WASHINGTON – When Congressman Scott Perry joined his colleagues in a month-long campaign to undermine the results of the presidential election, promoting “Stop the Steal” events and supporting an attempt to overturn millions of legally cast votes, he often fell behind – loyal profile in the orbit of President Donald Trump.
But Perry, R-Pa., Played a significant role in the crisis that topped the Justice Department this month, when Trump considered firing the acting attorney general and stepped back only after senior department officials threatened to resign en masse.
It was Perry, an outspoken member of the hard-line Freedom Caucus, who first alerted Trump that a relatively obscure Justice Department official, Jeffrey Clark, acting head of the civil division, sympathized with Trump’s view that the election had been stolen , according to former government officials who spoke to Clark and Trump.
Perry introduced the president to Clark, whose openness to conspiracy theories about electoral fraud presented Trump with a welcome change from acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, who defended the election results and repeatedly resisted the president’s efforts to undo them.
Perry’s previously unreported role and the ensuing silent discussions between Trump and Clark underscored how much the former president was willing to use the government to subvert the election, turning to younger and relatively unknown figures for help while Republicans and cabinet members rejected him.
Perry’s involvement is also expected to increase the scrutiny of House Republicans who continue to advance Trump’s false and fully unmasked allegations of electoral fraud, even after President Joe Biden took office last week and as Congress prepares for a trial of impeachment that will examine whether such conversation has incited the Capitol Riot.
It is unclear when Perry, who represents the Harrisburg area, met Clark, a Philadelphia native, or how well they knew each other before the Trump presentation. Former Trump administration officials said it was not until the end of December that Clark told Rosen about the introduction brokered by Perry, who was among the many people who fed Trump with false hopes that he had won the election.
But it is highly unlikely that Trump knew Clark any other way. Department officials were surprised to learn that the president had called Clark directly on several occasions and that the two met in person without alerting Rosen, officials said. The Department of Justice policy stipulates that the President first communicates with the Attorney General or Deputy Attorney General on all matters and then with a lower-level officer, if authorized.
As the date approached for Congress to assert Biden’s victory, Perry and Clark discussed a plan for the Department of Justice to send a letter to Georgia state lawmakers informing them of an election fraud investigation that could invalidate voters. results of the State Electoral College. Former officials who were informed about the plan said that the department’s dozens of electoral fraud investigations across the country had not revealed enough fraud cases to alter the outcome of the election.
Perry and Clark also discussed the plan with Trump, triggering a chain of events that almost led to the resignation of Rosen, who refused to send the letter.
After The New York Times released details of the scheme on Friday, the political consequences were swift. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., New Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, intends to tell the Justice Department that he will investigate Trump and Clark’s efforts to use the agency to further Trump’s efforts to overturn election results.
Senator Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., The majority leader, said it was “unscrupulous for a Trump Justice Department leader to conspire to subvert the will of the people.” He called on the department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, to investigate “this sedition attempt.”
Horowitz has already opened an investigation to find out whether Trump administration officials have unduly pressured Byung J. Pak, who abruptly resigned this month as a US attorney in Atlanta after being pressured to take election-related measures, according to a person informed about the investigation. Durbin is investigating this issue as well.
Trump also tried to force Justice Department officials, including Rosen and interim attorney general Jeffrey Wall, to file a case before the Supreme Court that would contest Biden’s victory, according to a person informed of the request.
One of Trump’s outside lawyers even drafted a petition for the department to file with the court. Department officials and White House lawyer Pat Cipollone told Trump that the plan would fail for several reasons, including the fact that the department had no reason to dispute the outcome, the person said.
The dispute between Trump and Justice Department officials over the Supreme Court case was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
The episode with Clark and Perry is yet another example at the disposal of impeachment managers as they mount their case that Trump should be disqualified from office again.
Clark declined to comment on his relationship with Perry and categorically denied any plans to topple Rosen. He said there was “a frank discussion of options and pros and cons with the president”, which were described incorrectly by The Times, but he declined to provide details. He declined to say anything more about his conversations with Trump or the Justice Department lawyers because of “restrictions on legal privilege”.
Asked whether his conversations with the president violated the department’s policy governing contact with the president, he said senior lawyers at the agency provided legal advice to the White House as part of their duties. “All of my official communications were consistent with the law,” he said.
Clark, a member of the conservative Federalist Society, was appointed acting chief of the civil division in September. He also oversaw the department’s environmental and natural resources division, where he worked under President George W. Bush.
Neither Perry nor his top advisers responded to repeated requests for comment. (START OPTIONAL TRIM.) Some Senate Republicans, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, have become increasingly concerned that they will not intervene and distance themselves from Trump, the devastation caused by the former president may damage the political fortunes of Republicans in the coming years. The episode amounts to an unwelcome reminder that damaging information about his presidency may continue to emerge, even if Trump is no longer in office.
And Perry’s role in the discussions may further escalate tensions in the House, where Democratic lawmakers were already furious with Republicans for fanning the flames before the Capitol riot, with some ordinary members calling for the expulsion of lawmakers who led efforts to overthrow the election.
The pressure Trump put on the Justice Department, including any plans he may have considered to remove Rosen, also raises legal issues for him. Trump’s duty as president was to ensure that “laws are faithfully enforced for the benefit of the country,” and efforts to interfere in the election could be considered a violation of his constitutional duty, said Neil Eggleston, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis and a White House lawyer under President Barack Obama.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.) There is little chance that a letter from the Department of Justice sent to Georgia lawmakers would have prompted the state to invalidate the electoral college votes. But the plan was consistent with the stance that Perry had taken since November, when he began to falsely claim that there was rampant fraud in the election, and through it all, Perry remained defiant. Facing calls to resign because of his role in efforts to overturn the election, Perry issued a one-word response: “No.” (START OPTIONAL TRIM.) Perry, retired Brigadier General of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and Iraq War veteran, was examined for his openness to the conspiracy. He suggested baselessly that the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas by a lone sniper could have been influenced by “terrorist infiltration across the southern border” and refused to support a resolution condemning QAnon, a pro-Trump conspiratorial movement. (Perry said he believed the resolution violated individuals’ right to freedom of expression and that he did not personally subscribe to the movement.)
One of the first supporters of the “Stop the Steal” movement, Perry was one of 126 House Republicans who joined a legal report in December supporting an extraordinary lawsuit that sought to nullify Biden’s victory. And he joined more than two dozen of his colleagues who urged Trump to direct William Barr, the attorney general, to “investigate irregularities in the 2020 elections.”
He opposed on behalf of 79 other House Republicans the certification of Pennsylvania electoral results, although he later recognized Biden as president-elect.
(END THE OPTIONAL TRIM.) Perry’s plan with Clark created a crisis at the Justice Department. When Clark approached Rosen with the Georgia letter in late December, Rosen refused to send it, according to four former government officials. On January 3, Clark notified Rosen that he would accept his job at Trump’s request.
As Rosen prepared to meet Trump later that day and fight for his post, his top deputies, including acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue, and his chief of staff, Patrick Hovakimian, brought together senior department leaders in a conference call, according to five former employees with knowledge of the call.
They told department leaders that Rosen’s work was in danger because of Clark’s machinations and said they would resign if Rosen was removed. They ended the call by asking colleagues to consider in particular what they would do if that happened. In the next 15 minutes, everyone sent emails or text messages to Hovakimian, saying they would give up.
While Rosen, Donoghue and other lawyers in the department and the White House spent nearly three hours with Trump and Clark, debating the merits of sending the letter to Georgia lawmakers, Hovakimian wrote an email to senior department leaders, including those who they did not know what was going on at the White House in anticipation of Rosen’s removal, according to two people reported in the letter.
In it, he explained that Rosen resisted Trump’s repeated calls to use the department’s law enforcement powers for improper purposes and that the president had removed him, according to a person who reviewed the email. He wrote that he and Donoghue were resigning immediately and encouraged his colleagues to think hard about what they would do and always act in the interests of the United States.
When Hovakimian received the news that Rosen had been allowed to stay, he wrote a new e-mail that he sent to the authorities who were waiting anxiously: Rosen and the cause of justice had won.