you know, the president’s positions on these things,'” Mr. Herschmann, the White House attorney, said in a video clip of his testimony. . “The forgiveness he asked for was as broad as you could describe. I remember he said ‘from the beginning of time until today’. For anything and everything.’”
“Nixon’s pardon has never been broader,” Mr. Herschmann recalled saying at the time in response to the request.
A bunch of other allies asked for them. Rep. Mo Brooks, a Republican from Alabama, sent an email to the White House asking for so-called precautionary pardons for all members of the House and Senate who voted to reject Electoral College voting certifications of Mr. Biden’s victories in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
A former aide to Mr. Meadows, Cassidy Hutchinson, testified that several other members of the Republican House had expressed interest in pardons, including Mr. Perry and Representatives Louis Gohmert of Texas and Andy Biggs of Arizona.
Ms Hutchinson said she also heard Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia had contacted the White House Counsel’s Office about a pardon.
Mr. Trump “had hinted at a blanket pardon for the Jan. 6 matter for anyone,” said Mr. Trump’s former chief of presidential staff, John McEntee.
Mr. Kinzinger suggested that the pleas for clemency were proof that Mr. Trump’s allies were aware of their guilt.
“The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is because you think you’ve committed a crime,” he said.
Chris Cameron contributed report.