The report underscores the gaping political divide that has emerged in this country over one of the most basic functions of government — conducting free and fair elections. Democrats charge Trump nearly provoked a constitutional crisis, but for the steady hands of senior Justice Department officials; Republicans say Trump was “faithful” to his sworn duty as president in seeking assurances about voter integrity.
Both parties are bracing for larger fights over a congressional investigation into the Jan. 6 riot by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol.
Just three days before that melee, then-acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, his deputy Richard Donoghue, and a few other administration officials met in the Oval Office for a final confrontation on Trump’s plan to replace Rosen with Jeffrey Clark, a little-known Justice Department official who had indicated he would publicly pursue Trump’s false claims of mass voter fraud.
According to testimony Rosen gave to the committee, Trump opened the meeting by saying, “One thing we know is you, Rosen, aren’t going to do anything to overturn the election.”
For three hours, the officials then debated Trump’s plan, and the insistence by Rosen and others that they would resign rather than go along with it.
During the meeting, Donoghue and another Justice Department official made clear that all of the Justice Department’s assistant attorneys general “would resign if Trump replaced Rosen with Clark,” the report says. “Donoghue added that the mass resignations likely would not end there, and that U.S. Attorneys and other DOJ officials might also resign en masse.”
The details of the report were first reported by the New York Times.
A key issue in the meeting was a letter that Clark and Trump wanted the Justice Department to send to Georgia officials warning of “irregularities” in voting and suggesting the state legislature get involved in questioning the election results. Clark thought the letter should also be sent to officials in other states where Trump supporters were contesting winning Biden vote totals, the report said.
Rosen and Donoghue had refused to send such a letter, infuriating Trump. According to the report, the president thought that if he installed Clark as the new attorney general, the letter would go out, fueling his bid to toss out Biden victories in a handful of states.
The Senate report says opposition to the idea came not only from the Justice Department but from the top White House lawyer, Pat Cipollone, who made clear that he and his deputy also would quit if Trump went through with his plan.
At one point in the meeting, Cipollone called Clark’s letter a “murder-suicide pact,” for the chain reaction it would be likely to set off inside the government, the report says.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the committee’s chairman, told reporters Trump’s attempt to “take over” the Justice Department was “stopped by a handful of people who stood up for principle and against Trump’s strategy.”
“And then three days later, in desperation, Donald Trump turned the mob loose on this capital,” the senator said. “It was a desperate strategy by a desperate man.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), said in an emailed statement that the committee’s interviews show “Jeffrey Rosen conducted himself honorably and the Department of Justice operated as it is designed to.”
A lawyer for Clark did not immediately comment.
Leading up to the Jan. 3 meeting, Trump had pressed Rosen in a string of phone calls to pursue false or fanciful claims of voter fraud. Rosen had largely resisted those entreaties, while saying the department would pursue meaningful allegations of wrongdoing.
Rosen’s predecessor, William P. Barr, had already declared, in early December, that there was no evidence of the kind of widespread voter fraud that could change the outcome of the election.
The counter-report by committee Republicans that was released Thursday emphasized that Trump ultimately backed away from the plan to replace Rosen with Clark and issue Clark’s letter.
“President Trump’s actions were consistent with his responsibilities as President to faithfully execute the law and oversee the Executive Branch,” it says.
Given Trump’s long-running distrust of the FBI’s handling of the 2016 election, the report says, it was “reasonable that President Trump maintained substantial skepticism concerning the DOJ’s and FBI’s neutrality and their ability to adequately investigate election fraud allegations in a thorough and unbiased manner.”
Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.