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Trump Nearly Fired Acting Attorney General Days Before Capitol Riot

Intelligencer logo Intelligencer 1/23/2021 Chas Danner
a blurry image of a person: He’s gone, but we’re still learning more about how far he considered going to stay in power. Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images © Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images He’s gone, but we’re still learning more about how far he considered going to stay in power. Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just days before former president Donald Trump incited an deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, he and a top Justice Department lawyer hatched a last-ditch plot to replace acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen in order to weaponize the DOJ in support of Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election, the New York Times reported Friday night. Trump never put the plan into action because several DOJ officials threatened to resign if he fired Rosen:

The unassuming lawyer who worked on the plan, Jeffrey Clark, had been devising ways to cast doubt on the election results and to bolster Mr. Trump’s continuing legal battles and the pressure on Georgia politicians. Because Mr. Rosen had refused the president’s entreaties to carry out those plans, Mr. Trump was about to decide whether to fire Mr. Rosen and replace him with Mr. Clark.

The department officials, convened on a conference call, then asked each other: What will you do if Mr. Rosen is dismissed? The answer was unanimous. They would resign.

Per the report, the day after Trump announced on December 14 that then attorney general William Barr was stepping down, he met with Rosen, Barr’s replacement, to pressure him to wield the Justice Department to support Trump’s baseless voter fraud claims — something which Barr, citing no evidence for the claims had refused to do. Rosen refused, too, echoing Barr’s rationale. Regardless, Trump continued to try to pressure Rosen and deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue, and was eventually linked up with Clark, who Trump had appointed and ran the DOJ’s Civil Division, and who backed the president’s voter fraud claims.

Clark tried and failed to convince Rosen and Donoghue to announce the Justice Department was launching an investigation into Trump’s fraud claims. Then, as part of a more focused effort to overturn Trump’s loss to Joe Biden in Georgia, Clark tried and failed to get Rosen and Donoghue send a letter to Georgia state legislators falsely claiming that the DOJ was investigating voter fraud in the state.

Everything came to a head the weekend before the Capitol riot. Clark met with Trump after again being rebuffed by Rosen and Donoghue, then told Rosen on Sunday, January 3, that Trump was going to replace him with Clark so Clark could try to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s win on January 6. Rosen and Donahue immediately told Steven Engel, who runs the DOJ’s office of legal counsel, about the threat, and Donahue held a call with senior Justice Department leaders where they all agreed to resign if Rosen was fired. That threat was soon communicated to Trump by Engel.

On Sunday night, Trump backed down and spiked Clark’s plan, but according to the Times, “Mr. Trump’s decision came only after Mr. Rosen and Mr. Clark made their competing cases to him in a bizarre White House meeting that two officials compared with an episode of Mr. Trump’s reality show The Apprentice, albeit one that could prompt a constitutional crisis.” It apparently took him three hours to decide what he wanted to do.

At that meeting, during which White House counsel Pat Cipollone also advised Trump not to fire Rosen, “Trump seemed somewhat swayed by the idea that firing Mr. Rosen would trigger not only chaos at the Justice Department, but also congressional investigations and possibly recriminations from other Republicans and distract attention from his efforts to overturn the election results,” the Times report added. “Pat pretty much saved Rosen’s job that day,” a senior Trump White House official told the Washington Post.

Had those arguments not registered with Trump, or had those DOJ leaders not threatened to resign, it’s entirely possible that Trump would have upended the Justice Department to install an ally who could help him stop Congress from certifying Biden’s victory. And this is, of course, just the latest report to offer more details about the president’s desperate efforts to undemocratically hold onto his power.

Clark responded to the report with a statement in which he denied coming up with a plan to supplant Rosen, claiming his interaction with Trump was “a candid discussion of options and pros and cons with the President.”

That same weekend before the Capitol riot, Trump tried to pressure Georgia election officials to “find” him the votes he needed to defeat Biden in the state. In November, GOP senator and staunch Trump ally Lindsey Graham reportedly tried to pressure Georgia election officials to discard legally cast ballots for Biden. The Times also reports that the sudden resignation of Atlanta-based U.S. attorney Byung J. Pak on January 4 came in response to Trump’s pressure campaign in the state. Now it appears that Trump efforts to overturn the certified election outcome in Georgia almost resulted in a Sunday night massacre at the Justice Department the previous evening.

The report about the Clark plan also illustrates how Trump, despite his extraordinary efforts, knew he was out of options that following Wednesday when he held his now infamous Stop the Steal rally — and incited a mob of his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol and prevent Congress from closing the book on the 2020 election for good.

This post has been updated to include additional reporting from the Washington Post.

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