As he desperately tried to hold on to power during the last weeks of his administration, former President Donald Trump considered appointing a new attorney general who would be willing to help him overturn the 2020 election. The scheme, which would have perched an assistant attorney general from the civil division named Jeffrey Clark atop the Department of Justice, eventually fell apart as senior DOJ officials threatened to resign in protest during a dramatic Oval Office meeting.
In its hearing on Thursday, the House’s Jan. 6 committee drilled into the details of this abandoned plot. While many of them had been previously reported on by the Washington Post, including in a story from this month, the day produced new details about the outrageous skullduggery by Trump, Clark, and others involved. Those details also suggested that the committee believes that Clark was part of a more elaborate conspiracy by the Trump campaign and Rep. Scott Perry to get an inside man at DOJ to do the Trump campaign’s precise bidding.*
Coming on the same day that it was reported that the Department of Justice had searched Clark’s home in a morning raid—and with the committee reporting that Clark had pleaded the Fifth more than 125 times—it seemed at least plausible that these hearings might lead to some actual accountability for those who sought to keep Trump in office by coup.
The committee also pointed to key figures involved in the plot to replace DOJ leadership with Clark, and named several members of Congress who had requested pardons for their roles in the attempt to overturn the election. Indeed, as had previously been reported, when told by Justice Department leadership that the “DOJ can’t and won’t snap its fingers and change the outcome of the election,” the former president responded that wasn’t what he needed.
“What I’m just asking you to do is say it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” Trump said, according to contemporaneous notes from acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue.
But the highlight of the hearing belonged to Trump White House lawyer Eric Herschmann, thanks to his typically blunt description of Trump’s and Clark’s proposal to have the Department of Justice send state legislatures letters requesting that they reseat Trump electors because of vague and unspecified claims of fraud.
“I thought Jeff Clark’s proposal was nuts,” Herschmann said in a recorded deposition. “When he finished discussing what he planned on doing, I said … ‘effin’ a-hole, congratulations, you just admitted the first step or act you take as attorney general will be committing a felony and violating [the federal rules of criminal procedure]. You’re clearly the right candidate for this job.’ ”
The day’s live witnesses were the three senior Justice Department leaders. Attorney General William Barr left the job at the end of December 2020 following a pressure campaign by Trump to produce evidence of election fraud where none existed. Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, Donoghue, and Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel Steve Engel described how a weekslong campaign by Trump to get them to use the DOJ to declare there had been fraud in the election culminated in the confrontational, hourslong meeting in which they convinced Trump not to fire Rosen and replace him with Clark.
As with their taped depositions aired in previous hearings, Rosen and Donoghue walked through how they explained to Trump over and over and over again that his fraud claims had no merit, investigating and debunking each individual conspiracy theory as it was brought to them by the president. They further explained, though, just how things got to the point where Clark, an environmental lawyer with no trial experience, almost brought the nation into a full-blown constitutional crisis. The committee demonstrated that the nation was much closer to this point than any of us realized, with a White House call log on Jan. 3 already describing Clark officially as the “acting attorney general.”
That campaign seemed to begin as early as Dec. 21, following an Oval Office meeting between Trump and Republican members of Congress to prepare for the efforts to overturn the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6. The next day, one of the members at that meeting, Rep. Scott Perry, arranged for Clark to meet Trump behind the back of senior Department of Justice officials—and contrary to long-standing department regulations—in the Oval Office.*
A few days later, on Christmas Eve—during one of his near-daily calls with Rosen to try to pressure him to announce a finding of fraud—Trump casually mentioned Clark’s name in passing, asking whether the attorney general had heard of him. “When I hung up I was quizzical as to how does the president even knew Mr. Clark,” Rosen testified. “I was not aware that they had ever met or that the president had been involved in any of the issues in the civil division.”
Rosen called Clark on the day after Christmas to ask him about this unusual reference by Trump, and “after some back-and-forth he acknowledged that shortly before Christmas he had gone to a meeting in the Oval Office with the president,” Rosen testified. This was inappropriate because of long-standing DOJ policy for all contact with the White House to go through senior department leadership. “He was contrite and said it had been inadvertent and it would not happen again and that if anyone asked him to go to such a meeting, he would notify Rich Donoghue and me,” Rosen testified.
Clark was lying to Rosen. On the same day that the two Jeffs spoke together, Perry reached out to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to push for Clark to be elevated to a higher position. Having the right man in place at the Department of Justice prior to Jan. 6 was clearly Perry’s main goal, according to evidence presented by the committee. According to these texts, Clark was still playing ball. On Dec. 26, Perry texted Meadows:
Mark, just checking in as time continues to count down. 11 days to 1/6 and 25 days to inauguration. We gotta get going!
Mark, you should call Jeff. 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.
The next day, Perry reached out directly to Donoghue “at the behest of the president” and requested that Clark be given a role at DOJ investigating fraud claims. That same day, Clark sent his infamous draft letter to state legislatures asking them to overturn the election results in their states, with signature lines for Rosen, Donoghue, and Clark. “I had to read both the email and the attached letter twice to make sure I really understood what he was proposing because it was so extreme to me that I had a hard time getting my head around it at least initially,” Donoghue testified.
I thought it was very important to give a prompt response rejecting this out of hand. … More importantly, this was not based on fact. This was actually contrary to facts as developed by the Department of Justice. … [It] would have had grave consequences for the country. It very well may have spiraled us into a constitutional crisis.
In a subsequent meeting, Donoghue warned Clark that his approach was “nothing less than the Justice Department meddling in an election” for president of the United States. “His reaction was ‘I think a lot of people have meddled in this election,’ ” Donoghue testified. “So he kind of clung to that and then spewed out some of these theories, some of which we’d heard from the president, but others of which were floating around the internet and media.”
At that point, Trump’s political supporters were clearly being brought into the plot to use the DOJ to advance Trump’s effort to overturn the election. The committee has in court documents suggested that the letter to the state legislators pushed by Clark was drafted by his aide, Ken Klukowski. The committee presented on Thursday an email from GOP activist and Family Research Council fellow Ken Blackwell dated Dec. 28 asking the vice president’s office to meet with Klukowski at the same time as Trump attorney John Eastman.
“As stated last week, I believe the VP and his staff would benefit greatly from a briefing by John and Ken. As I also mentioned, makes sure we don’t overexpose Ken given his new position,” Blackwell wrote. While many parts of Clark’s memo seemed to have been pulled directly from materials Eastman himself was working on for the president’s legal team, this email was the first piece of public evidence linking Eastman directly to the efforts to use the DOJ to change the outcome of the election.
All of these efforts culminated on New Year’s weekend with Clark telling Rosen that he had again met with Trump behind his back and that the president wanted to replace Rosen with Clark. On Jan. 2, Clark told Rosen that “the president had asked him to consider whether he would be willing to replace” the attorney general, according to Rosen’s testimony. Rosen confronted Clark with the fact that he had lied about informing the attorney general and Donoghue about any more contact with the White House, telling him that “he was insubordinate, he was out of line, he had not honored his own representations of what he would do.” Clark continued to try to push Rosen to sign the letter pushing Trump’s coup attempt forward. Then, on Jan. 3, Clark told Rosen that the replacement was actually a done deal. “He told me that the timeline had moved up and that the president had offered him the job and that he was accepting it,” Rosen testified. “I wasn’t going to accept being fired by my subordinate.”
Rosen called for an immediate meeting at the White House, the details of which had been previously reported. He, Donoghue, Engel, and White House counsel Pat Cipollone then in a marathon session convinced Trump to change course and not fire Rosen, selling him on the fact that the entire Department of Justice would revolt at such a move, with many assistant attorneys general already having promised to quit. Donoghue was particularly contemptuous of Clark in this meeting. As he put it:
I said, ‘Mr. President you’re talking about putting a man in that seat who has never tried a criminal case, who has never conducted a criminal investigation, and he’s telling you that he’s going to take charge of the department’s 115,000 employees, including the entire FBI, and turn the place on a dime and conduct nationwide criminal investigations that will produce results in a matter of days. It’s impossible, it’s absurd, it is not going to happen, and it is going to fail.’
He has never been in front of a trial jury, a grand jury, he’s never even been to [FBI Director] Chris Wray’s office. I said at one point, ‘If you walked into Chris Wray’s office, one, would you know how to get there, and two, if you got there, would he even know who you are? And do you really think that the FBI is going to suddenly start following your orders?’ It’s not going to happen. He’s not competent.
It was around this time that Clark was listed in White House logs as having been the official attorney general.
The committee further heard in testimony that Perry—who had promoted Clark as part of Trump’s scheme to overturn the election—requested a personal pardon from the president, along with several other Republican congressmen, such as Rep. Andy Biggs, Rep. Mo Brooks, Rep. Louie Gohmert, and Rep. Matt Gaetz.
As Republican committee member Adam Kinzinger put it at the close of Thursday’s hearing, “The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is that you think you’ve committed a crime.”
The same might be said for Jeff Clark’s pleading the Fifth Amendment more than 125 times in his own testimony before the committee.
Correction, June 24, 2022: This post originally misidentified Rep. Scott Perry as William Perry.