WASHINGTON – Then-President Donald Trump in early January entertained a plan to replace the acting attorney general with a different Justice Department lawyer who was more amenable to pursuing his unfounded claims of voter fraud, nearly touching off a crisis at the country’s premier federal law enforcement institution, people familiar with the matter said.
The plan – if enacted – would have pushed out Jeffrey Rosen as the acting attorney general and installed in his place Jeffrey Clark, whom Trump had appointed to lead the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and who later would come to lead the Civil Division. Clark, then, could have taken steps to wield the Justice Department’s power to help keep Trump in office. But the president was ultimately dissuaded from moving forward after a high-stakes meeting with those involved, the people said.
The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a politically sensitive matter. The move was first reported by the New York Times. Legal analysts said it amounted to a disastrous attack on the Justice Department’s independence, and perhaps something worse.
“Before the insurrectionist assault on the US Capitol, there was an attempted coup at the Justice Dept. – fomented by the President of the United States,” former Justice Department official David Laufman wrote on Twitter.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment, as did Rosen.
In a written statement that seemed to draw on language in the New York Times account, Clark said, “I categorically deny that I ‘devised a plan . . . to oust’ Jeff Rosen. . . . Nor did I formulate recommendations for action based on factual inaccuracies gleaned from the Internet.”
“My practice is to rely on sworn testimony to assess disputed factual claims,” Clark said. “There were no ‘maneuver[s].’ There was a candid discussion of options and pros and cons with the President. It is unfortunate that those who were part of a privileged legal conversation would comment in public about such internal deliberations, while also distorting any discussions. . . . Observing legal privileges, which I will adhere to even if others will not, prevent me from divulging specifics regarding the conversation.”
Asked for a response to the article, a Trump adviser said, “President Trump has consistently argued that our justice system should be investigating the broader, rampant election fraud that has plagued our system for many years. Any assertion to the contrary is false and being driven by those who wish to keep the system broken.”
Throughout his four years in office, Trump persistently pushed the Justice Department to make moves to benefit himself and his friends, though his moves in his final days in office threatened to be particularly damaging. Even former attorney general William Barr – who had been one of Trump’s most loyal and effective Cabinet secretaries – had publicly broken with the president on the issue of voter fraud, declaring publicly that investigators had found no evidence of substantial malfeasance that might affect the result of the election.
Barr’s statements angered Trump, who, along with his allies, had been waging a public campaign to get Barr to appoint a special counsel to investigate election fraud. The men’s relationship was near a breaking point. Trump already had been angry that his attorney general had not taken public steps in two other investigations that might have helped his chances of winning: U.S. Attorney John Durham’s examination into the FBI probe of his 2016 campaign, and the Justice Department’s probe of Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden’s son. On Dec. 14, Barr submitted a resignation letter indicating he would leave the department two days before Christmas.
For the last month of the Trump administration, Rosen would be in charge.
Barr was confident that Rosen shared his views and would thus not succumb to any pressure campaign to upend the election results, people familiar with the matter said. But soon, there emerged a bizarre plot to go around him, the people said.
Clark, the people said, somehow connected with Trump and conveyed he felt fraud had impacted the election results. Then Clark began pressuring Rosen and others to do more on voter fraud – such as holding a news conference to announce they were investigating serious allegations, or taking particular steps in Georgia – though Rosen refused. At some point, Rosen was informed Clark would replace him, and he pushed for a meeting with Trump in person, the people said. It was theoretically possible that, if Clark were installed, he could push for some type of challenge to the election results.
At the meeting were Trump, Clark and Rosen, along with Richard Donoghue, the acting deputy attorney general; Steven A. Engel, the head of the department’s Office of Legal Counsel; and Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, the people familiar with the matter said. The people said Rosen, Donoghue, Engel and Cipollone pushed against the idea of replacing Rosen, and warned of a mass resignation.
Cipollone, one person said, pushed hard against a letter Clark wanted to send to Georgia state legislators, which wrongly asserted the department was investigating accusations of fraud in their state and Biden’s win should be voided, insisting it was based on a shoddy claim.
“Pat pretty much saved Rosen’s job that day,” said one senior Trump White House official.
Trump ultimately left Rosen in place, and the results were certified.