Trump Pressured Justice Department To Act Based On Baseless Election Fraud Claims : The NPR Politics Podcast Top Trump-era Justice officials, including acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, testified about the former president's push to have the Justice Department substantiate his election fraud claims. He came very close to firing the officials who stood in his way and installing one who would not.

And a number of Republicans who supported Trump's efforts to subvert the Democratic process asked the president for pardons, according to the testimony of administration aides.

This episode: White House correspondent Scott Detrow, congressional reporter Claudia Grisales, and national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

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Trump Pressured Justice Department To Act Based On Baseless Election Fraud Claims

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Hey there, it's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. It is now 6:09 Eastern on Thursday, June 23. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: And I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.

DETROW: So every hearing so far, the House January 6 committee has focused on a different aspect of former President Trump's attempts to overturn the presidential election. And today's hearing was all about the pressure that Trump put on the Justice Department and the handful of top DOJ officials who stood in Trump's way as he tried to get federal law enforcement involved in keeping him in power. Here is what Richard Donoghue, one of those officials, says Trump told him.

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RICHARD DONOGHUE: That's not what I'm asking you to do. What I'm just asking you to do is just say it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.

DETROW: Carrie, let's start with this. We have talked so many times over the past five or so years about the - what the relationship between the DOJ and the White House is supposed to be. And I think it's important to start by reminding us what the usual divisions are and what the usual firewalls are.

JOHNSON: Well, the Justice Department is not supposed to do the president's personal political bidding, for example, like helping him try to overturn the results of a legal election, as it appears happened in 2020. And these senior Justice Department officials from the Trump administration, who are all very, very conservative people, drew the line - drew the line. They really tried very hard to run down every false claim that President Trump threw at them, and then, basically told the president, this is not our job. We cannot do these things. This is not the role of the Justice Department.

DETROW: And when you say every claim, I think it's important to point out that one of the themes of the hearing today, was the barrage of claims - there was a pipeline from random corners of YouTube to Mark Meadows to the Department of Justice saying, hey, look at this, hey, look at that - I mean, over and over and over again, disproven theories.

JOHNSON: Absolutely unbelievable things. They wanted the Justice Department to come out and say the election was corrupt and not do anything else. They wanted the Justice Department to file a lawsuit in the Supreme Court. They wanted the Justice Department, or maybe the Homeland Security Department, to actually go out and seize voting machines. They wanted to install Sidney Powell, a noted conspiracy theorist, as a special counsel to pursue election fraud inside the Justice Department. Every day seemed like some new theory coming from the White House that these DOJ officials had to bat back.

DETROW: And, Claudia, you had been covering this committee doing its work all along. And I'm wondering how surprising some of those details were to you - this idea of somebody tweets at somebody, puts it on Reddit and, seemingly, 24 hours later, the White House chief of staff is trying to get the FBI involved.

GRISALES: Right. It was really just mind-blowing, some of these moments today that we heard. You know, some bits and pieces of these meetings, of these confrontations, between then-President Trump and his top officials at the Justice Department, we had heard some of this. But hearing it from these officials live, in person, in front of this committee, recounting these very dramatic moments - such as this January 3, 2021, meeting where they faced off - they held the line, as Carrie was saying - against the former president and all of these claims, it just really, really was such a dramatic moment to hear them say it, directly, in terms of what they said to the former president, how they pushed against that pressure campaign and how much of that pressure they were facing.

DETROW: And let's - we're going to get to that key meeting in a moment because, Carrie, a lot of this came down to personnel, right? Trump was looking for someone who would go along with his demands rather than just say, no, that's unacceptable. No, that's something we won't do. Here's how Rudy Giuliani - who, as we've talked so much about, was a top adviser to Trump on all of this - here's how he explained their thinking when he was deposed by the committee.

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RUDY GIULIANI: 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 the Justice Department was filled with people like that.

DETROW: So, Carrie, there was one person, in particular, who seemed to not be concerned about his reputation, who seemed to be ready and willing to do what Trump said. Explain who that is and what the response was from other top officials when they heard about this.

JOHNSON: Yeah, that person is Jeffrey Bossert Clark. He was confirmed to lead the environmental division at the Justice Department in the Trump years, but he took on an outsized importance because, as the committee demonstrated today, he was meeting with Representative Scott Perry, a Republican of Pennsylvania. He was meeting with senior members of the White House, including the president, behind the back of his bosses, to try to embrace and advance Trump's baseless theories about election fraud and cook up a letter that Clark wanted to send to state legislators in Georgia, and maybe other states, too, to try to come up with a plan to prevent the certification and the counting of the electoral votes.

DETROW: And, Claudia, it's important to note that, when Clark was called before the committee, how he responded.

GRISALES: Right. He pleaded the fifth, essentially. He did not respond to the committee's questions more than 100 times. And this was part of a very long-running struggle to even get Clark in front of the committee. And when he finally did, he didn't, for the most part, answer any of their questions.

DETROW: So Trump eyes Clark. Clark says, I would be willing to go forward with all of these, quote, "investigations." And there's a big dramatic meeting before January 6 at the White House. Carrie, tell us who was in that meeting, what happened, what we heard today.

JOHNSON: Yeah. This has been described as a showdown right in the Oval Office between the senior leaders of the Justice Department and Jeffrey Clark and the president of the United States. And Trump was basically making the acting attorney general, Jeff Rosen, campaign for his job, to keep his job, right there in that office. And Rosen was backed by basically every other senior Justice Department official. They all threatened to resign if President Trump fired Rosen and elevated Jeff Clark to become the acting attorney general. In fact, we heard testimony today that people inside the White House had already started referring to Jeff Clark as the acting attorney general, which is quite significant. This is how close we were to the brink of something major at DOJ.

DETROW: So let's hear one moment of Steve Engel's testimony. One of the key actions that Trump wanted the Department of Justice to take was to send this letter to key states in the election, basically saying that we've uncovered this corruption, and we want you to investigate it.

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STEVE ENGEL: No one is going to read this letter. All anyone is going to think is that you went through two attorneys general in two weeks until you found the environmental guy to sign this thing. And so the story is not going to be that the Department of Justice has found massive corruption that would have changed the results of the election. It's going to be the disaster of Jeff Clark. And I think at that point, Pat Cipollone said, yeah, this is a murder-suicide pact, this letter.

JOHNSON: Pat Cipollone being the White House counsel at the time, the White House lawyers were backing the senior DOJ leadership. Trump and Jeff Clark were more or less on their own in that meeting. And what we heard here today from these people who were in that Oval Office meeting - that showdown, so to speak - was that, basically, we were on the verge of another Watergate-era Saturday Night Massacre, where the president was going to fire somebody, and everybody else at justice was going to leave. And as one of the witnesses said today, Jeff Clark, if he stayed, would have been leading a graveyard because everybody else would have gone.

DETROW: And we need to take a quick break, but I want to come back and pick up on that point in a moment.

We are back. And, Carrie, I wanted to ask you this - at the time, we knew that Trump was pressuring the Justice Department. We knew, even that - because people were tweeting about it, we knew that there were these types of Oval Office meetings happening, where Trump was urging various government agencies to do more to try and enforce his false election claims. How much do the details that we heard today, that we are learning through this investigation - how much does that change to you of how you view this, of how serious this was?

JOHNSON: This was an enormously serious moment. It may have been one of the most serious moments in the history of the Justice Department. Honestly, this feels to me like a - beyond a Watergate-level situation. And in fact, knowing what we now know, that this Oval Office meeting happened on January 3 and that a mob of hundreds of people were going to inflict injuries on Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police officers and bust into the Capitol, it's enormously significant and enormously sad. It's very sad. And it's part of this broader story the committee is telling, about the forces that came together...

DETROW: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...To create what happened, that we all saw with our own eyes on January 6.

GRISALES: Right. There's one theme that these panel members have been beating over and over, even before the hearings began and continue into these hearings, into today, is that you can't believe how close we came to losing democracy. We came so close, and they've illustrated it in different ways, in every hearing. And today, we saw how close it came for the Justice Department.

DETROW: And, Claudia, the other news today along those lines was the amount of time that the committee spent pointing to specific Republican Congress members who were involved in all of this. We mentioned already that Pennsylvania Congressman Scott Perry played a key role in promoting Clarke as somebody to take over the Justice Department. The committee also played a montage of Louie Gohmert, Andy Biggs, Paul Gosar, Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan and Mo Brooks all peddling election lies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

LOUIE GOHMERT: And so there's widespread evidence of fraud because people haven't done their jobs. Durham and Barr will deserve a big notation in...

ANDY BIGGS: Join my colleagues in calling on Attorney General Bill Barr to immediately let us know what he's doing.

PAUL GOSAR: And then what about the courts? How pathetic are the courts?

MATT GAETZ: 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...

JIM JORDAN: 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...

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

DETROW: Claudia, they played that montage, leading up to January 6, early on in the hearing. At the very end of the hearing, the committee reveals which lawmakers asked for presidential pardons.

GRISALES: Right. Several of those members - we just heard their voices - they included Andy Biggs of Arizona, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Mo Brooks of Alabama. And we're hearing that from people who were inside the Trump White House. That includes Cassidy Hutchinson. She was an aide to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. And so that was a pretty stunning series of revelations. It's something that the panel has teased, that there was - asked for pardons, but we didn't know which members, and today, they named names.

DETROW: Ever since January 6, it has been an incredibly tense working environment in the House, to put it mildly. The way that the committee is focusing in on these members' actions and these members' requests for pardons, I mean, how do you think that changes the dynamic on the Hill, going forward?

GRISALES: Right. This is going to intensify that. Already the panel had escalated its fight with several House Republicans. Five are still facing subpoenas. This includes GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, even. None have said they would cooperate so far. You know, things could change. That said, there's going to be questions about - should there be House ethics investigations into these members who are asking for preemptive pardons? And as we heard at one point during the hearing today, Adam Kinzinger, who was leading today's questioning, said that there's only one reason to ask for a pardon. And it's if you think you've done something illegal.

DETROW: Carrie, to that end, how is the Department of Justice absorbing this information?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, Attorney General Merrick Garland told us recently he's been watching all the hearings, if not live, he's been recording them and watching them later; so have the prosecutors - the people prosecuting January 6 defendants. But it's hard to miss that shortly before these hearings started, the Justice Department brought a seditious conspiracy indictment against the leaders of the far-right Proud Boys. And then this morning we learned, that just yesterday, federal agents had executed search warrants at the home of none other than Jeffrey Clark, the man we heard so much about today, who was in line to take over the Justice Department. The agents took Clark's electronic devices, including his cellphones, and that - in this early morning visit from the federal agents, had Clark out on the street in his pajamas. We know that other subpoenas have been issued by a grand jury in Washington for people involved in funding and organizing some of these political rallies. DOJ is nowhere near done with this investigation.

DETROW: So as this played out today, Trump continued to lash out against these hearings online. He continued to repeat his discredited election lies. Claudia, what comes next for the committee?

GRISALES: Right. So initially, they had planned to wrap up all these hearings, seven in all, with two more next week. Now, because of this new evidence they've obtained in recent days and weeks, this includes video from a documentary filmmaker who spent time with then-President Trump and his family for months prior to the 2020 election - that evidence and more - they're going to push those last two hearings, maybe add more, to July. So the House is going to be leaving for an extended time, for the most part - for more than two weeks. They return in mid-July. And so they're hoping to hold hearings on the focus of Trump's role in igniting the mob of January 6, as well as how he was missing, they say, in terms of responding to the attack for 187 minutes on the day of January 6. And as we heard the witnesses say today, they did not even speak to the then-president that day. And the panel may add more, an additional hearing, maybe beyond that, next month.

DETROW: I mean, my last thought is, Carrie, I just cannot get over, given how much you have covered at the Justice Department, for you to say that that January 3 meeting is one of the most serious moments, maybe in the history of the Justice Department. I mean, I just - I'm just really dwelling on that after today's details.

JOHNSON: It's absolutely clear we had former Attorney General Bill Barr testifying on video deposition that we saw today that, you know, had the Justice Department bent under some of this pressure that there might not have been a presidential transition. Let that sink in. OK. Bill Barr knows what time of day it is. He's been around Washington for decades.

GRISALES: Right.

JOHNSON: And we saw people die after January 6, 2021. That was serious enough. But we came to the brink here in a way that I think some people, including myself, are only now starting to grapple with.

DETROW: Yeah. All right. A lot more on this soon. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

GRISALES: I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.

JOHNSON: And I'm Carrie Johnson. I cover the Justice Department.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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