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WASHINGTON — Even by the standards of President Donald Trump, it was an extraordinary Oval Office showdown. On the agenda was Trump’s desire to install a loyalist as acting attorney general to carry out his demands for more aggressive investigations into his unfounded claims of election fraud.
On the other side during that meeting on the evening of Jan. 3 were the top leaders of the Justice Department, who warned Trump that they and other senior officials would resign en masse if he followed through. They received immediate support from another key participant: Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel. According to others at the meeting, Cipollone indicated that he and his top deputy, Patrick F. Philbin, would also step down if Trump acted on his plan.
Trump’s proposed plan, Cipollone argued, would be a “murder-suicide pact,” one participant recalled. Only near the end of the nearly three-hour meeting did Trump relent and agree to drop his threat.
Cipollone’s stand that night is among the new details contained in a lengthy interim report prepared by the Senate Judiciary Committee about Trump’s efforts to pressure the Justice Department to do his bidding in the chaotic final weeks of his presidency.
The report draws on documents, emails and testimony from three top Justice Department officials, including the acting attorney general for Trump’s last month in office, Jeffrey A. Rosen; the acting deputy attorney general, Richard P. Donoghue, and Byung J. Pak, who until early January was U.S. attorney in Atlanta. It provides the most complete account yet of Trump’s efforts to push the department to validate election fraud claims that had been disproved by the FBI and state investigators.
The interim report, expected to be released publicly this week, describes how Justice Department officials scrambled to stave off a series of events during a period when Trump was getting advice about blocking certification of the election from a lawyer he had first seen on television and the president’s actions were so unsettling that his top general and the House speaker discussed the nuclear chain of command.
“This report shows the American people just how close we came to a constitutional crisis,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “Thanks to a number of upstanding Americans in the Department of Justice, Donald Trump was unable to bend the department to his will. But it was not due to a lack of effort.”
Durbin said that he believes the former president, who remains a front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024, would have “shredded the Constitution to stay in power.”
The report by Durbin’s committee hews closely to previous accounts of the final days of the Trump administration, which led multiple congressional panels and the Justice Department’s watchdog to open investigations.
But, drawing in particular on interviews with Rosen and Donoghue, both of whom were at the Jan. 3 Oval Office meeting, it brings to light new details that underscore the intensity and relentlessness with which Trump pursued his goal of upending the election, and the role that key government officials played in his efforts.
— The report fleshes out the role of Jeffrey Clark, a little-known Justice Department official who participated in multiple conversations with Trump about how to upend the election and who pushed his superiors to send Georgia officials a letter that falsely claimed the Justice Department had identified “significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election.” Trump was weighing whether to replace Rosen with Clark.
Of particular note was a Jan. 2 confrontation during which Clark seemed to both threaten and coerce Rosen to send the letter. He first raised the prospect that Trump could fire Rosen, and then said that he would decline any offer to replace Rosen as acting attorney general if Rosen sent the letter. Clark also revealed during that meeting that he had secretly conducted a witness interview with someone in Georgia in connection with election fraud allegations that had already been disproved.
— The report raised fresh questions about what role Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., played in the White House effort to pressure the Justice Department to help upend the election. Perry called Donoghue to pressure him into investigating debunked election fraud allegations that had been made in Pennsylvania, the report said, and he complained to Donoghue that the Justice Department was not doing enough to look into such claims. Clark, the report said, also told officials that he had participated in the White House’s efforts at Perry’s request, and that the lawmaker took him to a meeting at the Oval Office to discuss voter fraud. That meeting occurred at around the same time that Perry and members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus met at the White House to discuss the Jan. 6 certification of the election results.
— The report confirmed that Trump was the reason that Pak hastily left his role as U.S. attorney in Atlanta, an area that Trump wrongly told people he had won. Trump told top Justice Department officials that Pak was a never-Trumper, and he blamed Pak for the FBI’s failure to find evidence of mass election fraud there. During the Jan. 3 fight in the Oval Office, Donoghue and others tried to convince Trump not to fire Pak, as he planned to resign in just a few days. But Trump made it clear to the officials that Pak was to leave the following day, leading Donoghue to phone him that evening and tell him he should preemptively resign. Trump also went outside the normal line of succession to push for a perceived loyalist, Bobby L. Christine, to run the Atlanta office. Christine had been the U.S. attorney in Savannah, and had donated to Trump’s campaign.
The report is not the Senate Judiciary Committee’s final word on the pressure campaign that was waged between Dec. 14, when Attorney General William Barr announced his resignation, and Jan. 6, when throngs of Trump’s supporters fought to block certification of the election.
The panel is still waiting for the National Archives to furnish documents, calendar appointments and communications involving the White House that concern efforts to subvert the election. It asked the National Archives, which stores correspondence and documents generated by previous presidential administrations, for the records this spring.
It is also waiting to see whether Clark will sit for an interview and help provide missing details about what was happening inside the White House during the Trump administration’s final weeks. Additionally, the committee has asked the District of Columbia Bar, which licenses and disciplines attorneys, to open a disciplinary investigation into Clark based on its findings.
The report recommended that the Justice Department tighten procedures concerning when it can take certain overt steps in election-related fraud investigations. As attorney general, the report said, Barr weakened the department’s decadeslong strict policy of not taking investigative steps in fraud cases until after an election is certified, a measure that is meant to keep the fact of a federal investigation from affecting the election outcome.
The Senate panel found that Barr personally demanded that the department investigate voter fraud allegations, even if other authorities had looked into them and not found evidence of wrongdoing. These allegations included a claim by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer and a prime force behind the unfounded election fraud allegations, that he had a tape that showed Democratic poll workers kicking their Republican counterparts from a polling station and fraudulently adding votes for Joe Biden into the count.
Pak testified that Barr asked him to look into that claim and directed the FBI to interview a witness about the matter, even though the Georgia secretary of state had deemed the tape to be without merit.
On Dec. 1, just two weeks before saying he would step down, Barr said that the Justice Department had found no evidence of voter fraud widespread enough to change the fact that Biden had won the presidency.
The report underscored how Trump kept coming back to unsubstantiated accounts of election fraud and demanding that the Justice Department jump on them.
Soon after the completion of the Oval Office meeting on the night of Jan. 3, the committee’s report said, Trump reached out to Donoghue, asking him to look into reports that the Department of Homeland Security had taken possession of a truck full of shredded ballots outside of Atlanta.
The report turned out to be false.
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