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Top DOJ Staff Threatened Mass Resignation as Trump Weighed Naming Jeff Clark AG to Overturn Election

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Image Credit: Susan Walsh/Reuters

Former top officials in President Trump’s Justice Department told the House January 6 committee Thursday they threatened to resign en masse when Trump mused about appointing Jeffrey Clark, a loyalist who backed the baseless voter fraud claims, as acting attorney general. “I said, 'Mr. President, within 24, 48, 72 hours, you could have hundreds and hundreds of resignations of the leadership of your entire Justice Department because of your actions,'” said former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue. “’What’s that going to say about you?’”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The hearing also revealed senior Justice Department officials threatened to resign en masse if Trump had fired Rosen as attorney general, replaced him with Jeff Clark. This is Republican Congressmember Adam Kinzinger questioning.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: So, as part of the select committee’s investigation, we found that while Mr. Rosen, Mr. Donoghue and Mr. Engel were preparing for their meeting at the White House, Jeff Clark and the president were in constant communication, beginning at 7 a.m. White House call logs obtained by the committee show that by 4:19 p.m. on January 3rd, the White House had already begun referring to Mr. Clark as the acting attorney general. As far as the White House was concerned, Mr. Clark was already at the top of the Justice Department.

Two hours later, DOJ leadership arrived at the White House. The select committee interviewed every person who was inside the room that — was inside the room during this Sunday evening Oval Office meeting. Mr. Cipollone told the committee that he was, quote, “unmistakably angry” during the meeting and that he, along with Eric Herschmann and Mr. Donoghue, quote, “forcefully challenged Mr. Clark to produce evidence of his election fraud theories.” Mr. Rosen, can you describe how that meeting started?

JEFFREY ROSEN: Yes. So, after some preliminaries — so, we — Mr. Meadows had ushered us all in, and then he left. So Mr. Cipollone did some introductions and things. So, after some preliminaries, the president turned to me, and he said, “Well, one thing we know is you, Rosen, you aren’t going to do anything. You don’t even agree with the claims of election fraud. And this other guy at least might do something.”

And then I said, “Well, Mr. President, you’re right that I’m not going to allow the Justice Department to do anything to try to overturn the election. That’s true. But the reason for that is because that’s what’s consistent with the facts and the law, and that’s what’s required under the Constitution. So, that’s the right answer and a good thing for the country, and therefore, I submit, it’s the right thing for you, Mr. President.”

And that kicked off another two hours of discussion, in which everyone in the room was in one way or another making different points, but supportive of my approach for the Justice Department and critical of Mr. Clark.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: So, at some point, Mr. Donoghue comes in the room. Can you explain what led to him coming in the room?

JEFFREY ROSEN: Oh, I forgot about that. So, initially, in part, I think, because he was underdressed, we — and we had not arranged — we had not yet told the president that he was going to come in. The White House had had a list of who would be there, that did include Mr. Engel and the White House counsel and the deputy White House counsel, Mr. Herschmann. We went in, and then we told the president, you know, maybe 10 minutes into the meeting or something — I forget how far in — that Mr. Donoghue was outside. And he said, “Well, bring him in.” And then Mr. Donoghue came in and joined the meeting.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: So, Mr. Donoghue, you enter that room. Can you set the scene for us and describe the tone you walked into?

RICHARD DONOGHUE: Yes. But if I could just back up one moment, Congressman, because you put the pictures up on the screen of the AAGs. I just want to make clear, one of the AAGs who was not on the screen was John Demers. John was the National Security Division AAG. John was on the call, but I prefaced the call by saying, “John, we need you to stay in place. National security is too important. We need to minimize the disruption. Whether you resign is entirely up to you, obviously, and we’ll respect your decision either way. But I’m asking you: Please stay in place.” And he did. So, I don’t want to leave the impression that he was not willing to resign —

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Great. Thank you for —

RICHARD DONOGHUE: — because I think he was.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Thank you for that.

RICHARD DONOGHUE: So, with regard to entering the Oval Office, I was sitting in the hallway. An administrative assistant passed by. She asked me, “Are you supposed to be in this meeting with the president?” I said, “No, I’m simply here in case questions come up that other people don’t have the answer to.” And she walked away and then came back, probably 30 seconds later, and said, “The president wants you in the meeting.”

I proceeded into the Oval Office. I took probably two or three steps in, and I stopped, because I was, as the AG said, not exactly properly attired. I was wearing jeans and muddy boots and an Army T-shirt, and I never would arrive in the Oval Office this way. I said, “Mr. President, I apologize. I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was going to be here.” And he said, “No, no, no. Just come in. Come in. Come in.”

And so I went in. I attempted to take a seat on one of the couches that are behind the chairs arrayed in front of the president’s desk. And he said, “Oh, no, no, no. You’re going to be up here.” And everyone kind of laughed, and they moved the chairs a little bit. Someone from the White House Counsel’s Office picked up a spare chair and put it directly in front of the president, and I took that seat.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Was there discussion about Mr. Clark? Can you — can you kind of enlighten some of what that discussion was?

RICHARD DONOGHUE: Yes. So, the conversation at this point had moved beyond the specific allegations, whether it was State Farm Arena or Antrim County or Pennsylvania or whatever. We had discussed those repeatedly, and the — that was backdrop to the conversation. But the conversation at this point was really about whether the president should remove Jeff Rosen and replace him with Jeff Clark.

And everyone in the room, I think, understood that that meant that letter would go out. So, that was the focus. It was about a two-and-a-half-hour meeting after I entered. And so, there were discussions about the pros and cons of doing that.

Early on, the president said, “What do I have to lose?” And it was actually a good opening, because I said, “Mr. President, you have a great deal to lose.” And I began to explain to him what he had to lose and what the country had to lose and what the department had to lose, and this was not in anyone’s best interest. That conversation went on for some time. Everyone essentially chimed in with their own thoughts, all of which were consistent about how damaging this would be to the country, to the department, to the administration, to him personally.

And at some point, the conversation turned to whether Jeff Clark was even qualified, competent to run the Justice Department, which in my mind he clearly was not. And it was a heated conversation. I thought it was useful to point out to the president that Jeff Clark simply didn’t have the skills, the ability and the experience to run the department.

And so, I said, “Mr. President, you’re talking about putting a man in that seat who has never tried a criminal case, who has never conducted a criminal investigation. He’s telling you that he’s going to take charge of the department, 115,000 employees, including the entire FBI, and turn the place on a dime and conduct nationwide criminal investigations that will produce results in a matter of days. It’s impossible. It’s absurd. It’s not going to happen, and it’s going to fail. He has never been in front of a trial jury, a grand jury. He’s never even been to Chris Wray’s office.” I said at one point, “If you walk into Chris Wray’s office, one, would you know how to get there? And, two, if you got there, would he even know who you are? And do you really think that the FBI is going to suddenly start following your orders? It’s not going to happen. He’s not competent.”

And that’s the point at which Mr. Clark tried to defend himself by saying, “Well, I’ve been involved in very significant civil and environmental litigation. I’ve argued many appeals in appellate courts and things of that nature.” And then I pointed out that, yes, he was an environmental lawyer, and I didn’t think that was appropriate background to be running the United States Justice Department.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Did anybody in there support Mr. Clark?

RICHARD DONOGHUE: No one.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Mr. Rosen, it was you he was going to replace. So, what was your view about the president’s plan to appoint Mr. Clark?

JEFFREY ROSEN: Well, as I alluded to earlier, the issue really wasn’t about me. It was — it would have been fine, as I said, to have had Rich Donoghue replace me. I would have said, “Great, I get 17 days vacation or something.” But the issue was the use of the Justice Department, and it’s just so important that the Justice Department adhere to the facts and the law. That’s what it’s there to do, and that’s what our constitutional role was.

And so, if the Justice Department gets out of the role that it’s supposed to play, that’s really bad for our country. And I don’t know of a simpler way to say that. And when you damage our fundamental institutions, it’s not easy to repair them. So I thought this was a really important issue, to try to make sure that the Justice Department was able to stay on the right course.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Mr. Donoghue, did — did you eventually tell the president that mass resignations would occur if he installed Mr. Clark, and what the consequences would be?

RICHARD DONOGHUE: Yes. So, this was in line with the president’s saying, “What do I have to lose?” And along those lines, he said, “So, suppose I do this. Suppose I replace him, Jeff Rosen, with him, Jeff Clark? What would you do?” And I said, “Mr. President, I would resign immediately. I’m not working one minute for this guy,” who I had just declared was completely incompetent.

And so, the president immediately turned to Mr. Engel. And he said, “Steve, you wouldn’t resign, would you?” And he said, “Absolutely, I would, Mr. President. You leave me no choice.”

And then I said, “And we’re not the only ones. No one cares if we resign. If Steve and I go, that’s fine. That doesn’t matter. But I’m telling you what’s going to happen: You’re going to lose your entire department leadership. Every single AAG will walk out on you. Your entire department leadership will walk out within hours.”

And I don’t know what happens after that. I don’t know what the United States attorneys are going to do. We have U.S. attorneys in districts across the country, and my guess would be that many of them would have resigned. And that would then have led to resignations across the department in Washington. And I said, “Mr. President, within 24, 48, 72 hours, you could have hundreds and hundreds of resignations of the leadership of your entire Justice Department because of your actions. What’s that going to say about you?”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Trump’s former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue. The FBI raided the home of Trump’s pick for attorney general, Jeffrey Clark, on Wednesday.

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