January 6 hearings: Trump 'willing to sacrifice our republic to prolong his presidency'

Congressional panel hears how defeated president tried to force Justice Department to pursue his false claims of election fraud

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Former US president Donald Trump hounded the Justice Department to pursue his false election fraud claims, striving in vain to enlist top law enforcement officials into his desperate bid to stay in power, a congressional panel investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection heard on Thursday.

The defeated president even hosted an Oval Office showdown in which he weighed replacing the Justice Department's leader with a more compliant, lower-level official, the House of Representatives committee heard.

Three Trump-era Justice Department officials recounted a relentless pressure campaign by the president, including day after day of directives to chase unsupported allegations that the election, won by Democrat Joe Biden, had been stolen.

The officials described the constant contact as a stark breach of protocol for a department that cherishes its independence from the White House but said they brushed off each demand because there was zero evidence of widespread voter fraud.

“For the department to insert itself into the political process this way, I think would have had grave consequences for the country that very well may have spiralled us into a constitutional crisis,” said Richard Donoghue, the acting number-two official in the final days of the Trump administration.

The president, he said, had this “arsenal of allegations. I went through them piece by piece to say, no, they were not true”.

Jeffrey Rosen, who served as acting attorney general in the final days of the Trump administration, said that he was called by Mr Trump almost every day after he assumed the post in December 2020.

“What I’m just asking you to do is say [the election] was corrupt and just leave the rest up to me and the Republican congressmen,” Mr Donoghue recalled Mr Trump as saying in a December 2020 meeting.

Panel chairman Bennie Thompson called Mr Trump's pressure campaign a “brazen attempt to use the Justice Department to advance the president's personal political agenda”.

Committee member Adam Kinzinger said of Mr Trump: “He was willing to sacrifice our republic to prolong his presidency. I can imagine no more dishonourable acts by a president.”

Thursday's public hearing focused on a meeting in the Oval Office that occurred days before the insurrection, in which Mr Trump considered installing Jeffrey Clark, a mid-level official who supported the former president's fraud claims, as attorney general.

Mr Trump abandoned the plan after Mr Rosen, Mr Donoghue, former Justice Department counsel Steven Engel and White House counsel Pat Cipollone threatened to resign en masse during a meeting on January 4, 2021.

Assistant attorneys general agreed to resign as well.

“You're going to lose your entire department leadership. Every single [assistant attorney general] will walk out, your entire department of leadership will walk out within hours,” Mr Donoghue said he told Mr Trump during the meeting.

Mr Clark also drafted a letter that would have urged the US state of Georgia to convene a special session and appoint a new slate of electors to declare Mr Trump the winner of the state after Mr Biden was declared the victor.

Former White House official Eric Herschmann recalled: “When [Mr Clark] finished discussing what he planned on doing, I said [expletive], congratulations, you just admitted your first step or act you would take as attorney general would be committing a felony.”

Refusing to sign it, Mr Cipollone called the letter a “murder-suicide pact”.

The Justice Department officials also discussed a conspiracy theory the White House had circulated, which involved an allegation that people in Italy were electronically changing votes to support Mr Biden in the election.

It went so far that then-acting secretary of defence Christopher Miller contacted the Italian attache about it, though Justice Department officials had already debunked the theory.

Former attorney general William Barr, who resigned in December 2020, said he launched an investigation into Mr Trump's false electoral fraud claims to preserve the transition of power.

Handwritten notes from former acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue are shown on a screen as the committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol continues in Washington. Reuters

“I sort of shudder to think what the situation would have been if the position of the department was 'we're not even looking at this until after Biden's in office'. I'm not sure we would have had a transition at all,” Mr Barr said in recorded evidence.

The committee will take a break from public hearings after Thursday because of “significant new streams of evidence”, Mr Thompson told reporters.

Two more public hearings are expected some time in “late July” with the potential for more hearings later on, Mr Thompson said.

The committee also aired testimony tapes from Trump White House officials that revealed that elected US leaders had approached them for legal pardons for their role in trying to overturn the 2020 election result.

Former special assistant to Mr Trump Cassidy Hutchinson said members of Congress Matt Gaetz, Mo Brooks, Andy Biggs, Loui Gohmert, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Scott Perry had asked for pardons in December 2020 and January 2021.

The committee also shared an email Mr Brooks had sent to the White House with a request that said: “I recommend that the president give general [all-purpose] pardons to the following groups of people: every congressman and senator who voted to reject the Electoral College vote submissions of Arizona and Pennsylvania.”

None of them received a pardon from Mr Trump.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: June 24, 2022, 5:43 AM
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