In the wake of Donald Trump's defeat last fall, the then-president created a political crisis at the Justice Department, as the White House explored ways to use federal law enforcement to reward Trump with power he hadn't earned. The details of the crisis are still coming into focus.
ABC News ran this striking report yesterday, which is an amazing piece of a larger puzzle.
Top members of the Department of Justice last year rebuffed another DOJ official who asked them to urge officials in Georgia to investigate and perhaps overturn President Joe Biden's victory in the state -- long a bitter point of contention for former President Donald Trump and his team -- before the results were certified by Congress, emails reviewed by ABC News show.
According to the materials, which have not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, Jeffrey Clark -- at the time, the acting head of the Justice Department's civil division -- wrote emails that would urge Georgia Republicans to take the Big Lie seriously.
The emails were dated Dec. 28, 2020 -- exactly one week before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol -- and Clark apparently wanted a green light from then-acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen and then-acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue.
Clark's message intended to tell officials in Georgia that the Justice Department was investigating "irregularities" in the presidential election and wanted state legislators to go into a special session "pertaining to the appointment of presidential electors."
The same letter went on to suggest that if Republican legislators appointed their own slate of electors -- backing Trump, despite the fact that he lost in Georgia -- they theoretically could be accepted as legitimate.
Or put another way, the acting head of the Justice Department's civil division late last year, created a map of sorts that GOP officials in Georgia could follow to overturn the will of the state's voters.
We now know, of course, that the plan didn't work. Georgia Republicans never received such a message from the Justice Department because Clark's draft was rejected out of hand by Jeffrey Rosen, the acting attorney general at the time, and Richard Donoghue, the acting deputy AG.
"There is no chance that I would sign this letter or anything remotely like this," Donoghue said an hour after Clark sought approval for his draft.
If we were to stop here, it would still be a stunning report about one of the most important scandals in American history. But the larger context makes matters even worse.
If Clark's name sounds at all familiar, it's probably because of this report in the New York Times, published less than a week after President Biden's inauguration.
The Justice Department's top leaders listened in stunned silence this month: One of their peers, they were told, had devised a plan with President Donald J. Trump to oust Jeffrey A. Rosen as acting attorney general and wield the department's power to force Georgia state lawmakers to overturn its presidential election results.
As we discussed soon after, when Rosen wouldn't help try to overturn the election results, Trump considered Plan B: a gambit in which he'd fire Rosen and replace him with Clark.
The then-president backed off, not because the plan was stark raving mad -- though it certainly was -- but because the Justice Department's senior leadership team threatened to resign en masse if Rosen was ousted. Trump decided such tumult would "eclipse any attention on his baseless accusations of voter fraud."
This wasn't just some random thought experiment. The Times' report added that there was a "bizarre" presidential meeting in January in which Rosen and Clark made competing presentations, which "officials compared with an episode of Mr. Trump's reality show 'The Apprentice,' albeit one that could prompt a constitutional crisis."
The same article noted that Trump began lobbying Rosen as far back as mid-December, telling him "he wanted the Justice Department to file legal briefs supporting his allies' lawsuits seeking to overturn his election loss." The then-president also urged Rosen "to appoint special counsels to investigate not only unfounded accusations of widespread voter fraud, but also Dominion, the voting machines firm." The lobbying continued, with phone calls and in-person meetings.
In other words, Trump told the acting attorney general to side, not with the rule of law, but with his bizarre legal team, which filed dozens of failed and embarrassing anti-election lawsuits. It was after Rosen balked that Trump considered the plan to fire him and replace him with a lawyer who intended to use federal law enforcement to try to overturn election results the White House didn't like.
This unfolded, of course, as Trump privately urged Rosen and Donoghue to declare that the election was corrupt. The Justice Department's top two officials at the time knew there was no evidence to substantiate such an assertion, but Trump nevertheless pressed Rosen and Donoghue to lie.
"Just say that the election was corrupt [and] leave the rest to me" and to the White House's Republican allies in Congress, Donoghue wrote in his notes, quoting Trump.
That was on Dec. 27. It was on Dec. 28 when Clark circulated the ridiculous message he wanted to send to Georgia.
I continue to believe the country has not yet come to terms -- or really even tried to come to terms -- with how close we came to what can fairly be described as a coup.