IT MAY be a long time before all the depredations of the Trump era are known. Two days after former president Donald Trump left office, the New York Times reported that in his final weeks he plotted to remove the acting attorney general and replace him with a Justice Department official willing to promote Mr. Trump’s false election fraud claims — and to use the power of the federal law enforcement agency to act on them. The episode, which occurred between December and early January, shows that Mr. Trump pushed the nation even closer to an extreme crisis than we already knew.

The Justice Department had rebuffed Mr. Trump’s accusations that widespread voting fraud resulted in his losing the November election. Attorney General William P. Barr announced that he had found no evidence to substantiate such claims, angering Mr. Trump, and then promptly resigned (while singing Mr. Trump’s praises in his resignation letter). His acting replacement, Jeffrey Rosen, maintained course, declining Mr. Trump’s entreaties that he file legal briefs supporting the president or that he appoint special counsels to investigate the fictional fraud.

Meanwhile, the Times recounts, Mr. Trump had been introduced to the acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, Jeffrey Clark, who was sympathetic to Mr. Trump’s narrative. Mr. Clark reportedly urged his colleagues to hold a news conference on election fraud. He also wanted them to send a letter to Georgia state leaders explaining that the Justice Department was investigating election issues in the state and that they should move to overturn then-President-elect Joe Biden’s victory there. Mr. Clark met with Mr. Trump, then informed Mr. Rosen that the president wanted him to take over the department. At this point, Congress was about to count electoral votes. The Justice Department’s top officials all vowed to resign if the president fired Mr. Rosen, which apparently dissuaded Mr. Trump.

At the time, the nation did not know how close it got to a nightmare scenario: a defeated president using his residual power over the Justice Department in an effort to cling to power. For his part, Mr. Clark claimed that the Times’s account contains inaccuracies, though he did not specify what they were, and he denied that he maneuvered for Mr. Rosen’s job. Fortunately, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced Monday an inquiry into whether DOJ officials attempted to “alter the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election.” While Mr. Horowitz cannot investigate Mr. Trump directly, he should be able to establish just how far Mr. Clark and Mr. Trump went.

But Mr. Horowitz’s investigation will take some time. The Senate will consider Mr. Trump’s impeachment charge starting the week of Feb. 8. They would be derelict not to factor in these reports, which fit into the former president’s broad pattern of abusing his powers, demeaning his office and attempting illegally to overturn the results of a free and fair election.

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