DEx-top department officials testified that Donald Trump and his aides in Congress tried relentlessly to corrupt the Department of Justice so as to overturn the 2020 election.
Three of the Justice Department’s leaders during the Trump administration’s final, chaotic weeks headlined the committee’s fifth hearing, explaining the different ways they deflected efforts by the former President and his associates to use the agency as a pawn in Trump’s efforts to reverse Joe Biden’s win.
Former Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue testified that Trump told him in a Dec. 27, 2020, meeting, “Just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”
Although the majority of the hearing was focused on testimony by former Department officials the highlight came afterwards when the committee broadcast taped testimony from Eric Hershmann, a White House lawyer, and Andy Biggs of Arizona. Both of them stated that many Republicans sought presidential pardons for their members of Congress after January 6, which included Reps Matt Gaetz and Paul Gosar in Florida and Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs respectively.
The committee previously had named Perry only as one member of Congress that had requested a pardon. The majority of lawmakers were present at a White House meeting on Dec. 21, 2020. There they discussed the last-ditch plan to stop the transfer of power and Biden’s election.
“The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is because you think you’ve committed a crime,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois and a member of the Jan. 6 panel, who led questioning on Thursday.
While no such pardons were ever revealed, it’s not clear whether Trump may have granted any of the lawmakers clemency in secret. Ex-U.S. Margaret Love, a former United States Attorney for Pardons, stated to TIME that President Obama could have pardoned members of Congress without ever making public or notifying the Justice Department.
Much of the focus of the panel’s hearing was on former Justice Department lawyer Jeffrey Clark, whose efforts to exploit the nation’s top law enforcement agency to push baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud quickly brought him to Trump’s attention. In December 2020, Trump and Clark pushed for the DOJ to send Georgia election officials a letter that falsely said the department had “identified significant concerns” that would throw the state’s election results into doubt.
After Donoghue and other high-ranking officials resisted Trump’s pressure, the former president and several Republican members of Congress mobilized a campaign to replace the current acting attorney general at the time, Jeff Rosen, with Clark. The argument was that Clark’s promotion would guarantee that the Justice Department could use its power to challenge the outcome of the election. Trump’s plan to install Clark in that role came close enough to fruition that by Jan. 3, 2021, the White House was already referring to him by that title, according to evidence the committee presented.
When asked why Trump wanted Clark, Rudy Guiliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, told committee investigators during a taped deposition that the thinking was “someone should be put in charge of the Justice Department who isn’t going to be frightened of what’s going to be done to their reputation” by working to toss out the election outcome.
The only reason Clark wasn’t ultimately promoted was because several of the Justice Department’s top officials vowed to resign, according to testimony on Thursday from Donoghue, Rosen, and former Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel Steven Engel. “People tell me I should just get rid of both of you and make a change of leadership,” Donoghue recalled Trump saying to them. “Put Jeff Clark in and something will finally get something done.”
Donoghue said he responded by telling the president, “Every single acting AG will walk out.”
Engel stated that Trump had met him for three hours the day before. Engel told Trump it was wrong not to fire Rosen, claiming that Rosen refused to lie about 2020 voter fraud.
All of the witnesses who testified Thursday expressed grave concerns over Trump’s frequent communications with Clark in December 2020 and January 2021. Clark’s main focus at the DOJ was on the environment; he had no experience with election litigation. “How does the president even know Mr. Clark?” Rosen recalled wondering.
“You’re an environmental lawyer,” Donoghue said he told Clark at one point. “How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.”
Other White House officials testified that they were alarmed by Clark’s scheme to capitalize on the Justice Department’s credibility to overturn an election.
“When he finished discussing what he planned on doing, I said, ‘good f-cking a-hole, congratulations, you just admitted your first step or act you would take as attorney general would be committing a felony,’” Herschmann said he told Clark, according to taped testimony aired on Thursday. “The only thing you know about environmental and election challenges is that they both start with E,” he went on. “And I’m not even sure you know that.”
Also, the video evidence presented by the committee showed how Trump’s and Republican lawmakers rallied their support against the Justice Department. The false claim that it was refusing investigation into voter fraud was made. In an interview, Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo, asked Trump why the DOJ wasn’t doing anything about his spurious claims of voter fraud. “Missing in action,” he said. Gaetz similarly exacerbated the agency in December at a conservative conference. And on the morning of Jan. 6, Capitol rioters showed up outside the Department of Justice building in Washington chanting, “Do your job!”
Panel members applauded witnesses who stood up against Trump and refused to give in to his pressure campaign. Kinzinger challenged Americans to think about what might have happened to the country had people of less integrity been in their positions at that time.
“Imagine a future where the President could screen applicants to the Justice Department with one question: Are you loyal to me or to the Constitution?” Kinzinger said. “It wouldn’t take long to find people willing to pledge their loyalty to the man.”
Thursday’s hearing was the fifth thus far. Although the next hearing was originally scheduled for Monday, the committee decided to postpone the hearings until July while it collects more information and makes decisions about how it will factor this into the final hearings.
Multiple sources have told TIME that the committee initially had planned to hold six hearings. However, several sources said that the panel plans at least one additional hearing before it issues its final report. Jamie Raskin (Democrat from Maryland) stated that more people have come forward because of the televised hearings.
Rep. Liz Cheney (Republican from Wyoming, and vice-chair of the committee) echoed this sentiment on Thursday. “There is much more evidence to come,” she said.
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