Senior Justice Department officials Thursday described a heated White House meeting days before the January 6 attack on the Capitol, when President Donald Trump considered installing a loyalist as acting attorney general as part of his effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
‘Early on, the president said: “What do I have to lose?”‘ according to Richard Donoghue, former acting deputy attorney general.
He was one of three former Department of Justice officials who appeared before the House committee investigating the January 6 violence.
They presented evidence of howTrump tried to use the department to pressure key wing states into reversing Joe Biden’s victory.
At its heart was a plan to install Jeffrey Clark, an environmental lawyer and Trump loyalist, as the head of the department.
The matter was discussed during a tense January 3 meeting in the Oval Office, when the president asked what he had to lose.
Witnesses on Thursday described a ‘heated’ White House meeting on January 3, 2021, when President Donald Trump discussed installing a loyalist at the head of the Department of Justice. A top officials said Trump asked: ‘What do I have to lose?’
Richard Donoghue was acting number two in the department during the events of January 6. He said he told the president that Jeffrey Clark was ‘incompetent’ to take on role of acting AG
The committee was holding its fifth public hearing on Thursday, focusing on the turmoil in the Department of Justice as Trump tried to cling to power after the 2020 election
‘And it was actually a good opening because I said, Mr. President, you have a great deal to lose,’ said Donoghue.
‘And I began to explain to him what he had to lose and what the country had to lose and what the department had to lose. And this was not in anyone’s best interest.’
He was one of three Trump-era Justice Department officials who described a relentless pressure campaign by the president, who directed them to investigate unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.
They said it was a deep breach of protocol for the president to deliver orders to a department that prides itself on its independence.
Instead, Trump wanted his own man at the head of the department.
Donoghue said Clark was simply ‘incompetent.’
‘And it was a heated conversation,’ he said. I thought it was useful to point out to the president that Jeff Clark simply didn’t have the skills, the ability and the experience to run the department.
‘And so I said, Mr. President, you’re talking about putting a man in that seat who has never tried a criminal case, who’s never conducted a criminal investigation.
‘He’s telling you that he’s going to take charge of the department 115,000 employees, including the entire FBI, and turn the place on a dime and conduct nationwide criminal investigations and will produce results in a matter of days.
‘It’s impossible. It’s absurd, it’s not going to happen and it’s going to fail.’
In a further twist, it emerged earlier in the day that Clark’s suburban Virginia home had been raided by federal investigators on Wednesday.
The panel’s hearing was the fifth this month by the House committee investigating the run-up to the insurrection at the Capitol, when Trump loyalists stormed the building as lawmakers were certifying the results of the election won by Biden.
Witnesses have included police officers attacked at the Capitol as well as lawyers, a television executive and local election officials who all resisted demands to alter results in Trump’s favor.
The committee last week presented videotaped depositions of former Attorney General William Barr, who castigated Trump’s fraud claims and resigned after failing to convince the president.
Former Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue testified before the January 6 committee on Thursday, as it focused on the role of the Department of Justice
Discussion on Thursday focused on the role of the Justice Department, including a letter drafted by Jeffrey Clark telling lawmakers in Georgia that the department had concerns about voter fraud in the state, as part of an effort to pick an alternate slate of pro-Trump electors
Thursday’s hearing focused on what happened after he was replaced by Jeffrey Rosen.
It featured an audio clip of Donoghue describing how Trump’s White House counsel warned officials during the tense January 3 meeting against a plan for the Department of Justice to tell states it had concerns about election fraud, describing a draft letter as a ‘murder-suicide pact.’
‘And Pat Cipollone weighed in at one point I remember saying, you know, that letter that this guy wants to send that letter is a murder suicide pact,’ he said.
‘It’s going to damage everyone who touches it and we should have nothing to do with that letter. I don’t ever want to see that letter again.’
Previous hearings have focused on how Trump was told again and again that he had lost the election.
Thursday’s highlighted the turmoil at the Justice Department and how Trump mulled promoting Clark in order to further his own claims of fraud.
It also included video testimony from former Attorney General Bill Barr, defending his decision to launch fraud investigations even though there was little evidence of wrongdoing.
‘Why not just follow the regular course of action and let the investigations occur much later in time after January 6,’ said Rep. Liz Cheney as she introduced his response.
‘I felt the responsible thing to do was to be to be in a position to have a view as to whether or not there was fraud.
‘And frankly, I think the fact that I put myself in the position that I could say that we had looked at this and didn’t think there was fraud was really important to moving things forward.
In testimony played during the hearing, former Attorney General Bill Barr said he didn’t think there would have been a transition if he had not launched investigations into election fraud, giving him the ammunition to push back on Trump’s claims
‘And I sort of shudder to think what the situation would have been if the position of the department was, “We’re not even looking at this until after Biden’s in office.
‘I’m not sure we would have had a transition at all.’
The hearing began after news emerged that federal agents raided the home of Clark a day earlier.
They arrived at his suburban Virginia home in the early morning, according to several reports.
An ally, Russ Vought, who headed the Office of Management and Budget in the Trump White House, said Clark had to stand in the street in his pyjamas.
‘The new era of criminalizing politics is worsening in the US,’ tweeted Vought.
‘Yesterday more than a dozen DOJ law enforcement officials searched Jeff Clark’s house in a pre-dawn raid, put him in the streets in his PJs, and took his electronic devices.’
Attorneys for Clark did not respond to requests for comment.
Federal agents reportedly searched the home of Jeffrey Clark, a former Department of Justice lawyer who former President Donald Trump considered installing as attorney general in the days before the January 6 Capitol riot as part of an effort to overturn the election
Thursday’s hearing was the fifth public hearing held this month as the committee lays out the findings of its investigation so far into the violence of January 6, 2021
The Justice Department appears to be escalating its probe of pro-Trump efforts to overturn the 2020 election, which culminated in the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection.
Thursday’s hearing included discussion of a plan to install Clark as acting attorney general, so that the Department of Justice was headed by a Trump loyalist who would pursue fraud claims.
US Rep. Scott Perry was among those who pushed for Clark during meetings at the White House, according to the testimony of an aide.
‘He wanted Mr. Clark – Mr. Jeff Clark to take over the Department of Justice,’ said Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, in recorded testimony.
The committee also played video of Trump’s attorney Rudy Guiliani discussing the qualities they wanted in someone to head the Justice Department.
‘Beyond the president, 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.’ he said.