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By Elie Honig
The Trump White House tried to get the United States Department of Justice to steal the election.
That’s not up for debate. There’s no “yeah but…” or “well we don’t know if…” or “allegedly…” about this. It’s in writing, as clear as the unhinged spate of emails that high-ranking White House officials sent to Justice Department leaders in the manic few weeks of coup fever that gripped Trump and his lackeys starting in late December 2020, when it was clear to any right-minded person that Trump had lost the election and soon would lose power.
The emails themselves read and feel just like the garbage that gets automatically filtered out and sent to your personal “spam” email box. Wild conspiracy theories, desperate entreaties, a delusional sense of self-importance, bizarre fonts and Needless Capitalization. If one of these emails slid into your spam box alongside the usual entreaties from Brazilian princes with unique investment opportunities if you’d only send $10,000 and your bank account routing number — you’d hardly even notice.
The thing is, of course: these emails came from the White House. And they went to the Justice Department.
The actual emails have become public now, thanks to the work of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. I’m often critical of House Democrats for their weak enforcement tactics, but I have to hand it to them on this one: they lived up to the “Oversight” in the Committee’s name.
A walk through those emails is enlightening, and even sort of funny, though any sense of mirth is offset by the fact the whole situation is so damn alarming. Let’s take a look.
The chain starts with a December 14, 2020 email from Molly Michael, Trump’s Oval Office coordinator, to Jeffrey Rosen, who had long served as Deputy Attorney General and, that same day, was announced as the temporary successor to William Barr upon his imminent departure. The email itself has no content, but Michael forwards to Rosen a list of “Antrim County Talking Points” which include a disjointed list of “Key facts” including enlightening morsels like “Secretary Benson lied” and “Federal law was violated” and “Laws have been Broken.” Then there’s a riveting list of “Arguments against us,” followed by “counters.” Argument against us: “It didn’t impact the election.” Counter: “It impacted offices and propositions from President down to the School Board.” Well, alrighty then. We’re just shy of “Argument against us: Yuh-huh. Counter: Nuh-uh.”
A few weeks later, on December 29, we see a more alarming email from Michael to Rosen and Rich Donoghue, then a high-ranking DOJ official. Michael wrote, “The President asked me to send the attached draft document. I have also shared with [then-Chief of Staff] Mark Meadows and [then-White House Counsel] Pat Cipollone.” The attachment is a draft complaint, to be filed by the Department of Justice in the Supreme Court, seeking to overturn the election. It’s largely a repackaging of the same drek filed by a coalition led by the Texas attorney general, which the Court already had summarily rejected.
Meanwhile, some pathetic cloak-and-dagger wannabe private lawyer named Kurt Olsen tried to get into the mix, emailing top Justice Department officials that “attached is a complaint to be brought by the United States modeled after the Texas action” and that “the President of the United States has seen this complaint and has directed me to brief AG Rosen in person today.” First: who the hell is this Kurt Olsen guy, and why would any DOJ boss take orders from him? Second, saying the lawsuit was “modeled after the Texas action” is like offering up a dirigible “modeled after the Hindenburg.”
Olsen then began fully spamming top Justice Department officials with purported fact sheets and rantings claiming massive election fraud (and begging for an immediate in-person meeting with Rosen). You can sense just how impressed DOJ officials were by Olsen’s compelling presentation; in one email, Donoghue forwarded Olsen’s ranting to another DOJ official, along with a note reading, “JFYI regarding allegations about PA voting irregularities, for whatever it may be worth.” For whatever it may be worth. You can virtually hear the eyes rolling at DOJ headquarters.
Rosen and his Justice Department advisors declined to file the proposed Supreme Court case, and rightly scoffed at the idea from the start, recognizing that the lawsuit stood no chance and would sully their reputations for eternity. If Rosen and his brass had followed the command from the White House, it would have been a historic disgrace for the Justice Department.
But there was a perhaps more insidious threat coming from inside the Justice Department. Apparently Jeffrey Clark, an under-qualified Trump zealot who somehow had become head of DOJ’s civil division, was vying to take over as acting AG. Trump gave serious consideration to canning Rosen to make way for Clark who would, in turn, implement Trump’s wild plan to steal the election (or at least, try). But Trump eventually backed off, given the threat of mass resignations at DOJ and some sound legal advice from Cipollone.
The capper to this ignominious chain of emails came on December 30 when Meadows — then Trump’s Chief of Staff, and once generally regarded as a serious person of sound mind — forwarded to Rosen a link to a Youtube video, with the note, “Would you have your team look into these allegations of wrongdoing.” Rosen forwarded the link — which espouses the perfectly sound theory that Italian satellites were used to flip votes from Trump to Biden — to Donoghue, who offered the perfect deadpan response: “Pure insanity.”
Days later, on January 1, Meadows sent Rosen some lunatic written materials about purported election fraud, and asked for Clark to get involved. The appropriately catty response within DOJ is worth treasuring. Rosen forwarded Meadows’s materials to Donoghue, with a note reading “Can you believe this? I am not going to respond to the message below.” Donoghue deadpanned in response, “At least it’s better than the last one but that doesn’t say much.” Roasted.
There’s so much to laugh at in these emails that it’s easy to lose a proper sense of their gravity. The President and his loyalists tried to use the Justice Department to steal the election. It’s no more or less nuanced than that. DOJ leaders, to their credit, stood their ground and apparently never gave serious consideration to going along with it. But if Trump had pulled the trigger on Rosen, absorbed the blow of mass resignations, and installed Clark, things could have gotten ugly. Clark might well have filed the lawsuit with the Supreme Court, or he might have taken other measures to fuel Trump’s insurrectionist fire.
Rosen deserves credit here. He was generally a terrible deputy attorney general, serving most of his tenure under Barr and facilitating his constant abuses of power. But at the end, with his days in office numbered as the Biden Administration prepared to take office, Rosen did the right thing. So, too, did Donoghue (while providing us with comedic fodder) and others at DOJ. I give Rosen and his top advisors credit for that.
DOJ stood its ground. It held its institutional principles and it stood above and apart from the ugly game of politics. The Justice Department reminded us, yet again, that it truly is the last bulwark of our democracy.
Elie Honig is the author of the forthcoming book, “Hatchet Man: How Bill Barr Broke the Prosecutor’s Code and Corrupted the Justice Department,” now available for pre-order.