‘Pure insanity’: How Trump and his allies pressured the Justice Department to help overturn the election

New documents and emails reveal how far the president and his supporters were willing to go to try to keep Donald Trump in office in a frenzied three-week stretch that tested Justice Department leaders.

President Donald Trump and his allies repeatedly pushed the Justice Department to investigate unsubstantiated claims of fraud in the aftermath of the election.
President Donald Trump and his allies repeatedly pushed the Justice Department to investigate unsubstantiated claims of fraud in the aftermath of the election. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Justice Department leaders were losing their patience.

For weeks, President Donald Trump and his allies had been pressing them to use federal law enforcement’s muscle to back his unfounded claims of voter fraud and a stolen election.

They wanted the Justice Department to explore false claims that Dominion Voting Systems machines had been manipulated to alter votes in one county in Michigan. They asked officials about the U.S. government filing a Supreme Court challenge to the results in six states that Joe Biden won. The president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, even shared with acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen a link to a YouTube video that described an outlandish plot in which the election had been stolen from Trump through the use of military satellites controlled in Italy.

“Pure insanity,” Rosen’s deputy Richard Donoghue wrote to him privately.

In the last weeks of 2020 and the first of 2021, the demands from Trump and his allies pushed the department to the brink of crisis. Though most scoffed at their increasingly far-fetched and desperate claims, one relatively high-ranking Justice Department lawyer seemed to entertain Trump’s requests — pushing internally to have the department assert that fraud in Georgia was cause for that state’s lawmakers to disregard its election results and appoint new electors. Trump contemplated installing him as attorney general, as other Justice Department leaders considered resigning en masse.

[Trump entertained plan to install an attorney general who would help him pursue baseless election fraud claims]

The new details laid out in hundreds of pages of emails and other documents released Tuesday by the House Oversight and Reform Committee show how far Trump and his allies were willing to go in their attempts to use the Justice Department to overturn Biden’s win — a campaign whose full contours are still coming into view five months after Trump left office.

The endeavor involved the White House chief of staff and an outside attorney, who peppered department officials with requests that they said came on behalf of Trump himself to investigate baseless claims of election fraud. Their efforts intensified in the days before Congress was set to formally recognize the election results Jan. 6 — and culminated in an Oval Office showdown Jan. 3.

This account is based on those documents as well as interviews with several people involved in or briefed on the events of late 2020 and early 2021. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a politically sensitive matter.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows forwarded assertions about alleged irregularities to the acting attorney general.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows forwarded assertions about alleged irregularities to the acting attorney general. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The White House often interacts with the Justice Department on matters of policy, and Trump’s defenders have argued officials should have done more in response to the overtures. But others say the requests far surpassed the bounds of normalcy, threatening to drag law enforcement into a sitting president’s attempts to overturn the election. Justice Department inspector general Michael E. Horowitz announced in January that his office would investigate whether any current or former department officials tried to improperly “alter the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election.”

Rosen, Donoghue and spokesmen for Meadows and Trump did not respond to requests for comment.

Though the Justice Department took actions before and after the election that critics have alleged were designed to benefit Trump, neither then-Attorney General William P. Barr nor Rosen publicly backed the president’s claims that fraud altered the election results.

The new emails show that three-week period leading up to Jan. 6 was a searing test of senior Justice officials. The department did examine some claims, and top officials forwarded some of the material from Trump allies to U.S. attorneys in Michigan and Pennsylvania. But they resisted the push to file a case with the Supreme Court seeking to challenge the election results.

Ultimately, Trump’s pressure campaign seemed to resonate more with his supporters who came to D.C. to protest Jan. 6 — and then violently overran the U.S. Capitol — than with those in his own Justice Department.

“Washington is being inundated with people who don’t want to see an election victory stolen by emboldened Radical Left Democrats,” Trump tweeted Jan. 5, as his backers were gathering in the capital. “Our Country has had enough, they won’t take it anymore! We hear you (and love you) from the Oval Office. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

Attorney General William P. Barr broke with Trump after the election, saying he did not see evidence of widespread fraud.
Attorney General William P. Barr broke with Trump after the election, saying he did not see evidence of widespread fraud. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

‘From POTUS’

Trump and his allies ratcheted up their efforts to discredit the 2020 election almost immediately after it became clear the incumbent president had been beaten by Biden. They mounted dozens of unsuccessful court challenges, while publicly blasting what they claimed to be fraud and other irregularities. They pressed the Justice Department to investigate.

Before the election, Barr had warned repeatedly of possible fraud associated with mass mail-in voting, and afterward he reversed long-standing Justice Department policy and authorized prosecutors to take overt steps to pursue allegations of “vote tabulation irregularities” in certain cases before results were certified. Critics of the administration feared that Trump’s attorney general was essentially laying the groundwork to undercut the election result, using the significant power of federal law enforcement.

But Barr resisted public pressure from House Republicans to have him appoint a special counsel to investigate voter fraud. He privately sought to make sure the Justice Department stayed out of civil litigation regarding election results, people familiar with the matter have said — deeming that an issue for Trump’s campaign. And while he had his department examine allegations of fraud, he ultimately concluded the evidence did not support the kind of far-reaching claims Trump and his supporters were making.

On Dec. 1, Barr gave an interview to the Associated Press breaking with Trump, declaring he had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” Trump and Barr’s relationship had already been deteriorating, and about two weeks later — on Dec. 14, the same day the electoral college met to confirm Biden’s win — Trump announced Barr would be stepping down as attorney general.

Barr’s resignation letter indicated his last day would be Dec. 23. The pressure on Rosen began immediately.

On the day Barr’s resignation became public, Trump’s assistant forwarded to Rosen a document produced as part of a lawsuit in Antrim County, Mich., alleging a widespread conspiracy to rig the election in Michigan and beyond. In the subject line, she wrote, “From POTUS.”

By then, the tiny rural Michigan county had become central to assertions by Trump allies that the election had been stolen. An election night error by a clerk had resulted in the heavily Republican county briefly reporting that Biden had beaten Trump. The error was quickly corrected to show that Trump had won. But in late November, a local resident had filed a lawsuit alleging the error showed that election machines in the state had been manipulated to help Biden.

A state judge then ordered that a private Texas company be allowed to review the county’s election machines and ordered the company’s subsequent report be made public.

Election experts and state officials in Michigan have said the report, compiled by the company Allied Security Operations Group, is full of errors. But two minutes after receiving the document from Trump, emails show Rosen’s deputy forwarded it to Michigan’s two U.S. attorneys at the time, Matthew Schneider and Andrew Birge.

The next day, Trump tweeted about the Antrim report, saying the judge — who last month dismissed the lawsuit and declined to order a new election audit — “should get a medal” for ordering its public release.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, right, walks with then-Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen at the White House in May 2019.
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, right, walks with then-Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen at the White House in May 2019. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A polite ‘brushoff’

On Dec. 21, Barr seemed to try to give his deputy a bit of political cover, again breaking with Trump and asserting at a news conference that he saw no basis for the federal government seizing voting machines. He also said that he did not intend to appoint a special counsel to investigate allegations of voter fraud.

Trump had by then intensified his attack on the election results. He sought to lobby state lawmakers and party officials to back his claims, and he and his allies in the House of Representatives privately pressured GOP senators to object when Congress sought to formally affirm the election results Jan. 6.

“The ‘Justice’ Department and the FBI have done nothing about the 2020 Presidential Election Voter Fraud, the biggest SCAM in our nation’s history, despite overwhelming evidence,” the president tweeted Dec. 26. “They should be ashamed.”

In a December Oval Office meeting, the president entertained a series of radical measures, including military intervention, seizing voting machines and a 13th-hour appeal to the Supreme Court, people familiar with the meeting have said.

[Trump pressures congressional Republicans to help in his fight to overturn the election]

Once in command at the Justice Department, Rosen began to feel intense pressure directly from the White House.

On Dec. 29, Trump aide Molly Michael emailed Rosen, Donoghue and then-acting solicitor general Jeffrey B. Wall a draft of a Supreme Court filing, which would have the Justice Department challenge the election results in six states.

“The President asked me to send the attached draft document for your review,” Michael wrote, adding that she had also shared it with Trump’s chief of staff and the White House counsel.

That month, the Supreme Court had thrown out an effort by the state of Texas to sue Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin over how they conducted their elections, asserting that Texas had not shown a legal interest “in the manner in which another state conducts its elections.” The draft filing would have essentially had the U.S. government take the place of Texas in the case, and also challenge elections in Arizona and Nevada.

That same day, the emails show, a lawyer named Kurt Olsen wrote to Wall, saying the president had “directed me to meet with AG Rosen today to discuss a similar action to be brought by the United States.” Olsen wrote that he had called and texted the acting attorney general multiple times but had not been able to reach him.

“This is an urgent matter,” Olsen wrote.

The Justice Department, though, did not seem to share Olsen’s assessment of the situation. The emails suggest it was Rosen’s chief of staff, John Moran, who got in touch with Olsen, rather than Rosen himself. And though Olsen had asserted the president had directed him to meet in person with Rosen, such a meeting never happened.

A person familiar with the matter said that Olsen somehow got Rosen’s private cellphone number, and Rosen picked up the call from an unknown number. The person said Rosen gave Olsen a polite “brushoff.”

Olsen told The Washington Post in an email that while he did not recall all of the specifics, Trump had contacted him about a week after the Supreme Court declined to take the Texas case. He said he and Rosen ultimately had “cordial back and forth phone call exchanges,” in part about whether the United States had legal standing to pursue his complaint.

“With respect to the DoJ’s decision to not pursue the case, you would need to speak to them,” he wrote.

Justice Department official Jeffrey Bossert Clark pushed internally to pursue fraud claims.
Justice Department official Jeffrey Bossert Clark pushed internally to pursue fraud claims. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Internal upheaval

Around the same time that Rosen was fending off requests for a Supreme Court challenge, he and other top deputies encountered an even more pernicious threat. Through a Pennsylvania lawmaker, Trump had connected with a top Justice Department official: Jeffrey Bossert Clark, who was then running both the Environment and Natural Resources Division and Civil Division. And Clark, unlike others in the department, was more sympathetic to Trump’s claims of fraud.

According to people familiar with the matter, Clark became particularly focused on Georgia, trying to persuade department leaders to issue a letter that argued that state’s elections were affected by fraud, and that — as a consequence — its lawmakers should disregard the results and appoint their own electors.

[Election results under attack: Here are the facts]

Unbeknown to all but a few people at the Justice Department, Trump was contemplating installing Clark as attorney general. On New Year’s Eve, the matter threatened to reach a boiling point. Rosen and Donoghue, his deputy, went to the White House for a meeting to see if they could buy more time, people familiar with the matter have said.

They bought a temporary reprieve. But the pressure kept coming.

Over the course of just a few hours on the afternoon of New Year’s Day, Meadows, the chief of staff, sent Rosen three emails flagging possible problems with the election — including fraud allegations in Georgia and New Mexico and the YouTube link with its claim of an Italian plot.

“Can you believe this?” an exasperated Rosen wrote to Donoghue at one point, forwarding a request by Meadows to examine purported signature match anomalies in Fulton County, Ga. “I am not going to respond.”

Rosen also told his deputy that he had been asked to meet with the person in the video: Brad Johnson, president of a group called Americans for Intelligence Reform, who says on the organization’s website he is a retired CIA operations officer.

Rosen told Donoghue he had resisted, asserting that if Johnson had information to share, he could walk into the FBI’s Washington Field Office and turn it over. Rosen said that he had learned Johnson was working with Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, who waged a vigorous but unsuccessful campaign to contest election results.

Giuliani “regarded my comments as ‘an insult,’” Rosen told his deputy.

“Asked if I would reconsider, I flatly refused,” Rosen wrote, adding that he would “not be giving special treatment to Giuliani or any of his ‘witnesses.’”

An attorney for Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment.

According to two people familiar with the matter, Rosen also tried to convince Clark his theories were misguided. On New Year’s Day, he shared with Clark the cellphone number of Byung J. “BJay” Pak, then the U.S. attorney in Atlanta. Two people familiar with the matter said he was hopeful that Pak — a respected Republican lawyer — could convince Clark there was no widespread fraud in Georgia.

Rosen circled back the next day, asking Clark in an email, “Were you able to follow up?”

But Clark appeared to be focused on chasing a claim about a possible election irregularity.

“I spoke to the source and am on with the guy who took the video right now,” Clark wrote back. “Working on it. More due diligence to do.”

Clark did not respond to requests for comment.

Attorney General William P. Barr, left, and Richard Donoghue, seen in New York in January 2020. Donoghue would later become deputy to acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen.
Attorney General William P. Barr, left, and Richard Donoghue, seen in New York in January 2020. Donoghue would later become deputy to acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

‘The cause of justice won’

Trump, meanwhile, was running a separate effort to overturn the results in Georgia, pressing Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) personally to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s narrow victory in the state.

The president called Raffensperger on the afternoon of Jan. 2. In an hour-long call, he pushed the secretary of state to pursue his false claims about illegal votes in Georgia — at one point warning that Raffensperger was taking a “big risk” if he didn’t act.

Raffensperger rejected Trump’s assertions, explaining that the president was relying on debunked conspiracy theories and that Biden’s 11,779-vote victory in Georgia was fair and accurate.

The Washington Post published an account of the call around 1 p.m. on Jan. 3.

[‘I just want to find 11,780 votes’: In extraordinary hour-long call, Trump pressures Georgia secretary of state to recalculate the vote in his favor]

That same day, Clark approached Rosen and said Trump intended to install him — Clark — as attorney general. Rosen, taken aback, pushed for a meeting at the White House, according to people familiar with the episode.

According to emails and people familiar with the matter, Donoghue and one of his deputies organized a call that Sunday afternoon with other senior Justice Department officials. Those on the call agreed they would resign en masse if Trump proceeded with the plan.

In a previous statement, Clark said: “I categorically deny that I ‘devised a plan … to oust’ Jeff Rosen. … Nor did I formulate recommendations for action based on factual inaccuracies gleaned from the Internet.”

In a high-stakes meeting later that evening, people familiar with the matter said, Rosen, Donoghue and Steven A. Engel, who headed the department’s Office of Legal Counsel, as well as White House Counsel Pat Cipollone sought to talk the president out of installing Clark and sending the letter alleging fraud in Georgia.

Doing so, they argued, would spark a mass resignation at the Justice Department. And it ultimately would not work to overturn the election results.

Trump decided to keep Rosen in place. Justice Department officials, who were earlier facing the prospect of a mass resignation, breathed a sigh of relief.

“It sounds like Rosen and the cause of justice won,” Patrick Hovakimian, Donoghue’s deputy, emailed a small group at 9:07 p.m.

But Trump was not satisfied.

In the meeting, according to two people familiar with the matter, Trump complained that he wanted to fire Pak, the Atlanta U.S. attorney, who he felt was not doing enough to uncover fraud. The people said participants told the president that Pak intended to leave anyway and that he need not take such a step.

Just after 10 p.m. that night, an email shows, Donoghue emailed Pak, writing in the subject line, “Please call ASAP.” Two people familiar with the matter said Donoghue had conveyed to Pak what was said at the meeting about him.

Pak declined to comment for this article.

Early the next morning, Pak informed staff he was stepping down. “You are a class act, my friend,” Donoghue wrote to Pak after the resignation letter went out. “Thank you.”

He was replaced by Bobby Christine, then the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Georgia, whom Trump viewed as more amenable to his voter fraud claims.

Christine — who did not respond to a message seeking comment — soon brought on board two prosecutors who previously had been assigned to monitor possible election fraud.

But even the president’s preferred replacement ultimately didn’t substantiate his false claims. In mid-January, after the riot at the Capitol, a call leaked in which Christine told his staff the evidence of fraud just wasn’t there.

“Quite frankly, just watching television, you would assume that you got election cases stacked from the floor to the ceiling,” Christine said. “I am so happy to find out that’s not the case.”

Devlin Barrett, Robert Barnes, Josh Dawsey and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Matt Zapotosky covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post's national security team. He has previously worked covering the federal courthouse in Alexandria and local law enforcement in Prince George's County and Southern Maryland.
Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2001.
Amy Gardner joined The Washington Post in 2005. She has worked stints in the Virginia suburbs, covered the 2010 midterms and the tea party revolution, and covered the Republican presidential nominating contest in 2011-2012. She was a politics editor for five years and returned to reporting in 2018.
Karoun Demirjian is a national security reporter covering Capitol Hill, where she focuses on defense, foreign affairs, intelligence and policy matters concerning the Justice Department. She was previously a correspondent based in The Post's bureau in Moscow.