In the most damning evidence yet that former President Donald Trump knew he lost the 2020 election but was still willing to abuse his office to remain in power, a former top Department of Justice official testified Thursday that Trump told the DOJ to "just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and Republican congressmen."
Thursday's groundbreaking congressional testimony came from former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, one of a handful of ex-DOJ officials who stood up to Trump in his final days in office and refused to have the department misused this way.
Donoghue's handwritten notes of his interactions with the former president were presented at the Jan. 6 Committee's fifth public hearing on Thursday, where legislators on the panel announced they would also reveal how fellow members on Congress eventually sought presidential pardons for their role in Trump's wide-ranging plan to stay in office.
The hearing got kicked off just hours after news broke that federal agents had raided the Virginia home of the former DOJ official at the center of this plot: Jeffrey Clark, a Trump loyalist who has already come under scrutiny for abusing his high-ranking position there in the final weeks of the administration. This relatively unknown government lawyer devised a plan to use the DOJ to cast doubt on election results in states where Trump lost to now-President Joe Biden by making vague references to a federal investigation and intimidating state-level officials. His home was searched by federal law enforcement on Wednesday.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia has awkwardly confirmed the raid in vague terms, noting there "was law enforcement activity in the Lorton, Virginia area yesterday" without commenting on "the nature of that activity or any particular individuals."
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Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) said Trump "wanted the Justice Department to legitimize his lies, to basically call the election corrupt… it was a brazen attempt to use the Justice Department to advance the president's personal agenda."
The committee's three witnesses Thursday were all part of DOJ leadership during the tumultuous end of the Trump administration who had abrasive interactions with the White House when they took a firm stand and refused to do the president's bidding: then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen, former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, and Steven Engel, who led the DOJ's in-house policymaking office.
"They were willing to sacrifice their careers for the good of our country," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL).
All are expected to explain in further detail how Clark tried to use the chaos of Trump's refusal to concede to Biden to make himself attorney general-and turn what should remain a non-political law enforcement agency into Trump's personal tool.
Much of what the nation previously knew about the ordeal came from a Senate Judiciary Committee investigation last year that culminated in a 394-page report titled, "Subverting Justice: How the Former President and His Allies Pressured DOJ to Overturn the 2020 Election."
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Internal emails acquired by congressional investigators showed that Clark, then the head of the DOJ's civil division, sought his boss' approval for a draft letter he wrote to Georgia state officials claiming the Justice Department was "investigating various irregularities" and asking the governor and legislature there to "convene in special session" and hear testimony about made up election fraud claims.
Co-chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) noted that Clark's draft letter sounded all too similar to the legal theories of law professor John Eastman and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani because it was a key part of their ploy to keep Trump in power.
Clark already testified under oath before the committee back in February, although he repeatedly refused to answer questions, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
On Thursday, the committee played a portion of a videotaped deposition of former Trump White House lawyer Eric Herschmann, one of several attorneys who was present at a decisive meeting at the Oval Office on Jan. 3, 2021. Herschmann expressed bewilderment at Clark's proposed plan to use the DOJ this way-and his ploy to make himself the nation's AG.
"I thought Jeff's proposal was nuts," Herschmann testified, recalling that he said, "The best I can tell, the only thing you know about environmental and elections challenges is that the both start with 'E.'"
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Donoghue, then the acting AG, previously told the committee in a recorded interview that Trump White House lawyer Pat Cipollone called Clark's letter "a murder-suicide pact" that would "damage anybody who touches it."
Several lawyers there remembered how Clark tried to argue that his short stint overseeing environmental cases at the DOJ somehow qualified him to be top lawyer in the country. Donoghue told the committee that he shot back: "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."
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