The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump and his crackpots brought us to the brink of ‘losing it all’

Jeffrey Clark of the Justice Department on Capitol Hill in September 2020. Federal agents searched his home Wednesday. (Susan Walsh/AP)

On the evening of Jan. 3, 2021, the United States was about one bunch short of becoming a banana republic.

President Donald Trump, obsessed with overturning his election defeat, was about to replace his attorney general for the second time in as many weeks for refusing to validate his lies about election fraud. But this time he was threatening to appoint as acting attorney general an unknown environmental lawyer by the name of Jeffrey Clark — roundly derided by his Justice Department colleagues as “off-kilter” and “not competent.”

Clark had never tried a criminal case, but he had delusions of grandeur (he had repeatedly insisted DOJ upgrade his job title) and one key qualification: He embraced Trump’s debunked election claims, including the loony notion that thermostats could have been used to control voting machines. He had promised that, if Trump appointed him attorney general, he would publicly (and falsely) announce that the department had “identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple States” — boosting the illegal scheme to overturn the results using fake electors.

So Trump offered Clark the job, and, as recounted in testimony Thursday before the House Jan. 6 select committee, top officials from the White House Counsel’s Office and the Justice Department converged on the Oval Office to object:

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“What do I have to lose?” Trump asked them.

“Your entire department leadership will walk out,” the acting deputy attorney general, Richard Donoghue, told him. “You could have hundreds and hundreds of resignations.”

Pat Cipollone, White House counsel, told Trump he was embarking on “a murder-suicide pact.”

Steve Engel, head of the Office of Legal Counsel, told Trump that “Jeff Clark will be left leading a graveyard.”

Finally, Trump relented. But few understand, as Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a committee member, put it, “how close we came to losing it all.”

Two weeks of hearings by the select committee have made clear that the insurrection itself was but a manifestation of a much larger plot by Trump to overturn the election by any means necessary: violence, martial law, seizing voting machines, fake electors, intimidating state officials, harassing election workers, drafting meritless lawsuits — and a contemplated putsch at the Justice Department.

Though many in the Trump administration admirably (if not quite heroically) resisted his illegality, Trump was aided in his depredations by a seemingly limitless supply of crackpots willing to do his bidding. There were Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani ('nuff said), Sidney (“The Kracken”) Powell (Trump wanted her to be appointed as an independent counsel investigating election fraud) and John Eastman, who knew his cockamamie scheme to overturn the election was illegal.

And then there was Clark, who met secretly with Trump to plan their coup-within-a-coup at Justice. (Federal agents searched Clark’s Virginia home on Wednesday in a related probe.)

Screwballs enabled Trump in Congress as well. There was Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), whose chief of staff tried to deliver a slate of fake electors to Vice President Mike Pence. And there was Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), who championed Clark for the attorney general job. According to testimony released by the committee Thursday, Perry was among those seeking presidential pardons for their actions, along with Reps. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Louie Gohmert (R-Tex), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and possibly Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). Trump apparently considered blanket pardons for lawmakers and staff involved in the insurrection. At one point, Trump, frustrated that DOJ officials weren’t backing up his lies, urged them: “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”

At the center of it all was the crackpot in chief, whom Attorney General Bill Barr belatedly realized was “detached from reality.” He manipulated the government to back his election lies in ways that had been unimaginable. Donoghue testified Thursday about how Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows repeatedly insisted that DOJ investigate a YouTube-driven conspiracy theory claiming the CIA and MI6 worked with an Italian satellite company to erase Trump votes. Donoghue called it “pure insanity,” “patently absurd” and “debunked.” Not satisfied with that answer, Trump’s White House secured the help of Pentagon official Kash Patel and acting defense secretary Christopher Miller, who reached out to an official in Italy to probe the bogus claim.

No amount of reason would separate Trump from his debunked “arsenal of allegations,” as Donoghue put it. Ninety minutes after the Jan. 3 White House meeting in which Trump nearly triggered mass resignations, Donoghue’s cellphone rang. “It was the president,” he testified, “and he had information about a truck supposedly full of shredded ballots in Georgia.”

At one point, Trump complained to top DOJ officials: “You guys may not be following the internet the way I do.”

He was right. Only a crackpot would do that.