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By Elie Honig
Former President Donald Trump’s inner ring of sycophants and hacks have, mostly, attained one-name infamy: Rudy, Gaetz, Barr, Jared, Stone, Kayleigh, Flynn, Bannon, and the rest. There are exceptions — Pillow Guy is unavoidably two words, and the Millers require first names to differentiate Jason (the spokesperson with a self-described history of “other indiscretions”) from Steven (the white nationalist with the fourth-grade speechwriting skills).
We’ve now come to know these folks using shorthand. But here’s a name that never quite made it to the household status reserved for the top flight of Trump’s most notorious enablers: Jeffrey Clark.
Maybe it’s because he didn’t emerge until the deep endgame stages of Trump’s failed attempt to steal an election, or perhaps it’s just because the name is so generic (I think I knew a guy named Jeffrey Clark somewhere, was it college…?) But don’t let the low profile fool you. Jeffrey Clark is every bit as dedicated to the religion of Trump as those other, more famous acolytes, and he’s as dangerous as they come.
So who is this mysterious, generically-named gentleman? Jeffrey Clark, under the Trump administration, was the head of DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division before he briefly became acting chief of the Department’s Civil Division in the final months of Trump’s tenure. The New York Times once described Clark as an “unassuming lawyer.” I dissent. He may have been quiet, and he may have kept a low public profile, but the man sure as hell was not “unassuming.” For starters, Clark tried to run a coup inside DOJ to take over as acting Attorney General so he could help Trump steal an election. Not exactly “unassuming,” but opinions can differ I suppose.
As the Times has reported, during the frantic weeks after the 2020 election, Clark secretly met with Trump and essentially laid out this offer: make me acting Attorney General and I’ll help you steal this election. Trump was interested, needless to say, but ultimately backed down under the threat of mass resignations by acting AG Jeffrey Rosen and other top DOJ brass.
During this bonkers saga, Clark at one point drafted a letter for Rosen’s signature that would have had the Justice Department sign onto and legitimize utterly unfounded theories about election fraud. Clark’s draft letter is a masterwork of mendacity. In just five sloppy pages, Clark proposes to enlist the Justice Department as Trump’s primary accomplice in the effort to steal the election.
In the draft letter, Clark wrote that DOJ has “identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple States, including the State of Georgia.” So Clark begins by flatly making things up about election fraud, entirely without evidence — though, as he once reportedly boasted to Rosen, he did spend a lot of time “reading the internet.”
Clark goes on in the letter: “the Governor of Georgia should immediately call a special session to consider this important and urgent matter” and “if he declines to do so, we share with you our view that the Georgia General Assembly has implied authority under the Constitution of the United States to call itself into special session for [t]he limited purpose of considering issues pertaining to the appointment of Presidential Electors.” Translation: go ahead, local Georgia Republicans, you’re free to overturn the will of your citizenry and give this thing to Trump. (It’s not clear they would have done so; several Georgia Republicans, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, at times declined to indulge Trump’s wildest election fantasies.)
One detail in particular gave me the chills. Near the top of page one of Clark’s draft coup letter, he includes the notation “[LETTERHEAD]” — as in, “insert DOJ letterhead here.” Thankfully, Rosen and other DOJ officials refused to go along, so the Justice Department’s actual emblem never made it onto Clark’s letter perverting everything the Department stands for. But, if Clark had gotten his way, the DOJ eagle would have been atop this dangerous, disgraceful missive.
Earlier this week, Aaron Rupar, a journalist for Cafe’s parent company Vox, sent out a “holy shit” tweet — one that makes a point so simple, so obvious, and so important, that it elicits that universal, reflexive two-word response. Rupar re-tweeted the Clark letter and commented: “A reminder that the prospect of a second Trump administration staffed by people who follow his orders is an existential threat to American democracy.”
Well: holy shit. Rupar’s right. We don’t know if Trump will run again in 2024, but he certainly doesn’t seem content to stay out of power and the limelight. If he does run, he’d be the heavy favorite for the Republican nomination; he took 70% of the vote in a recent informal straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He’s got a .500 career record in presidential general elections, and he both won (in 2016) and lost (in 2020) by razor-thin margins (despite the fairly comfortable electoral vote margins in both elections, fewer than 80,000 total votes in key swing states would have changed the outcomes, both times).
Trump is a student, if nothing else, of how to consolidate, expand, and keep power. If he has learned anything from his failure to overthrow the system after the 2020 election, it’s this: surround yourself with the loonies. No more of the Pat Cipollones, the Jeff Rosens, the Mike Pences — all of whom had ample failings during their tenures but held the line down the stretch and refused to cross certain lines.
Now, picture this: Attorney General Rudy Giuliani. Justice Jeanine Pirro. FBI Director Sidney Powell. Homeland Security Secretary Mike Lindell. I’m being a bit hyperbolic here but really, why couldn’t this happen? (And even if Trump’s picks were only half this bad, we’d be in a hell of a mess). Think Senate Republicans, if they re-take the majority, would refuse to confirm such madness? When have they stood up to Trump in the past? And, as Trump demonstrated throughout his term in office, he has zero hesitation about manipulating the rules to install his own preferred “acting” officials in key positions.
The solution here should be impeachment, but of course that won’t happen. This is precisely why the Constitution permits Congress, upon impeachment and conviction, to disqualify a person from holding future office: because if we learn about wild, perhaps criminal, abuse of power after the fact, we must be able to keep that madman from taking over and trying again. Alas, we live in political reality, and there’s a 0.0 percent chance we see Trump Impeachment III now (reserving the possibility of a third impeachment if he does get re-elected someday).
Jeffrey Clark bears shame for all time for his disloyal, dishonest, and dangerous effort to turn the Justice Department into a political weapon for Trump. His draft letter is a tangible reminder of what could have been, and what someday could be.