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THE OTHER SIDE OF THAT TRUMP-DOJ REPORT. The New York Times is running a story headlined, “Report Cites New Details of Trump Pressure on Justice Dept. Over Election.” The story focuses on a Jan. 3, 2021, Oval Office meeting in which then-President Donald Trump gathered several Justice Department and White House officials to discuss a proposal by DOJ Civil Division acting chief Jeffrey Clark. Even though states had certified their presidential election results, and even though the Electoral College had voted to make Joe Biden president, Clark wanted the department to urge some states in which there had been reports of voting irregularities to hold legislative sessions to pick new electors — in effect, to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Clark wrote a draft of a letter to the states that became the subject of much discussion in the department. Clark also wanted Trump to fire Jeffrey Rosen, the acting attorney general who rejected Clark’s plan, and install Clark himself as the new acting head of the Justice Department.
“It was an extraordinary Oval Office showdown,” the New York Times says. “On the agenda was Mr. Trump’s desire to install a loyalist as acting attorney general to carry out his demands for more aggressive investigations into his unfounded claims of election fraud.” The New York Times story is based on a new interim report from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which interviewed some of the participants of the meeting.
But the report is in fact from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Republicans were part of the investigation, too — they participated in the same interviews and reviewed the same documents — and they came away with such a different impression of events that they released their own report (which somehow did not find its way into the New York Times).
The Republican version of the story is pretty simple. Clark made his proposal. Trump listened to opinions about it. Trump rejected Clark’s plan.
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The meeting happened on Jan. 3 because on that day, according to the Republican report, Clark met with Rosen and said that he, Clark, had spoken with the president and that the president had offered him the job of acting attorney general — in other words, that Rosen would be ousted. Rosen immediately called the White House and asked for a meeting, which took place at 6:15 that evening. Several top DOJ officials, including Clark, plus members of the White House counsel’s office, were there.
Much of the report is based on the testimony of Rosen and his top deputy, Richard Donoghue. At the meeting, Trump went around the room and asked for everyone’s opinion of Clark’s plan. He got an earful. Here is the Republican report’s description of what happened, based in large part on Donoghue’s account:
Donoghue noted in his testimony that, until this meeting, President Trump did not fully understand the gravity of his advisors’ concerns with Clark’s plan, which were serious enough that they and other senior DOJ leaders had stated they would resign if Clark was made acting attorney general and his plan was implemented. President Trump then turned to Donoghue and asked if he would resign if Clark became acting attorney general, to which he answered in the affirmative. President Trump also asked [Office of Legal Counsel head] Steve Engel, to which he also answered in the affirmative. When he had heard all views, President Trump rejected Clark’s proposals and accepted his advisors’ recommendations. Specifically, on January 3, 2021, President Trump rejected terminating Rosen and rejected sending Clark’s draft letter. According to Donoghue, when President Trump made the decision to reject Clark’s approach, he said, in part, ‘We’re not going to have mass resignations,’ and when Clark then tried to dissuade the president from making that decision, President Trump responded with a direct ‘No’ to Clark a second time.
And that was the end of it. The Republican report also discusses the question of whether the Justice Department would file suit against Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Nevada, based on a draft complaint that an outside lawyer, Kurt Olsen, had “shopped to the DOJ,” in the Republican report’s words. The case would then go to the Supreme Court. Justice Department officials believed they had no basis to take such an action. For a phone call with Trump, Rosen asked Steve Engel to write a list of the problems with the idea. Engel gave Rosen a list of five such problems. On the phone with Trump, Rosen listed the problems, and Trump quickly assented.
“I spoke to [Trump] that afternoon, and I told him this idea of filing the Supreme Court case was a bad idea, doesn’t work. The Department of Justice can’t do it,” Rosen told Senate investigators. “I sort of said, ‘There’s five different reasons.’ I laid those out for him. And he went, ‘Okay.’ So then he accepted it. And that was the end. That was kind of the end of that … He accepted that we were not going to file that, and that was that.”
What does it mean? In the end, the big story is that Trump accepted the recommendations of his top Justice Department and White House counsel’s office advisers. Indeed, the disastrous turn Trump took was not in overturning or firing his top officials — it was in coming to rely on the advice of actors such as Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Lin Wood, and John Eastman, who came up with outlandish and sometimes crazy ideas and told the president what he wanted to hear.
The story of Trump and the Justice Department, then, is not one of the president’s relentless pressure campaign on the nation’s top lawyers. It is, rather, a story of the president taking those lawyers’ advice — and then, tragically, turning elsewhere.
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