A burst of new disclosures exposing the extraordinary efforts by ex-President Donald Trump to steal power after his election defeat constitute a grave warning about the future and his potential bid to recapture the White House.
The audacity of the former President’s attempts to subvert the law by weaponizing the Justice Department not only underscores how close the United States came to a full blown constitutional crisis this year. It also emphasizes that any attempt by Trump to use a war chest already worth $100 million to try to recapture the White House in 2024 would represent a mortal threat to democracy and the rule of law from a leader who was undeterred even by his own first impeachment.
New revelations emerging from Senate testimony, about a Trump Justice Department loyalist’s alleged behind-the-scenes efforts to call into question elections in states the ex-President lost, also render the continued GOP whitewashing of history about Trump’s crimes against the Constitution even more blatant and dangerous.
Timeline: What Georgia prosecutors are looking at as they investigate Trump’s efforts to overturn the election
This staggering trend of attacks against US democracy is being exacerbated by GOP efforts in the states to restrict voting by minorities and Democrats and to make it easier to overturn future election results. Trump was unable to flout the will of voters in 2020. Some election experts fear that he – or another like-minded Republican strongman – could succeed in the future.
And ultimately, the flood of shocking new disclosures means that a potential new White House campaign by Trump in 2024 would come with the most grave implications for American democracy in decades. Given Trump’s record of impunity, a new administration could be stocked with loyalists who would not balk at abuses of power – like his efforts to overturn the election, which were blocked this time around by officials in the Justice Department and in GOP-led states.
‘Frightening’ maneuvering at Trump’s Justice Department.
The latest evidence of Trump’s anti-democratic mendacity came in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday and Saturday by two top former senior Justice Department officials.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the testimony lifted the lid on “frightening” maneuverings at the department after November’s election.
Another Democrat, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, told CNN’s Manu Raju that after hearing Saturday’s testimony from former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, he was struck by “how close the country came to total catastrophe” earlier this year.
Both Rosen, and the other official – Richard Donoghue, then the acting deputy attorney general – put another Trump-appointed official, Jeffrey Clark, at the center of an effort to help the then-President undermine the election results and to potentially oust Clark’s bosses who were resisting Trump’s efforts.
A source familiar said the testimony provided new details about a January 3 White House meeting in which Trump had Rosen and Clark effectively audition for the job of acting attorney general. The President eventually decided not to replace Rosen with Clark. Rosen and Donoghue both testified that Trump did not order them to do anything illegal and eventually accepted the Justice Department could not claim voter fraud when there was no evidence that it took place.
ABC News first reported that Clark – a Trump-appointed environmental law chief at the department – drafted a letter that he asked Rosen to send to Georgia state legislators to say they should convene to examine irregularities in the election. The New York Times said Clark’s letter called on legislators to void Biden’s victory citing false claims the department was probing accusations of fraud in the Peach State.
Durbin told CNN’s Dana Bash that he could not yet comment on details of the testimony but that there would be a report. He also said he would like Clark to testify about his role. Clark’s lawyer declined to comment to CNN.
The Illinois senator said that he was surprised by “just how directly, personally involved the President was, the pressure he was putting on Jeffrey Rosen.” He added: “It was real, very real. And it was very specific. This President’s not subtle when he wants something, the former President. He is not subtle when he wants something.”
Asked by Bash whether Trump tried to get Rosen to overturn election results, Durbin replied: “It was not that direct, but he was asking him to do certain things related to states’ election returns, which he refused to do.”
“He was being asked by the White House, the leadership in the White House, to meet with certain people who had these wild, bizarre theories of why that election wasn’t valid. And he refused to do it,” the chairman said.
Durbin praised Rosen for standing firm against the ex-President’s anti-democratic schemes and laid out a scenario surrounding the resignation of ex-Attorney General William Barr that Trump considered and that mirrored the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” of the Watergate scandal.
“The President was looking for a green light from an attorney general. Bill Barr reached a point where he couldn’t do it anymore. And Rosen stepped in, and he was not prepared to do it. And the President said, ‘we will find another one,’” Durbin said, in an apparent reference to Clark.
A timeline of gross abuses of power
The disclosures came just days after it emerged that notes written by Donoghue about a December 2020 call show that the ex-President pressured Rosen to declare that the election was fraudulent in a bid to help Republican members of Congress overturn Biden’s win.
“Just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen,” Trump said on the call, according to Donoghue’s notes.
New details of the drama at the Justice Department are fleshing out the record of Trump’s final days in office after stunning revelations in a battery of new books about Trump’s behavior during that tumultuous period. In the most extraordinary new twist, Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker reported that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley feared that Trump might try to use the armed forces to stage a coup.
The patchwork of new details prove that Trump’s unhinged behavior after losing the election was not only more extreme than it appeared from the outside. The emerging timeline also suggests that Trump attempted one of the most sweeping crimes against the Constitution in US history. He tried to use presidential power to overturn the election in Georgia and elsewhere. He imposed huge pressure on career officials to go along with his corruption. And he called a mob to Washington, which, incited by his lies, staged an insurrection against Congress as it was in the act of certifying Joe Biden’s election victory. If Trump was still in power, new details of such abuses of power would undoubtedly merit a third impeachment.
The shocking disclosures of the past few weeks come as Trump appears to be at least preparing the groundwork for a future presidential campaign. The former President has already grievously damaged faith in the electoral system by convincing millions of his supporters that he was cheated out of power in a free and fair election that he clearly lost.
And the Republican Party’s failure to permit any consequences for his assault on democracy – and the efforts of many of its lawmakers and media propagandists to scrub history and to invent a completely new reality of the events surrounding the January 6 insurrection – are effectively clearing the way for his political rehabilitation.
The latest developments also undercut the arguments of Republican senators who were unwilling to convict the ex-President in his second impeachment trial earlier this year over the Capitol insurrection. The idea that the process was unnecessary since Trump was no longer in power and could do no more harm is now being contradicted by evidence of his strongman behavior and his attempts to rebuild his political career.
That effort to avoid a full accounting of the events of January 6 is one reason why the work of the recently launched House Select Committee on the attack on the Capitol is so crucial. The panel’s eventual report combined with recent work by the Senate Judiciary Committee offer the best chance to piece together an official record of one of the most fraught and tense transfers of presidential power in US history.
That a candidate who is guilty of such clear abuses of power and is possessed of such autocratic and anti-democratic impulses is a viable prospect for the presidential nomination of one of America’s major political parties is a commentary on the extraordinary current state of politics. It also means that whether or not he eventually runs, Trump’s legacy of epic political corruption will pose a dire threat to the democratic traditions most people saw as invulnerable to challenge.