It was getting late in the day on Sunday, Jan. 3 in the Oval Office.
Trump was arguing with top Justice Department officials over whether to fire the attorney general in a bid to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
The conversation was interrupted, however: Trump wanted to make a call.
“Get Bobby Christine on the phone,” Trump thundered to an administrative assistant.
The move bewildered Richard Donoghue, the deputy attorney general.
“I didn’t understand where he was going with this,” Donoghue recalled in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Less than two hours after the Sunday meeting concluded, Donoghue would be on the phone with U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, BJay Pak, telling him that he needed to resign immediately, and to do so quietly.
Bobby Christine, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, would be replacing Pak.
Pak’s forced resignation came days before the Georgia special Senate elections, and after weeks in which Trump had pushed state officials to accept bogus claims as fact and award the state’s electoral votes to him. That culminated in a Saturday, Jan. 2 call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, during which Trump demanded that officials “find” the votes for him to win.
But the drama of Pak’s ouster and the effort to enlist the Justice Department in the election subversion played out over four crucial days in early January – from Saturday, Jan. 2 to Tuesday, Jan. 5. It was an extraordinary few days that saw Trump nearly hollow out the entire Justice Department by firing the attorney general and replace him with someone willing to fight to overturn Biden’s win.
In the end, this story shows, it was only Pak who was forced to leave. Senate investigators confirmed that Pak was forced to resign because Trump ordered it out of a belief that the prosecutor was a “never-Trumper,” while the report reveals new details about the manner in which Pak’s out-of-order replacement, Bobby Christine, was appointed.
This account of Pak’s ouster and replacement by Christine is based on materials collected by the Senate Judiciary Committee in its probe of former President Trump’s attempts to enlist the DOJ in his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
On Saturday, Jan. 2, Trump gave Raffensperger a call.
He gave the Georgia official a clear sense of what he wanted, but also betrayed one locus of his grievances: “your never-Trumper U.S. attorney.”
Trump was referring to Pak who, since early December, had received repeated calls from DOJ higher-ups to investigate repeated claims of voter fraud in the Atlanta area.
The former President in particular had focused in on an allegation of what he described on the call as “devastating” voter fraud at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena. A video circulating online appeared to show election workers bringing in suitcases of ballots after Republican observers had departed. The workers, right-wing conspiracists surmised, took votes by the handful out of the stuffed suitcases and crammed them into the tabulating machines, thereby assuring Biden’s win.
A few weeks earlier, then-Attorney General Bill Barr had ordered Pak to investigate the claim. He had personally reviewed the video and, he told the Committee, spurred his staff to probe the allegation. It was bogus, and Pak reported it as such.
But by Sunday, Jan. 3, nearly a month later, Trump was still fixated.
In the Oval Office meeting, Donoghue and Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen recalled, someone brought up that voter fraud allegations in Atlanta had been debunked. Why, then, did Trump want to replace his attorney general?
Trump missed the point.
“Atlanta, Atlanta, no surprise there,” Trump fumed. “They didn’t find anything. No surprise because we have a never-Trumper there as U.S. Attorney.”
The allegation had turned into an obsession for Trump, who, despite being told multiple times that it was untrue, continued to claim that there was clear evidence of fraud.
“The President did not want to believe what I reported up,” Pak remarked to the Committee.
Get me Bobby Christine
At the Sunday meeting, Trump became impossible to unstick from the topic of Atlanta and BJay Pak.
“How did this guy get in my administration?” Trump wondered to the crowd, which included White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. “He never should have been here in the first place.”
Trump went on to read from what he claimed was a quote from Pak, saying that Trump’s rhetoric would damage the Republican Party with minorities.
Donoghue, with his mind set on reining Trump in, replied “Mr. President, I don’t even know what that is.”
“All your U.S. Attorney’s were vetted,” he added. “So whatever BJay is, I don’t think he’s a never-Trumper, whatever that is.”
But Trump wasn’t satisfied. He demanded to fire Pak, before quickly changing tack: “What do you know about Bobby Christine?” he asked Donoghue. “I hear great things about him.”
Donoghue replied that Christine was a great prosecutor, but didn’t understand: Christine was already U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia – a full-time job, and one that Christine, a former military officer, understood was outside the chain of command of Pak’s office.
“I want Bobby Christine to run the Northern District of Georgia,” Trump announced.
Donoghue replied incredulously: “BJay Pak has a first assistant who will step in when BJay leaves.”
But Trump was set. “Bobby,” Trump said “should run this,” Donoghue recalled. “If he’s good, he’ll find out if there’s something there.”
From there, Donoghue and the rest watched as Trump called Christine on speaker phone in front of the entire group, while sitting at the Resolute desk.
“Bobby, it’s President Trump,” he said. “I’m sitting here with Jeff [Clark] and Rich [Donoghue] and other people, and BJay Pak is leaving Northern District.”
“Would you be willing to run the Northern District for the next few weeks?” Trump asked.
Christine, who seemed confused and surprised to those listening, replied: “Mr. President, I’ll do whatever is needed.”
Trump was satisfied with that answer: “great, Rich will give you a call later and explain everything.”
It’s still not clear how Trump came to believe Christine was the man for the job.
‘Do it quietly’
But it fell to Donoghue to break the news to BJay.
Pak, like the rest of the country’s U.S. attorneys, was already planning his exit. He served at the will of the President and Trump’s term was ending in a little more than two weeks. He was toying with the idea of sending his resignation letter out on Wednesday, Jan. 6 – to take effect on Inauguration Day.
But Pak looked at his phone late on Sunday, and saw multiple missed calls from Donoghue, then in charge of running the DOJ’s day-to-day operations. He called him back.
Leaving on Inauguration Day won’t do, Donoghue told Pak. He had to make a resignation announcement, it had to be soon, and it had to take effect immediately. Trump no longer wanted him around.
Pak, thinking of how his office would react, asked Donoghue if Kurt Erskine, the first assistant U.S. Attorney, would take over in his stead.
No, Donoghue replied. It would go to Bobby Christine. Donoghue told Pak that Valentine seemed confused after Trump informed him of the move in a quick phone call from the Oval Office.
Donoghue tried to soften the blow with a sweetener: Did Pak want another senior role in the DOJ?
“I told him, Rich, thanks but no thanks, I’m done,” Pak recalled. Donoghue replied that Pak could do whatever he wanted in announcing his departure.
“You could have a press conference, you could, you know, make a big fuss or submit — just do it quietly,” Pak recalled Donoghue saying. “He suggested that it would be best for everybody if you did it quietly.”
That night, Pak didn’t decide. He told Donoghue he’d think about it, and hung up.
Nothing to it
Pak left home early the morning of Monday, Jan. 4 for his office in downtown Atlanta.
He called Donoghue on the way, and asked why he was being forced to resign.
Trump believed him to be a never-Trumper, Donoghue said. The President was unhappy with what was or was not being done, and that was that.
Pak said that he would go out without a fuss, and would resign “blandly,” in part to minimize the impact on the Georgia special Senate elections.
That morning, Pak’s resignation letter went out to his office. It eventually found its way into the hands of TPM, which broke the news on Monday that Pak would be departing immediately.
Pak sent another letter to all the U.S. Attorneys around the country, conveying his “wish and hope that at least some of you will consider continuing to serve our country — our nation needs patriots like you to uphold the rule of law.”
Pak remained worried about the reaction of his staff, who he thought would greet Christine with suspicion.
“I think the unorthodox nature probably hindered him from, you know, having credibility with the office immediately,” Pak said. “It adds a lot of questions.”
Christine brought his own prosecutors with him to Atlanta, Pak said. That, Pak observed, “did not sit well with the career prosecutors that are in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District given the fact that my former office is about five times as large as the Southern District of Georgia.”
The move was announced to staff early in the morning of Tuesday, Jan 5.
Days later, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, Christine had figured out what everyone else had long knew: “There’s just nothing to” the allegations, he told Atlanta office staff.