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Former DOJ officials testify before Jan. 6 committee

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The January 6 committee's fifth public hearing has wrapped up for today on Capitol Hill. Three former top Justice Department officials face questioning on former President Trump's attempts to use DOJ to help overturn the results of the 2020 election. Congressman Bennie Thompson, chair of the committee, described Trump's actions this way in his opening remarks.

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BENNIE THOMPSON: Donald Trump didn't just want the Justice Department to investigate. He wanted the Justice Department to help legitimize his lies, to basically call the election corrupt.

CHANG: Former Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, former acting deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue and former Office of Legal Counsel head Steven Engel all testified before the committee about the pressure they faced to use their positions at the Justice Department to help then-President Trump overturn his election loss. To explain what happened at today's hearing is Ryan Goodman. He's an NYU law professor and former special counsel at the Department of Defense. Welcome.

RYAN GOODMAN: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. So the main focus of today revolved around looking into any pressure Trump was putting on DOJ officials to help him stay in power. What was your main takeaway from today's hearing?

GOODMAN: So I thought it was just really compelling evidence of that exact scheme - sustained, unrelenting pressure from Trump, calling the acting attorney general, for example, every day to try to pressure them to investigate on his allegations or make a public announcement even though they had found no foundation for his claims of widespread election fraud, pounding them and pounding them until finally he actually replaces the acting attorney general, it seems, with this person who was going to do his bidding, Jeffrey Clark, even to the point that the White House logs had changed Jeffrey Clark's title to acting attorney general. It's just absolutely remarkable because it does speak to, like, the illicit nature of this scheme and how close we came.

CHANG: Right. And to speak more about Jeffrey Clark, I mean, this was someone that Donoghue had said was not qualified to be attorney general. He was an environmental lawyer. He never actually had any experience, say, as a criminal lawyer. Explain in more detail. Why did Trump want to install Clark as acting attorney general?

GOODMAN: So Clark is working in cahoots with Trump, engaging in bilateral conversations with him and has explicitly promised Trump that he will open investigations and find fraud - that's one piece - and that he will send this incredible letter to Georgia and several other states, telling them that the Department of Justice has found enough fraud, that the Department of Justice strongly encourages them to decertify their electoral votes within three days of January 6. And that's the promise that Jeffrey Clark has made to Trump. And that is what everybody understood would happen if Jeffrey Clark became attorney general.

CHANG: Right. And as you describe, there were White House call logs that had started to refer to Clark as acting attorney general. And then explain what happened. Like, witnesses said that same day, they told the president that top DOJ officials would resign en masse - right? - if the president did indeed install Clark as AG.

GOODMAN: That's right. So I think that is the only thing that causes Trump to back down - is that he's told to his face by the senior leadership of the Justice Department and somebody he thought would stay on as well, the head of the Office of Legal Counsel. And they all say, no, sir. We will resign. And it won't just be us. It will be the entire top leadership of the Justice Department. That's what you're facing if you go down this path. And Trump dials it back. He rescinds this idea that Clark will be the next attorney general, and he backs off. That's how close it all came. And...

CHANG: Yeah.

GOODMAN: I think that that's the trigger.

CHANG: Did any of the Department of Justice officials who testified today - did any of them explain why they did not go public about what Trump was doing while it was actually happening?

GOODMAN: That's such a great question. And, no, they didn't. And they weren't really even asked the question. And it's an important one because the country - we really did come that close to a constitutional crisis. Surely they should have warned us in the moment because it was still going on. And the threat had not dissipated until essentially January 20. And then we had an impeachment hearing about this kind of set of facts, and they didn't come forward then, either.

CHANG: And real quick, in the last 40 or so seconds we have left, we heard testimony that multiple members of Congress asked the president for blanket pardons for their roles in their attempts to overturn the election. Is that right?

GOODMAN: Yes, we did, with multiple witnesses naming them, which is quite remarkable. And Representative Kinzinger is saying something to the effect of, you don't seek a pardon unless you think you have committed a crime. But, you know, they'll say that they sought a pardon because they wanted to avoid, like, a politicized Justice Department going after them. But it's really unbelievable that that occurred.

CHANG: A remarkable day. That is Ryan Goodman, professor of law at NYU. Thank you very much for joining us today.

GOODMAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.