The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jan. 6 committee connects two strands of Trump’s effort to retain power

From left, witnesses Steven A. Engel, Jeffrey Rosen and Richard Donoghue are sworn in during the House Jan. 6 select committee's fourth public hearing in Washington on June 23. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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A key focus of the House select committee’s investigation into the Jan. 6 attack is that the riot was simply one endpoint of the various paths President Donald Trump was taking as he aimed to retain power. It was a violent and dangerous endpoint, certainly, but it still represented just one of the ways in which Trump and his allies sought to block Joe Biden’s electorally warranted elevation to the presidency.

During its hearing on Thursday, the committee for the first time drew a line between two of those other paths, a connection that hadn’t been drawn before. The throughline was Trump’s attorney, John Eastman.

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Thursday’s hearing centered on Trump’s effort to leverage the Justice Department to bolster his unfounded claims of election fraud. In the weeks before Jan. 6, 2021, the president put increasing pressure on the department to take some sort of action to that end. It resisted, for the obvious reason that no rampant fraud had occurred. Not that it hadn’t looked into it, as witnesses at Thursday’s hearing made clear: Theories were raised, considered and rejected for lack of evidence, over and over again.

After Attorney General William P. Barr made this clear publicly, Trump turned on him. Barr soon left his position. Then Trump’s pressure turned to the acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, and subordinates including acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue. Testifying before the committee, Rosen and Donoghue described meetings and calls with Trump in which the president was increasingly agitated. They rebutted his assertions about fraud, prompting Trump to make a remarkable demand: “just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen,” as Donoghue’s contemporaneous notes put it.

As this was going on, a Justice Department official named Jeffrey Clark came to Trump’s attention. Clark, who was introduced to Trump by the president’s ally Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), had begun agitating for the department to take steps that would meet Trump’s demand and publicly suggest that the election results were suspect. A plan formed: oust Rosen and replace him with Clark.

One of the first things Clark planned to do was send a letter that he had drafted to officials in Georgia.

“The Department of Justice is investigating various irregularities in the 2020 election for President of the United States,” it began, which was not really true. Both Barr and Rosen had rejected the idea that there was anything substantially suspect about the election. But even after Clark had conducted his own investigations that hadn’t turned up anything, Donoghue said, Clark wanted to press forward with the letter.

The culmination of this effort arrived on Jan. 3, 2021, three days before the riot. In a remarkable meeting at the Oval Office, Trump was presented with the idea of replacing Rosen with Clark. Rosen, Donoghue and Trump’s own attorneys fervently objected, pledging that numerous high-ranking officials from the department would resign. The plan ended.

All of this was occurring as the president and his allies were following another path, one led by Trump’s attorney, Eastman. He was pushing a plan that would have state legislatures sign off on alternate, unofficial slates of electors that had been cobbled together on Dec. 14. The plan was loosely formed and evolving as needed to avoid roadblocks, but the idea was that the legislatures in states won by Biden might pass resolutions setting aside the electors who voted for Biden in favor of ones supporting Trump. This plan only collapsed in the hours after the Capitol riot, when the properly submitted electors from each state were approved.

As it turns out, though, there was apparently a link between Clark’s letter and Eastman’s plot.

Shortly before the committee went into a brief recess on Thursday, Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) revealed that connection.

“The committee has also learned that Mr. Clark was working with another attorney at the department named Ken Klukowski, who drafted this letter to Georgia with Mr. Clark,” Cheney said. Klukowski, she said, had started work at the department Dec. 15, just over a month before Trump’s administration would end. There, Klukowski was assigned to work under Clark.

But “Mr. Klukowski also worked with John Eastman,” Cheney said, describing the attorney as “one of the primary architects of President Trump’s scheme to overturn the election.”

Cheney pointed to elements of the letter to Georgia that echoed Eastman’s plan for state legislators. To wit:

“[T]he Department recommends that the Georgia General Assembly should convene in special session so that its legislators are in a position to take additional testimony, receive new evidence, and deliberate on the matter consistent with its duties under the U.S. Constitution. Time is of the essence, as the U.S. Constitution tasks Congress with convening in joint session to count Electoral College certificates … on January 6, 2021, with the Vice President presiding over the session as President of the Senate.”

The letter continued, pointing to the alternate sets of electors “in Georgia and several other States.” It made three recommendations: evaluate the purported (and unfounded) irregularities, determine if those might change the election results and then “take whatever action is necessary to ensure that one of the slates of Electors cast on December 14 will be accepted by Congress on January 6.” That is: to potentially sign off on the Trump slate.

Cheney also presented an email sent after Klukowski had joined the Justice Department by Trump ally Ken Cuccinelli, at the time acting deputy secretary of homeland security. It suggested Eastman and Klukowski brief Vice President Mike Pence on the plan to upend the election results. In the message, there’s even a reference to the sensitivity of including Klukowski, given his new position at the department.

“This email suggests that Mr. Klukowski was simultaneously working with Jeffrey Clark to draft the proposed letter to Georgia officials to overturn their certified election,” Cheney concluded, “and working with Dr. Eastman to help pressure the vice president to overturn the election.”

In other words, Klukowski appears to draw two different parts of Trump’s effort to retain power — overhaul the Justice Department to focus on claims of fraud and get legislatures to sign off on alternate slates of electors — into one unified plot. It wasn’t just Clark hoping to publicly elevate the idea that something sketchy happened in Georgia. It may, instead, have been that Clark’s letter was an attempt to use the Justice Department to force Georgia’s legislature into enacting Eastman’s scheme.

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