It all came down to a showdown in the Oval Office on the evening of Jan. 3, 2021.
Trump sat behind the Resolute Desk as a skeleton staff of senior Justice Department officials joined with White House Counsel’s Office attorneys to try to prevent Jeffrey Bossert Clark, an assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, from being installed as attorney general.
Trump had big plans for Clark: he was to use the DOJ to invalidate Biden’s victory in key swing states. That, in turn, could buy the White House more time and bolster its claims of fraud, perhaps paving the way for Jan. 6 to certify not Biden’s election, but Trump’s.
The January 6 Committee will revisit the scheme in a Thursday hearing, devoted to Trump’s attempts to hijack the DOJ to stay in power.
Committee aides said that Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) will lead the hearing, focused on Trump’s efforts, an aide said, to “misuse the department to advance his own agenda to stay in power at the end of his term.”
That will include information on how Clark “planned on reversing the Department’s investigative conclusions regarding fraud if he was appointed.”
Much of what we know about the effort comes from an interim report issued in October 2021 by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
That investigation provided the contours of a scheme that would have seen Clark installed as attorney general days before Jan. 6, in charge of wielding the DOJ as a blunt instrument to discredit the results of the 2020 election in the hope of creating an opening for Trump to stay in power.
That effort ended in the Oval Office showdown. Aides said that the committee’s Thursday hearing will reveal new information about the scheme, going beyond what the Senate uncovered last year.
Below is a recap of how close the DOJ came to being used as a bludgeon as Trump sought to demolish the democratic transfer of power.
‘Acting’ Attorney General
On Dec. 28, Clark met with his bosses, and he had a few asks.
Clark called them “urgent action items,” having presented two demands that day via email: one involved the question of whether “smart thermostats” allowed the Chinese to interfere in ballot tabulation on Biden’s behalf, a bizarre conspiracy theory that had gained traction among the Trump’s fans. The other would have brought the DOJ directly into the process of certifying the election results.
Clark was meeting with two DOJ officials who are scheduled to appear at Thursday’s hearing: Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, and Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen.
The DOJ, at that time, was already run by a skeleton staff as the lame-duck Trump administration wound down. After Attorney General Bill Barr departed on Dec. 23, the department was preparing for a transition to the incoming Biden administration.
But instead of managing the transition, Donoghue and Rosen found themselves bombarded with calls from Trump, Giuliani and Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), and being pestered for meetings with Clark — a relatively high-ranking DOJ official with no remit to cover election matters.
The two were shocked at what he wanted. Clark offered what he purportedly described as a “proof of concept” for a letter that would go first to Georgia, and then to all the swing states that Trump lost.
The letter would declare that the DOJ believed the election was corrupt and that no winner could be determined, while recommending that the states consider appointing pro-Trump electors.
“[T]ime is of the essence,” the letter read, adding that holding special sessions in state legislatures would be “in the national interest.”
Clark’s wild proposal was one prong in a larger scheme that the Jan. 6 Committee has detailed in recent days: A plan to put forward pro-Trump slates of electors to compete with the real, Biden electors. Trump and a small cadre of conspiracy theorists and legal advisors had spent the previous month masterminding the effort, and were pushing on multiple fronts to make it a reality. Involving the DOJ would enlist a powerful ally in Trump’s effort to persuade the states to throw out Biden electors that the states had already approved.
Clark’s superiors were appalled.
“There is no chance that I would sign this letter or anything remotely like this,” Donoghue wrote to Clark, according to the Senate report. “This would be a grave step for the Department to take and it could have tremendous Constitutional, political and social ramifications for the country.”
Later that day, in the attorney general’s conference room, the three held a meeting.
Donoghue chided Clark for getting involved, calling his proposal “wildly inappropriate” and telling him that he had “no business” in election matters. By that time, Donoghue and Rosen were aware that Clark had been in contact with Trump and, Donoghue pointed out, acting outside the chain of command.
It’s not entirely clear how Clark responded in the moment. But Clark, who was filling in as acting head of the DOJ’s Civil Division, did take the time to put in one additional ask, according to Senate investigators: could Acting Attorney General Rosen agree to remove the “acting” from his title?
Trump did not abandon the plan, however, and tension over the scheme continued to build throughout the following days.
Clark told Rosen on New Year’s Eve that Trump had asked whether he’d be willing to take over as acting attorney general, were Rosen to be fired.
By the morning Jan. 3, Clark had decided: it was time to say yes to President Trump.
At around noon that day, Clark called Rosen: could they meet at the attorney general’s office? Alone?
Rosen agreed. At 3:00 p.m., Clark walked in and told Rosen: he had spoken with Trump, and Rosen would be replaced with Clark that day.
Rosen told Clark that he would not accept “being fired by his subordinate,” the Senate report said.
Rosen and Donoghue scheduled an emergency meeting with Trump in the Oval Office starting that evening.
Before leaving, Rosen convened a call with DOJ leadership to brief them on what was happening. One of his aides began to prepare a resignation letter which noted that Rosen had been “removed” after having “refused the President’s direct instructions to utilize the Department of Justice’s law enforcement powers for improper ends.”
With that in hand and with DOJ leadership in the loop, the group set out for the White House.
Clark was there, along with Trump and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and his deputy Patrick Philbin.
The conversation purportedly went on for multiple hours. Trump refused to give in.
But those present — including White House counsel officials — told Trump in no uncertain terms that they would resign en masse if Clark were to replace Rosen. DOJ officials and federal prosecutors across the country would likely join them, they said.
At one point, the Jan. 6 Committee said in a March court filing, Donoghue pointed out that Clark was an environmental lawyer, and out of his depth in criminal law and national election law.
“And he kind of retorted by saying, ‘Well, I’ve done a lot of very complicated appeals and civil litigation, environmental litigation, and things like that,’” Donoghue said, according to a transcript of his deposition before the committee. “And I said, ‘That’s right. You’re an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.’”
Towards the end of the evening, Trump gave in. He agreed to keep Rosen on as attorney general.
“It sounds like Rosen and the cause of justice won,” one Rosen aide wrote to senior DOJ officials that night.
At the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Jan. 6 Committee co-chair Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) made a public plea for Cipollone, the White House counsel who threatened to resign if Clark were installed, to appear before the committee.
It’s not clear what his response to that has been. But the committee will reveal what else it knows about the scheme to use the DOJ to interfere in the election later on Thursday.