The report released on Thursday (early Friday AEST) offers new insight about how the Republican incumbent tried to undo the vote and exert his will on the department, asking leaders to declare the election “corrupt” and disparaging its top official for not doing anything to overturn the results.
Mr Trump’s actions led to a near-revolt at department headquarters that receded only after senior officials warned of a mass resignation, with one White House lawyer describing the efforts to undo the election as a “murder-suicide pact.”
“In attempting to enlist DOJ for personal, political purposes in an effort to maintain his hold on the White House, Mr Trump grossly abused the power of the presidency” and arguably violated a federal law that prevents anyone from commanding that federal employees engage in political activity, the report says.
While the broad outlines of what took place after the November 3 election have long been known, the Senate investigation based on a review of documents and interviews with former officials lays bare the extent of Mr Trump’s all-out campaign to remain in the White House.
It shows how Mr Trump benefited from the support of a little-known Justice Department lawyer who championed the then-president’s efforts to challenge the vote but how, in the end, other senior officials stood together to face down Trump. The outcome suggests how reliant the fragile US election system is on the integrity of government officials.
Mr Trump’s effort, now the subject of a Justice Department inspector general investigation, did not succeed and Biden took office on Jan. 20. Even so, the false claims over the election have fractured the nation, with millions of Americans wrongly believing the contest was stolen.
Rage about the election compelled a mass of Trump supporters to violently storm the Capitol on January 6 in an effort to disrupt the congressional certification of Mr Biden’s victory.
The rioters beat and bloodied an overwhelmed police force, sent lawmakers running for their lives and caused US$1 million ($1.37 million) in damage.
More than 630 people have been charged criminally in the riot, the largest prosecution in Justice Department history.
Republicans, who have mostly stayed loyal to Mr Trump since the insurrection, issued their own report that downplays the concerns raised by Democrats and paints Mr Trump as a hero who ignored a department attorney-general’s suggestions and who refused to fire top Justice Department officials.
Their rebuttal makes the astonishing claim that Mr Trump was concerned about the election system writ large and not about himself, even though he was publicly fighting to stay in office and pressured Vice President Mike Pence to help him.
The Democrats’ report chronicles Mr Trump’s relentless prodding of the Justice Department during a turbulent stretch in late December and early January to investigate suspected voter fraud and to support his efforts to undo the results.
Mr Trump had laid the groundwork for that effort even before the election when he attacked the vote-by-mail process.
But he escalated it significantly after election day and particularly after the December resignation of Attorney-General William Barr, who weeks before he left the Justice Department told The Associated Press the department had not found fraud that could affect the outcome of the election.
In one White House meeting recounted for Senate investigators, Jeffrey Rosen, who served as Mr Barr’s deputy and briefly led the department after Mr Barr left, described how Mr Trump, in an effort to initiate a department inquiry, showed videos of “somebody delivering a suitcase of ballots.”
Mr Rosen said he recalled saying to Mr Trump, “I really want to suggest to you, sir, respectfully, that it would be a better thing for everyone to use this last month to focus on some of the things that had been accomplished in the last four years, a — tax reform and the vaccine, Operation Warp Speed, and not go into this ‘the election was corrupt’.”
The pressure campaign by Mr Trump and his allies included a draft brief the White House wanted the Justice Department to file with the Supreme Court to overturn the election results.
The department refused to file the document, which the Senate report describes as raising a “litany of false and debunked claims.”
The conflict culminated in a contentious, hours-long meeting at the White House on January 3 in which Mr Trump openly considered replacing Mr Rosen as acting attorney general with an assistant attorney general, Jeffrey Clark.
The Democrats’ report says Mr Trump told Mr Rosen: “One thing we know is you, Rosen, aren’t going to do anything to overturn the election.”
Mr Clark had positioned himself as more sympathetic to pursuing Mr Trump’s fraud claims even though the results were certified by states and Republican election officials.
Courts rejected dozens of legal challenges to the election and Mr Barr, Trump’s own attorney-general, had said Biden won fairly.
Mr Clark declined to be interviewed voluntarily by the committee.
But several officials in the January 3 meeting told Mr Trump they would resign if he put Mr Clark in charge at the Justice Department.
According to witnesses interviewed by the Senate committee’s majority staff, White House counsel Pat Cipollone referred to a draft letter from Mr Clark pushing Georgia officials to convene a special legislative session on the election results as a “murder-suicide pact.” Mr Cipollone threatened to quit.
Richard Donoghue, who was Rosen’s deputy at the time, replied there was “no chance” he would sign that letter or “anything remotely like that”.
Mr Donoghue told the committee that he told Mr Trump that all of the assistant attorneys-general, and perhaps US attorneys and other senior department officials, would resign en masse if the president were to replace Mr Rosen with Mr Clark.
Georgia emerged as a particular area of focus for Mr Trump, who sought the removal of the top prosecutor in Atlanta, BJay Pak, claiming that he was a “never Trumper,” according to the report.
Mr Pak had originally planned to stay on in the position until Inauguration Day, January 20, but resigned weeks earlier than that because of the pressure from Mr Trump.
Besides Mr Clark, Mr Trump found another ally in Representative Scott Perry (Republican-Pennsylvania), who has disputed the validity of Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania and called Mr Donoghue on December 27 to say the department wasn’t doing its job with respect to the elections.
Mr Perry encouraged Mr Donoghue to call on Mr Clark to help because he’s “the kind of guy who could really get in there and do something about this,” according to the report.