Donald Trump's effort to overturn his 2020 election defeat brought the Justice Department to the brink of chaos and prompted top officials there and at the White House to threaten to resign, a Senate Judiciary Committee report found.
The report released Thursday by the Democratic-run committee offers new insight into how the Republican incumbent asked department leaders to declare the election "corrupt" and how he disparaged its top official for not doing anything to overturn the results. Trump's actions led to a near-revolt at department headquarters that receded only after senior officials warned of a mass resignation.
"In attempting to enlist DOJ for personal, political purposes in an effort to maintain his hold on the White House, Trump grossly abused the power of the presidency" and arguably violated a federal law that prevents anyone from commanding that federal employees engage in political activity, the report says.
While the broad outlines of what took place after the November 3 election have long been known, the Senate investigation based on a review of documents and interviews with former officials lays bare the extent of Trump's all-out campaign to remain in the White House. It shows how Trump benefited from the support of a little-known Justice Department lawyer who championed the then-president's efforts to challenge the vote but how, in the end, other senior officials stood together to face down Trump. The outcome suggests how reliant the fragile U.S. election system is on the integrity of government officials.
Trump's effort, now the subject of a Justice Department inspector general investigation, did not succeed and Biden took office on January 20. Even so, the false claims over the election have fractured the nation, with millions of Americans wrongly believing the contest was stolen.
Rage about the election compelled a mass of Trump supporters to violently storm the Capitol on January 6 in an effort to disrupt the congressional certification of Biden's victory. The rioters beat and bloodied an overwhelmed police force, sent lawmakers running for their lives and caused $1 million in damage. More than 630 people have been charged criminally in the riot, the largest prosecution in Justice Department history.
Republicans issued their own report that downplays the concerns raised by Democrats and said Trump ignored the suggestions from the lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, and refused to fire top Justice Department officials. Their rebuttal claims that Trump was concerned about the election system writ large and not about himself, even though he was publicly fighting to stay in office and pressured Vice President Mike Pence to help him.
"The available evidence shows that President Trump did what we’d expect a president to do on an issue of this importance: He listened to his senior advisers and followed their advice and recommendations," Senator Charles Grassley, the Judiciary Committee ranking member, said in the minority’s response to the report.
The Democrats' report chronicles Trump's prodding of the Justice Department in December and early January to investigate suspected voter fraud and to support his efforts to undo the results. Trump had laid the groundwork for that effort even before the election when he attacked the vote-by-mail process.
But he escalated it significantly after Election Day and particularly after the December resignation of Attorney General William Barr, who weeks before he left the Justice Department told The Associated Press that the department had not found fraud that could affect the outcome of the election.
The pressure campaign by Trump and his allies included a draft brief the White House wanted the Justice Department to file with the Supreme Court to overturn the election results. The department refused to file the document, which the Senate report describes as raising a "litany of false and debunked claims."
The conflict culminated in a contentious, hourslong meeting at the White House on January 3 in which Trump openly considered replacing Jeffrey Rosen, who served as acting attorney general after Barr left, with Clark, an assistant attorney general. The Democrats' report says Trump told Rosen: "One thing we know is you, Rosen, aren't going to do anything to overturn the election."
Clark had positioned himself as more sympathetic to pursuing Trump's fraud claims even though the results were certified by states and Republican election officials. Courts rejected dozens of legal challenges to the election and Barr, Trump's own attorney general, had said Biden won fairly.
Clark declined to be interviewed voluntarily by the committee, and his lawyer did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Several officials in the January 3 meeting told Trump they would resign if he put Clark in charge at the Justice Department. According to witnesses interviewed by the Senate committee's majority staff, White House counsel Pat Cipollone referred to a draft letter from Clark pushing Georgia officials to convene a special legislative session on the election results as a "murder-suicide pact." Cipollone threatened to quit.
Richard Donoghue, Rosen's deputy at the time, replied there was "no chance" he would sign that letter or "anything remotely like this." Donoghue told the committee that he told Trump that all the assistant attorneys general, and perhaps U.S. attorneys and other senior department officials, would resign en masse if the president replaced Rosen with Clark.