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Trump tried to use the DOJ in his effort to overturn election, ex-DOJ officials said

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, former Justice Department officials detailed a sustained, baseless effort by Donald Trump to use their department as part of his campaign to overturn the 2020 election. This came during the latest hearing from the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection. Here's how Chairman Bennie Thompson summed it up.

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BENNIE THOMPSON: It was a brazen attempt to use the Justice Department to advance the president's personal political agenda.

CHANG: The committee also had witnesses naming names of Republican lawmakers who went along with Trump's election lies and sought pardons from him before Trump left office.

NPR's Deirdre Walsh is on Capitol Hill and joins us now. Hi, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So, I mean, there are explicit policies designed to keep the Justice Department clear of politics, right? But today, we kept hearing how Trump was doing everything he could to involve DOJ.

WALSH: He was, and it was relentless. We heard from former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, who took over after Bill Barr resigned in the wake of the 2020 election, and two of Rosen's deputies. Trump was personally calling them and meeting with them basically on a daily basis, pushing a series of claims of election fraud. These DOJ officials didn't dismiss those claims out of hand. They took them in, shared them with the relevant U.S. attorneys who investigated them. But over and over again, they came up empty.

CHANG: And how did they relay all of that to Trump?

WALSH: Well, former Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue detailed a 90-minute call where he went through claim by claim with President Trump. He showed him and told him about the investigations with witnesses, with the FBI interviewing people, looking at all of these claims and telling him time and time again each one was false. Donoghue took extensive notes during that call and quoted the president. Here's what Donoghue said about what President Trump said on that lengthy phone call.

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RICHARD DONOGHUE: What I'm just asking you to do is just say it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.

WALSH: Meeting on December 31, then-President Trump urged these DOJ officials to seize voting machines.

CHANG: Wow. There was also a pretty remarkable meeting in the Oval Office, like, three days before the January 6 attack, a meeting that today's witnesses talked about. What transpired at this meeting?

WALSH: Right, it was a remarkable peak behind the scenes. Trump wanted to replace Rosen as attorney general with someone who would carry out his wishes. This was DOJ lawyer Jeff Clark. He was an environmental lawyer in the civil division who had nothing to do with these issues, but he did have connections to Trump allies in Congress. Clark met with the president in the Oval Office without justice bosses knowing about it, a clear violation of DOJ rules. Clark also circulated a letter that he wanted his bosses to sign that falsely stated that there were problems with the election in several states. He wanted this letter to go out to officials in swing states, like Georgia, that Trump lost.

Congressman Kinzinger, who was involved in the questioning, revealed, you know, they don't have on-camera testimony from White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. But Cipollone did tell the committee that when he learned about Clark's discussions with the president, he intervened and tried to get him to stand down, but Clark would not.

CHANG: Well, the committee has also been teasing that we would hear more about how members of Congress were involved in all of this. What did we learn today on that front?

WALSH: That was really the bombshell news at the end of the hearing. The committee had already named Scott Perry from Pennsylvania as someone who had asked for a presidential pardon. But today, we saw video clips of several White House aides who named the House Republicans who were pressing the Trump White House for preemptive presidential pardons. In addition to Scott Perry, these aides named Florida Republican Matt Gaetz, Alabama Republican Mo Brooks, Arizona Republican Andy Biggs, Texas Republican Louie Gohmert and Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene. Here is White House attorney Eric Herschmann talking about his conversation with Matt Gaetz.

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ERIC HERSCHMANN: The pardon that he was discussing, requesting was as broad as you could describe - from beginning - I remember he - from the beginning of time up until today for any and all things.

WALSH: So far, Gaetz has taken to Twitter not to deny that he asked for a pardon, but to criticize the January 6 committee as, quote, "a political sideshow."

Another White House Aide testified on tape that President Trump did talk about issuing pardons for anyone involved in January 6. None of these House Republicans got pardons, and no one involved on the attack on the Capitol did either. But multiple times since he's left office, Trump has talked about giving pardons to those who were involved in January 6 if he is reelected in 2024.

CHANG: That is NPR's Deirdre Walsh covering the January 6 hearings from Capitol Hill. Thank you so much, Deirdre.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.