Evidence Piles Up for Trump’s Impeachment Trial
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One of the courtroom highlights of the recent Netflix film “The Trial of the Chicago 7” involves a back-and-forth between fictionalized versions of a former attorney general, Ramsey Clark, and Julius Hoffman, the federal judge who presided over the 1969 proceeding. Clark is asked to testify about conversations he had with President Lyndon Johnson. The judge intervenes.
“There’s a question of attorney-client privilege to consider,” Hoffman says.
“The president isn’t a client of the attorney general,” Clark responds.
“Excuse me, sir?”
“The president isn’t a client of the attorney general. I’m happy to respond.”
That exchange never actually took place during the trial, but the point Aaron Sorkin’s drama makes is very real: The attorney general, who oversees the Justice Department, works for the president — but his or her only client is the American people. The attorney general’s mandate is to enforce federal laws.
The Trump years, scarred by a president working in tandem with an attorney general, Bill Barr, who often treated the president as his client, muddied those basic truths. The extent to which that further empowered Trump to try taking the law into his own hands — and perverting it — has become clearer in the wake of the violent insurrection he and others in the Republican Party incited at the Capitol on Jan. 6. And it’s a stark, tangible reminder that the rule of law matters more than political unity right now.
Earlier this month, according to an account in the New York Times on Friday night, Trump considered firing Jeffrey Rosen, Barr’s successor, and replacing him with Jeffrey Clark, a lower-ranking Justice Department official. Clark was sympathetic to Trump’s debunked lies that the presidential election had been rigged and was apparently willing to open a supportive investigation while also pressuring Georgia officials to overturn Joe Biden’s victory there.
Barr, about as pliable an attorney general a president could want, had spent most of last year buttressing Trump’s claims of electoral fraud. But even he eventually resigned in December, soon after his public statements that his department found no evidence of such fraud helped shred his relationship with Trump. Rosen, confronted with Trump’s plan to enlist Clark to help him orchestrate a coup, made it known to the White House that if Trump fired him, a wave of senior officials who worked for him would resign in protest. Trump invited Rosen and Clark to the Oval Office to make their cases to him in an Apprentice-style bake-off before backing down. (Clark disputed the Times’s reporting, saying he didn’t push for Rosen’s ouster but couldn’t discuss specifics of his conversations with Trump because of — you guessed it — attorney-client privilege.)
Trump also tried muscling the Justice Department into asking the Supreme Court to invalidate Biden’s victory, according to the Wall Street Journal. “He wanted us, the United States, to sue one or more of the states directly in the Supreme Court,” a former administration official told the Journal. “The pressure got really intense.”
Trump had an ample number of Republican enablers in all of this. In addition to his Greek chorus of Senators Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson, and Representatives Mo Brooks, Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan and others who claimed the election needed to be investigated for irregularities, he was getting practical advice on how to stage a coup. The Times reported Sunday that Trump was introduced to his Justice Department mole by Representative Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican who had been promoting “Stop the Steal” events and was aware that Clark supported Trump’s myth of a rigged election.
The Justice Department apparently wasn’t the only federal agency Trump had designs on. A bipartisan group of 10 former defense secretaries, including one of Trump’s, published an op-ed in the Washington Post on Jan. 3 warning that involving the military in an election dispute “would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.” They advised the Pentagon, populated with Trump loyalists who had been stonewalling the incoming Biden team, to get on with the transition. It’s not clear what motivated the group to weigh in, but it seems clear that they were aware that something rotten might be afoot.
At the Central Intelligence Agency, Trump had also been busily trying to oust its director, Gina Haspel, and replace her with another one of his lackeys, Kash Patel. One of Patel’s advocates was Mike Lindell, the My Pillow chief executive officer who is a Trump confidant and believes the election was rigged and should be overturned. Axios reported that Trump felt that Patel would do his bidding, including digging up classified documents that might harm his political enemies. His White House advisers persuaded him to leave Haspel in place.
Trump was also content to simply take matters into his own hands, of course. He made three phone calls to Georgia trying to corrupt election officials there. He, a lawyer and his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, hopped on one call in early January to try to strong-arm two Georgia officials into finding the votes he need to overcome Biden’s 11,779-vote victory in the state. “So what are we going to do here, folks?” Trump asked during the call. “I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes.” The officials, both of whom are Republicans, told Trump his claims had no basis in reality and brushed him off.
Four days after that phone call, Trump convened a “Save America” rally for his supporters in Washington that he had spent weeks promoting and pumping up. Members of his presidential campaign played pivotal roles in organizing the event, and the campaign had paid more than $2.7 million over two years to individuals and firms that also helped pull the affair together. Trump told attendees on Jan. 6 that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” They proceeded to storm the Capitol.
None of this is conjecture or opinion. It’s all part of a fact pattern that shows that the former president of the United States was trying to turn federal agencies into puppets to help him subvert democracy, the Constitution and a fair election that he lost. When he ran into roadblocks, he fomented an insurrection.
The insurrection and Trump’s phone calls to Georgia are the basis for the impeachment charges filed against the former president two weeks ago. Yet in the brief period between then and now, other damning information has already surfaced. More may be on the way, making the trial that begins the week of Feb. 8 an even greater test of whether the GOP is willing to reclaim its reputation by proving that it truly is the party of law and order.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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