Opinion The most dangerous Trump official you’ve never heard of needs to be heard from

Former Department of Justice official Jeffrey Clark and former president Donald Trump. (Washington Post illustration/Photos by Getty Images)

“People tell me Jeff Clark is great, I should put him in. People want me to replace DOJ leadership,” President Donald Trump told acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen on a Dec. 27, 2020, phone call — suggesting, with typical Trumpian subtlety, that Rosen might soon find himself out of a job if he didn’t comply with Trump’s demands to “tell people that this was an illegal, corrupt election.”

The handwritten notes of the call, taken by the Justice Department’s acting No. 2 official, Richard P. Donoghue, and released recently by the House Oversight Committee, underscore the imperative of obtaining testimony from Clark about his efforts, in league with Trump, to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

No one who knew Jeffrey Bossert Clark — he was reported to be particularly insistent on having all three names on department filings in his role as assistant attorney general — took him for the kind of full-blown, conspiracy-chasing Trumpist who emerged in the aftermath of the 2020 election. The documents show Clark, among other things, demanding a classified intelligence briefing from Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe about supposed evidence that a Dominion voting machine “accessed the Internet through a smart thermostat with a net connection trail leading back to China.”

On the other hand, no one took him for a potential attorney general of the United States.

Clark was an obscure attorney in private practice (at a major law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, but a non-equity partner not entitled to share in the firm’s profits) named to a relatively obscure position at the Justice Department, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division; then, in the waning days of the administration, tasked to head the civil division as well. A graduate of Harvard College and Georgetown Law School, Clark was a conservative, yes, a member of the Federalist Society, but not, to all appearances, a die-hard Trump loyalist.

Then came the election, and with it, Clark’s remarkable new role as improbable presidential consigliere and energetic chaser-after of crackpot rumors of election fraud. Perhaps Clark, scouring the wildest reaches of the Internet, became a true believer in the losing cause of election fraud. Perhaps he was tempted by Trump’s dangling the attorney general job before him; ambition has a way of distorting judgment. Either way, he became, for a brief time, the most dangerous Trump administration official you never heard of.

Clark was connected with Trump through Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, opening a highly irregular backdoor channel for the president to go around more senior officials who were frustrating his efforts to use the Justice Department to contest the election results. Clark’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment. In January, when reports of his activities first surfaced, Clark said that “all my official communications were consistent with law.”

Clark’s involvement emerged in the Dec. 27 phone call between Rosen and Trump. The next day, he proposed sending an outlandish letter to Georgia officials asserting — incorrectly — that Justice had “identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple states,” including Georgia, and urging a special legislative session. “I think we should get it out as soon as possible,” Clark urged Rosen and Donoghue. Responded Donoghue: “There is no chance that I would sign this letter or anything remotely like this.”

On Jan. 1, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows emailed Rosen about “allegations of signature match anomalies” in Fulton County, Ga. “Can you get Jeff Clark to engage on this issue immediately to determine if there is any truth to this allegation,” Meadows asked. Rosen to Donoghue: “Can you believe this? I am not going to respond.”

But Clark was off and running in pursuit of fraud. “I spoke to the source and am on with the guy who took the video right now,” Clark reported in a Jan. 2 email to Rosen under the subject line “Atlanta.”

All the while, Clark and Trump were discussing the plan to make him attorney general — foiled in part because Clark spilled the beans to Rosen, magnanimously offering him the chance to stay on as his No. 2. At which point Rosen secured an emergency Oval Office meeting Sunday, Jan 3, with Trump, Clark and other officials, and at which Trump was dissuaded from making the switch because of the mass resignations at Justice he was told would ensue.

People, this is not normal; it is not proper. The head of the civil division, acting or not, doesn’t jump on the phone to personally interview witnesses. He doesn’t do end runs around his boss — no less participate in a scheme to topple him — with the president.

Most pertinent, lawyers at the Justice Department have a single client: the United States. They represent the president in his role as president, not in his capacity as political candidate. The president has private counsel, lawyers paid by his campaign, not the taxpayers, to do that job. The Justice Department has a legitimate role in reviewing claims of election fraud, but it doesn’t exercise that authority at the express direction of an aggrieved candidate, even one who is the sitting president or that president’s underling.

All of which leads to the fundamental point: To understand how close the country came to having the election results overturned, to know whether this activity was merely bone-chilling or rises to the level of a criminal offense, it is important to secure Clark’s testimony — and it’s not entirely clear that’s going to happen. The Justice Department inspector general is looking into the goings-on at the department but may not be able to compel Clark’s testimony, and the same is true of the Senate Judiciary Committee, before which Rosen and Donoghue testified voluntarily. The House Oversight Committee, which has the documents, has ceded authority to the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, which has other matters piled on its plate.

The questions include: How did Clark connect with Perry, the congressman? Any other members of Congress? What conversations or meetings did Clark have with White House officials? When did he speak with the president, and what was said? Did the president give him any instructions about whether to tell Rosen about the conversations? (The Justice Department has waived any claims of executive privilege, so Clark cannot refuse to answer on these grounds.) What communications did he have on his private email, on his personal phone or through secure messaging systems? (These should be subpoenaed.) With whom did he discuss the allegations of election fraud — what Trump campaign lawyers or other representatives? How did he come to draft the letter to Georgia officials? Was this done on his government computer?

I could go on, but you get the point. Someone with subpoena power needs to get Jeffrey Clark under oath. The sooner the better.