The Senate Judiciary Committee released a report Thursday with shocking new details of how then-President Donald Trump sought to overturn the results of the 2020 election — including a two- to three-hour confrontation on Jan. 3 with top Justice Department officials and his own lawyers. Those officials and his lawyers threatened to resign en masse if Trump plowed ahead with his agenda to delegitimize the 2020 election with false fraud claims, staving off disaster.
The report provides a fuller picture of Trump’s machinations following his loss to President Joe Biden, and it underscores how just a handful of resistant officials stood between Trump and some of his most insidious tactics. It’s also a reminder that while Trump’s most visible efforts to contest the election were often ham-fisted — ludicrous lawsuits and blatant, easily debunked disinformation about fraud — he also took serious steps behind the scenes that could’ve done a great deal more damage to the integrity of the election. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill. said in a statement that the report “shows the American people just how close we came to a constitutional crisis.”
The Judiciary Committee report offers new information on a variety of Trump’s subversive efforts, but the bombshell finding is the long January standoff with his own officials, three days before the Capitol riot.
During that meeting, he confronted senior Justice Department officials with his plan of replacing acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen with Jeffrey Clark, a Justice Department official who was not well-known at the time but had proven himself a Trump loyalist willing to pursue groundless claims of fraud. For example, he lobbied to senior officials for a letter to be sent to Georgia claiming the Justice Department had identified “significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election.” (It had not.)
“According to Rosen, Trump opened the meeting by saying, ‘One thing we know is you, Rosen, aren’t going to do anything to overturn the election,’” the Senate report said. Over the course of the meeting, Trump discussed the idea of replacing Rosen with Clark, who, per NBC News, “devised a strategy with the president for the DOJ to intervene in Georgia’s appointment of presidential electors and to use this model in other states.”
Trump and Clark’s ideas prompted harsh pushback, and top DOJ officials threatened that they and others would resign if Trump moved ahead with the plan. Remarkably, they were joined by Trump White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who said he and top deputy Patrick Philbin would also resign in protest. Cipollone labeled Trump’s plan a “murder-suicide pact,” according to the report. Trump reportedly only backed down in the final 15 minutes of the meeting.
Another important tidbit from the report: Between mid-December (after former Attorney General William Barr resigned) and early January, Trump held at least nine calls or in-person meetings with senior Justice Department officials calling for them to “initiate investigations, file lawsuits on his behalf, and publicly declare the 2020 election ‘corrupt,’” it said. It also fleshed out how Clark pressured Rosen to give in to Trump and how Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., coordinated with Clark to try to boost the evidence-free election fraud allegations that had been made in Pennsylvania.
Trump’s efforts to either delegitimize or overturn the election were pursued vigorously across multiple fronts.
Once again, we see exactly why the congressional investigations into suspected presidential misbehavior are so important. The more details we learn about how Trump handled his effort to manufacture the “big lie,” the more it becomes evident that this was a serious effort, even if not prosecuted by a very serious person.
Trump lacks discipline and seems to possess few authentic ideological convictions. But his efforts to either delegitimize or overturn the election were pursued vigorously across multiple fronts. Sometimes the only thing that stood in the way of his extreme schemes was a handful of officials and advisers — including those who were expected to be exceptionally loyal to him, like Cipollone.
Had Trump successfully enlisted the Justice Department to fully back false fraud allegations, which had already been debunked by the FBI and state investigators, it would’ve added more heft to the claim that the election was stolen and generated even more mistrust in the electoral process. At that point, it wouldn’t just be Trump and his inner circle against the world, but also a federal executive department with some putative degree of independence from the president.
Trump’s “stop the steal” playbook was never subtle or sophisticated. But the process showed how a motivated president can apply pressure to various parts of the electoral process just to see who or what gives way if he tries hard enough. Fortunately, the system worked this time around. But a more savvy authoritarian might’ve been able to do a better job of installing even fiercer loyalists and winning over some of the civil servants who tried to obstruct Trump’s anti-democratic agenda.