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“Pure Insanity”: Trump Pushed DOJ to Chase Absurd Conspiracy Theories to Overturn 2020 Election

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The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has revealed new details about former President Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure the Justice Department to help him stay in power after he lost the 2020 election. In the committee’s fifth televised public hearing Thursday, former top DOJ officials testified about how Trump urged the department to seize voting machines and declare the election results corrupt. One of the former top DOJ officials who testified was Trump’s former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, who described a phone conversation with President Trump in which he tried to reject his repeated false claims. Donoghue also discussed how he and others were pushed to investigate a baseless conspiracy theory that an Italian defense contractor had hacked a satellite, switching votes from Trump to Biden.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has revealed new details about President Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure the Justice Department to help him stay in power after he lost the 2020 election. In the committee’s fifth televised public hearing Thursday, former top Justice Department officials testified about how Trump urged the department to seize voting machines and declare the election results corrupt. Today we bring you highlights. This is part of committee Chair Congressmember Bennie Thompson’s opening statement.

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON: Donald Trump didn’t just want the Justice Department to investigate; he wanted the Justice Department to help legitimize his lies, to basically call the election corrupt, to appoint a special counsel to investigate alleged election fraud, to send a letter to six state legislatures urging them to consider altering the election results. And when these and other efforts failed, Donald Trump sought to replace Mr. Rosen, the acting attorney general, with a lawyer who he believed would inappropriately put the full weight of the Justice Department behind the effort to overturn the election.

Let’s think about what that means. Wherever you live in the United States, there’s probably a local government executive, a mayor or a county commissioner. There’s also an official responsible for enforcing the laws, a district attorney or local prosecutor. Imagine if your mayor lost a reelection bid, but instead of conceding the race, they picked up the phone, called the district attorney and said, “I want you to say this election was stolen. I want you to tell the board of elections not to certify the results.”

That’s essentially what Donald Trump was trying to do with the election for president of the United States. It was a brazen attempt to use the Justice Department to advance the president’s personal political agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the former top DOJ officials who testified at Thursday’s hearing was Trump’s former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, questioned by one of the committee’s two Republicans, Congressmember Adam Kinzinger. Donoghue described a phone conversation with President Trump. This begins with a video clip of Republican lawmakers, including Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, promoting Trump’s big lie.

REP. MATT GAETZ: January 6th, I’m joining with the fighters in the Congress, and we are going to object to electors from states that didn’t run clean elections. Democracy is left undefended if we accept the result of a stolen election without fighting with every bit of vigor we can muster.

REP. JIM JORDAN: The ultimate date of significance is January 6. This is how the process works. The ultimate arbiter here, the ultimate check and balance, is the United States Congress. And when something is done in an unconstitutional fashion, which happened in several of these states, we have a duty to step forward and have this debate and have this vote on the 6th of January.

REP. MO BROOKS: Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass!

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Mr. Donoghue, on December 27th, you had a 90-minute conversation with the president where he raised false claim after false claim with you and Mr. Rosen. How did you respond to what you called a, quote, “stream of allegations?”

RICHARD DONOGHUE: The December 27th conversation was, in my mind, an escalation of the earlier conversations. As the former acting AG indicated, there were a lot of communications that preceded that. As we got later in the month of December, the president’s entreaties became more urgent. He became more adamant that we weren’t doing our job, we need to step up and do our job.

And he had this arsenal of allegations that he wanted to — to rely on. And so, I felt in that conversation that it was incumbent on me to make it very clear to the president what our investigations had revealed, and that we had concluded, based on actual investigations, actual witness interviews, actual reviews of documents, that these allegations simply had no merit.

And I wanted to try to cut through the noise, because it was clear to us that there were a lot of people whispering in his ear, feeding him these conspiracy theories and allegations. And I felt that being very blunt in that conversation might help make it clear to the president these allegations were simply not true.

And so, as he went through them in what for me was a 90-minute conversation or so, and what for the former acting AG was a two-hour conversation — as the president went through them, I went piece by piece to say, “No, that’s false. That is not true, and to correct him, really, in a serial fashion as he moved from one theory to another.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Can you give me an example of one or two of those theories?

RICHARD DONOGHUE: So, one that was very clear at that point was the Antrim County — the ASOG report that I mentioned earlier. The Allied Security Operations Group released this report that said 68% error rate. There was, in fact, in Antrim County a hand recount — had nothing to do with the department. The department did not request that. That was pursuant to litigation brought by other parties. But there was a hand recount. So they were able to compare the hand recount to what the machines had reported. And for the ballots that were actually counted by machine, more than 15,000, there was one error, one ballot. And I did a quick calculation and came up with .0063% error rate, which is well within tolerance.

And so, I made it very clear to the president, because he was so fixated on the ASOG report in the December 15th conversation that, in fact, our investigation revealed that the error rate was .0063%. “So, that, Mr. President, is an example of what people are telling you that is not true, and that you cannot and should not be relying on.” So that was one very explicit one. And I think you see that reflected in my notes.

We went through a series of others. The truck driver who claimed to have moved an entire tractor-trailer of ballots from New York to Pennsylvania, that was also incorrect. We did an investigation where the FBI interviewed witnesses at the front end and the back end of that trailer’s transit from New York to Pennsylvania. We looked at loading manifests. We interviewed witnesses, including, of course, the driver. And we knew it wasn’t true. Whether the driver believed it or not was never clear to me, but it was just not true. So that was another one that I tried to educate the president on.

There were a series of others, mostly in swing states, of course. He wanted to talk a great deal about Georgia, the State Farm Arena video, which he believed, for various reasons, was, as he said it, “fraud staring you right in the face.”

AMY GOODMAN: Many of President Trump’s efforts to push the Department of Justice to help him overturn the election involved a lower-level DOJ attorney named Jeffrey Clark, who Trump actually named attorney general for a brief period of time. On Wednesday, federal agents raided Clark’s home. Witnesses were asked about Clark during Thursday’s hearing of the House select committee. This clip begins with a video deposition recording of investigators questioning Trump’s top campaign lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

INVESTIGATOR: Remember ever recommending to anybody that Mr. Clark, meaning Jeffrey Clark at DOJ, be given election-related responsibilities?

RUDY GIULIANI: You mean beyond the president?

INVESTIGATOR: Correct.

RUDY GIULIANI: Well, beyond the president, I do recall saying to people that somebody should be put in charge of the Justice Department who isn’t frightened of what’s going to be done to their reputation, because Justice Department was filled with people like that.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: “Should put somebody that’s not frightened of what’s going to be done to their reputation.” Mr. Donoghue, when you told the president that you wouldn’t pursue baseless claims of fraud, was it because you were worried about your reputation?

RICHARD DONOGHUE: No, not at all.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Mr. Clark’s name was also mentioned in the White House in late December and early January, as described by a top aide to Mark Meadows, Cassidy Hutchinson.

INVESTIGATOR: Was it your understanding that Representative Perry was pushing for a specific person to take over the department?

CASSIDY HUTCHINSON: He wanted Mr. Clark, Mr. Jeff Clark, to take over the Department of Justice.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Mr. Rosen, after your call with President Trump on December 24th, you spoke with Mr. Clark on December 26th about his contact with the president. Can you tell us about that conversation?

JEFFREY ROSEN: Yes. Because I had been quizzical about why his name had come up, I called him, and I tried to explore if he would share if there was something I ought to know. And after some back-and-forth, he acknowledged that shortly before Christmas he had gone to a meeting in the Oval Office with the president.

That, of course, surprised me. And I asked him, “How did that happen?” And he was defensive. He said it had been unplanned, that he had been talking to someone he referred to as General Perry, but I believe is Congressman Perry, and that, unbeknownst to him, he was asked to go to a meeting, and he didn’t know it, but it turned out it was at the Oval — he found himself at the Oval Office. And he was apologetic for that.

And I said, “Well, you didn’t tell me about it. It wasn’t authorized, and you didn’t even tell me after the fact. You know, this is not — not appropriate.” But he was contrite and said it had been inadvertent, and it would not happen again, and that if anyone asked him to go to such a meeting, he would notify Rich Donoghue and me.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Is there a policy that governs who can have contact directly with the White House?

JEFFREY ROSEN: Yes. So, across many administrations for a long period of time, there’s a policy that, particularly with regard to criminal investigations, restricts, at both the White House and in the Justice Department and — those more sensitive issues to the highest ranks. So, for criminal matters, the policy for a long time has been that only the attorney general and the deputy attorney general, from the DOJ side, can have conversations about criminal matters with the White House, or the attorney general and the deputy attorney general can authorize someone for a specific item with their permission. But the idea is to make sure that the top rung of the Justice Department knows about it and is in the thing to control it and make sure only appropriate things are done.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Mr. Engel, from your perspective, why is it important to have a policy like Mr. Rosen just discussed?

STEVEN ENGEL: Well, it’s critical that the Department of Justice conducts its criminal investigations free from either the reality or any appearance of political interference. And so, people can get in trouble if people at the White House are speaking with people at the department. And that’s why the purpose of these policies is to keep these communications as infrequent and at the highest levels as possible, just to make sure that people who are less careful about it, who don’t really understand these implications, such as Mr. Clark, don’t run afoul of those contact policies.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Thank you. So, the select committee conducted an informal interview with the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, and his deputy, Pat Philbin, about their contact with Mr. Clark, though neither has yet agreed to sit for transcribed and videotaped interviews. But Pat Cipollone told the select committee that he intervened when he heard Mr. Clark was meeting with the president about legal matters without his knowledge, which was strictly against White House policy. Mr. Cipollone and Mr. Philbin, like Mr. Rosen, told Mr. Clark to stand down. And he didn’t.

On the same day acting Attorney General Rosen told Mr. Clark to stop talking to the White House, Representative Perry was urging Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to elevate Clark within the Department of Justice. You can now see on the screen behind me a series of texts between Representative Perry and Mr. Meadows. They show that Representative Perry requested that Mr. Clark be elevated within the department.

Representative Perry tells Mr. Meadows on December 26th that, quote, “Mark, just checking in as time continues to count down. 11 days to 1/6 and 25 days to inauguration. We gotta get going!”

Representative Perry followed up and says, quote, “Mark, you should call Jeff. I just got off the phone with him and he explained to me why the principal deputy won’t work especially with the FBI. They will view it as not having the authority to enforce what needs to be done.”

Mr. Meadows responds with, “I got it. I think I understand. Let me work on the deputy position.”

Representative Perry then texts, “Roger. Just sent you something on Signal. Just sent you an updated file. Did you call Jeff Clark?”

AMY GOODMAN: Republican Congressmember Adam Kinzinger, questioning Trump’s top Department of Justice officials, Steve Engel, the acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and Richard Donoghue. We’ll be back with more of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack in 30 seconds.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “My Comfort Remains” by Michael Brook and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with highlights from the fifth public hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, that revealed new details about former President Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure the Justice Department to help him stay in power and subvert the 2020 election.

This is Republican Congressmember Adam Kinzinger asking about the baseless conspiracy theory that an Italian defense contractor had hacked a satellite, switching votes from Trump to Biden, which was embraced by senior Trump officials, including President Trump and Representative Scott Perry.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: So, the final email here included a completely baseless conspiracy theory that an Italian defense contractor uploaded software into a satellite that switched votes from Trump to Biden. The select committee investigation found that this wild, baseless conspiracy theory made it from the recesses of the internet to the highest echelons of our government.

On December 31st, Mr. Meadows received this internet conspiracy theory from Representative Perry. On the screen now is the text that Representative Perry sent to Mr. Meadows copying a YouTube link with the message, quote, “Why can’t we just work with the Italian government?” The next day, the president’s chief of staff sent the YouTube link to Mr. Rosen, who forwarded it to Mr. Donoghue.

Mr. Donoghue, did you watch this video?

RICHARD DONOGHUE: I did, Congressman.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: How long was the video?

RICHARD DONOGHUE: Approximately 20 minutes.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Let’s just take a look at a excerpt of that video, if we may.

BRADLEY JOHNSON: What’s being said out of Rome, out of Italy, is that this was done in the U.S. Embassy, that there was a certain State Department guy, whose name I don’t know yet. I guess this is probably going to come out in Italy at some point. And he was the mastermind — not the mastermind, but the — but the — anyway, the guy running the operation of changing the votes, and that he was doing this in conjunction with some support from MI6, the CIA and this Leonardo group.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Mr. Donoghue, what was your reaction when you watched that entire 20-minute video?

RICHARD DONOGHUE: I emailed the acting attorney general, and I said, “Pure insanity,” which was my impression of the video, which was patently absurd.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER: Mr. Rosen, you were asked by Mr. Meadows to meet with Mr. Johnson, who is the person in that video. What was your reaction to that request?

JEFFREY ROSEN: So, ordinarily, I’d get an email like this, and there was no phone call. It would just, you know, come over the transom. But this one, he called me, Mr. Meadows, and asked me to meet with Mr. Johnson. And I told him this whole thing about Italy had been debunked, and that should be the end of that. And I certainly wasn’t going to meet with this person.

And he initially seemed to accept that. He said, you know, “Well, why won’t you meet with him?” I said, “Because if — if he has real evidence, which this video doesn’t show, he can walk into an FBI field office anywhere in the United States. There’s 55 of them.” And he said, “OK.”

But then he called me back a few minutes later and complained and said, “I didn’t tell you, but this — this fellow, Johnson, is working with Rudy Giuliani. And Mr. Giuliani is really offended that you think they have to go to a FBI field office. That’s insulting. So, couldn’t — couldn’t you just have the FBI or you meet with these guys?”

And by then, I was somewhat agitated and told him that there was no way on Earth that I was going to do that. I wasn’t going to meet with Mr. Johnson. I certainly wasn’t going to meet with Mr. Giuliani. I had made that clear repeatedly. And so, that’s — that’s the end of that. You know, don’t — don’t raise this with me again.

And so, because Mr. Donoghue and I had been exchanging our views about this — I think it was, yeah, 7:13 on a Friday night of New Year’s Day — I had run out of patience. And I sent the email that you’re — you’re talking about, where I made pretty clear that I had no interest in doing anything further with this.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Trump’s former acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen testifying at Thursday’s hearing on the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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