WASHINGTON: Lawmakers investigating last year's attack on the US Capitol on Thursday (Jun 23) laid out Donald Trump's "brazen" efforts to recruit the Justice Department into his scheme to overturn his 2020 election defeat to Joe Biden.
At the fifth hearing in its year-long probe of the insurrection, the House of Representatives panel detailed Trump's pressure on officials as part of his campaign to assert falsely that his presidency had been stolen from him by widespread voter fraud.
"Donald Trump didn't just want the Justice Department to investigate. He wanted the Justice Department to help legitimise his lies, to baselessly call the election corrupt," committee chairman Bennie Thompson said.
Lawmakers revisited tensions among government attorneys the weekend before the Jan 6, 2021 insurrection, when Trump tried to install his own man at the top of the department.
"It was a brazen attempt to use the Justice Department to advance the President's personal political agenda," Thompson said.
The committee heard from Jeffrey Rosen, who became acting attorney general after Bill Barr resigned, and soon found himself at the centre of Trump's efforts to undermine confidence in the election.
Underscoring the intensity of Trump's pressure on the department, Rosen said that in late December 2020 and early January 2021, the president contacted him almost daily.
"At one point, he had raised the question of having a special counsel for election fraud. At a number of points, he raised requests that I meet with his campaign counsel, Mr (Rudy) Giuliani," Rosen said.
"At one point, he raised whether the Justice Department would file a lawsuit in the Supreme Court. At a couple of junctures, there were questions about making public statements or about holding a press conference."
The DOJ pursued a deluge of Trump's election fraud claims, but Rosen said officials were presented with no evidence.
At that point Trump began elevating a little-known mid-level department official named Jeffrey Clark, who embraced the outgoing president's debunked theories.
OVAL OFFICE SHOWDOWN
Clark prepared a letter to the Georgia Assembly, the hearing was told, stating that the department had found evidence of widespread voter fraud but other officials refused to sign it. Other letters had also been prepared for other states.
Trump White House lawyer Eric Herschmann told the committee in a videotaped deposition that he had informed Clark that his plan would amount to "committing a felony".
Trump considered installing Clark as attorney general over Rosen, and having Clark reverse the department's conclusion that there was no evidence of fraud that could sway the election.
But Trump was forced to back off by a rebellion in the department's senior ranks at a Jan 4 Oval Office meeting outlined in detail by the witnesses.
Rosen, his deputy Richard Donoghue, another high-ranking official named Steven Engel and White House counsel Pat Cipollone threatened to resign en masse, warning that they would take a raft of top federal prosecutors with them, if Trump went ahead with his plan.
"I made the point that Jeff Clark is not even competent to serve as the attorney general. He's never been a criminal attorney. He's never conducted a criminal investigation in his life," Donoghue recalled telling Trump.
Donoghue said he told Clark: "You're an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office, and we'll call you when there's an oil spill?"
Under live questioning, Donoghue confirmed that he had rebuffed Trump when the then-president insisted the department could simply "say that the election was corrupt" and "leave the rest to me".
In a headline-grabbing coda to the affair, federal investigators searched Clark's home on Wednesday.
The US attorney in Washington did not comment on the reason for the action but the Center for Renewing America, where Clark works, confirmed the search, calling it a "weaponisation of government".
Adding to the drama, Hollywood actor Sean Penn was at Thursday's hearing as a guest of former police officer Michael Fanone, who was seriously injured on Jan 6 and testified last year about his ordeal.
"I'm just here to observe, just another citizen." Penn told reporters, adding that he had been following the hearings.