COMMENTARY

Trump's coup was much more organized than we knew

The Department of Justice plot was entwined with the John Eastman fake electors - Mike Pence plot

Published June 24, 2022 9:58AM (EDT)

Mike Pence, Donald Trump, and the Trump supporters mobbing the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Mike Pence, Donald Trump, and the Trump supporters mobbing the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"What's the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change," said one senior Republican official. "He went golfing this weekend. It's not like he's plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He's tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he'll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he'll leave." --- November 9, 2020, Washington Post

That senior Republican official is very lucky the journalist agreed to confer anonymity. It may be the most laughably incorrect prediction in history. The January 6 committee hearings are proving in meticulously laid out detail that Donald Trump plotted to prevent Joe Biden from taking power from the moment he lost the 2020 election. (Actually, he was laying the groundwork long before the election.)

Thursday's revelations came even before the fourth hearing began when news broke that the FBI had raided the home of Jeffrey Clark, the former Department of Justice (DOJ) official, and fierce Trump loyalist, whom Trump had wanted to install as acting attorney general in the days before the Capitol riot. It's unclear what crime they suspect Clark of committing but their suspicions were apparently strong enough to get a judge to issue a search warrant and presumably get the go-ahead from the highest levels of the DOJ. It may or may not be a coincidence that this warrant was served the day before the Jan. 6 committee was scheduled to publicly devote several hours to Trump's plot to enlist the DOJ in his corrupt plot to overturn the 2020 election, a plot in which Clark was intimately involved.

Once again the witness testimony in the hearing came from Republicans who had been appointed by Trump and had previously demonstrated fealty to him.

RELATED: Trump's unrelenting attacks against dissident Republicans continue with Rusty Bowers

Former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, former Deputy Attorney General Richard Donohue and former assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel Steven Engel all testified on Thursday. Others from the administration appeared via video depositions, including members of the White House Counsel's office. They all testified to the fact that Donald Trump spent weeks pressuring, harassing and threatening them in an attempt to get them to investigate conspiracy theories and issue false statements about the 2020 election. These Republicans resisted every step of the way, making Trump more and more agitated.

"Just say the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen," Trump exasperatedly instructed on one call, according to Donohue's handwritten notes. If that sounds familiar, it is a deafening echo of the demand Trump made to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was that all he wanted was for him to hold a press conference announcing an investigation into Joe Biden. That's Trump's M.O.


Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.


Jeffrey Clark was an obscure DOJ official who served for most of Trump's term served as assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division. He was appointed acting head of the Civil Division in September 2020. He was hardly a TV star lawyer who Trump would say was from "central casting" but he was a hardcore Trumpist who suffers from a bad case of Fox News brain rot so he happily found himself in the middle of coup plotting after having been brought to Trump's attention by a fellow Pennsylvanian Republican Rep. Scott Perry.

Rosen testified that he was bewildered when Trump brought him up in passing on one of his phone calls but he soon found out that Clark was being groomed by the president to replace him if he didn't do Trump's bidding. Clark broke protocol by scheming with the White House throughout this period rather than going through the proper channels. Another lawyer who no one had mentioned before the hearing, Ken Klukowski, was scheming with Trump attorney John Eastman and Clark from within the Justice Department, where he had evidently been placed on December 15th to work under the radar. Klukowski drafted a letter the coup plotters wanted Attorney General Bill Barr to send to Georgia and other states saying the DOJ was "investigating various irregularities in the 2020 election for President of the United States," which was misleading at best. (At this point they would perfunctorily follow up on some of Trump's wild ravings but had long since determined there was no fraud that could have changed the outcome of the election.) This letter also recommended that the Georgia General Assembly convene a special session to approve a new slate of electors. It indicated that a set of fake Trump electors had already been transmitted to the U.S. Capitol.

What this means is that the plot was not really operating on separate tracks as previously assumed. We now know that the Department of Justice plot was entwined with the John Eastman fake electors - Mike Pence plot. The coup was more organized than we knew.

RELATED: Ringing the alarm for Merrick Garland: Department of Justice stands in real peril because of Trump

Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney said:

Had this letter been released on official Department of Justice letterhead, it would have falsely informed all Americans, including those who might be inclined to come to Washington on January 6th, that President Trump's election fraud allegations were likely very real.

At the time Klukowski and Clark drafted the letter, Rosen and Clark were listed as signatories. But they refused to sign it and they and Engel and several others were called to a meeting at the White House on January 3rd during which Trump said he planned to replace Rosen with Clark. In fact, the committee showed the White House call logs for that day which showed they were already referring to Clark as acting attorney general. The DOJ honchos all told Trump that Clark was unqualified for the job. Needless to say, Trump would not care about that --- he's the president who named Matthew Whitaker, a man much less qualified than Clark, to be acting attorney general after he fired Jeff Sessions. He has long shown that his only criteria for hiring is loyalty to him. (Since they had all been Trump loyalists themselves perhaps that was an awkward realization.)

They had all agreed prior to the meeting that if Trump carried out this "Sunday Afternoon Massacre" they would quit en masse, taking a whole bunch of top DOJ officials with them. White House Counsel Pat Cippolone was quoted telling the president it was a "murder-suicide pact." Engel said the department would be a "graveyard." Trump would hardly care about any of that, of course. What likely caused him to back off was this argument by Engel:

https://twitter.com/Acyn/status/1540079060021395459

So much for the M.O. The optics just wouldn't work. 

That was the end of the DOJ portion of the plot but it didn't stop Trump from calling up Donohue shortly after the meeting to ask him to investigate a cockamamie rumor about a truck full of shredded ballots that were in the custody of an ICE agent down in Georgia.

The Clark coup plot may have been thwarted but nothing was going to stop Trump from pushing the Big Lie, no matter what. After all, January 6 was coming up — and Trump knew it was going to be wild. 


By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Department Of Justice Donald Trump Jan. 6 Hearing Jeffery Clark Mike Pence