WASHINGTON — After gripping testimony from former Justice Department officials describing Donald Trump’s efforts to undo the 2020 election results, House lawmakers on Thursday identified five Republican lawmakers who allegedly sought pardons — suggesting not just their own fear of criminal exposure, but a belief that the outgoing president would preemptively protect them from the investigations that followed the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on Congress.
Videotaped testimony presented at the end of Thursday’s hearing named Reps. Matt Gaetz, Fla.; Mo Brooks, Ala.; Andy Biggs, Ariz.; Louie Gohmert, Texas; and Scott Perry, Pa., as the lawmakers who sought preemptive pardons after or, in at least one case, before the Capitol breach. They were among the most active and outspoken supporters in Congress of Trump’s false claims of election fraud.
The allegations of pardon-hunting came from Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and from John McEntee, a close aide to Trump. Such testimony strikes at one of the most fraught issues to emerge out of the Jan. 6 attack — the suspicion rife in many quarters of Congress that some of its members may have participated in criminal conspiracies to thwart the valid results of a presidential election.
“The only reason I know to ask for a pardon, [is] because you think you’ve committed a crime,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who led Thursday’s hearing of the House select committee investigating the attack.
Hutchinson testified that she was involved with conversations about requests from Gaetz, Brooks, Biggs, Gohmert and Perry, all of whom she said had sought a promise from the White House to be cleared in advance of any crimes they might be charged with. Perry had previously denied seeking a pardon, but Hutchinson insisted in her deposition that he had spoken to her directly about it.
Some of the lawmakers could not be reached for comment immediately after the hearing. Perry repeated his denials that he ever sought a pardon for himself or other members of Congress, and denied speaking to Hutchinson about a pardon. Gaetz tweeted Thursday that the Jan. 6 committee is “an unconstitutional political sideshow” that is “siccing federal law enforcement on political opponents.”
Biggs, in a statement Thursday, denied asking for a pardon and added that Hutchinson’s video testimony was “deceptively edited to make it appear as if I personally asked her for a presidential pardon.”
The committee also showed excerpts of a Jan. 11, 2021, email from Brooks to a White House official recommending that Trump issue “all purpose” pardons to every member of Congress who voted to reject the electoral college votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania, as well as every Republican who signed onto a court brief in Texas challenging the election results. In the email, Brooks argues that “Socialist Democrats (with perhaps some liberal Republican help) are going to abuse America’s judicial system by targeting numerous Republicans with sham charges deriving from our recent fight for honest and accurate elections, and speeches related thereto.”
The pardon accusations capped a riveting afternoon hearing in which a trio of former senior Justice Department officials — two appointed by Trump — recounted how in late December and early January the president waged an increasingly angry and desperate campaign to make the department spread false claims of massive voter fraud.
The witnesses — former acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, former acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue and former head of the department’s office of legal counsel Steven A. Engel — described pressure levied almost daily by the president. It began with him urging them to pursue far-fetched claims of fraud, many of which had already been investigated and deemed to be without merit. And it ended with him threatening to demote Rosen and hand control of the department over to an environmental lawyer who one witness repeatedly called “incompetent.”
That lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, was targeted by the committee Thursday as a central villain in Trump’s scheme. He is also facing growing scrutiny from criminal prosecutors at the department where he once worked. On Wednesday, federal agents searched Clark’s home in Lorton, Va., part of a multistate expansion of the Justice Department’s sprawling criminal investigation into efforts by Trump supporters to block Biden’s election victory, according to people familiar with the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Clark’s lawyer did not return requests for comment. But another former Trump appointee, who now runs a conservative advocacy group where Clark works, confirmed the search and said federal agents also searched Clark’s electronic devices.
Many of the details of Trump’s efforts to twist the Justice Department to his will after he lost the election to Joe Biden have been previously described in legal filings and congressional documents.
But Thursday’s account went a step further — offering firsthand, live accounts from veteran lawyers who stood up to Trump’s demands and say they feared he might wreck his presidency, key government institutions, and ultimately the country. Their testimony was all the more powerful in that it came from Trump administration appointees, including one, Engel, who was one of Trump’s very first presidential nominees and stayed in the administration until the end.
The hearing uncovered new details of key moments in what Kinzinger called the “sordid story” of Trump’s efforts to corrupt the Justice Department, in particular how a lawyer working for Clark was tied to John Eastman, a key Trump legal adviser.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said the committee obtained evidence that Justice official Ken Klukowski was working with Eastman in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 attack on Congress, in which a pro-Trump mob overpowered police and disrupted members of Congress as they tallied electoral votes in Biden’s victory.
Previously released records show Klukowski had assisted Clark in drafting a letter to send to Georgia and other swing states that would have falsely declared the Justice Department found evidence of fraud in their elections. Other Justice Department officials refused to send the letter and threatened to resign if Trump insisted on sending it.
But Cheney also displayed an email showing that there were discussions about having Klukowski — who had just joined the Justice Department — accompany Eastman to brief Vice President Mike Pence about how the election results could be reversed. “I believe the vice president and his staff would benefit greatly from a briefing by John and Ken. As I also mentioned, we want to make sure we don’t overexpose Ken, given his new position,” the email read.
“This email suggests that Mr. Klukowski was simultaneously working with Jeffrey Clark to draft the proposed letter to Georgia officials to overturn their certified election and working with Dr. Eastman to help pressure the vice president to overturn the election,” Cheney said.
The committee then played for the first time footage of a deposition given to the committee by Clark, in which the former Justice Department official invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in response to questions.
Donoghue and the other witnesses made clear their contempt for Clark, describing him as a foolish lawyer far out of his depth who was nevertheless willing to go behind his bosses’ backs to meet privately with Trump, promote falsehoods about the election and destroy the department’s reputation for independence.
Trump was eager to embrace Clark after Rosen and Donoghue repeatedly rebuffed his claims of voter fraud. During a Dec. 27 phone call, Trump pushed Rosen and Donoghue to “just say that the election was corrupt, and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” Donoghue testified.
They refused, saying that while the department had investigated allegations of voter fraud, they were unfounded in all but a few small cases — and in some instances, Donoghue said, “patently absurd” or “pure insanity.”
Fed up, the president decided to replace Rosen with Clark, prompting a climactic Oval Office confrontation with the Justice Department officials and White House lawyers battling over the future of the Justice Department.
“What do I have to lose?” Trump asked Donoghue at one point.
Wearing muddy boots because he had not expected to be called into the White House on a Sunday, Donoghue replied, “Mr. President, you have a great deal to lose.” Putting Clark atop the Justice Department and issuing the false letter about election fraud would be damaging “to the country, to the Justice Department, to him personally,” Donoghue recalled saying.
To emphasize his point, Donoghue noted that Clark was an environmental lawyer with no criminal prosecution experience, and that if he walked into the FBI director’s office, no one would know who he was. “He’s not competent,” Donoghue said.
Donoghue told the president that if he went through with his plan to elevate Clark and send the letter, there would be mass resignations at Justice that could spiral into the hundreds. Engel warned Trump that Clark would be left “leading a graveyard.”
White House lawyer Eric Herschmann also ripped Clark’s proposal as “nuts,” telling him at one point: “The only thing you know about environmental and election challenges is that they both start with ‘E.’ And I’m not even sure you know that.”
The committee also revealed a White House call log that made clear that by the time the lawyers had gathered inside the Oval Office, aides to Trump had already begun referring to Clark privately as the “acting attorney general.”
By the time the tumultuous Jan. 3 meeting was over, however, Trump had abandoned the idea.
Three days later, rioters stormed Congress, and the Justice Department, still led by Rosen, launched the largest investigation in its history, in terms of the number of people charged with crimes.
Kinzinger on Thursday praised Justice officials for standing up for the rule of law, but said the entire episode revealed how much danger democracy was in during Trump’s final days in office.
“We’re here today because the facts were irrelevant to President Trump,” he said. “It was about protecting his very real power and very fragile ego, even if it required recklessly undermining our entire electoral system.”