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A president desperate to hold on to power and entangled in fringe internet conspiracies has engaged in a multi-layered conspiracy, pressuring top Justice Department officials and grabbing straws of legitimacy for his election lies – the facts be damned.
“Just say it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” former President Trump said, according to testimony Thursday from former acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue at the fifth January 6 committee hearing.
Donoghue, who took contemporary notes on that conversation, and several others with the former president, pointed out that it was an “accurate” quote. Trump made the remarks during the transition period between the 2020 presidential election he lost and the Jan. 6 insurgency.
It was just one of many dramatic moments from the audience who painted – in vivid colors – scenes that looked like they were straight out of a Hollywood political thriller.
But it wasn’t a movie.
It was the last days of the Trump presidency – and these hearings showed just how tightly a string held American democracy.
Here are four takeaways from the audience:
1. The details of the pressure on the Justice Department showed Trump crossing all lines of departmental independence.
Justice Department officials serve at the pleasure of the president, but presidential interference in investigations and the internal workings of the department has long been frowned upon in American tradition.
None of that seemed to matter to Trump, according to multiple witnesses Thursday.
Trump called and met almost every day after Election Day with senior Justice Department officials, peppering them with false allegations to investigate. But when he was told there was no evidence of conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, that wasn’t enough for him, witnesses said.
“We have an obligation to tell people that this was an illegal and corrupt election,” Donoghue recalled, telling him Trump, his notes displayed on screen behind committee members.
The clock was ticking on Trump, and the committee showed that Trump was a man who would do almost anything to stay in power — and saw the Justice Department as a key vehicle.
He was publicly at odds with his attorney general, Bill Barr, who resigned under pressure. Trump wanted Barr to appoint a special counsel. Conspiracy theorist lawyer Sidney Powell testified on camera that Trump asked him to be that special advocate.
Trump leaned on new acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, calling or meeting with him almost every day except Christmas and New Years, Rosen said. And Trump threatened to replace Rosen with someone who would have act on his election lies.
2. If senior DOJ officials didn’t agree, Trump would find someone who would.
Trump has threatened to install Jeffrey Clark, a lower-level DOJ environmental lawyer, in the top job. Representative Scott Perry introduced Clark to Trump, and Clark was ready to do Trump’s bidding.
Clark was going behind his superiors’ backs to meet with the president, violating department protocols, officials said. Clark had penned a letter pressuring state officials to take action to void the election, citing evidence that he had no issues with the vote.
“That other guy just might do something,” Trump told Rosen, Rosen recalled, noting that Trump’s frustration with Rosen for not continuing his election lies was legitimate.
Donoghue, for the record, said he and other members of the department investigated each of Trump’s far-flung conspiracies. All were without merit, he said. He and Rosen testified to this and that they told Trump – repeatedly correcting him “in a serial fashion”, as Trump moved from one allegation to another.
Trump and his chief of staff Mark Meadows even hinted at a broad conspiracy theory that Italian satellites were rigged to transfer votes from Trump to Biden. It went so far that, although Donoghue called the theory “pure madness” and “patently preposterous”, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, at Meadows’ request, called the Defense Attaché to Rome, which also overthrew the plot.
Trump, however, thought there was something there. Why? “You may not follow the internet like I do,” Trump said, according to Donoghue’s notes.
Frustrated, Trump nearly named Clark attorney general. He only hesitated when Donoghue insisted in a high-pressure Oval Office meeting that he and many others would resign if Trump took this drastic step.
“What do I have to lose? Trump said at one point, per Donoghue. Donoghue tried to convince him that he, personally – and the country – had a lot to lose.
Donoghue told Trump that Clark’s promises were hollow, that he couldn’t deliver what Trump wanted and do it in days, especially because the allegations had already been investigated — and turned up. proven to be false.
“It’s nonsense,” Donoghue told Trump. “It won’t happen, and it will fail.”
3. Several members of Congress have asked for forgiveness
Another striking element of Thursday’s hearing was the revelation that several right-wing Republican members of Congress, who were in one way or another involved in Jan. 6, have asked for forgiveness.
Multiple witnesses, including attorneys and White House staff, said at least five, possibly six, Republicans had asked for forgiveness — Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Mo Brooks, R-Ala. , Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, and Scott Perry, R-Pa.
We wondered if Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. also asked for one, as a White House staffer testified that she had heard that Greene had done it, but did not know firsthand. Greene denies asking for one.
All denied wrongdoing.
“The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is if you’ve committed a crime,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who led the questioning Thursday.
Of course, it’s also possible that those members, so deeply enmeshed in the conspiracy, in their minds sensed that a new Justice Department headed by a Democratic president would come after them.
“It’s not a crime to ask for a pardon from the United States of America,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the committee, told CNN after hearing from his colleagues who asked for the pardon. grace. “No one can be prosecuted for this, but I think if we use our common sense, if we use our common sense Tom Paynian, it would indicate some awareness of guilt or some fear that you might be prosecuted for what you have do.”
4. No one was too big or too small for Trump’s pressure campaign in his desperate bid to stay in power.
These five days of hearings revealed just how far Trump would go to retain power.
His pressure was relentless and multifaceted. And no one was immune, from people as high up in government as his vice president and top Justice Department officials to other election implementers, like Wandrea “Shaye.” Moss.
Moss testified Tuesday that his life had been turned upside down, that his personal life had literally been destroyed by Trump’s unrestrained attempt to cling to the White House.
He pressed diligent local election officials, who normally receive no attention – let alone death threats – to go along with the schemes he and his entourage have concocted to overthrow the US electoral system.
It must hurt Trump that it didn’t work, that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t make it happen. With all of this brought to light, it will be remarkable to see how Americans move on after this. Does Trump continue to wield that kind of influence within the Republican Party, or will he seem more vulnerable if he decides to run again in 2024?