Rosen, Donoghue, And Clark: The Psychodrama That Nearly Subverted American Democracy

An account based on the Senate Judiciary Committee's report about Trump's efforts to pressure the DOJ.
Jeffrey Rosen, Jeffrey Clark
TPM Illustration/Getty Images
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October 7, 2021 5:21 p.m.

It was Jan. 3, and Jeffrey Bossert Clark had finally said yes.

President Trump had asked him the day before whether he wanted the top job in American law enforcement: attorney general.

It was a big offer, and a big title for a man who, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee, had spent the previous few days trying to convince DOJ officials to drop the “acting” off his title, acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Division.

But the stakes were far greater than that, a report released Thursday by the Committee Democrats suggests. The report says that Clark planned to set in motion a series of events that would see the Justice Department transformed into a political weapon, used to declare the 2020 election corrupt and instruct state legislatures that the only path forward was to consider appointing a new slate of electors.

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Trump had searched for people willing to do this, and came up with Clark.

It fell to Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, who took over after Bill Barr departed, to stand in his way, along with Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, who was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the DOJ.

The account of those tense few days that follows is based on information presented by Senate investigators and released in the Thursday report. The report is based on partial information: Investigators are still awaiting records from the National Archives, and Clark was, allegedly, uncooperative.

Christmas with Jeff

Bill Barr’s last day at DOJ was Dec. 23. Rosen was set to take over the Department for the Trump administration’s final month the next day — a lame-duck, caretaker term before the Biden administration began.

That day, according to the Senate report, Trump gave Rosen a quick call. The two exchanged small talk; Trump suggested they’d talk again soon.

He called the next day.

Trump peppered Rosen with various election fraud allegations, before startling Rosen with a question: did he know “a guy named Jeff Clark?”

An acting assistant attorney general for the civil division since September 2020, and the Senate-confirmed assistant attorney general for the natural resources division since November 2018, Clark had nothing to do with election-related matters. Nor did he — or could he, per DOJ policy — have any reason to be speaking with the President.

Rosen made a mental note, according to Senate investigators. It was “odd.”

And so, on Dec. 26, he gave Clark a call. Going off little information, Rosen asked whether there was “something going on that I don’t know about.”

Clark’s reply left Rosen “flabbergasted,” according to the report.

Over the preceding week, Clark had met with President Trump directly via a connection he had with Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), a major promoter of Big Lie conspiracies. Clark framed the Oval meeting with Trump as unexpected, saying he had gotten “caught up” in it, without saying what was discussed and why.

The answer to that question came the next day.

In a phone call, Trump told Rosen and Donoghue that he was hearing “great things” about Clark, and suggested that he’d be a good attorney general candidate. The election, after all, needed investigating, and didn’t Clark seem like the right man for the job?

Donoghue, who was unaware of Clark’s activities at this point, was surprised. The two replied that Trump could change DOJ leadership if he wanted. But they went a step further, saying something they may have believed to be true at the time, but which would be tested: that changing DOJ leadership would not change its position on the election.

‘Proof of Concept’

The next day, on Dec. 28, Clark began put that proposition to the test.

In the late afternoon, according to the Senate report, Clark emailed Rosen and Donoghue a message, drafted in part with what Senate investigators believe may have been help from a deputy named Kenneth Klukowski.

Clark presented two “urgent action items.” One involved a demand to be briefed by the Director of National Intelligence, with Clark saying that he wanted access to classified information to determine whether a “smart thermostat” had mediated a cyber link between Dominion election machines and the Chinese government. Clark cited an Executive Order that allows the President to freeze assets in connection with national emergencies in that request.

But it was the second “action item” that alarmed Rosen and Donoghue: a “proof of concept” proposal for the DOJ to send a letter to Georgia, declaring the election corrupt while advising the state to convene its legislature to consider appointing new, non-Biden electors.

“[T]ime is of the essence,” the letter urged, proclaiming that a special session would be “in the national interest.”

Clark suggested that the “concept” could be applied to other swing states.

Rosen and Donoghue met this proposal with incredulity.

“There is no chance that I would sign this letter or anything remotely like this,” Donoghue replied, 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.”

The three met in the attorney general’s conference room. Donoghue told Clark he had “no business” with the election, and scolded him for the “wildly inappropriate” proposal and for having unauthorized contacts with the White House.

The meeting ended, but not before Clark put in a separate request: could he have the “acting” removed from his title?

Rosen and Donoghue knew that they needed to head Clark off, the report says.

Much of what Clark wanted done would have required the involvement of the Office of Legal Counsel, the DOJ’s in-house legal advice office. The two briefed OLC chief Steven Engel, while keeping the rest of DOJ leadership in the dark.

Clark’s efforts could, if widely known, “create panic,” they believed.

Speaking to the source

Rosen and Donoghue told Senate investigators that they believed Clark left the Dec. 28 meeting rebuffed.

But in a New Year’s call with Rosen, Clark produced another surprise: Trump had asked Clark whether he would take over as acting attorney general were Rosen to be replaced, Clark informed his boss.

Clark needed to reply to Trump by Jan. 4, but said he hadn’t decided yet on what to do.

Rosen, apparently unaccustomed to dealing with a subordinate in this way, suggested that Clark poke around himself on the election. He approved Clark’s request to speak about classified information with the DNI, and gave Clark the cell phone number of the top federal prosecutor in Atlanta: BJay Pak.

Clark never called Pak.

Instead, he spoke with a Trump campaign witness in Georgia who claimed to have seen trucks carrying ballots off to be shredded.

When Rosen asked Clark whether he had managed to talk to Pak, Clark replied cryptically: “I spoke to the source and am on with the guy who took the video right now. Working on it. More due diligence to do.”

Meet the new AG

Clark met with Rosen and Donoghue at a Jan. 2 meeting to see if he had come to recognize the reality: there was no fraud. The election was sound.

But Clark demurred, earning rage from Donoghue who demanded to know: “Who told you to conduct investigations and interview witnesses?”

The next day, Clark asked Rosen for a meeting — no Donoghue this time, just the two of them.

There, Clark told Rosen: he had accepted the offer a day early. Trump would dismiss Rosen that day and Clark would take over. But there was just one thing: Donoghue would be leaving, it had been decided — could Rosen take over his job as deputy attorney general?

“There was no universe I could imagine in which that would ever happen,” Rosen replied, according to the report, adding that he would not accept being fired by his subordinate.

Rosen arranged a call with senior DOJ leadership, briefing them on Clark’s activities, while scheduling a meeting at the Oval Office that evening with Trump and his legal aides.

Donoghue started taking things off his office’s walls and putting them away in boxes.

“Are we going to find out in a tweet?” he joked to Rosen.

Patrick Hovakimian, a deputy to Rosen, prepared a resignation letter.

“This evening, after Acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen over the course of the last week repeatedly refused the President’s direct instructions to utilize the Department of Justice’s law enforcement powers for improper ends, the President removed Jeff from the Department,” it read, according to the report. He, Donoghue, and the rest of DOJ leadership would plan to resign as well.

Meltdown

The days of drama came to a head at a 6:00 p.m. White House meeting.

Clark had asked two aides to come. Neither made it to the White House, for reasons that were unclear from the report.

Instead, Trump and Clark faced a room full of people — including his White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and his own deputy Patrick Philbin — who all promised to resign if Clark became attorney general.

It was hard for those present at that point to distinguish between the letter that Clark wanted sent and the question of Clark becoming attorney general — “they were sort of one and the same at that point,” Rosen and Donoghue told the Committee.

The group made clear to Trump that they would all resign if the plan were to go forward. Many of the country’s U.S. Attorneys and other DOJ officials would join them, they speculated.

Trump didn’t relent at first. It wasn’t until deep into the conversation, near 9:00 p.m., that he rejected the Clark option.

“It sounds like Rosen and the cause of justice won,” Hovakimian, the Rosen deputy, wrote to senior DOJ officials that night.

Clark resigned from the Justice Department before Biden’s inauguration, on Jan. 14. He now works for a foundation that litigates against vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 measures.

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