Trump and Justice Dept. Lawyer called for Expel Acting Attorney General to plot
Donald Trump considered installing a loyalist to try to find another way to spread his false election claims.
This month, the top leaders of the Justice Department listened in shocked silence: one of their colleagues, they were told, had formed a strategy with President Donald J. Trump to replace Jeffrey A. Rosen as acting attorney general and exercise the power of the department to compel state lawmakers in Georgia to reverse the outcome of their presidential election.
Jeffrey Clark, the unassuming lawyer who worked on the proposal, had devised ways to cast doubt on the outcome of the election and to help Mr. Trump's ongoing legal challenges and the pressure on politicians in Georgia. Mr. Trump was about to determine whether to fire Mr. Rosen and replace him with Mr. Clark, because Mr. Rosen had declined the president's demands to carry out those plans.
Convening on a conference call, the department officials then asked each other: What are you going to do if Mr. Rosen is dismissed?
Unanimous was the reaction. They're going to resign.
Ultimately, their informal agreement helped convince Mr. Trump to hold Mr. Rosen in place, calculating that any publicity on his false allegations of voter fraud would be eclipsed by a furor over mass resignations at the top of the Justice Department. The decision of Mr. Trump came only after Mr. Rosen and Mr. Clark filed their opposing cases with him in a surreal White House meeting that compared two officials to an episode of Mr. Trump's "The Apprentice" reality show, albeit one that could cause a constitutional crisis.
The previously undisclosed chapter was the culmination of the president's long-running attempt to pursue his personal agenda by battering the Justice Department. He also urged Mr. Rosen to name special prosecutors, including one that would look into Dominion Voting Systems, an election equipment company falsely said by Mr. Trump's allies to partner with Venezuela to flip Mr. Trump's votes to Joseph R. Biden Jr.
This account of the final days of the department under the leadership of Mr. Trump is based on interviews with four former officials of the Trump administration who requested not to be identified out of fear of retaliation.
"Mr. Clark said that this account contained inaccuracies but did not specify, adding that because of "the strictures of legal privilege," he said, he could not discuss any discussions with Mr. Trump or lawyers of the Justice Department." "Senior Justice Department lawyers, not uncommonly, provide legal advice to the White House as part of our duties," he said. "All my official communications were law-compliant."
Mr. Clark categorically denied that any attempt to oust Mr. Rosen or to make action recommendations based on the factual inaccuracies gleaned from the internet had been created. "In order to evaluate disputed factual claims, my practice is to rely on sworn testimony," said Mr. Clark. With the president, there was a candid discussion of options and pros and cons. It is unfortunate that, while distorting any conversations, those who were part of a privileged legal debate would speak in public on such internal deliberations.
Mr. Clark also noted that last month, on a Justice Department motion, he was the lead signatory urging a federal judge to dismiss a complaint that tried to persuade Vice President Mike Pence to reverse the election results.
Mr. Trump has refused to comment. An advisor said that Mr. Trump has repeatedly claimed that "rampant election fraud that has plagued our system for years" should be investigated by the justice system.
The adviser added that "any claim to the contrary is false and is driven by those who want to break the system." Mr. Clark agreed and said that he was prohibited from sharing information about the conversation by "legal privileges."
A spokesperson for the Justice Department refused to comment, as did Mr. Rosen.
When Mr. Trump said on Dec. 14 that Attorney General William P. Barr was leaving the department, some officials thought that before questioning him about voter fraud, he would give Mr. Rosen a brief reprieve. Mr. Barr will, after all, be around for another week.
Instead, the next day, Mr. Trump called Mr. Rosen to the Oval Office. He wanted the Department of Justice to file legal briefs supporting the cases of his supporters trying to reverse his election defeat. And Mr. Rosen was advised to name special counsel to investigate not only false claims of widespread voter fraud, but also Dominion, the voting machine corporation.
(Dominion also sued Sidney Powell, a pro-Trump lawyer, who incorporated those claims into four federal electoral irregularity cases that were all dismissed.)
Mr. Rosen declined. He said that he would make decisions based on the facts and the law, and repeated what Mr. Barr had told Mr. Trump privately: the department had reviewed voting irregularities and found no signs of systemic fraud.
But, after the conference, Mr. Trump proceeded to press Mr. Rosen, in phone calls and in person. He repeatedly said that he did not understand why the Department of Justice had not found evidence supporting conspiracy theories about the election that had been espoused by some of his personal lawyers. He announced that he was not fighting hard enough for the agency.
When Mr. Rosen and the deputy attorney general, Richard P. Donoghue, fought back, they were unaware that a Pennsylvania politician had presented Mr. Clark to Mr. Trump and told the president that he agreed that the election results had been tainted by fraud.
Mr. Trump immediately welcomed Mr. Clark, who in September had been named acting head of the Civil Division and was also the head of the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the Department.
Mr. Clark told Mr. Rosen and Mr. Donoghue as December wore on that he spent a lot of time on the internet reading a statement that alarmed them because they thought that he believed the baseless conspiracy theory that Mr. Trump had won the election. Mr. Clark also told them that he wanted the department to hold a press conference revealing that serious allegations of election fraud were being investigated. The plan was refused by Mr. Rosen and Mr. Donoghue.
He protested to the leaders of the Justice Department that the U.S. attorney in Atlanta, Byung J. Pak, was not seeking to locate evidence of false election allegations pushed by Mr. Trump's lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and others, as Mr. Trump focused steadily on Georgia, a state he lost narrowly to Mr. Biden. Mr. Donoghue warned Mr. Pak that the president was now fixated on his office and that, according to two people familiar with the conversation, it would not be tenable for him to continue to lead it.
The discussion and the attempts of Mr. Trump to pressure Georgia's Republican Secretary of State to "find" votes for him pressured Mr. Pak to resign unexpectedly this month.
Mr. Clark was based on Georgia as well. He wrote a letter that Mr. Rosen decided to send to state legislators in Georgia that falsely claimed that the Department of Justice was investigating claims of voter fraud in their state, and that they should move to void Mr. Biden's victory there.
Mr. Rosen and Mr. Donoghue dismissed the request from Mr. Clark again.
The trio met on New Year's Eve to address Mr. Clark's rejection of hewing to the department's conclusion that the election results were accurate. Mr. Donoghue told Mr. Clark flatly that what he was doing was incorrect. The next day, Mr. Clark told Mr. Rosen, who had mentored him while working for the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, that early next week, just before Congress was expected to certify Mr. Biden's electoral win, he was going to discuss his plan with the president.
Mr. Clark's timetable pushed up, unknown to the acting attorney general. Over the weekend, he met Mr. Trump and then told Mr. Rosen at noon on Sunday that the president wanted to replace him with Mr. Clark, who could then attempt to keep Congress from certifying the results of the Electoral College. He said Mr. Rosen would be able to continue on as his deputy attorney general, leaving Mr. Rosen speechless.
Mr. Rosen, refusing to step down without a fight, said he wanted to hear directly from Mr. Trump and worked with White House counsel Pat A. Cipollone to convene early that evening for a meeting.
Even as the pronouncement of Mr. Clark was sinking in, shocking news broke out from Georgia: State officials had reported an hour-long call, published by The Washington Post, during which Mr. Trump urged them to deliver enough votes to declare him victorious. The president's desperate attempt to shift the result in Georgia came into sharp focus as the fallout from the recording ricocheted through Washington.
Mr. Rosen and Mr. Donoghue pressed on, reminding Steven Engel, the director of the legal counsel's office of the Justice Department, of the current maneuver by Mr. Clark. Mr. Donoghue convened a late-afternoon call with the remaining senior leaders of the department, setting out the efforts of Mr. Clark to succeed Mr. Rosen.
Mr. Donoghue informed the community that Mr. Rosen was hoping to go to the White House soon to discuss his fate. They all decided to resign en masse should Mr. Rosen be fired. For others, the proposal brought to mind the so-called Nixon-era Saturday Night Shooting, where Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and his deputy resigned rather than executing the president's order to fire the investigating special prosecutor.
The Clark proposal would seriously damage the agency, the government and the rule of law, the officials concluded. They anxiously sent messages for hours and called each other as they awaited the fate of Mr. Rosen.
Mr. Rosen, Mr. Donoghue and Mr. Clark met Mr. Trump, Mr. Cipollone, his deputy, Patrick Philbin, and other lawyers at the White House at about 6 p.m. Mr. Trump made him present their points to Mr. Rosen and Mr. Clark.
Mr. Cipollone urged the President not to fire Mr. Rosen and, as he had done for days, he reiterated that he had not requested that the letter be sent to lawmakers in Georgia. Mr. Engel told Mr. Trump that if he fired Mr. Rosen, he and the other top officials in the department would leave, leaving Mr. Clark alone in the department.
The notion that firing Mr. Rosen would cause not only confusion in the Department of Justice, but also congressional investigations and potentially recriminations from other Republicans seemed somewhat swayed by Mr. Trump and diverted attention from his attempts to reverse the election results.
Mr. Trump eventually concluded, after almost three hours, that Mr. Clark's proposal would fail, and he allowed Mr. Rosen to stay.
Mr. Rosen and his deputies concluded that the chaos had been weathered. Once Congress had certified the victory of Mr. Biden, there will be nothing for them to do before they left in two weeks together with Mr. Trump.
As the Electoral College certification at the Capitol got underway, they started to exhale days later. And then the word came to them: The house was broken.