Facing this increasing damning evidence of a plot to subvert democracy, Republicans have landed on a familiar defense, most notably made in the Ukraine impeachment debate last year: Yeah, but Trump didn’t actually follow through.
There are several major problems with this defense.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, made this the centerpiece of the minority’s response to the report.
“The available evidence shows that President Trump did what we’d expect a president to do on an issue of this importance: He listened to his senior advisers and followed their advice and recommendations,” Grassley said.
Grassley’s report highlights the facts that Trump not only didn’t ultimately fire Rosen and replace him with the loyalist Clark, as had been threatened, but that he also opted against releasing the letter Clark had drafted about supposed evidence of fraud in Georgia.
This defense harks back to what Republicans said about Trump’s actions vis-a-vis Ukraine in his first impeachment — that yes, he moved to withhold aid from Ukraine, but that it was not connected to trying to gain dirt on his political opponents — and that he ultimately relented.
That’s pretty much what happened here, with a few key differences. But it’s worth reinforcing that, as with Ukraine, it wasn’t because Trump had some attack of conscience; it’s because the plot fell apart.
Former acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue’s testimony is the most detailed on this point. Basically, both he and Rosen said they came to understand that Trump’s threats to fire Rosen and replace him with Clark were intertwined with Clark’s desire to release the letter legitimizing the baseless fraud claims in Georgia, which they had rejected. That letter could then have been used to legitimize not accepting electors from states like Georgia on Jan. 6 — and potentially giving Trump a path to retaining the presidency.
The letter never went out, but Donoghue describes it as a situation in which Trump was talked out of it not for moral reasons, but for practical, personal ones:
I do recall [White House counsel] Pat Cipollone earlier saying “That letter,” meaning the draft letter to Georgia, “is a murder-suicide pact. And it will damage anyone and anything that it touches.”And I remember some other specific comments along that line, but we kind of followed up on that saying, you know, “Do you want to be part of that?”And so very deep into the conversation, the President, who was very frustrated, and he just shook his head and he said, “All right. We’re not going to do this.”He looked at Jeff Clark and said, “I appreciate you being willing to do this. I appreciate you being willing to step up and take all the abuse, but the reality is it’s not worth the breakage. We’re going to have mass resignations. It’s going to be a disaster. You’re not going to be able to get this stuff done anyway, and the bureaucracy will eat you alive. So we’re not going to do this.”
That’s not “this is the wrong thing to do.” That’s “this won’t work.”
The other key point is that this plot was apparently very much set in motion. While Trump never actually fired Rosen, it did get to the point where Clark, according to Rosen’s testimony, told Rosen that’s what had happened. The situation was only defused after Rosen demanded to actually get the news from the president.
Per Rosen’s testimony, this took place Jan. 3:
[Clark] told me, at that point, the reason it was time-sensitive when he called me earlier was that he had talked earlier with the President, and the schedule — the schedule had moved up and that the President had decided to offer him the position, and he had decided to take it. So that I would be replaced that Sunday, and the Department would chart a different path. ...So after some of that conversation, I told him, “Well, here’s the thing, Jeff Clark, my subordinates don’t get to fire me. So I’m not accepting what you’re telling me, that you’re going to replace me. I’m going to contact the President and tell him I need to talk with him.”
It even got to the point where Donoghue said he began collecting his things in his office, anticipating that Rosen’s termination meant he would be resigning because he wouldn’t serve under Clark. Rosen and Donoghue moved to evaluate just how many other senior DOJ officials would also resign with Rosen’s impending termination.
Shortly thereafter, the meeting took place in which it was made clear to Trump that this would lead to mass resignations, including some, according to the testimony, in the White House. And he backed down.
In the end, it’s almost eerie how much this carries parallels to the Ukraine situation. Back then, Trump delayed aid and eventually released it — but only after a whistleblower complaint was circulating that accused him of using the aid for leverage. The jig, it appeared, was up.
To quote Donoghue’s recollection of Trump in his testimony on the DOJ scheme, it was “going to be a disaster,” and he was not really “going to be able to get this stuff done anyway.”
And there’s another facet of the Ukraine situation worth remembering: While the GOP highlighted the eventual release of aid in arguing that Trump had, in fact, broken no laws, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office later found that even the temporary hold had indeed violated the law.
That seems to be the party line here — that however objectionable this plot to overturn an American election was, it didn’t ultimately work, and maybe no laws were actually broken in the process. What’s a little attempted subversion of democracy between friends, anyway?