Trump Pressed Rosen to Wield Justice Dept. to Back 2020 Election Claims

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The former president began pressuring his incoming acting attorney general even before announcing that his predecessor was stepping down, emails show.

Jeffrey A. Rosen, the acting attorney general near the end of the Trump administration, was pressured by President Donald J. Trump to back election claims that had already failed in lawsuits.
Credit...Pool photo by Yuri Gripas

Katie Benner

June 15, 2021

WASHINGTON — An hour before President Donald J. Trump announced in December that William P. Barr would step down as attorney general, the president began pressuring Mr. Barr’s eventual replacement to have the Justice Department take up his false claims of election fraud.

Mr. Trump sent an email via his assistant to Jeffrey A. Rosen, the incoming acting attorney general, that contained documents purporting to show evidence of election fraud in northern Michigan — the same claims that a federal judge had thrown out a week earlier in a lawsuit filed by one of Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers.

Another email from Mr. Trump to Mr. Rosen followed two weeks later, again via the president’s assistant, that included a draft of a brief that Mr. Trump wanted the Justice Department to file to the Supreme Court. It argued, among other things, that state officials had used the pandemic to weaken election security and pave the way for widespread election fraud.

The draft echoed claims in a lawsuit in Texas by the Trump-allied state attorney general that the justices had thrown out, and a lawyer who had helped on that effort later tried with increasing urgency to track down Mr. Rosen at the Justice Department, saying he had been dispatched by Mr. Trump to speak with him.

The emails, turned over by the Justice Department to investigators on the House Oversight Committee, show how Mr. Trump pressured Mr. Rosen to put the power of the Justice Department behind lawsuits that had already failed to try to prove his false claims that extensive voter fraud had affected the election results.

They are also the latest example of Mr. Trump’s frenzied drive to subvert the election results in the final weeks of his presidency, including ratcheting up pressure on the Justice Department. And they show that Mr. Trump flouted an established anticorruption norm that the Justice Department acts independently of the White House on criminal investigations or law enforcement actions, a gap that steadily eroded during Mr. Trump’s term.

The documents dovetail with emails around the same time from Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, asking Mr. Rosen to examine unfounded conspiracy theories about the election, including one that claimed people associated with an Italian defense contractor were able to use satellite technology to tamper with U.S. voting equipment from Europe.

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Mr. Trump in June 2020. The president emailed Mr. Rosen via his assistant, sending documents that purported to show election fraud.
Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

Much of the correspondence also occurred during a tense week within the Justice Department, when Mr. Rosen and his top deputies realized that one of their peers had plotted with Mr. Trump to first oust Mr. Rosen and then to try to use federal law enforcement to force Georgia to overturn its election results. Mr. Trump nearly replaced Mr. Rosen with that colleague, Jeffrey Clark, then the acting head of the civil division.

Mr. Rosen made clear to his top deputy in one message that he would not have anything to do with the Italy conspiracy theory, would not arrange a meeting between the F.B.I. and one of the proponents of the conspiracy, Brad Johnson, and would not speak about it with Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer.

“I learned that Johnson is working with Rudy Giuliani, who regarded my comments as an ‘insult,’” Mr. Rosen wrote in the email. “Asked if I would reconsider, I flatly refused, said I would not be giving any special treatment to Giuliani or any of his ‘witnesses’, and reaffirmed yet again that I will not talk to Giuliani about any of this.”

Mr. Rosen declined to comment. A spokesman for Mr. Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

The documents “show that President Trump tried to corrupt our nation’s chief law enforcement agency in a brazen attempt to overturn an election that he lost,” said Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat who is the chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee.

Ms. Maloney, whose committee is looking into the events leading up to the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump crowd protesting the election results, including Mr. Trump’s pressure on the Justice Department, said she has asked former Trump administration officials to sit for interviews, including Mr. Meadows, Mr. Clark and others. The House Oversight Committee requested the documents in May as part of the inquiry, and the Justice Department complied.

The draft brief that Mr. Trump wanted the Justice Department to file before the Supreme Court mirrored a lawsuit that Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas had filed to the court, alleging that a handful of battleground states had used the pandemic to make unconstitutional changes to their election laws that affected the election outcome. The states argued in response that Texas lacked standing to file the suit, and the Supreme Court rejected the case.

The version of the lawsuit that Mr. Trump wanted the Justice Department to file made similar claims, saying that officials in Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania had used the pandemic to unconstitutionally revise or violate their own election laws and weaken election security.

The Wall Street Journal earlier this year reported that Mr. Trump pressured the Justice Department to ask the Supreme Court to invalidate the election results, and that former officials including Mr. Barr and Mr. Rosen had refused to file the brief, which had been prepared by outside lawyers. The officials argued that the Justice Department had no basis for challenging the election outcome and had no legal interest in who had won.

To try to prove its case, the lawsuit relied on descriptions of an election monitoring video that appeared similar to one that Republican officials in Georgia rejected as doctored, as well as the debunked notion, promoted by Mr. Trump, that machines made by Dominion Voting Systems had been hacked.

Eager to speak with Mr. Rosen about the draft Supreme Court lawsuit, a lawyer named Kurt Olsen, who had advised on Mr. Paxton’s effort, tried unsuccessfully to reach him multiple times, according to emails sent between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. on Dec. 29 and obtained by the House Oversight Committee investigators.

Mr. Olsen first reached out to Jeffrey B. Wall, the acting solicitor general who would have argued the brief before the Supreme Court. “Last night the President directed me to meet with AG Rosen today to discuss a similar action to be brought by the United States,” Mr. Olsen wrote. “I have not been able to reach him despite multiple calls/texts. This is an urgent matter.”

Mr. Rosen’s chief of staff, John S. Moran, told Mr. Olsen that the acting attorney general was busy with other business at the White House. About an hour later, Mr. Olsen drove from Maryland to Washington “in the hopes of meeting” with Mr. Rosen at the Justice Department, the emails show.

When Mr. Olsen could not get through to Mr. Rosen or Mr. Moran, he called an employee in the department’s antitrust division, according to the documents.

The emails do not make clear whether Mr. Olsen met with Mr. Rosen, but a person who discussed the matter with Mr. Rosen said that a meeting never occurred. Rather, Mr. Olsen eventually cold-called the official’s private cellphone and was politely rebuffed, the person said, requesting anonymity because the matter is part of an ongoing investigation.

Mr. Olsen provided more fodder for his case in an email sent later that night to Mr. Moran, saying that it was at Mr. Rosen’s request.

On the day that Mr. Trump announced that Mr. Rosen would be the acting attorney general, he wanted him to look at materials about potential fraud in northern Michigan, according to an email obtained by the committee. That fraud claim had been the subject of a lawsuit filed by the former Trump adviser Sidney Powell, who argued that Dominion voting machines had flipped votes from Mr. Trump to Joseph R. Biden Jr.

The state’s Republican clerk had said that human error was to blame for mistakes there that initially gave more votes to Mr. Biden, and a hand recount at the county level conducted in December confirmed that the machines had worked properly.

A federal judge threw out Ms. Powell’s lawsuit on Jan. 7, saying that it was based on “nothing but speculation and conjecture.” She has been accused of defamation in a lawsuit by Dominion in part because of the Michigan claims.

Mr. Rosen is in the process of negotiating to give a single interview with investigators from the House Oversight Committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee and others who are looking into the final days of the Trump administration; and he has asked the Justice Department’s current leaders to sort what he can and cannot say about the core facts that involve meetings at the Oval Office with Mr. Trump, which could be privileged.

Mr. Rosen met with department officials and spoke with Mr. Trump’s representatives within the last week to discuss these matters, according to a person briefed on the meetings. If the parties cannot come to an agreement, the issue could be thrown into court, where it most likely would languish for months, if not years.

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