Jan. 6 Evidence

Point #2: Evidence That Trump Tried to Pressure the Justice Department to Spread His Allegations of Election Fraud

By Matt Gluck, Tia Sewell, Benjamin Wittes
Sunday, August 21, 2022, 9:00 AM
♦ Return to Evidence Navigation Page
Take Me to Point #3 →


Well before the Jan. 6 select committee hearings began, a Senate Judiciary Committee investigation—which resulted in depositions of former Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, and former U.S. attorney BJay Pak, and a report back in October 2021—already released a lot of evidence on Trump’s near-decapitation of the Justice Department leadership in the run-up to Jan. 6.

As a result, the general outline of this story, and many of its details, were already well known by the time the committee’s hearings began: After Attorney General William Barr resigned, having refused to take up Trump’s bogus allegations, senior Justice Department officials told Trump they could not support his claims of election fraud, and Trump sought to fire these officials and offered the attorney general position to Jeffrey Clark. 

Nonetheless, the committee’s presentation on this point is among the most powerful evidence it provided. It focused on the machinations at the upper echelons of the Justice Department during its June 23 hearing, during which it heard witness testimony from Richard Donoghue, Jeffrey Rosen, and former Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel—all of whom provided further detail on the extent of Trump’s pressure campaign at the Justice Department.

At this hearing, Rep. Adam Kinzinger played a montage of video testimony concerning a Jan. 3 meeting in the Oval Office that included senior Justice Department officials, President Trump, White House Counsel Patrick Cipollone, and Deputy White House Counsel Patrick Philbin. The conversation focused on whether the president should replace Jeffrey Rosen with Jeffrey Clark as acting attorney general. Donoghue recalled raising Clark’s incompetence to serve as the attorney general during the meeting. He stated that a letter Clark had written alleging that the Justice Department had identified major concerns about the presidential election results in several states—with a particular focus on Georgia—was “a murder-suicide pact” that would “damage everyone who touches it.” 

Rosen stated that the president had continued to demand that the Justice Department investigate his claims of a stolen election after Barr’s resignation in 2020. He said that Trump had “asserted that he thought the Justice Department had not done enough.” 

Rosen further testified that between Dec. 23, 2020, and Jan. 23, 2021, the president spoke with him “virtually every day, with one or two exceptions like Christmas Day.” In all of these meetings, Rosen said the president repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with the Justice Department’s efforts to investigate election fraud. Trump also requested that Rosen meet with lawyer Rudy Giuliani on numerous occasions and asked whether the department would appoint a special counsel for election fraud. Rosen stated that at one point Trump raised “whether the Justice Department would file a lawsuit in the Supreme Court.” 

According to Rosen’s testimony, Trump asked whether the Justice Department would make public statements or hold a press conference and ultimately whether the Justice Department would issue a letter on election fraud to state legislatures in Georgia and other states. Rosen told the committee that the department declined each request, believing that there was no factual or legal basis for the actions proposed by the president.

When discussing his Dec. 15 White House meeting with Rosen and Trump, Donoghue stated that the conversation was primarily focused on Trump’s claims of election fraud, with specific emphasis on a report regarding Antrim County, Michigan—which the president asserted the Justice Department should use “to basically tell the American people that the results were not trustworthy.”

Kinzinger then presented a Fox News clip from Nov. 29, 2020, in which Trump stated that the Justice Department was “missing in action”a sentiment that Republican Reps. Louie Gohmert, Andy Biggs, Paul Gosar, Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, and Mo Brooks echoed thereafter. Kinzinger played a video montage of the politicians reiterating the president’s claims of election fraud, many of them explicitly calling upon the Justice Department to do more, and calling for a showdown in Congress on Jan. 6.

Donoghue described his Dec. 27 conversation with Rosen and the president concerning a set of election-related allegations. Donoghue called the discussion “an escalation of the earlier conversations,” because as December drew to a close, “the president’s entreaties became more urgent.” Donoghue said he told the president, conspiracy by conspiracy, that the Justice Department “had concluded, based on actual investigations, actual witness interviews, actual reviews of documents that these allegations simply had no merit.” Donoghue detailed that there was not a single credible allegation of systemic fraud validated by the Justice Department’s investigations. Kinzinger then presented handwritten notes taken by Donoghue during the Dec. 27 call, including exact quotations, several of which Kinzinger read aloud:

Donoghue testified that he and Rosen tried to explain to Trump that supervising state elections is not generally within the Justice Department’s domain and, further, that the Justice Department cannot determine the result of an election. He stated that the president responded, “[T]hat’s not what I’m asking you to do. What I’m asking you to do is to say it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican Congressmen.”

Rosen testified that during a call with the president on Dec. 24 (Rosen’s first day as acting attorney general), the two had an “extended discussion … with [Trump] urging that the Department of Justice should be doing more with regard to election fraud.” He also stated that Trump asked whether he knew Jeffrey Clark—a question that Rosen claimed to have found “quizzical.” Clark, after all, would have had “no prior involvement of any kind” with regard to investigations of election fraud, and there was no reason President Trump should even know who he was, let alone be asking after him.

The committee, through Kinzinger, presented the following theory regarding how Trump initially became aware of Clark. On Dec. 21, a tweet by White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows established that Trump had met with a group of congressional leaders that day to discuss overturning the election. The same day, Trump spoke at a conservative political convention, stating that he needed Justice Department backing for his fight against voter fraud. Kinzinger presented a document showing that Clark had visited the White House the next day, on Dec. 22 at 5:30 pm, along with Rep. Scott Perry. Later, on Jan. 25, Perry told a local news station that he had introduced Clark and Trump at the president’s behest. 

Kinzinger played a video in which Giuliani said to investigators that he recalled telling people, including the president, “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 [sic] Justice Department was filled with people like that.” 

Rosen testified that after Trump had raised Clark’s name on Dec. 24, Rosen called Clark, who acknowledged that he had met with the president in the Oval Office. During that conversation, Rosen stated that Clark was “defensive” and that he had unexpectedly “found himself at the Oval Office” after talking to Perry. Further, Rosen stated, Clark was apologetic, given that the meeting was unauthorized and entirely inappropriate per a policy that restricts contacts between the White House and the Justice Department. This policy is important, Engel testified, because “it’s critical that the Department of Justice conducts its criminal investigations free from either the reality or any appearance of political interference."

Kinzinger said that in an informal interview with Cipollone and his deputy Philbin, Cipollone told the select committee that he told Clark to stop talking to the White House on Dec. 26. On the same day, however, Perry texted Meadows urging him to “call Jeff [Clark]” and “get going” with efforts to overturn the results of the election prior to Jan. 6 and inauguration, according to records presented by Kinzinger.

On Dec. 27, Donoghue testified, Rep. Perry called him “at the behest of the president” to discuss voter fraud allegations specific to Pennsylvania. Donoghue stated that, on the same phone call, Perry raised the possibility of Clark playing a significant role in the effort to overturn the results of the election. Perry proceeded to send Donoghue a report detailing the exact accusations at hand, which Donoghue said he forwarded to the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania—who soon debunked the report. 

Donoghue stated that when he received Clark’s Georgia letter and the email to which it was attached, he read Clark’s proposal twice “because it was so extreme” that Donoghue “had a hard time getting [his] head around it initially.” Donoghue detailed his rationale for rejecting the claims made in the letter, stating that not only was it not within the department’s purview to “dictate to state legislatures how they should select their electors, but more importantly, [the letter] was not based on fact.” Donoghue testified that he, Rosen, and Clark had a “very contentious” meeting shortly thereafter, during which he told Clark that the letter was “nothing less than the United States Justice Department meddling in the outcome of a presidential election.”

Nonetheless, Donoghue stated, Clark stayed the course, and even “began calling witnesses and apparently conducting investigations of his own.”

Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney asserted that the Georgia letter’s co-author, Ken Klukowski, had worked with Trump lawyer John Eastman in the past and maintained a relationship with him even after joining the Justice Department. She said that the document specifically referenced Eastman’s theory about contending electoral slates. She also presented an email from Ken Blackwell, a conservative activist who served on Trump’s transition team, recommending that Vice President Pence and his staff meet with Klukowski and Eastman; the email claimed that “the VP and his staff would benefit greatly from a briefing by John and Ken.” 

The committee presented an email sent on behalf of President Trump that included a draft lawsuit that the president wanted the Justice Department to file. The committee also presented Engel’s talking points related to his analysis of this lawsuit, which Rosen had asked him to draft in preparation for a meeting with the president. In that document, Engel asserted that there was “no legal basis to bring this lawsuit. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply does not know the law, much less the Supreme Court.” 

Engel said at the hearing, “[I]t was a meritless lawsuit that was not something that the department could or … would bring.” Engel also stated that “the Department of Justice … doesn’t have any standing to bring such a lawsuit. The lawsuit would have been untimely. … Neither Georgia nor any of the other states on Dec. 28 or whenever this was was in a position to change those votes.” Engel said Trump’s request for the department to file this lawsuit was an “unusual” one.

Engel recounted that Trump asked Barr to explore whether a special counsel could be appointed to examine issues of election fraud. Specifically, Engel said that Barr asked him to analyze whether the attorney general could appoint a state attorney general as a special counsel to lead an investigation. Engel found that Louisiana state law—which was at issue in this case—prohibited the state’s attorney general from working in any official capacity on behalf of the U.S. government, which meant Barr could not appoint the Louisiana attorney general as the special counsel. Engel noted that neither Attorneys General Barr nor Rosen ever believed it was “appropriate or necessary” to appoint a special counsel to examine Trump’s claims of election fraud. 

The committee played a video clip from Dec. 21, in which Barr said that any investigation related to Trump’s election fraud claims was “being handled responsibly and professionally currently within the … department and to this point, I have not seen a reason to appoint a special counsel, and I have no plan to do so before I leave.” The committee showed that on the night of Dec. 23, Trump tweeted, “After seeing the massive Voter Fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election, I disagree with anyone that thinks a strong, fast, and fair Special Counsel is not needed, IMMEDIATELY.”

In an interview, attorney Sidney Powell described her conversation with Trump during which the president offered her the role of special counsel: “[O]n Friday [Dec. 18], he had asked me to be special counsel to address the election issues and to collect evidence. And he was extremely frustrated with the lack of, I would call it law enforcement, by any of the government agencies that are supposed to act to protect the rule of law in our republic.” Trump expressed similar displeasure with the Justice Department specifically on Dec. 27, when he said to Donoghue of the department’s skepticism about voter fraud allegations, “[Y]ou guys may not be following the Internet the way I do.”

Donoghue described in a video deposition the president’s conduct during an unplanned meeting with Justice Department leadership. Donoghue said the president was “a little more agitated than he had been” in a previous meeting covering the same set of issues. According to Donoghue, Trump said, “[T]his sounds like the kind of thing that would warrant appointment of a special counsel.” Donoghue continued, “There was a point at which the president said something about why don’t you guys [at the Justice Department] seize machines?” 

Rosen said that in response to the president asking the department to seize voting machines, he said the department “had seen nothing improper with regard to the voting machines. And I told him that the … real experts that had been at [the Department of Homeland Security] … had briefed us, that they had looked at it and that there was nothing wrong with the … voting machines. And so that was not something that was appropriate to do.” Rosen added that he did not believe there was legal authority to seize the voting machines. 

Donoghue stated that after Rosen told Trump that the Justice Department would not seize voting machines and that it was the Department of Homeland Security that had expertise related to the security of these machines, the president became “very agitated” and called Ken Cuccinelli, the de facto deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Paraphrasing the president on that call with Cuccinelli, Donoghue recounted what Trump said: “Ken, I’m sitting here with the acting attorney general. He just told me it's your job to seize machines and you’re not doing your job.” Rosen noted that he had never told Trump that the Department of Homeland Security could take voting machines or that the department wasn’t doing its job. 

Donoghue stated that during this same meeting, Trump said to Donoghue and Rosen, “[P]eople tell me I should just get rid of both of you. I should just remove you and make a change in the leadership. Put Jeff Clark in, maybe something will finally get done.” In response, Donoghue told Trump that he should choose his leadership, but that “the United States Justice Department functions on facts, evidence, and law, and those are not going to change. … [T]he Department's position is not going to change.”

Kinzinger said that on Jan. 1, Meadows sent several emails to Rosen, requesting that the Justice Department investigate novel allegations. The committee presented emails written by Meadows to Rosen, asking Rosen to send Clark to Fulton County to examine “signature match anomalies” there. Rosen said that he did not send Clark to Fulton County, and he explained that these emails contained the first evidence Rosen had seen up to this point corroborating Clark’s claim that Trump was considering replacing Rosen with Clark before Jan. 4. According to Rosen, he had not been informed about these discussions. 

The emails also addressed concerns related to the administration of the election in New Mexico. Rosen said he saw two potential issues regarding the New Mexico claims. First, he thought that this request to investigate may have come “from a campaign or political party.” This was problematic because, as Rosen explained, it is not the Justice Department’s role to support campaigns or parties. What also concerned Rosen about the New Mexico request was that he believed the claims being made on this front had already been examined and debunked. 

Kinzinger said that Perry informed Meadows on Dec. 31 about a conspiracy theory that “an Italian defense contractor uploaded software to a satellite that switched votes from Trump to Biden.” Along with a link to a video outlining the theory, Perry wrote to Meadows, “Why can’t we just work with the Italian government?” The following day, Meadows sent that link to Rosen, and Rosen passed it along to Donoghue. Donoghue told Rosen at the time that he thought the video was “pure insanity.”

After Meadows asked Rosen to meet with Bradley Johnson, the man who laid out the conspiracy theory in the video, Rosen said that theory had been debunked, and Rosen would not meet with Johnson. After Meadows appeared to accept Rosen’s answer, the president’s chief of staff contacted Rosen again and said that Johnson had been working with Giuliani, and Giuliani was offended by Rosen’s response. Meadows again asked Rosen if someone at the FBI could meet with Johnson, to which Rosen replied: “[T]here was no way on Earth that I was going to do that. I wasn’t going to meet with Mr. Johnson.” Rosen also said that he “certainly wasn’t going to meet with Giuliani,” which he had “made … clear repeatedly.” Rosen testified that he sent an email to Meadows explaining these views. 

Donoghue said he received a follow-up call related to this theory from Kash Patel, a Defense Department official. During this call, Donoghue told Patel that Meadows had raised concerns related to this theory on Dec. 29. Donoghue told Patel that the Justice Department had “looked into [the theory] a little bit,” and that it “was very, very murky at best, and the video was absurd.” Donoghue added that the Justice Department was “not going to have anything to do with [the theory],” and that he “didn’t think it was anything worth pursuing.” 

According to Kinzinger, Meadows spoke about the Italian defense contractor theory frequently at the White House, and the request to examine the theory made its way to Christopher Miller, the acting secretary of defense. The committee presented an audio recording of a call placed by Miller to the Italian defense attache inquiring about this conspiracy theory. 

Rosen testified that by Jan. 2, Clark told him that Trump had asked him to consider his willingness to assume the position of acting attorney general by Jan. 4. Rosen had told Clark that he believed Clark was misguided, and Rosen said he implored Clark to “be more rational” and understand the lack of factual basis for the claims being made by the president and his supporters. During a Jan. 2 meeting, attended by Rosen, Clark, and Donoghue, Rosen said that Clark continued to make baseless claims of election fraud despite the fact that Clark was not involved in the department’s investigation of these claims. Clark also expressed that he was not convinced that Rosen and Donoghue were capable of conducting these investigations. During this meeting, Rosen said that Clark acknowledged that he had spoken again with Trump without informing Rosen or Donoghue that he was going to do so, despite saying a week prior that he would tell them if the president asked Clark to speak with him. 

According to Rosen, Clark said again that the Georgia letter should be sent out; Rosen said that he and Donoghue “were not receptive to that.” Rosen also testified that Clark asked Rosen and Donoghue to sign the Georgia letter during this meeting, and he said he would refuse the acting attorney general position if Rosen and Donoghue signed the letter. But Rosen and Donoghue rejected Clark’s offer. 

Rosen stated that on Jan. 3, Clark told him that Trump had informed Clark that “the timeline had moved up and that the president had offered him the job and that he was accepting it.” According to Rosen, Clark also asked him during this meeting if he would stay on as Clark’s deputy—which Rosen emphatically declined. 

Kinzinger stated that on Jan. 3, “Jeff Clark and the president were in constant communication beginning at 7:00 a.m.” Notably, the committee also presented White House call logs that show the White House referring to Clark as the acting attorney general by 4:19 p.m. on Jan. 3. 

Rosen testified that he took four steps when he heard that Trump would be offering the job to Clark: 

  • First, he set up a meeting with the president for that evening. 
  • Second, Rosen called Cipollone to ensure he would attend the meeting and support the position of the department. 
  • Third, he called Engel to ask if he would go to the meeting. 
  • Fourth, Rosen asked Donoghue and Patrick Hovakimian—the former associate deputy attorney general—to set up a call with the Justice Department senior leadership to inform them of the recent developments. 

Rosen stated that White House lawyer Eric Herschmann then called him to tell him that he would also be attending the meeting and supporting Rosen and the department. 

Donoghue said that within the department before the afternoon of Jan. 3, only Rosen, Donoghue, Engel, and Hovakimian were aware of Clark’s persistent effort to spread false election claims and Trump’s plans to appoint Clark as the attorney general. On Jan. 3, Rosen instructed Donoghue to meet with the assistant attorneys general to discuss the situation within the department. During this meeting among department officials, Donoghue asked the assistant attorneys general what they would do if Trump made Clark the acting attorney general. Donoghue testified that all of the assistant attorneys general on the call said they would resign their positions if Trump followed through. (Donoghue noted that John Demers, the assistant attorney general of the National Security Division, expressed willingness to resign along with the others, but that Donoghue asked him to stay in place because “[n]ational security is too important.”) 

Kinzinger quoted Cipollone’s statement to the committee that he was “unmistakably angry” during the meeting and that he, Herschmann, and Donoghue “forcefully challenged Mr. Clark to produce evidence of his election fraud theories.”

Rosen described the beginning of the Jan. 3 meeting with the president in the Oval Office. According to Rosen, Trump began the meeting by turning to Rosen and saying, “[O]ne thing we know is you, Rosen, you aren’t gonna do anything. You don’t even agree with the … claims of election fraud, and this other guy [referring to Jeff Clark] at least might do something.”

Rosen responded:

Mr. President, you’re right that I’m not going to allow the Justice Department to do anything to try to overturn the election. … But the reason for that is because that’s what’s consistent with the facts and the law, and that’s what’s required under the Constitution. So, that’s the right answer and a good thing for the country, and therefore I submit it’s the right thing for you, Mr. President.

Rosen testified that this exchange initiated an hours-long conversation in which all of the Justice Department officials present at the meeting except Clark backed Rosen and expressed criticism of Clark. Rosen testified that his opposition to Trump’s plan “wasn’t about me”; it was purely grounded in concerns over the institutional posture of the department and promoting the rule of law in the United States. 

Donoghue testified that when he entered the room, approximately 10 minutes into the meeting, the discussion was focused primarily on whether the president should replace Rosen with Clark. Donoghue said he believed everyone present at the meeting understood that if Clark were appointed as attorney general, the Georgia letter would be circulated. 

According to Donoghue, the president asked what he had to lose, a question that triggered an extended conversation about the severely damaging implications—institutionally for the department, more broadly for the country, and politically for Trump—of firing Rosen and hiring Clark. Donoghue also said that he expressed his view during the meeting that Clark wasn’t qualified to run the Justice Department, which Clark countered. Donoghue said that no Justice Department officials supported Clark. 

Donoghue stated that during the part of the conversation when the president was asking what he had to lose by hiring Clark, Donoghue told Trump that he would resign immediately. Donoghue said that Trump then asked Engel if he would resign, and Engel said he “absolutely” would. Donoghue then told the president that he would “lose [his] entire department leadership … within hours.” Donoghue said to the president, “[Y]ou could have hundreds and hundreds of resignations of the leadership of your entire Justice Department because of your actions. What’s that going to say about you?”

Engel described what he said to the president when Trump asked him whether he would resign:

Mr. President, I’ve been with you through four attorneys general, including two acting as attorney general, but I couldn’t be part of this. … [N]o one is going to read this letter. All anyone is going to think is that you went through two attorneys general in two weeks until you found the environmental guy to sign this thing. And so, the story is not going to be that the Department of Justice has found massive corruption that would have changed the result of the election. It’s going to be the disaster of Jeff Clark. And I think at that point Pat Cipollone said, yeah, this is a murder suicide pact, this letter.

Donoghue added that Engel had said to the president during the meeting that “Jeff Clark would be left leading a graveyard, and that … comment clearly had an impact on the president.”

Engel called it an “absurd premise” that Clark could assume the attorney general position and shift the department’s efforts related to its investigation of election fraud claims. Cipollone told the committee in his interview that Engel’s response to the president appeared to meaningfully impact Trump’s decision-making. 

Donoghue noted that Cipollone backed the Justice Department throughout Trump’s conversations with Donoghue and Rosen about the role of the department in overturning the election. Kinzinger asserted that Cipollone “left the meeting convinced the president would not appoint Mr. Clark, but he didn't think the president had actually accepted the truth about the election.” 

Donoghue testified that after the president announced his decision not to fire Rosen, Clark pushed back, but Trump doubled down. Donoghue said the president then asked him whether he would fire Clark, to which Donoghue responded that he did not have the authority to do so. Trump then asked Donoghue who could fire Clark, and Donoghue said only the president has that authority. Trump said he would not fire Clark. 

Donoghue testified that he received a call from the president approximately 90 minutes after the Jan. 3 meeting concluded. According to Donoghue, the president said on the call that “he had information about a truck supposedly full of shredded ballots in Georgia that was in the custody of an [Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)] agent whose name he had.” Donoghue then told Trump that he had not heard about this theory, and ICE operated within the Department of Homeland Security, but if Homeland Security needed the assistance of the Justice Department, the Justice Department would certainly help. Trump said he understood what Donoghue had explained and asked Donoghue to make sure that Cuccinelli was made aware of the shredded ballot theory. Donoghue reached Cuccinelli later that day and relayed the message. 

In the committee’s sixth hearing, Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, added color to Trump’s rage at Barr after the attorney general refused to endorse Trump’s claims of a stolen election.

Hutchinson testified that on Dec. 1, 2020, Trump became so furious about Barr’s interview with the Associated Press that he threw his lunch off the table, leaving staff to pick up shards of the porcelain plate and clean ketchup off of the wall. This was not unprecedented behavior—according to Hutchinson, the president had ripped off the table cloth and shattered plates in the White House on several other occasions as well.

During this same hearing, the committee presented Barr’s description during a committee deposition of the president “pound[ing] the table very hard” as he accepted Barr’s offer to resign his position.

The bottom line is that the committee’s presentation on this point is wholly persuasive and has not been meaningfully contested. There appears to be no question that the president sought to persuade the Justice Department, both before Barr’s departure and after, to make false claims about election fraud. There similarly seems to be no question that the president, in the face of the Justice Department’s refusal to do this, seriously contemplated replacing the department’s acting leadership with Clark—knowing that Clark would send the letter to Georgia if installed. There is similarly uncontested testimony that Trump backed down only in the face of certain threatened resignations from virtually the entire Justice Department senior leadership. 

♦ Return to Evidence Navigation Page
Take Me to Point #3 →