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Key takeaways of Jan. 6 panel Day 5: Trump wanted DOJ to promote his interests

Trump-appointed senior officials kept trying to convince him: They worked for the American people and represented the federal government, not him.
Image: Former President Donald Trump talks to reporters while hosting Republican Congressional leaders and members of his cabinet at the Oval Office on July 20, 2020.
President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he hosts Republican congressional leaders and members of his Cabinet in the Oval Office on July 20, 2020. Doug Mills / Pool via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — After four years in power, Donald Trump never grasped that government isn’t supposed to be a tool for promoting personal interests, the Jan. 6 committee argued as it presented evidence Thursday about his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.  

Witnesses described Trump’s desperate efforts to rope the Justice Department into a plot to overturn the election — trying at every turn to persuade government attorneys to act as an extension of his campaign. 

Senior officials whom Trump had appointed testified that they tried to explain the department’s unique role to him: They worked for the American people and represented the federal government. The message never stuck. 

Frustrated that the department’s leadership wouldn’t falsely claim the election was “corrupt,” Trump nearly replaced the acting attorney general with a loyalist, backing down when he was told the move would trigger a cascade of resignations. 

He sought to use the department’s prestige and power to plant doubts about the election’s validity, the committee showed. Lost on Trump was the department’s singular purpose: enforcing the law — not doing his bidding.

“He wanted the Justice Department to help legitimize his lies, to baselessly call the election corrupt, to appoint a special counsel to investigate alleged election fraud, to send a letter to six state legislatures urging them to consider altering the election results,” said the committee chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

 A few takeaways from the hearing:

Government officials repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories for Trump 

The Justice Department looked into various allegations of voter fraud and found nothing that would have overturned the results. 

Trump never let up. 

He browbeat department leaders, growing more insistent that they weren’t looking hard enough for fraud as Jan. 6, 2021, neared and Congress would certify Joe Biden’s victory. 

Jeffrey Rosen, the acting attorney general, testified that from Dec. 23, 2020, to Jan. 3, 2021, he heard from Trump virtually every day, with the president taking a break on Christmas. Trump would fixate on meritless allegations. 

Richard Donoghue, the acting deputy attorney general, described multiple meetings in which Trump pointed to a report alleging voter fraud in Antrim County, Michigan. The report contended that the error rate in the county was 68 percent. Trump wanted the Justice Department to use the report to show that the results “weren’t trustworthy,” Donoghue said. 

Donoghue said that the report was wrong and that the actual error rate turned out to be less than 0.01 percent. He said he told Trump it was an example “of what people are telling you is not true and you cannot and should not be relying on.” 

On another occasion, Trump told him about allegations of voter fraud in Pennsylvania, where there had been about 200,000 more votes than there were voters.

Donoghue said he asked a U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania, Scott Brady, to investigate. Brady concluded that there was no wrongdoing — merely a state election website that hadn’t been updated.

“In the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, the Department of Justice was fielding almost daily requests from the president to investigate claims of election fraud,” said committee member Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill. “Each claim was refuted time and time again, an effort [former] Attorney General Barr described as ‘whack-a-mole.’” 

Trump never found his Roy Cohn

Early in his term, Trump would complain that he didn’t have an attorney general in the mold of Roy Cohn, his onetime personal lawyer, who worked for red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin in the 1950s. Trump soured on his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for appointing a special counsel to investigate Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election. Barr quit. And Trump nearly fired Rosen for failing to produce evidence of voter fraud.

Rosen told the committee that “the common element” of his meetings with Trump “was the president expressing his dissatisfaction that the Department of Justice had not done enough, in his view, to investigate election fraud.”

One person ready to accommodate Trump never got the job. Jeffrey Clark was a Justice Department environmental official whom the president considered elevating to acting attorney general in the final weeks of his term, in place of Rosen. The committee showed how Clark was ready to send letters inviting officials in Georgia and other swing states to throw out Biden’s victory because of “significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election.”

In a job audition of sorts, Trump met with Clark and other senior Justice Department leaders on Jan. 3, 2021.  Sitting before Trump, Clark made an argument for why he should get promoted. He told the president that he would “conduct real investigations that would, in his view, uncover widespread fraud” and that he had the “intelligence and the will and the desire to pursue these matters in the way that the president thought most appropriate,” Donoghue said. 

Trump was tempted. Pointing at Donoghue and Rosen, he said: “‘You two haven’t done anything,’” Donoghue recalled.

In the end, Trump backed down and kept Rosen in place. Elevating Clark would have triggered mass resignations, crippling the department. 

Even as DOJ stayed publicly mum, a battle was brewing

As the battle brewed behind the scenes at the Justice Department, the officials who testified Thursday were silent publicly. After Barr resigned in December 2020, the new leadership kept quiet as Trump and his campaign spread falsehoods about the election and worked behind the scenes to bend the Justice Department to his will.

Justice Department leaders typically try to stay out of politics, and the officials may have thought their best bet was to say nothing publicly and try to ensure a smooth transition. 

But the silence of the FBI and the Justice Department at the time allowed Trump’s claims to gain steam in the conservative media.

That the Justice Department officials stayed silent for so long made Thursday’s hearing more revealing. Speaking out publicly gave their testimony added drama.