WASHINGTON >> Then-President Donald Trump pressed top Justice Department officials late last year to declare that the election was corrupt, even though they had found no instances of widespread fraud, so that he and his allies in Congress could use the assertion to try to overturn the results, according to new documents provided to lawmakers and obtained by The New York Times.
The demands were an extraordinary instance of a president interfering with an agency that is typically more independent from the White House to advance his personal agenda. They are also the latest example of Trump’s wide-ranging campaign during his final weeks in office to delegitimize the election results.
The exchange unfolded during a phone call Dec. 27 in which Trump pressed the acting attorney general at the time, Jeffrey Rosen, and his deputy, Richard Donoghue, on voter fraud claims that the department had disproved.
Donoghue warned that the department had no power to change the outcome of the election. Trump replied that he did not expect that, according to notes Donoghue took memorializing the conversation.
“Just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me” and to congressional allies, Donoghue wrote in summarizing Trump’s response.
Trump did not name the lawmakers, but at other points during the call, he mentioned Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, whom he described as a “fighter”; Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., who at the time promoted the idea that the election was stolen from Trump; and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., whom Trump praised for getting to the “bottom of things.”
The notes connect Trump’s allies in Congress with his campaign to pressure Justice Department officials to help undermine or even nullify the election results.
Jordan ultimately voted to overturn the election results in key states but has downplayed his role in the president’s pressure campaign. “Congressman Jordan did not, has not and would not pressure anyone at the Justice Department about the 2020 election,” said his spokesperson, Russell Dye. “He continues to agree with President Trump that it is perfectly appropriate to raise concerns about election integrity.”
Perry and Johnson did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Perry has continued to assert Trump won but has not been tied directly to the White House effort to keep him in office. And Johnson, whom Trump recently endorsed as he weighs whether to seek a third term, maintains that it is reasonable to have questions about the integrity of the election, though he has recognized Joe Biden as president.
The Justice Department provided Donoghue’s notes to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which is investigating the Trump administration’s efforts to unlawfully reverse the election results.
Typically, the department has fought to keep secret any accounts of private discussions between a president and his Cabinet to avoid setting a precedent that would prevent officials in future administrations from candidly advising presidents out of concern that their conversations would later be made public.
But handing over the notes to Congress is part of a pattern of allowing scrutiny of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. The Biden Justice Department also told Rosen, Donoghue and other former officials this week that they could provide unrestricted testimony to investigators with the House Oversight and Reform and the Senate Judiciary committees.
The department reasoned that congressional investigators were examining potential wrongdoing by a sitting president, an extraordinary circumstance, according to letters sent to the former officials. Because executive privilege is meant to benefit the country rather than the president as an individual, invoking it over Trump’s efforts to push his personal agenda would be inappropriate, the department concluded.
“These handwritten notes show that President Trump directly instructed our nation’s top law enforcement agency to take steps to overturn a free and fair election in the final days of his presidency,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said in a statement.
Trump’s conversation with Rosen and Donoghue reflected his single-minded focus on overturning the election results. At one point, Trump claimed voter fraud in Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Arizona, which he called “corrupted elections.” Donoghue pushed back.
“Much of the info you’re getting is false,” Donoghue said, adding that the department had conducted “dozens of investigations, hundreds of interviews,” and had not found evidence to support his claims. “We look at allegations, but they don’t pan out,” the officials told Trump, according to the notes.
The department found that the error rate of ballot counting in Michigan was 0.0063%, not the 68% that the president asserted; it did not find evidence of a conspiracy theory that an employee in Pennsylvania had tampered with ballots; and after examining video and interviewing witnesses, it found no evidence of ballot fraud in Fulton County, Georgia, according to the notes.
Trump, undeterred, brushed off the department’s findings. “Ok fine — but what about the others?” Donoghue wrote in his notes describing the president’s remarks. Trump asked Donoghue to travel to Fulton County to verify signatures on ballots.
The people “saying that the election isn’t corrupt are corrupt,” Trump told the officials, adding that they needed to act. “Not much time left.”
At another point, Donoghue said that the department could quickly verify or disprove the assertion that more ballots were cast in Pennsylvania than there are voters.
“Should be able to check on that quickly, but understand that the DOJ can’t and won’t snap its fingers and change the outcome of the election, doesn’t work that way,” Donoghue wrote in his notes.
The officials also told Trump that the Justice Department had no evidence to support a lawsuit regarding the election results. “We are not in a position based on the evidence,” they said. “We can only act on the actual evidence developed.”
Trump castigated the officials, saying that “thousands of people called” their local U.S. attorney’s offices to complain about the election and that “nobody trusts the FBI.” He said that “people are angry — blaming DOJ for inaction.”
“You guys may not be following the internet the way I do,” Trump said, according to the document.
In a moment of foreshadowing, Trump said, “People tell me Jeff Clark is great, I should put him in,” referring to the acting chief of the Justice Department’s civil division, who had also encouraged department officials to intervene in the election. “People want me to replace DOJ leadership.”
“You should have the leadership you want,” Donoghue replied. But it “won’t change the dept’s position.”
Donoghue and Rosen did not know that Perry had introduced Clark and Trump. Exactly one week later, they would be forced to fight Clark for their jobs in an Oval Office showdown.
During the call, Trump also told the Justice Department officials to “figure out what to do” with Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son. “People will criticize the DOJ if he’s not investigated for real,” he told them, violating long-standing guidelines against White House intervention in criminal investigations or other law enforcement actions.
Two days after the phone call with Trump, Donoghue took notes of a meeting between Justice Department officials: Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows; the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone; and the White House deputy counsel Patrick Philbin met to discuss a conspiracy theory known as Italygate, which asserts without evidence that people in Italy used military technology to remotely tamper with voting machines in the United States.
The Justice Department officials told the White House that they had assigned someone to look into the matter, according to the notes and a person briefed on the meeting. They did not mention that the department was looking into the theory to debunk it, the person said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.