How did so many mild-mannered, otherwise intelligent Americans become convinced that former President Donald Trump really did win the 2020 election? Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official, is in a perfect position to know. And now that he’s been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Congress has a chance to hear it straight from him.
The committee ordered him Wednesday to produce documents by Oct. 29 and appear before the panel for a deposition that same day. While he wasn’t central to the planning of the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the deadly attack, as we try to better understand the days and weeks that led up to Jan. 6, Clark’s testimony would provide a crucial piece to the puzzle.
How did so many mild-mannered, otherwise intelligent Americans become convinced that former President Donald Trump really did win the 2020 election?
Among the most pressing questions Clark could help answer: What were the overlaps between his efforts inside the government and those outside, which nearly succeeding in preventing the transfer of power on Jan. 20? And how did Trump’s lies get such a foothold inside the U.S. government itself?
While the committee has a lot of tough nuts to crack — especially former White House strategist Steve Bannon — and not a lot of time, Clark doesn’t seem likely to be one of them. Clark refused to testify voluntarily before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it’s doubtful he’ll defy a congressional subpoena, not when more former Trump officials are cooperating with the commission than are actively obstructing them. (Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and former Pentagon official Kash Patel, for the record, are the ones taking the less fiery approach.)
It’s in Clark’s best interest — and the country’s — to tell the committee how he became a devotee to the conspiracies that Trump seeded. The path he took from bureaucrat to would-be coup enabler is one that’s vital to study, if for no other reason than to bar any future travelers from wandering down it.
We’ve already learned a lot about Clark’s hunt for a quasi-legal justification to keep Trump in power. In the final weeks of the Trump administration, Clark was the acting head of the civil division at the Justice Department, which represents the U.S. in litigation involving national policies. He’d spent the previous two years leading the Justice Department’s environmental division. When he was promoted in September 2020, he wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a major player in the administration, let alone someone Trump even knew or would rely on as his man inside the Justice Department.
But as The New York Times reported in January, less than a month after Election Day, Clark was all in on the notion that Trump’s loss could be reversed. Between the election and mid-December, Pennsylvania state Rep. Scott Perry, who also thought the election results could be overturned, introduced Clark to Trump. The president “quickly embraced” him, The Times reported, unbeknownst to the acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, or his deputy, Richard Donoghue.
By the end of the month, Clark was trying to persuade Rosen to send a letter urging Georgia’s Legislature to consider overturning Joe Biden’s victory in the state. The draft letter, which ABC News published in August, suggested that a special session of the Legislature should convene because of the (Trump-initiated and unsubstantiated) claims of fraud and that legislators should throw their support behind electors supporting Trump, not Biden.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., told MSNBC that Clark had drafted similar documents for six states whose altered results would have given Trump another term in the White House. If only a handful of legislatures had acted as the letters insisted was fully legal, Trump would have stolen the election — all thanks to Jeffrey Clark.
According to a recently released Senate Judiciary Committee report, Clark also pushed Rosen and Donoghue to get a briefing from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That briefing, he explained in an email, would potentially give Trump the cover to declare that China had hacked voting machines during the election — a conspiracy that Clark never offered evidence to back up.
The letters were never sent, and the briefing never happened, as Rosen and Donoghue refused to give their backing. But the White House hadn’t given up on Georgia — or Clark. According to emails the House Oversight Committee released in June, on Jan. 1, Meadows wrote Rosen asking him to have Clark specifically investigate “signature match anomalies” in Fulton County. “Can you believe this?” Rosen wrote to Donoghue as he forwarded Meadow’s message. “I am not going to respond to the message below.”
Clark’s reported machinations are wildly out of character, according to people who knew him beforehand.
Two days later, Clark played his Trump card: The president intended to have him replace Rosen. That night, Rosen was in the Oval Office fighting for his job, with most of the Justice Department’s senior leadership ready to resign if Clark took the helm. The rebellion worked, and Trump backed down. But he clearly hadn’t given up on his claims that he’d won the election, as his riot-inciting speech on Jan. 6 showed.
Clark’s reported machinations are wildly out of character, according to people who knew him beforehand. One friend described him to The New York Times as “a rumpled, thoughtful lawyer who is an intellectual — not a Machiavellian backstabber.” Which is precisely why his testimony will be so important for the Jan. 6 committee’s work.
Something compelled Clark to shift from a typical run-of-the-mill government lawyer to the kind of person who not only buys Trump’s crackpot theories but also actively searches for ways to turn them into reality. I want to know what that something was — and how to keep anyone similar far, far from the seat of power.