WASHINGTON – Justice Department leaders listened in stunned silence this month: a colleague of theirs had worked with President Donald J. Trump on a plan to oust Jeffrey A. Rosen as acting attorney general and enforce the power of state lawmakers Georgia wants to turn the results of its presidential election upside down.
The humble attorney who worked on the plan, Jeffrey Clark, had found ways to cast doubt on the election results and add to Mr Trump’s ongoing litigation and pressure on Georgia politicians. Since Mr Rosen had declined the President’s request to carry out these plans, Mr Trump wanted to decide whether to fire Mr Rosen and replace him with Mr Clark.
The department officials who were called to a conference call then asked themselves: What will you do if Mr Rosen is fired?
The answer was unanimous. You would resign.
Their informal pact ultimately helped convince Mr Trump to keep Mr Rosen in place, calculating that an uproar over mass resignations at the top of the Justice Department would eclipse any attention to his baseless allegations of electoral fraud. Mr Trump’s decision came after Mr Rosen and Mr Clark presented their competing cases to him in a bizarre meeting at the White House, which two officials compared to an episode of Mr Trump’s reality show “The Apprentice,” although one, which could trigger a constitutional crisis.
The previously unknown chapter was the culmination of the President’s longstanding efforts to get the Justice Department to move forward with his personal agenda. He also urged Mr. Rosen to appoint special advisers, including one to deal with Dominion Voting Systems, a manufacturer of voting machines that Mr. Trump’s allies had falsely claimed to be working with Venezuela to get Mr. Trump’s votes to move to Joseph R. Biden Jr.
This final day report of the division, led by Mr. Trump, is based on interviews with four former Trump administration officials who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
Mr Clark said the report contained inaccuracies but did not specify, adding that because of “strict legal privileges,” he could not discuss discussions with lawyers for Mr Trump or the Justice Department. “It is not uncommon for lawyers from the Justice Department to advise the White House on legal issues as part of our duties,” he said. “All of my official communications were in accordance with the law.”
Mr. Clark categorically denied that he had worked out a plan to oust Mr. Rosen or to formulate recommendations for action based on factual inaccuracies stemming from the Internet. “My practice is relying on testimony under oath to judge controversial allegations of fact,” said Clark. “There was an open discussion with the President about options and advantages and disadvantages. It is unfortunate that those who were part of a privileged legal discussion would publicly comment on such internal considerations while distorting discussions. “
Mr Clark also noted that last month he was the lead signatory of a motion by the Justice Department asking a federal judge to reject a lawsuit pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to dismiss the election results.
Mr Trump declined to comment. An adviser said Mr. Trump has consistently argued that the judicial system should “investigate rampant electoral fraud that has plagued our system for years”.
The advisor added that “any claim to the contrary is false and driven by those who want to keep the system broken”. Mr. Clark agreed, saying that “legal privileges” prevented him from disclosing details regarding the conversation.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment, as did Mr Rosen.
When Mr Trump said on Dec. 14 that Attorney General William P. Barr was leaving the department, some officials thought he could give Mr Rosen a short break before pressing him for election fraud. After all, Mr. Barr would be there for another week.
Instead, Mr Trump called Mr Rosen into the Oval Office the next day. He wanted the Justice Department to file legal documents in support of his allies’ lawsuits seeking to overturn his loss of the election. And he called on Mr. Rosen to appoint special advisers to investigate not only baseless allegations of widespread election fraud, but Dominion, the voting machine company.
(Dominion has sued pro-Trump attorney Sidney Powell, who included these allegations in four federal voter irregularity lawsuits, all of which were dismissed.)
Herr Rosen refused. Claiming that he would make decisions based on the facts and the law, he reiterated what Mr Barr had privately told Mr Trump: The department had investigated voting irregularities and found no evidence of widespread fraud.
But Mr Trump continued to press on Mr Rosen after the meeting – in phone calls and in person. He repeatedly said he did not understand why the Justice Department had failed to find evidence to support conspiracy theories about the election campaigned by some of his personal lawyers. He stated that the department was not fighting hard enough for him.
Unaware that Mr. Clark had been introduced to Mr. Trump by a Pennsylvania politician, when Mr. Rosen and Assistant Attorney General Richard P. Donoghue pushed back, they had told the President that he agreed that fraud had affected the election results.
Mr Trump quickly hugged Mr Clark, who had been appointed acting head of the civil division in September and was also head of the division’s environment and natural resources.
Throughout December, Mr Clark mentioned to Mr Rosen and Mr Donoghue that he had spent a lot of time reading the internet – a comment that alarmed them because they concluded that he believed the unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that won Mr Trump The vote. Mr Clark also told them that he wanted the department to hold a press conference announcing that it is investigating serious allegations of election fraud. Mr Rosen and Mr Donoghue rejected the proposal.
As Mr. Trump became increasingly focused on Georgia, a state he narrowly lost to Mr. Biden, he complained to Justice Department leaders that U.S. attorney in Atlanta, Byung J. Pak, did not attempt to provide evidence of false electoral claims as put forward by Mr. Biden, Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and others. Mr Donoghue warned Mr Pak that the President was now fixated on his office and that it may not be tenable for him to continue running it, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
That conversation, and Mr. Trump’s efforts to pressure Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State to “find” his votes, forced Mr. Pak to resign abruptly this month.
Mr. Clark also focused on Georgia. He penned a letter for Mr. Rosen to send to Georgia state lawmakers falsely stating that the Justice Department was investigating allegations of electoral fraud in their state and that they should seek to nullify Mr. Biden’s victory there.
Mr. Rosen and Mr. Donoghue again rejected Mr. Clark’s proposal.
On New Year’s Eve, the trio met to discuss Mr Clark’s refusal to conclude that the election results were valid. Mr. Donoghue flatly told Mr. Clark that what he was doing was wrong. The next day, Mr. Clark announced to Mr. Rosen – who had looked after him while working at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm – that he would discuss his strategy with the President early next week, just before Congress was scheduled to certify Mr. Biden’s election victory.
Unknown to the Acting Attorney General, Mr. Clark’s timeline has been postponed. He met with Mr Trump over the weekend and informed Mr Rosen on Sunday lunchtime that the President intended to replace him with Mr Clark, who could then try to prevent Congress from confirming the results of the electoral college. He said that Mr. Rosen could remain as his assistant attorney general, which would leave Mr. Rosen speechless.
Mr Rosen did not want to resign without a fight and said he needed to hear from Mr Trump directly. He worked with White House attorney Pat A. Cipollone to call an early evening meeting.
Just as Mr. Clark’s utterance began, astonishing news broke out of Georgia: State officials had recorded an hour-long phone call published by the Washington Postduring which Mr Trump pressured them to produce enough votes to declare him the winner. As the aftermath of Washington’s admission bounced, the president’s desperate efforts to change the outcome in Georgia became sharp.
Mr. Rosen and Mr. Donoghue made progress and briefed Steven Engel, Chief of Justice for the Department of Justice, of Mr. Clark’s recent maneuver. Mr. Donoghue placed a call with the remaining senior officers of the department in the late afternoon explaining Mr. Clark’s efforts to replace Mr. Rosen.
Mr Rosen intended to go to the White House soon to discuss his fate, Mr Donoghue told the group. Should Mr Rosen be released, everyone agreed to resign en masse. For some, the plan was reminiscent of the Nixon-era Saturday Night Massacre, in which Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and his deputy resigned instead of carrying out the president’s order to dismiss the special attorney investigating him.
The Clark plan, officials said, would seriously damage the department, government and the rule of law. For hours they fearfully called each other and called each other while they waited for Mr. Rosen’s fate.
Around 6 p.m., Mr. Rosen, Mr. Donoghue and Mr. Clark met at the White House with Mr. Trump, Mr. Cipollone, his deputy Patrick Philbin and other lawyers. Mr. Trump had Mr. Rosen and Mr. Clark present their arguments to him.
Mr Cipollone advised the President not to dismiss Mr Rosen and he repeated, as he had for days, that he did not recommend sending the letter to the Georgian legislators. Mr. Engel advised Mr. Trump that if he fired Mr. Rosen and left Mr. Clark in the department, he and the remaining top officials in the department would resign.
Mr Trump seemed somewhat swayed by the idea that the dismissal of Mr Rosen would not only wreak havoc in the Justice Department, but also divert Congressional investigations and possibly other Republican accusations and attention from his efforts to reverse the election results.
After nearly three hours, Mr Trump finally decided that Mr Clark’s plan would fail and he allowed Mr Rosen to stay.
Mr. Rosen and his deputies concluded that they had survived the turbulence. Once Congress confirmed Mr Biden’s victory, they had little to do until they left with Mr Trump in two weeks’ time.
They began to exhale days later when the Capitol electoral college certification began. And then they got the message: The building had been breached.
Maggie Haberman contributed to coverage from New York.