President Donald Trump pressed senior Justice Department officials in late 2020 to “just say the election was corrupt [and] leave the rest to me” and Republican lawmakers, according to stunning handwritten notes that illustrate how far the president was willing to go to prevent Joe Biden from taking office.
In one Dec. 27 conversation, according to the written account, acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen told Trump that the Justice Department “can’t + won’t snap its fingers + change the outcome of the election.”
The president replied that he understood but wanted the agency to “just say the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen,” according to the notes written by Donoghue, a participant in the discussion.
The Washington Post first revealed the existence of the notes and the phone calls Wednesday.
The documents show the extent to which senior Justice Department officials “were on a knife’s edge” in late 2020 as Trump sought to prevent Biden from becoming president, said David Laufman, a former senior Justice Department official.
“These notes reveal that a sitting president, defeated in a free and fair election, personally and repeatedly pressured Justice Department leaders to help him foment a coup in a last-ditch attempt to cling to power,” Laufman said. “And that should shock the conscience of every American, regardless of political persuasion.”
He credited Rosen and Donoghue with devising “a mechanism to allow Trump to vent and spew his desired schemes to enlist their help to overturn the election without undertaking any course of action that would have facilitated that scheme.”
The notes were made public by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on the same day the Justice Department announced that it would support the release of Trump’s personal and business tax returns to a different Democratic-controlled House committee — another legal setback for the former president, who could continue to fight the issue in court.
Donoghue also took notes on a meeting he participated in with White House officials two days after the Dec. 27 phone call. In that meeting, Trump officials repeatedly pressed the Justice Department to pursue various unfounded theories of election manipulation.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the Oversight Committee, said the notes “show that President Trump directly instructed our nation’s top law enforcement agency to take steps to overturn a free and fair election in the final days of his presidency.”
A lawyer for Rosen declined to comment, and a lawyer for Donoghue did not respond to a request for comment.
“The corrupt and highly partisan House Democrats who run the House Oversight Committee yesterday released documents — including court filings dealing with the rigged election of 2020 — that they dishonestly described as attempting to overturn the election,” Trump said in a statement Saturday. “In fact, it is just the opposite. The documents were meant to uphold the integrity and honesty of elections and the sanctity of our vote.”
The president and Rosen discussed Trump’s claims of voter fraud at other times as well, according to people familiar with the discussions.
In the calls, Rosen was generally noncommittal, hearing the president out while not promising to take any specific action in response, these people said. His attempts to change the subject were mostly unsuccessful.
“Trump was absolutely obsessed about it,” one person with knowledge of the calls said.
Others close to Trump were also pressing the Justice Department to consider dubious claims of vote tampering. Mark Meadows, then the White House chief of staff, at times forwarded public claims of potential voter fraud to Justice Department officials, which some officials found exasperating, according to previously released emails. Meadows’s defenders have said he was just letting the department know about possible instances of illegality.
Donoghue’s notes show the degree to which the president was personally involved in such efforts, however, and the ways in which Justice Department officials walked a tightrope of listening to him while not taking any concrete actions they considered unethical or partisan.
The notes also say that Trump suggested to Rosen that he might be replaced at the helm of the Justice Department and even dropped the name of his possible successor.
“We have an obligation to tell people that this was an illegal, corrupt election,” Trump said, according to the notes. “People tell me Jeff Clark is great, I should put him in. People want me to replace DOJ leadership.”
Within a week, Trump was contemplating a plan to replace Rosen with Clark, already a senior official at Justice, who was more amenable to pursuing Trump’s unfounded claims of voter fraud. That possibility nearly touched off a crisis at the highest levels of federal law enforcement, people familiar with the matter have previously said.
The president was ultimately dissuaded from firing Rosen after a high-stakes meeting with those involved, those people said.
Clark, whom Trump had appointed to lead the environment and natural resources division and who later led the civil division, has denied that he devised a plan to oust Rosen or that he formed “recommendations for action based on factual inaccuracies gleaned from the Internet.”
Donoghue’s notes show that Trump repeatedly brought up unsubstantiated tales of voter fraud in various states, which the Justice Department officials told him were not true.
“You guys may not be following the Internet the way I do,” Trump responded, according to the notes. He also said people are angry and “blaming DOJ + for inaction.”
The president urged the nation’s top law enforcement official to aggressively investigate Biden’s son Hunter, according to the notes, which recount the president saying: “You figure out what to do w/ H. Biden — people will criticize the DOJ if he’s not investigated for real.”
Justice Department officials have been conducting a long-running investigation into Hunter Biden’s finances, but no charges have been filed.
Trump and his lawyers could have sought to block the release of Donoghue’s notes to Congress. There were days of discussion among Trump advisers about whether to do so, one adviser said, but the former president did not believe that the notes showed anything problematic, even though some of his advisers feared that the disclosures would be damaging.
“If it gets more attention on the election, he welcomes it,” this adviser said.
At least some of the former Justice Department officials with knowledge of the phone conversations had privately hoped that Trump would seek to block the sharing of the notes, to prevent those former officials from having to testify on Capitol Hill about the exchanges, said people familiar with their thinking. Those people spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
But Trump did not attempt to stop the release. And the Justice Department informed Rosen and others this week that their conversations with the president about the election were not protected by executive privilege.
In a statement revealing the content of the notes Friday, Maloney said that her committee “has begun scheduling interviews with key witnesses to investigate the full extent of the former President’s corruption, and I will exercise every tool at my disposal to ensure all witness testimony is secured without delay.”