WASHINGTON - Former president Donald Trump’s last attorney general has told U.S. senators his boss was “persistent” in trying to pressure the Justice Department to discredit the results of the 2020 election.
In closed-door testimony Saturday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jeffrey Rosen said he had to “persuade the president not to pursue a different path” at a high-stakes January meeting in which Trump considered ousting Rosen as the nation’s most powerful law enforcement officer.
According to a person familiar with the testimony, Rosen’s opening statement also characterized as “inexplicable” the actions of his Justice Department colleague, Jeffrey Clark, who was willing to push Trump’s false claims of election fraud and whom Trump considered installing as acting attorney general to replace Rosen.
The testimony - portions of which were previously reported by the New York Times - is part of a trough of information that congressional investigators are assembling about Trump’s frantic efforts to reverse his defeat by Democrat Joe Biden and use the Justice Department to stay in office.
Trump’s actions are also being investigated by the House select committee on the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol. The Justice Department’s inspector general is separately examining whether any current or former agency officials acted improperly to invalidate election results - an effort that could result in recommended disciplinary actions or, if the office finds potential crimes were committed, referrals to the department for prosecution.
The congressional probes got a boost last month, when the White House and the Justice Department cleared the way for Rosen and other former officials to discuss their election-related conversations with the president, saying the Biden administration would not seek to silence them by invoking executive privilege.
Two weeks ago, Congress obtained and released handwritten notes from Rosen’s deputy, Richard Donoghue, who participated in phone calls with Trump and Rosen in which the president urged them to cast doubt on the integrity of the election. Donoghue’s notes describe Trump telling him and Rosen to “just say the election was corrupt [and] leave the rest to me” and Republican lawmakers. They also describe Rosen and Donoghue saying claims of election fraud did not appear to have merit.
On Saturday, Rosen appeared before the Senate committee to deliver his account directly. Donoghue testified as well. During a seven-hour interview, Rosen emphasized how he and other senior leaders resisted Trump’s entreaties.
“The president was persistent with his inquiries, and I would have strongly preferred that he had chosen a different focus in the last month of his presidency,” he said in his opening statement, according to a person familiar with the testimony, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door session. “But as to the actual issues put to the Justice Department, DOJ consistently acted with integrity and the rule of law held fast.”
Rosen said he thought Trump’s claims about voting irregularities were “misguided, and I disagreed with things that President Trump suggested the Justice Department do with regard to the election. So we did not do them.”
He stressed that when Trump was told he was “misinformed or wrong, or that we would not take various actions to discredit the election’s validity, he acquiesced to the department’s position.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who attended Rosen’s interview, said the former Trump appointeewas “very forthcoming” and provided new details to the committee. Hedeclined to discuss the specifics of Rosen’s testimony, citing committee rules that prohibit such disclosures. But he said that just days before Jan. 6, when Trump supporters breached the U.S. Capitol as the election was being certified, “another plot was being worked to try to overturn the election using the name and reputation of the Department of Justice.”
The person familiar with the testimony said Rosen described his interactions with Clark, who had led the department’s environmental and natural resources division and its civil division.
Clark had at some point connected with Trump through a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. Rosen learned after the fact that Clark, his subordinate, had met with Trump at the White House to discuss pursuing claims of voter fraud. Rosen said he cautioned Clark that such communication was inappropriate, and told him not to do so again, according to the person familiar with Rosen’s testimony.
Clark’s lawyer did not respond to a message seeking comment. Clark has previously denied that he devised a plan to oust Rosen or that he formed “recommendations for action based on factual inaccuracies gleaned from the Internet.”
Liz Harrington, a spokeswoman for Trump, said in a statement Wednesday night: “We don’t need selective, partisan leaks from closed door testimony to know that President Donald J. Trump rightfully voiced his belief that America deserved a complete investigation into the 2020 election. He has been doing exactly that publicly since Election Day.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s ranking Republican, defended Trump’s right to privately discuss strategy with his advisers, noting that Trump did not end up firing Rosen or Donoghue.
“Eventually the facts will come out, and Trump will have to address them - good or bad depending on the facts at hand,” Grassley said in a Senate floor statement this week. “However, the essential question that should be asked is: what was the final decision?”
Among the material being examined by the Senate committee is a draft letter Clark circulated, addressed to Georgia officials, that he wanted Rosen and Donoghue to sign. The letter, dated Dec. 28, falsely claimed that the Justice Department was “investigating various irregularities” in the presidential election and had “identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election.”
The letter and emailed responses, published by ABC News, recommended that state lawmakers hold a special session to “take additional testimony, receive new evidence, and deliberate on the matter.”
Rosen and Donoghue did not sign on to Clark’s letter and Donoghue said in an email to Clark that sending it was “not even within the realm of possibility.”
After hearing from Rosen on Saturday, Whitehouse praised both him and Donoghue for not succumbing to the pressure from the Trump White House and for refusing to “go off on an unprecedented political errand.”
“A completely unjustified letter cooked up outside the department’s chain of command could have gone out from the U.S. Department of Justice to battleground states giving them license to overturn the election results in their states,” the senator said.
In addition to Rosen and Donoghue, committee investigators on Wednesday interviewed the former U.S. attorney in Atlanta, Byung J. Pak, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of a nonpublic interview.
Pak, who also was appointed by Trump, resigned his job abruptly on Jan. 4, at the suggestion of Donoghue, after Trump publicly complained that Pak wasn’t investigating alleged voter fraud in Georgia, a state that was crucial to Biden’s victory. Multiple reviews in that state showed Trump’s claims of irregularities were unfounded.
Pak’s lawyer did not return a message seeking comment on his testimony.
Some current and former law enforcement officials credit Donoghue and Rosen with resisting Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. But others fault Justice Department leaders for what they characterize as caving to White House pressure to bring about the resignation of Pak as a way to appease Trump.
Those critics say Rosen and Donoghue’s actions were part of a broader pattern of department decisions during the Trump administration that were designed to publicly placate the president while not actually pursuing the substance of investigations or issuing the public statements that Trump wanted them to make.
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The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett and Jacqueline Alemany contributed to this report.