Opinion 5 lessons from Thursday’s devastating Jan. 6 hearing

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Former Justice Department officials Steven A. Engel, Jeffrey Rosen and Richard Donoghue testify before the House Jan. 6 select committee on June 23. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.). This version has been corrected.

There were a number of revelations from the House Jan. 6 committee’s hearings on Thursday regarding former president Donald Trump’s attempt to enlist the Justice Department in his scheme to steal the election. All of them were simply devastating.

For example: Former attorney general William P. Barr made clear he had investigated claims of voter fraud before leaving in December 2020 so as to be able to rebut false claims of fraud. He testified that there may not have been a presidential transition if that had not happened.

We also finally learned the identities of the Republican members of Congress who requested pardons from Trump: Reps. Mo Brooks (Ala.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Louie Gohmert (Tex.), Scott Perry (Pa.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.).

The committee’s star witnesses — Richard Donoghue, former acting U.S. deputy attorney general; Jeff Rosen, former acting attorney general; and Steven A. Engel, former assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel — all testified that former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark, whom Trump attempted to name as his acting attorney general, had repeatedly been told that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Clark nevertheless pressured Justice Department leaders to send a letter to states falsely claiming the election was fraudulent to justify pulling back their electors. Coincidentally, it was reported that the FBI searched Clark’s home on Wednesday.

Here are five of the most important lessons from the hearing:

1

Justice Department lawyers repeatedly told Trump he had the facts and the law wrong

Barr had told Trump at least three times that there was no evidence of fraud. After Barr resigned, Trump persisted in calling or meeting with Rosen and his colleagues to insist they investigate fraud. Rosen repeatedly told Trump his allegations had been refuted and resisted efforts to involve the Justice Department because they “were not appropriate" under the law.

Testimony made clear that on multiple occasions, Trump or Clark attempted to push the department to find fraud where none existed. At one point on Dec. 27, Trump, after being told there was no fraud, insisted that the department tell people that there was widespread fraud. Donoghue testified that Trump instructed him to “just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.” Witnesses described Trump as “agitated.”

Throughout these events, Trump seemed to be bent on whipping up his supporters. He told the public that his Justice Department had been “missing in action,” and he enlisted GOP lawmakers to recite his allegations of voter fraud to his rabid fans.

2

Trump tried all sorts of nutty gambits

The Clark letter was only one of several gambits he tried in enlisting the Justice Department to overthrow the election. Engel testified that Trump wanted the department to file a lawsuit with the Supreme Court. Trump also wanted Rosen to appoint a special counsel — crackpot Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, of all people — to investigate fraud claims. Engel and Rosen explained in their testimony why each was unmeritorious.

On New Year’s Eve, the attorneys were asked to “seize” voting machines. They told him there was no basis in law or fact to do so. So instead, Trump called his Homeland Security official Ken Cuccinelli and falsely said the Justice Department said he had authority to seize the machines. Meadows the next day even urged they look into a daft YouTube conspiracy theory that Italian satellites had changed votes. This was “total insanity,” Donoghue said.

Trump was determined to come up with any way to remain in power. The evidence of his corrupt intent should no longer be doubt.

3

The threat of mass resignation stopped Trump from appointing Clark

The committee interviewed all those involved in the infamous Jan. 3 meeting in the Oval Office when Justice Department officials confronted Trump’s attempt to appoint Clark as acting attorney general. Rosen detailed the meeting, saying he wouldn’t overturn the election because that was what the facts and Constitution required. Everyone present supported his position (apparently including then-White House counsel Pat Cipollone).

Donoghue testified that he ripped into Clark’s total lack of experience and competence in the meeting. Clark tried to defend himself, but no one supported him. Donoghue said he and the entire Justice Department leadership would all quit if Trump put Clark in the job. Only then did Trump back down. For the time being.

4

Jeffrey Clark is in deep trouble

Trump started “lawyer shopping” when he ran into resistance from Rosen and Donoghue, prompting Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) to introduce Trump to Clark. Rudy Giuliani, in video testimony, said there needed to be someone in charge of the Justice Department who was not going to be concerned about their “reputation.”

Rosen testified that Trump brought up Clark’s name to Rosen for the first time on Christmas Eve. Rosen said he called Clark on Dec. 26 to find out what he was up to. Clark revealed to him that he had met with Trump — in violation of a Justice Department rule that only the attorney general and his deputy should communicate with the president. Clark sounded “contrite" and promised not to do it again, Rosen said.

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Meanwhile, Perry was telling Trump via White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to promote Clark as attorney general. Perry also called Donoghue on Dec. 27 at Trump’s behest to discuss allegations of fraud in Pennsylvania. “There was zero” credibility, Donoghue said.

On Dec. 28, Clark sent the draft letter to Rosen and Donoghue, who said he had to read it twice because it was so "extreme.” Rosen was “exasperated” and met with Clark that night. Donoghue told Clark he was asking the Justice Department to interfere in an election, yet Clark did not relent and tried his hand at his own investigations. Despite finding no evidence of fraud, Clark still wanted to send the letter.

Clark at the infamous Jan. 3 meeting told Trump he would do what the president wanted if appointed as acting attorney general. Cipollone said that the letter was a “murder-suicide pact" and that the White House should have nothing to do with it. The witnesses threatened to quit if Rosen was replaced by Clark, insisting Clark was unqualified. After all that, Clark was still coming up with screwball conspiracies later that night. (Clark took the Fifth when questioned by the committee.)

5

We need to hear from Cipollone

Cipollone — like Meadows and Trump aide Daniel Scavino Jr. — has stiff-armed the committee with claims of executive privilege. (The Justice Department officials who testified disagree on that privilege.)

Such blatant disregard for one’s legal obligations — especially for a lawyer like Cipollone — is unacceptable. That Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss would put their lives and reputations at risk by testifying about the abuse they faced after the election while Cipollone and others refuse to come forward speaks volumes.