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The Morning Dispatch: The Justice Department Officials Who Stood Up to Trump
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The Morning Dispatch: The Justice Department Officials Who Stood Up to Trump

Jeff Rosen and Richard Donoghue testify before the January 6 committee.

Happy Friday! Just because you can upload a voice recording to an Amazon Alexa device and make it sound like a deceased relative is reading you the weather does not mean you should upload a voice recording to an Amazon Alexa device and make it sound like a deceased relative is reading you the weather.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Thursday that New York’s concealed carry licensing regime—which requires anyone who wants to carry a concealed handgun outside his home to demonstrate a special need for self-defense—is unconstitutional, violating citizens’ Second Amendment rights. Several other states—including California, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey—have similar restrictions in place.

  • The Supreme Court also ruled 6-3 on Thursday that citizens cannot file a civil action lawsuit and seek damages under U.S. Code Section 1983 in the event a police officer fails to inform them of their Miranda rights. “Allowing the victim of a Miranda violation to sue a police officer for damages under §1983 would have little additional deterrent value,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority. “Permitting such claims would cause many problems.”

  • The Senate voted 65-33 late last night to advance bipartisan legislation aimed at reducing gun violence that, if enacted, would institute stricter background checks for gun purchasers under age 21, provide incentives for states to adopt “red flag” laws, block domestic abusers in dating relationships from owning or buying guns until five years pass without further disqualifying convictions, and appropriate funding for mental health and school safety measures. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House will take up the legislation this morning and send it to President Biden’s desk. 

  • White House spokesman John Kirby announced Thursday the United States will provide another $450 million in weaponry to Ukraine, putting total U.S. military assistance for Ukraine since Russia’s invasion at more than $6 billion. The latest tranche will include additional high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), patrol boats, cannon shells, and ammunition. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week the United States had trained approximately 60 Ukrainians to operate the HIMARS system.

  • European Union leaders agreed on Thursday to grant Ukraine and Moldova EU candidate status, setting in motion accession negotiations that, although they could take decades to complete, send a signal of Western support for countries facing down Russian aggression. Georgia will also receive candidate status once it meets additional preconditions.

  • Following a two-year review, the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday formally ordered Juul Labs to stop selling and distributing its e-cigarettes and vape cartridges in the United States, claiming the company did not provide sufficient evidence regarding the products’ toxicological profile. The FDA conceded it hasn’t received information indicating Juul devices present an “immediate hazard” to the public, and the company plans to appeal the ruling and seek a stay. 

  • On the 50th anniversary of Title IX’s implementation, the Education Department on Thursday proposed sweeping changes to how the civil rights legislation is interpreted and enforced. The rule changes—which do not require congressional sign-off but will likely be challenged in court—would reverse adjustments made during the Trump administration to strengthen due process protections for students accused of sexual assault or harassment, and extend antidiscrimination protections to transgender students. The proposed changes do not address how transgender students should be permitted to participate in athletics, with the Education Department saying it will clarify those specifics at a later date.

  • The Education Department also reached a settlement with approximately 200,000 students who attended 150 schools—mostly for-profit colleges and vocational programs—that they claim defrauded them by deceiving them about job prospects or breaking state consumer-protection laws. Under the terms of the agreement—which must be approved by a federal judge—the Biden administration will cancel at least $6 billion in student loans, and potentially up to $7.5 billion.

  • Top Republican donors in Missouri are launching a super PAC today that will run ads seeking to stop former Gov. Eric Greitens from winning the state’s GOP U.S. Senate primary. Greitens resigned in 2018 after facing accusations of sexual misconduct and misusing his charity’s donor list for political purposes.

  • The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial jobless claims—a proxy for layoffs—decreased by 2,000 week-over-week to 229,000 last week, remaining slightly above historic lows.

  • The latest COVID-19 wave continues to abate, with the average number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States declining 19 percent over the past two weeks. The average number of daily deaths attributed to COVID-19 continues to fall as well, down 37 percent over the same time period.

It Was Even Worse Than You Think

Jeff Rosen (left) and Richard Donoghue. (Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.)

When then-Attorney General Bill Barr tendered his resignation from the Trump administration in December 2020—days after publicly rebutting the president’s snowballing claims of widespread voter fraud—many observers assumed things were about to get weird at the Justice Department for a few weeks. They had absolutely no idea.

Thursday’s January 6 Committee hearing focused primarily on what transpired at the DOJ between November 2020 and January 2021. Featuring testimony from Jeff Rosen and Richard Donoghue—the Justice Department official who succeeded Barr for a few weeks on an acting basis and his top deputy—the panel pieced together a devastating timeline detailing, essentially, Trump’s descent into election conspiracy madness and his efforts to bring his officials down with him.

Under ordinary circumstances, taking the reins of a federal agency for the last few weeks of a lame-duck administration would be a simple matter of making sure the transition of power ran smoothly. Instead, Rosen and Donoghue inherited the job of trying to tell an increasingly irate president that he couldn’t command the Justice Department to endorse his baseless claims of massive voter fraud. This effort culminated, just days before the Capitol riot, in an Oval Office meeting in which Trump wanted to fire Rosen and replace him with an unqualified yes-man—one whose only argument for why he should get the job was that he would throw the weight of the federal government behind Trump’s efforts to pressure state legislatures to throw out their election results as hopelessly tainted.

This yes-man, Jeffrey Clark, would do that, in part, by means of official letters to those legislatures, announcing that the Justice Department had “identified serious concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple states.” A draft letter, shared by the committee Thursday, argued that “in light of these developments, the Department recommends that the Georgia General Assembly should convene in special session” to consider approving a new slate of electors. Taken alongside the Trump campaign’s efforts to cajole legislatures across the country to do exactly that, revealed in sworn testimony in earlier committee hearings, such letters would have been nothing less than a total subordination of the power of the federal government to the Trump campaign and its baseless allegations of a stolen election.

When they took over at Justice in the waning days of December 2020, Rosen and Donoghue had no idea things would come so dangerously close to a genuine constitutional crisis. They just knew they had a president who—before they’d even set foot in the office—was already calling daily to demand they look into allegation after spurious allegation of fraud.

“Between December 23 and January 3, the president either called me or met with me virtually every day,” Rosen testified. “The common element of all this was the president discussing his dissatisfaction that the Justice Department in his view had not done enough to investigate election fraud.” Those meetings came after Barr had already told Trump that the DOJ had investigated fraud claims and found them lacking—“bull***t” in Barr’s famous formulation. 

At first, they testified Thursday, they thought they could win the president over with sheer hustle—taking pains to investigate every claim he mentioned, then walking him step-by-step through their process of discovering that one after another collapsed upon momentary inspection.

“He had this arsenal of allegations that he wanted to rely on,” Donoghue said of a conversation he had with Trump on December 27. “I felt in that conversation that it was incumbent on me to make it very clear to the president what our investigations had revealed. That we had concluded based on actual investigations, actual witness interviews, actual reviews of documents, that these allegations simply had no merit. And I wanted to try to cut through the noise, because it was clear to us that there were a lot of people whispering in his ear, feeding him these conspiracy theories and allegations.”

Trump simply blew them off. Time after time, he refused to accept their protestations—that there was nothing to the charges he brought up, that it wasn’t the role of the Justice Department to do “quality control” for state elections in any case. As time went on, the same conversations repeated themselves again and again, with Trump growing, in Donoghue’s words, “more urgent” and “more adamant that we weren’t doing our job.”

It was in a call with Rosen on Christmas Eve that Trump first mentioned the name Jeff Clark. This surprised Rosen—Clark was a lower-profile assistant AG for the department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and acting head of the Civil Division, and Rosen hadn’t known Trump knew him.

In fact, Trump had made Clark’s acquaintance only days before. On December 21, he had met with a group of House Republicans to discuss election strategy—some of whom, emails showed, would later seek preemptive pardons for having participated in the meeting. The following day, one of these lawmakers, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, returned to the White House with an associate in tow: Jeff Clark.

This meeting set off alarm bells at both the Justice Department and the White House, whose contact on criminal matters is heavily curtailed by policy at both institutions. “The policy for a long time has been that only the attorney general and the deputy attorney general [or a designated subordinate] from the DOJ side can have conversations about criminal matters with the White House,” Rosen testified. “The idea is to make sure that the top rung of the Justice Department knows about it and is in the thing to control it and make sure only appropriate things are done.”

In the days following the meeting, both Rosen and then-White House Counsel Pat Cipollone told Clark that meeting directly with Trump violated these policies. “He was defensive; he said it had been unplanned,” Rosen testified. “But he was contrite and said it had been inadvertent and would not happen again.”

Meanwhile, however, Perry was working the phones at the White House trying to boost Clark’s profile, arguing in text messages to Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows that the bosses at Justice weren’t going to get in line. On December 27, Donoghue testified, he received a call from Perry himself, at the apparent behest of Trump, asking him to look into still more baseless conspiracy theories. On this call, Perry brought Clark up again: “I think Jeff Clark is great,” Donoghue recalled him saying, “and I think he’s the kind of guy that could get in there and do something about this stuff.”

And, of course, Trump kept up his own relentless pressure campaign—telling Rosen and Donoghue in a call that same day to simply “say the election was corrupt” and “leave the rest to me.”

The next day, December 28, Clark emailed Rosen and Donoghue the aforementioned draft letter—a document under which the Justice Department would have endorsed not only Trump’s baseless allegations of election fraud, but its illegal plan to overturn the official results in several swing states—and asked them both to sign it. “I had to read both the email and the attached letter twice to make sure I really understood what he was proposing, because it was so extreme to me I had a hard time getting my head around it initially,” Donoghue testified. “I thought it was very important to give a prompt response rejecting this out of hand.”

“For the department to insert itself into the political process in this way, I think, would have had grave consequences for the country,” Donoghue added. “It may very well have spiraled us into a constitutional crisis. And I wanted to make sure that he understood the gravity of the situation, because he didn’t seem to really appreciate it.”

But Clark still did not leave the thing alone—calling witnesses on his own and conducting lone-wolf investigations, arguing repeatedly in meetings with his superiors over the coming days despite their ongoing contention that his claims were both dangerous and baseless. And just days later, Rosen testified, Clark called him to let him in on a new development: He had continued to communicate with President Trump, who had asked him whether he might be willing to replace Rosen as attorney general. Clark said he had accepted.

It all came to a head on January 3, when Trump summoned Rosen, Donoghue, Clark, Steven Engel, former assistant attorney general for the office of legal counsel, and members of his own legal team to the Oval Office for what boiled down to a pitch meeting: Why shouldn’t I turn Justice over to Clark, who will do his job and put the Department to work announcing the existence of widespread election fraud?

According to the testimony, the Justice brass and Trump’s own lawyers were apoplectic. Clark’s theories were ludicrous, and he was an environmental lawyer with no experience as a prosecutor of any kind, let alone the sort you’d expect would be a job requirement for the top one in the nation. “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,” Donoghue recalled saying. “You’re an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.” 

But what actually convinced Trump to change direction, officials testified, was an ultimatum: Installing Clark as AG and forging ahead with the letter, they contended in the meeting, would lead to unprecedented mass resignations across the Department of Justice. “Jeff Clark would be left leading a graveyard,” Engel said. Cipollone concurred, according to testimony, calling the letter a “murder-suicide pact.”

In the end, Trump blinked. Rosen stayed in the top job.

Clark no doubt has his own side of the story for all this. Unfortunately, he has yet to let the public in on it. In his February deposition before the committee, he declined to answer most of the questions put to him, choosing instead to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination more than 100 times.

Still, we may yet hear more about all this. On Wednesday, Clark’s home was raided by federal law enforcement. Here, for a change, Clark was happy to weigh in. He appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program last night to lament “these kinds of Stasi-like things happening.”

“At what point can we say the Department of Justice, where you once served, is a political instrument—completely out of control?” Carlson asked.

At what point, indeed.

Worth Your Time

  • Segway-mounted torsos vrooming across a shooting range look as weird as they sound, but Marine instructors found they sharply improved troops’ marksmanship and combat readiness. So why did it take more than a decade for the military to consider their widespread use in training? “Because of inertia, budget infighting and an opaque bureaucratic process, the robotic targets had fallen into what the defense world calls the Valley of Death—the chasm between a promising new military technology and its ultimate adoption and employment,” Hope Hodge Seck writes for Politico. “The topography of this valley is well-known; it’s name-checked regularly in hearings on Capitol Hill, where there’s growing anxiety that, despite huge defense spending, the Pentagon is failing to make the technological advances it needs to compete with an ambitious Russia and looming China.”

  • Despite schools’ best attempts at remote learning, many students functionally received no education at all during pandemic lockdowns, and that impacted much more than times tables and cursive. In The Atlantic, academics Meira Levinson and Daniel Markovits examine the broad implications of the biggest disruption to their daily lives that American students have ever had—and the silver linings schools and families found as they experimented. “The pandemic has amounted to a comprehensive assault on the American public school,” they write. “It strained the ties—not just physical but also social and even psychological—that connect American families and children to the schools that are essential for delivering almost every support our welfare state provides. Kids missed out on all of it while schools were closed: not just academic learning but also nutrition, and exercise, and friendship networks, and stable relationships with caring adults, and health care, and access to social workers, and even the attention, at home, of parents unburdened by the need to provide child care during school hours.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • In this week’s edition of The Current (🔒), Klon shares an essay he drafted—but did not publish—the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, reflecting on how dark those early days were, how close to victory Ukraine now is, and how the United States might play a key part in rolling back a tyrant threatening to burn the world down.

  • On today’s episode of the Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, Steve, and Jonah discuss the latest news from the January 6 Committee hearings, President Biden’s push to suspend the federal gas tax, the bipartisan gun deal, Trump’s political setbacks on Tuesday, and more.

  • On the site today, Haley wraps up her big series on the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act by looking at one step Congress hasn’t taken to help the Uyghurs: “prioritizing refugees who have made it out of Xinjiang but who still face China’s international influence.” Also, Audrey talks to congressional Republicans who have opted to support gun control measures in the House and Senate in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, and Andrew Fink explains why Russian propagandists are calling EU sanctions on Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea, a blockade..

Let Us Know

Trumpet the bloodhound won Best in Show at the 146th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show earlier this week, with Winston the French bulldog coming in second. What is the best dog breed, and why? (There is a correct answer.)

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.