In the most damning evidence yet that former President Donald Trump knew he lost the 2020 election but was still willing to abuse his office to remain in power, a former top Department of Justice official testified Thursday that Trump told the DOJ to "just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and Republican congressmen.”
Thursday’s groundbreaking congressional testimony came from former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, one of a handful of ex-DOJ officials who stood up to Trump in his final days in office and refused to have the department misused this way.
Donoghue’s handwritten notes of his interactions with the former president were presented at the Jan. 6 Committee’s fifth public hearing on Thursday, where legislators on the panel announced that several fellow members of Congress eventually sought presidential pardons for their role in Trump’s wide-ranging plan to stay in office.
The committee also revealed that pardons were sought by some of the most vocal Republicans who promulgated election conspiracy theories, played different roles to interrupt the transfer of power, and publicly called for Trump to remain in power—even if by force: Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), and Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA).
Many of those asking for a pardon were present at a meeting on Dec. 21, 2020 in which members of Congress discussed overturning the election. Others like Gaetz—who asked for a blanket pardon “from the beginning of time up until today, for any and all things,” according to videotaped testimony by Trump White House lawyer Eric Herschmann—and Brooks, who requested a pardon for anyone who voted to decertify the election, sought larger immunity.
Cassidy Hutchinson, once an aide to Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, recalled hearing from fellow staff that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) also requested a pardon.
“The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is because you think you've committed a crime,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), a member of the committee. “They knew that every bit of what they did was a lie and it was wrong.”
None of the legislators who allegedly sought pardons from Trump responded to questions from The Daily Beast emailed after the hearing.
The hearing kicked off just hours after news broke that federal agents had raided the Virginia home of the former DOJ official at the center of this plot: Jeffrey Clark, a Trump loyalist who has already come under scrutiny for abusing his high-ranking position there in the final weeks of the administration. This relatively unknown government lawyer devised a plan to use the DOJ to cast doubt on election results in states where Trump lost to now-President Joe Biden by making vague references to a federal investigation and intimidating state-level officials. His home was searched by federal law enforcement on Wednesday.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia has awkwardly confirmed the raid in vague terms, noting there "was law enforcement activity in the Lorton, Virginia area yesterday” without commenting on “the nature of that activity or any particular individuals."
At Thursday’s hearing, former DOJ leaders also recounted what may be one of the most decisive moments of the Trump presidency: a Sunday afternoon meeting on Jan. 3, 2021 when Trump nearly fired acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen—only to hear that several regional U.S. attorneys from districts across the country had threatened to quit in solidarity if the president would weaponize the DOJ this way. When Trump suggested putting Clark in charge, Donoghue told him something that seemed to stick: "Mr. Clark will be left leading a graveyard."
The committee on Thursday also revealed text messages between Trump’s White House chief of staff and a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who lobbied to have Clark ascend through the DOJ ranks as part of the plan to hijack the department.
In those texts, Perry expressed the urgency in getting Clark a high enough spot where he could make a difference.
“Mark, just checking in as time continues to count down. 11 days to 1/6 and 25 days to inauguration. We gotta get going!” the congressman wrote on Dec. 26, 2020. “Mark, you should call Jeff [Clark]. I just got off the phone with him and he explained to me why the principal deputy won’t work especially with the FBI. They will view it as not having the authority to enforce what needs to be done.”
“I got it. I think I understand. Let me work on the deputy position,” Meadows responded that evening. The congressman and White House official then began to communicate via Signal, an encrypted chatting app with disappearing messages.
The committee on Thursday also presented new evidence touching on the unhinged legal strategy put together by law professor John Eastman to keep Trump in command by interrupting the official certification of 2020 electoral college ballots on Jan. 6, 2021 at the Capitol building—the very event insurrectionists were trying to derail.
That plan, which involved having key states replace Biden electors by submitting alternate slates of fake electors loyal to Trump, apparently also involved an attorney freshly appointed to the DOJ and assigned to specifically work under Clark as a senior counsel: Kenneth A. Klukowski.
That attorney’s role in the plot, which partly relied on a sustained campaign to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence into misusing his duty as the person counting the ballots aloud, was detailed in an email written by J. Kenneth Blackwell—an activist who has worked at the conservative group Groundswell alongside Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginni.
In it, Blackwell wrote, “As stated last week, I believe the VP and his staff would benefit greatly from a briefing by John [Eastman] and Ken [Klukowski]. As I also mentioned, make sure we don’t overexpose Ken given his new position.”
At the outset of the hearing, Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) said Trump “wanted the Justice Department to legitimize his lies, to basically call the election corrupt… it was a brazen attempt to use the Justice Department to advance the president’s personal agenda.”
The committee’s three witnesses Thursday were all part of DOJ leadership during the tumultuous end of the Trump administration who had abrasive interactions with the White House when they took a firm stand and refused to do the president’s bidding: then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen, former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, and Steven Engel, who led the DOJ’s in-house policymaking office.
“They were willing to sacrifice their careers for the good of our country,” Kinzinger said.
All are expected to explain in further detail how Clark tried to use the chaos of Trump’s refusal to concede to Biden to make himself attorney general—and turn what should remain a non-political law enforcement agency into Trump’s personal tool.
Much of what the nation previously knew about the ordeal came from a Senate Judiciary Committee investigation last year that culminated in a 394-page report titled, “Subverting Justice: How the Former President and His Allies Pressured DOJ to Overturn the 2020 Election.”
Internal emails acquired by congressional investigators showed that Clark, then the head of the DOJ’s civil division, sought his boss’ approval for a draft letter he wrote to Georgia state officials claiming the Justice Department was “investigating various irregularities” and asking the governor and legislature there to “convene in special session” and hear testimony about made up election fraud claims.
Co-chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) noted that Clark’s draft letter sounded all too similar to the legal theories of law professor John Eastman and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani because it was a key part of their ploy to keep Trump in power.
Clark already testified under oath before the committee back in February, although he repeatedly refused to answer questions, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
On Thursday, the committee played a portion of a videotaped deposition of former Trump White House lawyer Eric Herschmann, one of several attorneys who was present at a decisive meeting at the Oval Office on Jan. 3, 2021. Herschmann expressed bewilderment at Clark’s proposed plan to use the DOJ this way—and his ploy to make himself the nation’s AG.
“I thought Jeff's proposal was nuts,” Herschmann testified, recalling that he said, “The best I can tell, the only thing you know about environmental and elections challenges is that the both start with 'E.’”
Donoghue, then the acting AG, previously told the committee in a recorded interview that Trump White House lawyer Pat Cipollone called Clark’s letter “a murder-suicide pact” that would “damage anybody who touches it.”
Several lawyers there remembered how Clark tried to argue that his short stint overseeing environmental cases at the DOJ somehow qualified him to be top lawyer in the country. Donoghue told the committee that he shot back: “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."
Thursday’s hearing took a tragicomic turn when the committee examined the way that a brainless internet conspiracy theory made its way into the Trump White House. According to Donoghue and Rosen, Trump’s team of unhinged presidential advisers became fixated on the idea that—buckle your seatbelts, folks—an Italian space satellite floating was tapped by American CIA officers and British MI6 spies to secretly transmitted signals that hacked U.S. voting machines to help Biden win.
According to evidence presented by the committee, the idea seemed to start with Congressman Perry, who texted it to Meadows at the White House, who then emailed it to Donoghue and Rosen. After watching a 20-minute YouTube video about it, Donoghue remembered calling it "pure insanity" and "patently absurd."
When Meadows pressed Rosen—then the top law enforcement official in the country—to personally meet with the video’s creator and Giuliani, the acting AG remembered saying, “There’s no way on Earth I'm going to do that… don't raise this with me again."