When the Jan. 6 hearings are also free publicity
Filmmaker Alex Holder, who was interviewed by House committee members behind closed doors today, isn’t wasting the current public interest in his as-yet-unseen footage. Holder’s tweet seems to be pushing back on any critics who claim he gave his subjects too much autonomy. Does the clip actually prove that? Opinions may differ.
Clark distills Trump’s anti-democratic plan
Donoghue offered this juicy exchange about his showdowns with Jeffrey Clark, the lawyer Trump wanted to appoint as attorney general to make the Justice Department his personal law firm.
Donoghue testified: “Similar to his reaction when I said that, ‘This is nothing less than Justice Department meddling in an election,’ his [Clark’s] reaction was, ‘I think a lot of people have meddled in this election.”
According to Donoghue, Clark was trying to justify sending letters to state election officials falsely claiming that DOJ had legitimate concerns.
It’s a remarkable line, because it distills Trumpian will-to-power politics. There was no evidence of widespread fraud, but Trump manufactured the false narrative that there was in order to justify an extraordinary intervention by the federal government. In other words, false claims of inappropriate meddling were designed enable actually inappropriate meddling by Trump himself.
The key role played by Ken Klukowski
In November of last year, the House select committee issued a subpoena to Kenneth Klukowski, a lawyer and former aide to Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark. And in its press release, the committee was fairly transparent as to why: Klukowski “was involved in drafting a letter that urged legislatures in certain states to delay certification of the election.” He also helped Clark prepare for the now-infamous Jan. 3, 2021 meeting. That, of course, was the meeting at which all assembled but Clark said they would resign if Trump fired Rosen and made Clark acting attorney general.
But who is Klukowski?
For starters, he’s a guy with a long history in the conservative legal and political worlds, including with Team Trump. In November 2016, Politico reported that Klukowski, who was then senior counsel at director of strategy at the First Liberty Institute, joined the Trump transition team as an advisor on “protecting constitutional rights.” By 2018, while still at First Liberty, he argued, in an op-ed for the Washington Examiner in support of an Oregon couple that refused to bake a same-sex wedding cake. Unsurprisingly, Klukowski, a former Family Research Council director, was named as a member of the “Christian legal army” in The Nation’s reporting on those lawyers’ growing influence in state attorneys generals’ offices and federal courts.
Klukowski’s relationships with key Trump world figures are also substantial. A former senior legal editor at Breitbart, he has known former Trump advisor Steve Bannon for years. (Here’s them talking together on Breitbart.) And connections between Klukowski and Trump attorney John Eastman date back to at least 2012.” He even appeared with another Trump campaign lawyer, Sidney Powell, on talk radio in 2018.
Yet Klukowski did not join the Trump administration until late August 2019, when he joined OMB as a special counsel under then-general counsel Mark Paoletta, who later became embroiled in the withholding of aid to Ukraine underlying Trump’s first impeachment. (Today, Paoletta and Klukowski have reunited in private practice at Schaerr Jaffe, a boutique law firm well stocked with conservative legal stars.) And he didn’t leave the White House for the Justice Department until mid-December 2020, which begs the question: Why would anyone, much less someone with a plum White House gig, take a job expected to last little more than a month?
As expected, the committee has some answers.
First, Klukowski “parachuted into the Department… with only 36 days left until [the] inauguration” and then “drafted th[e] Georgia letter with Mr. Clark” just days before the Oval Office showdown between Clark and his DOJ bosses.
Second, Klukowski worked with his old friend Eastman, including after he joined DOJ, to quietly aid Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. Ken Blackwell, a GOP activist and former Ohio Secretary of State, suggested Pence and his staff would benefit from a briefing from Eastman and Klukowski. Still, Blackwell cautioned they not “overexpose Ken given his new position.” Klukowski’s value, apparently, was as both a willing soldier for Trump, and an under-the-radar insider.
As Cheney summed up, the evidence shows “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.” And that determination, coupled with reporting that federal law enforcement seized electronic devices from Clark’s home yesterday, is not a good development for Klukowski.
Why the White House counsel referred to Clark’s draft letter as a ‘murder-suicide pact’
The committee aired an audio clip from Donoghue’s prior testimony, in which he recalled that former White House counsel Pat Cipollone had told Trump days before Jan. 6 that Clark’s proposed letter to state legislatures was a terrible idea. Specifically, Cipollone called it a “murder-suicide pact” because it would “damage everyone that touches it.” It was so explosive, Cipollone suggested, that he didn’t “ever want to see that letter again.”
The question is why the head White House lawyer would characterize it in such dramatic terms. While we don’t have the benefit of sworn testimony from Cipollone, or his deputy Patrick Philbin, who also attended the meeting, Cipollone likely reacted so strongly because the letter contemplates multiple violations of law. The draft recommended that Georgia’s General Assembly convene a special session to, in essence, study “irregularities” in Georgia’s election; determine who really won “the most legal votes;” and if the certified results did not reflect the actual winner, “take whatever action is necessary to ensure that one of the slates of Electors” — thereby acknowledging the “fake elector” scheme — could be accepted by Congress on Jan. 6.
Cipollone probably understood, therefore, that the letter was proposing violations of Georgia election law, the federal Electoral Count Act, and other federal or state law. And that — from a lawyer’s perspective — was nothing less than a “murder/suicide pact.”
Why the Justice Department is ‘not quality control’ for state elections
Trump’s acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue said that he and acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen explained repeatedly to Trump — to no avail — that the Justice Department has an important but “very limited role” regarding elections.
“States run their elections. We are not quality control for the states,” Donoghue testified. He explained to Trump that the Justice Department has civil rights responsibilities and an interest in criminal conduct pertaining to federal elections, but that “if a state ran their election in such a way that it was defective, that is to the state or Congress to correct. It is not for the Justice Department to step in.”
Donoghue said he did not believe Trump understood (or understands) the actual purview of the department: “I certainly understood the president as a layman not understanding why the Justice Department didn’t have at least a civil role to step in and bring suit,” he said.
Of course, it’s possible Trump knew this but simply didn’t care.
‘Just say it was corrupt’: Trump’s state of mind matters
Trump, knowing there was no evidence of voter fraud, and that a DOJ investigation would uncover none, implored members of the DOJ to “just say it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” Donoghue told the committee.
Why? Trump knew that if the DOJ opened an investigation that would bless and provide the veneer of reliability for Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud. The fact that the investigation would not actually be an investigation was decidedly beside the point.
Again, Trump’s state of mind matters for potential criminal charges against him.
Donoghue burns Clark: ‘We’ll call you when there’s an oil spill’
Although today’s hearing could not be more serious, that’s not to say it’s without its light moments.
Indeed, former Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, in testifying about his opposition to then-acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark serving as attorney general, explained why Clark lacked the basic credentials to do that job: “He’s never been a criminal attorney. He’s never conducted a criminal investigation in his life. He’s never been in front of a grand jury, much less a trial jury.” (To be clear, former acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen also lacked criminal experience.)
When Clark responded that he had handled “very complicated appeals and civil litigation,” including environmental cases, Donoghue seized the moment, cruelly and comically: “That’s right. You’re an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill?”
While that wasn’t the end of Clark, it is what seventh grade me would have called a sick burn.
Kinzinger challenges fellow Republicans to a thought experiment
As he concluded his opening remarks, Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger asked members of his own party to engage in a thought experiment: Approach the impropriety of Trump’s pressure campaign on the Justice Department as if it were the Democrats who were trying to accumulate power. Addressing Republicans, he said:
“Imagine the country’s top prosecutor, with the power to open investigations, subpoena, charge crimes, and seek imprisonment. Imagine that official pursuing the agenda of the other party, instead of that of the American people as a whole. And if you’re a Democrat imagine it the other way around.”
Kinzinger wants to convince Republicans to think about this breach of norms in the context of a wannabe left-wing autocrat, rather than a right-wing one. While most Republican politicians seem unable to grasp this thought experiment, one of the tasks of the House Jan. 6 committee is to try to convince as many Republican voters as possible to think through it themselves.
The Jan. 6 drama happening behind closed doors
Although the Jan. 6 committee will be publicly presenting its findings about the DOJ today, a separate drama unfolded this morning behind closed doors. A documentarian is being interviewed Thursday about footage recorded of Trump and his family before and after Jan. 6. Interestingly, Trump has previously ranted about his (disproven) assertion that the FBI “spied”on him and his campaign, and even wiretapped his communications.
That didn’t happen. But, Trump may have unwittingly “surveilled” himself by permitting a filmmaker to have broad access to him, his family, and others during a critical time at the White House. Those video and audio recordings could even be akin to President Richard Nixon’s installing recording devices in the Oval Office to document his actions and decision-making for the sake of posterity That decision, motivated an over-inflated sense of his role in history, turned out to be Nixon’s undoing. Indeed, hubris and arrogance has brought down many powerful men. We’ll learn in the days and weeks ahead whether penchant for high ratings and an audience ultimately makes Trump, too, a political pariah.
Cheney notes that yes, we’ve heard a lot of this before. But we need to hear it again.
Cheney just gave an outstanding overview of what the Jan. 6 committee hearings have already shown. Yes, we have heard all of this before. Yes, we already knew much of this before the hearings. But listening to Cheney list, point by point, the actions that Trump took should ensure that the former president will never be considered a viable political candidate again — and should in fact be on the receiving end of a federal indictment.
Let’s review. Trump declared victory in the 2020 presidential election, but he did not win, as he was repeatedly told. Trump intentionally launched a false media campaign claiming the election was stolen, but it was not stolen, as he knew. Trump intentionally launched a fraudulent fundraising campaign based on the idea that there was fraud in the election, but there was not fraud. Trump intentionally tried to pressure Pence to subvert the election, but Pence had no basis or no constitutional power to do so. Trump tried to bully state election officials and lawmakers to change the outcome of the election, but they had no legal power to do that either, as Trump also knew.
Today we will learn what happened when Trump focused his attention on the Department of Justice, an independent agency, to open a sham investigation into non-existent fraud in the election. This investigation would have signaled to people that there was something to Trump’s allegations of fraud. But there was no fraud. And thanks to the DOJ officials, there was also no investigation.
Sean Penn attends hearing as ‘just another citizen’
Sean Penn was spotted at today’s hearing, telling reporters that he’s attending as “just another citizen.” The “Mystic River” actor said he wanted to see whether there would be “justice” for what occurred on Jan. 6.
Trump rages over GOP’s hearings strategy: ‘Very foolish’
If Trump had it his way, Republicans would be sitting on the Jan. 6 committee today, ranting in real time and muddying the panel’s message to Americans about the Capitol riot and the former president’s anti-democratic efforts.
But that’s not what’s happening — in large part because of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. The top House Republican pulled five Trump allies from the panel last year after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two of his picks.
This is not sitting well with Trump, who recently called the strategy a “bad decision” and “very foolish.”
“In a way, Republicans should be ashamed of themselves,” Trump said.
Mo Brooks’ very bad week
Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama has had a rough go of it this week. On Tuesday, he lost Alabama’s Republican Senate primary runoff to Katie Britt. He’d already lost Trump’s endorsement and (and begged unsuccessfully for a re-endorsement.) Staring his future in the face, Brooks came to a startling epiphany on election night: Trump is not a “man of his word” and exhibits “no loyalty.” Brooks also said he’s retiring from politics.
But things got worse the next day when the chair of the House Jan. 6 committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, said that the panel is re-issuing a subpoena for Brooks after process servers failed to track him down for close to a month and a half. Brooks alleged in March that Trump asked him to “rescind the 2020 elections” and “hold a new special election for the presidency.” (Trump has denied the allegation.) The committee would like a word.
With his doomed election out of the way, Brooks might be looking at Jan. 6 differently — and as a potential opportunity for payback. He said he’s willing to testify — but only publicly.
Who Is Jeffrey Bossert Clark?
A central figure in today’s hearing will be Jeffrey Bossert Clark, a relatively unknown Department of Justice Lawyer — at least previously — who, like others at DOJ, was quickly promoted in the waning months of the Trump presidency.
Prior to the 2020 election, Clark was best known as an environmental lawyer who served in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of DOJ twice, first during the George W. Bush administration and again as assistant attorney general for that division for much of the Trump administration. In September 2020, he became the acting head of the Civil Division at DOJ. Notably, he never served in a criminal capacity either at DOJ or within any other law enforcement office; between his stints at DOJ, he was an associate and then partner at Kirkland & Ellis, the same law firm where both Bill Barr and Jeffrey Rosen practiced as well.
Today Clark’s actions will be put under the microscope by lawmakers, even as news breaks that federal law enforcement officials visited his home on Wednesday.
DOJ probe intensifies with reported new subpoenas
As House investigators reveal findings from its Jan. 6 probe, the DOJ is carrying out its own investigation into the matter — and it would appear as though things are heating up. The same day federal authorities visited Clark’s home, federal agents reportedly dropped off subpoenas at the homes of several pro-Trump activists.
As Steve Benen wrote for MaddowBlog yesterday:
“For months, more than a few political observers have wondered aloud whether the Justice Department is fully engaged in investigating alleged crimes surrounding the plot to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
But when federal law enforcement agents conduct this much ‘court-authorized law enforcement activity,’ all on the same day, as part of the same investigation, it’s evidence of an intensifying investigation.”
Federal authorities at home of ex-DOJ lawyer Jeffrey Clark
After today’s hearing, the Jan. 6 committee plans to take a breather before resuming hearings next month. But as the House pauses, it appears the Justice Department is only getting started.
Federal authorities were at the home of former DOJ lawyer Jeffrey Clark on Wednesday, NBC News confirmed this afternoon. The news comes just one day after The Washington Post and The New York Times revealed that the DOJ had issued subpoenas concerning the fake elector scheme to Georgia lawyer Brad Carver and former Trump campaign aides Thomas Lane and Shawn Flynn.
Today’s hearing is expected to focus on Clark, who pushed Trump’s lies about election fraud within the DOJ.
Whether DOJ’s timing is coincidental or purposeful is unclear. But as former prosecutors and law enforcement officials have noted on our air, the committee’s hearings — by airing facts not publicly known — have complicated usual Justice Department norms of investigation, namely its insistence on secrecy.
If DOJ officials expect new — and damaging — information about Clark to come out today, they might have wanted to seize any related evidence now before Clark or others have an incentive to destroy it, or before others exert any pressure on Clark to do the same.
Why Metadata from a draft DOJ letter could be a big deal for Trump
Today’s the select committee will focus on how Trump and others attempted to use the Department of Justice to aid in overthrowing the 2020 election results.
Parts of that story — including the attempt by an “unassuming” Justice Department lawyer, Jeffrey Bossert Clark, to replace then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, are well known. Indeed, The New York Times reported on Clark’s almost coup just after Biden’s inauguration. Other aspects of the showdown within Trump’s DOJ were revealed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which, in October of last year, published transcripts of its interviews with two of today’s witnesses, Rosen and then-acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, alongside a report of its own eight-month investigation.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also made public certain emails and other documents used in its investigation, including a draft letter to Georgia state officials that Clark shared with Rosen and Donoghue on December 28, 2020. That “proof of concept” letter — so named because Clark wanted to replicate it in other states narrowly won by Biden — “would have informed state officials that DOJ had ‘taken notice’ of election irregularities in their state and recommended calling a special legislative session to evaluate these irregularities, determine who ‘won the most legal votes,’ and consider appointing a new slate of Electors.”
In other words, the letter was part and parcel of Trump’s plan to remain in power — and he was prepared to replace Rosen with Clark in order to get it done. Yet as Donoghue, Rosen, and Steve Engel, the head of DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, are expected to testify today, Trump backed down once they and members of the White House Counsel’s office made clear they would resign.
But who actually wrote that letter is unclear. According to the Senate Judiciary, Clark himself received a draft of the letter just 20 minutes before he shared it with Rosen and Donoghue; that draft was attached to an email from a DOJ lawyer named Ken Klukowski, who previously served as a special counsel at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. In their prior testimony, neither Rosen nor Donoghue had any understanding of Klukowski’s or anyone else’s involvement in the creation of that letter.
The House select committee, however, has suggested that someone at the White House might have participated. At Clark’s first deposition, which included he and his counsel storming out, one of the investigators noted for the record that had Clark stayed for questioning, they would have asked him not only about the substance of the draft letter and its legal bases, but also about “metadata in that draft letter that indicates some involvement with the White House Communications Agency and the drafting or preparation of that letter.” As I have written previously, the White House Communications Agency controls all IT services both within the White House complex and outside it when the President, Vice President, and senior staff are on the road. The implication, as Rachel discussed on air last year, is that Clark’s “proof of concept” letter came from or at least through the White House.
To date, however, the metadata mystery has not been solved publicly. But on MSNBC earlier this week, former congressman and select committee advisor Denver Riggleman told Nicolle Wallace that the committee has “so much metadata” and that he expects “they’re going to use that for future hearings.”
Will one of those hearings be today? As Rachel would say, watch this space.
This Trump-DOJ showdown may have saved the country
Days before the Jan. 6 violence unfolded, Trump and his top DOJ officials were engaged in a showdown over the election. Then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen refused to go along with Trump’s plan, prompting an email to be drafted in case Trump fired Rosen. The email encouraged DOJ officials and lawyers to consider resigning over the potential firing.
As MSNBC Daily columnist Barbara McQuade wrote this morning:
“Mass resignations of that magnitude over an attack on the institution by the president would have sent an earthquake through the 115,000-employee Justice Department. It most certainly also would have thwarted Trump’s objective of clinging to power.”
Why it’s a good sign the committee is postponing hearings
Today’s hearing is expected to be the last for this month. That’s a change of plans. But in this case, the postponement isn’t a negative or a loss of momentum — it’s the opposite. Committee members tell us they have voluminous new evidence coming in, including from a tip line they established.
This is a textbook example of what happens in public corruption cases across the nation, at all levels, and which I witnessed during my FBI career. People in and around corruption — victims, conspirators — fear powerful people and the retribution that might come from speaking out against them. Then, potential witnesses see others bravely and successfully testifying. A tip line is established by the investigative body, and it begins ringing off the hook. The flood gates open. The tide turns, and truth begins to wash ashore.
Trump tried to retain power by any means necessary
Trump’s post-election motto seems to be, if at first you do not succeed in subverting an election, try, try again.
We have already heard about the pressure campaign that Trump exerted on state election officials to, apparently illegally, attempt to overturn the 2020 election results.
But Trump didn’t reserve his strongarm bullying tactics just for state officials. He also tried to get his own Department of Justice to intervene. The committee is set to show that Trump tried to get the DOJ, an independent agency, to falsely declare that there was voter fraud in the 2020 election and that an investigation was needed. Neither of those things, it is worth repeating, are true.
In a boon for the rule of law and the American public, Trump was unsuccessful. But it is still important for us to hear exactly how Trump tried to get the DOJ to carry his water and implement his immoral and apparently illegal plans.
Former top DOJ officials to testify in extraordinary move
Today’s hearing, one of the most highly-anticipated so far, is slated to feature live testimony from three former top DOJ officials who refused to advance Trump’s plan to overturn the 2020 election.
Former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and former acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue are expected to appear alongside Steven Engel, who led the department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
“Some argued to the former President and public that the election was corrupt and stolen,” Rosen will say, according to a copy of his written statement obtained by the Associated Press. “That view was wrong then and it is wrong today, and I hope our presence here today helps reaffirm that fact.”
It’s hard to imagine the hearings could make it any clearer that Trump lost the election and engaged in what appears to be an illegal plot to overturn the results. But these witnesses will try.
Jan. 6 hearings: Ex-DOJ officials who resisted Trump plot testify