(WASHINGTON) — The House Jan. 6 committee hearing on Thursday afternoon focused on what it said was a “brazen attempt” by then-President Donald Trump to misuse the Department of Justice for his own political gain.
The panel heard from three former officials directly affected by Trump’s pressure campaign: former attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, former deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue and former top DOJ lawyer Steve Engel, all of whom said they repeatedly told Trump allegations of widespread voter fraud were untrue.
All three men described in stunning detail the desperate attempts by Trump and his allies to recruit the department in his plot to overturn his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden — which culminated in a plan to replace Rosen with Jeffrey Clark, a less-qualified but loyal official who was leading the department’s environmental division.
Notably, Clark’s Virginia home was raided by federal agents on Wednesday, as the Justice Department expands its investigation into a scheme to send fake electors to Congress and the National Archives.
Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., on Thursday characterized Trump’s pressure campaign against the DOJ — as well as his attacks on local election officials, then-Vice President Mike Pence and more — as the “inner workings of what was essentially a political coup.”
“He pressured the Justice Department to act as an arm of his reelection campaign,” Thompson summarized in his closing statement. “He hoped law enforcement officials would give the appearance of legitimacy to his lies, so he and his allies had some veneer of credibility when they told the country that the election was stolen.”
Here are some key takeaways from Thursday’s hearing:
Trump’s demands included seizing voting machines
Rosen and Donoghue shed light on an emergency meeting called by a particularly “agitated” Trump on New Year’s Eve, during which the president urged the department to seize voting machines from across the country.
Rosen said the officials in the room told him no.
“There was no factual basis nor was there any legal authority to do so,” Rosen testified.
It wasn’t the only request Trump made of the department before Jan. 6. He also wanted officials to send a lawsuit to the Supreme Court regarding election fraud, appoint a special counsel to investigate alleged fraud and more, witnesses said.
One theory propagated by Trump was that Italian satellites had switched votes from him to Biden, which Donoghue described as “pure insanity.”
Rosen said the department declined all of Trump’s demands because they “did not think that they were appropriate based on the facts and the law as we understood them.”
Tense Jan. 3 White House meeting on ‘murder-suicide pact’
The second half of the hearing zoomed in on a critical meeting at the White House on Jan. 3, 2021, when Trump weighed appointing Clark to lead the Justice Department.
The committee displayed a White House call log that already referred to Clark as the “acting attorney general,” suggesting that Trump was already ready to turn over the Justice Department to Clark before the meeting.
“What do I have to lose?” Trump mused at one point in the meeting. Donoghue replied that it was “not in anyone’s best interest.”
All three live witnesses described threatening to quit if Clark was appointed, citing his lack of qualifications to serve in such a high-level role.
“I said, Mr. President, within 24, 48, 72 hours you could have hundreds and hundreds of resignations of the leadership of the entire Justice Department because of your actions, what’s that going to say about you?” Engel said.
Engel said at that point, White House counsel stepped in to describe appointing Clark as a “murder-suicide pact.”
Scott Perry emerges as key figure in DOJ pressure campaign
The committee on Thursday outlined what it said was the role Rep. Scott Perry, R-Penn., played in trying to elevate Clark to attorney general as other officials in the department pushed back on Trump’s election baseless claims.
Perry was among the group of Republicans who met with Trump on Dec. 21, 2020, on how to continue challenging Joe Biden’s victory and push claims of voter fraud.
The next day, Perry introduced Clark to Trump in a White House meeting. Clark met with the president without the knowledge of his superiors, in violation of DOJ rules.
Perry also texted White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to help with Clark’s ascension. In one message displayed during the hearing, Perry wrote: “Mark, just checking in as time continues to count down. 11 days to 1/6 and 25 days to inauguration. We gotta get going.”
Perry’s office continued to defend his actions, with his spokesperson telling ABC News Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott on Thursday there’s “nothing new here.”
Clark was ready to inform Georgia officials the DOJ found fraud
Clark was a key player in Trump’s attempt to get the Justice Department to falsely claim voter fraud in Georgia and other states.
A draft letter Clark circulated asked Georgia’s governor and other top state officials to convene the state legislature into a special session to investigate claims of voter fraud — fraud former Attorney General Bill Barr had already deemed meritless.
Donoghue said he and Rosen had “visceral reactions” to the draft document, adding that if it had been sent it might have sparked a “constitutional crisis.”
Former White House counsel Eric Herschmann recalled what he said to Clark when he became aware of his plans.
“When he finished discussing what he planned on doing, I said ‘[expletive], congratulations. You just admitted your first step you would take as AG would be committing a felony,” Herschmann said. “‘You’re clearly the right candidate for this job."”
“I told Clark the only thing he knew was that environmental and election both start with “e,” and I’m not even sure you know that,” he added.
Trump: ‘Just say it was corrupt and leave the rest to us’
Drawing from handwritten notes, Donoghue documented that Trump told him to, “Just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen.”
When Donoghue told Trump on a Dec. 27, 2020, phone call he couldn’t change the outcome of the election, he recalled Trump “responded very quickly — and said, ‘that’s not what I’m asking you to do — I’m just asking you to say it is corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” Donoghue recalled.
He also said Trump told him the Justice Department was “obligated to tell people that this was an illegal, corrupt election,” despite officials repeatedly telling him no widespread fraud existed and that Biden was the legitimate winner.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans on the panel, emphasized the gravity of Trump’s request, saying, “The president wanted the top Justice Department officials to declare that the election was corrupt, even though, as he knew, there was absolutely no evidence to support that statement.”
GOP members of Congress sought preemptive pardons
Former White House officials detailed in taped depositions how several Republican members of Congress requested “blanket pardons” in the final days of the Trump administration.
Among those listed by the officials were Reps. Perry, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Louie Gohmert of Texas.
Cassidy Hutchinson, a top aide to Meadows, added in her testimony that Gaetz had been asking for a pardon since “early December.” ABC News has previously reported on an ongoing DOJ investigation on sex trafficking allegations involving Gaetz.
Hutchinson also said she “heard” that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia had requested a pardon from White House lawyer Pat Phillbin and said that Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio “talked about pardons,” and asked for an update on whether the White House was going to pardon members of Congress, but did not directly ask for one, to her knowledge.
John McEntee, a former Trump White House aide, testified that at one point, the idea of a “blanket pardon” was floated for everyone involved in Jan. 6.
One after another, Republican lawmakers dismissed of denied the allegations.
In a statement to ABC News, Brooks dismissed said pardons “were unnecessary after all,” and while Gaetz did not deny the claim, he dismissed the committee in a tweet as a “political sideshow.”
Jordan called his involvement “100% fake news” in a tweet, and Perry’s spokesperson called it “a ludicrous and soulless lie.” Greene called it “gossip and lies” and the committee a “Witch Hunt.”
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