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A president desperate to stay in power and entangled in fringe internet conspiracies that engage in a multi-layered conspiracy, pressuring top Justice Department officials and using straw to legitimize his election lies – the facts are doomed.
“Just say it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” former President Trump said, according to testimony Thursday by former acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue during the Jan. 5 committee hearing.
Donoghue, who simultaneously took notes of that conversation, and several others with the former president, insisted it was an “exact” quote. Trump made the comments in the transition period between the 2020 presidential election he lost and the January 6 uprising.
It was just one of many dramatic moments from the hearing that painted—in vibrant colors—scenes that looked straight out of a Hollywood political thriller.
But this was not a movie.
These were the final days of Trump’s presidency — and these hearings showed how thin a string held American democracy together.
Here are four takeaways from the hearing:
1. The details of the pressure on the Justice Department showed that Trump was overstepping the boundaries of the Department’s independence.
Justice Department officials serve at the pleasure of the president, but the president’s interference in the investigation and the inner workings of the department has long been frowned upon in American tradition.
None of that seemed to matter to Trump, multiple witnesses said Thursday.
Trump called and met with top Justice Department officials almost every day after election day, laced with false accusations to investigate. But when he was told there was no evidence for conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, it wasn’t enough for him, witnesses said.
“We have a duty to tell people that this was an illegal, corrupt election,” Donoghue recalls Trump telling him, as his on-screen notes were shown behind committee members.
The clock was ticking for Trump, and the commission showed that Trump was a man who would do almost anything to stay in power — and saw the Justice Department as an important vehicle.
He publicly disagreed with his Attorney General, Bill Barr, who resigned under pressure. Trump wanted Barr to appoint a special counsel. Attorney Sidney Powell, a conspiracy theorist, testified on camera that Trump had asked her to be that special counsel.
Trump relied on the new acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, who called or met with him almost every day except Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Rosen testified. And Trump Threatened To Replace Rosen With Someone Who… would act on his election lies.
2. If senior DOJ officials didn’t come along, Trump would find someone who would.
Trump threatened to install Jeffrey Clark, a lower DOJ environmental attorney, in the highest position. Representative Scott Perry introduced Clark to Trump and Clark was ready to comply with Trump’s request.
Clark went behind the backs of his superiors to meet with the president, violating department protocols, the officials said. Clark had drafted a letter pressuring state officials to take steps to undo the election, citing evidence he lacked of voting problems.
“This other guy might do something,” Trump told Rosen, Rosen recalled, noting that Trump was frustrated with Rosen for not pursuing his election lies as legitimate.
Donoghue said for the record that he and others in the department have investigated each of Trump’s widespread conspiracies. They were all without merit, he said. He and Rosen testified to that, and so they told Trump, repeatedly correcting him “in a serial fashion” as Trump went from one charge to the next.
Trump and his chief of staff Mark Meadows even joked about a widespread conspiracy theory that Italian satellites had been manipulated to change Trump’s votes to Biden. This went so far that, despite Donoghue calling the theory “pure insanity” and “obviously absurd,” acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, at Meadows’ request, called the Defense Attaché in Rome, who also took down the conspiracy.
However, Trump thought something was up. Why? “You may not follow the internet like I do,” Trump said, according to Donoghue’s notes.
Frustrated, Trump almost appointed Clark’s attorney general. He only hesitated when Donoghue insisted during an Oval Office meeting under pressure that he and many others would resign if Trump took that drastic step.
“What have I got to lose?” Trump said at one point, per Donoghue. Donoghue tried to convince him that he personally – and the country – had quite a bit to lose.
Donoghue told Trump that Clark’s promises were hollow, that he couldn’t deliver what Trump wanted and could do so in a matter of days, especially since the allegations had already been investigated — and proved false.
“It’s absurd,” Donoghue told Trump. “It’s not going to happen, and he’s going to fail.”
3. Several Members of Congress Asked for a Pardon
Another notable element of Thursday’s hearing was the revelation that several right-wing Republican members of Congress, who were somehow involved in January 6, were asking for a pardon.
Multiple witnesses, including attorneys and White House staff, testified that at least five, maybe six Republicans were asking for a pardon: Representatives Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Mo Brooks, R-Ala., Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., and Scott Perry, R-Pa.
There was some question as to whether Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. also asked for it, because a White House employee testified that she heard Greene did, but didn’t know it firsthand. Greene denies asking for it.
All have denied the wrongdoing.
“The only reason I know of asking for a pardon is if you’ve committed a crime,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who led the questioning Thursday.
It’s also possible, of course, that these members, so deeply entangled in their minds, felt that a newly minted Justice Department under a Democratic president was going after them.
“It is not a crime to ask for a pardon in the United States of America,” Representative Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the committee, told CNN after hearing his colleagues ask for a pardon. “No one can be prosecuted for that, but I think if we use our common sense, if we use our Tom Paynian common sense, it would indicate a guilt or fear that you could be prosecuted for what you did.”
4. No one was too big or too small for Trump’s press campaign in his desperate bid to stay in power.
These five days of hearings have revealed how far Trump would go to remain in power.
His pressure was unrelenting and multifaceted. And no one was immune, from people as high in government as his vice president and top Justice Department officials to others who did the job of conducting elections, such as Wandrea “Shaye” Moss.
Moss testified on Tuesday that her life had been turned upside down, that her personal life had literally been destroyed because of Trump’s rampant attempt to cling to the White House.
He urged zealous local election officials, who normally get no attention — let alone death threats — to agree to plans he and those around him concocted to overthrow the US electoral system.
It must hurt Trump that it didn’t work, that despite all his efforts, he couldn’t make it happen. With all of this cast in a bright light, it will be remarkable to see how Americans move next. Will Trump continue to exert the kind of influence in the Republican Party, or will he appear more vulnerable if he decides to rejoin in 2024?