Donald Trump said and did a whole lot of things on and around January 6, 2021, as he sought to use the levers of government to push his false election fraud schemes and remain in power.
None was more damning than a quote that re-surfaced during the latest public hearing of the House select committee investigating January 6 on Thursday. It came from an extended phone call between Trump, acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue in December 2020.
The call, according to Donoghue, who took contemporaneous notes, featured the then-President repeatedly pressing the top Justice Department officials over a variety of false and conspiratorial claims about the election – all of which Donoghue shot down.
At some point during the call, Trump appears to grow exasperated. He implored Rosen and Donoghue to “just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” Donoghue testified Thursday.
Yeah. Think about that for a minute.
This is not the first time we have heard that line. CNN reported on the existence of Donoghue’s notes – and the Trump quote therein – in July 2021.
But in the context of the case being made by the January 6 committee, the quote is absolutely stunning and deeply revealing.
Consider, first, the brazenness exhibited by Trump here. He is asking the two highest-ranking officials of the Justice Department at the time, who have already repeatedly made clear to him on the same call that his claims of election fraud are spurious, to just say that there was fraud – and be done with it.
Second, the quote reveals – or, in truth, re-reveals – the utter misunderstanding (and contempt) that Trump had for the Department of Justice.
Time and time again, from the very early days of his time in office, Trump publicly expressed his frustrations that the DOJ would not simply do his bidding.
Trump repeatedly wondered – via his Twitter feed and his own public comments – why his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had recused himself from the investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election.
In an interview with Fox in August 2018, Trump asked, “What kind of man is this?” of Sessions, adding that he “never took control of the Justice Department.”
Trump fired Sessions on the day after the 2018 election.
Despite hand-picking Sessions’ successor, Bill Barr, Trump still complained the probe, led by special counsel John Durham, designed to look into the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation was not moving quickly enough.
“If that’s the case I think it’s terrible,” Trump told conservative radio show Rush Limbaugh in October 2020 when asked about the possibility that the Durham probe might not be released until after the election. “It’s very disappointing. And I’ll tell [Barr] to his face. I think it’s a disgrace. It’s an embarrassment.”
(Worth noting: It wasn’t just the Department of Justice where Trump seemed to fundamentally misunderstand his power over them. He repeatedly referred to “my generals” and “my military.”)
The third thing the quote reveals is that Trump didn’t really care – in any meaningful way – whether or not there was actual election corruption. Remember that in the same phone call where Trump asks Rosen and Donoghue to “just say the election was corrupt,” he had told that the various claims he was making about election fraud were false.
All Trump cared about was using the imprimatur of the Justice Department as a shield by which he could then steer perception in favor of his election lies. In short: He knew what he was saying wasn’t born out by the facts. He didn’t care. He just wanted the DOJ to say “corrupt” so that he could meld and shape that for his own goal: staying in office no matter what.
It’s not clear yet whether the committee will recommend criminal charges at the end of all of this. Or whether the DOJ will charge Trump – or anyone else – in connection with their activities on January 6.
But what is clear is that Trump viewed the Justice Department as just another arm by which to carry out his agenda. He never knew or cared about the independence of DOJ, or why that was (and is) critical to the health of American democracy.