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'Just say it was corrupt' and 3 other takeaways from Thursday's Jan. 6 hearing

From left, Steven Engel, former assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel, Jeffrey Rosen, former acting attorney general, and Richard Donoghue, former acting deputy attorney General, testify before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.
Alex Wong
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From left, Steven Engel, former assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel, Jeffrey Rosen, former acting attorney general, and Richard Donoghue, former acting deputy attorney General, testify before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.

A president desperate to retain power and enmeshed in fringe internet conspiracies engaged in a multi-layer conspiracy, pressuring top Justice Department officials and grasping for straws of legitimacy for his election lies – facts be damned.

"Just say it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen," former President Trump said, according to testimony Thursday from Richard Donoghue, former acting deputy attorney general, in the fifth Jan. 6 committee hearing.

Donoghue, who took contemporaneous notes on that conversation, and several others with the former president, emphasized that it was an "exact" quote. Trump made the remarks in the transition period between the 2020 presidential election he lost and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

It was just one of many dramatic moments from the hearing that painted — in vivid color — scenes that seemed straight from a Hollywood political thriller.

But this was no movie.

It was the last days of the Trump presidency – and these hearings have shown just how thin a string was holding together American democracy.

Here are four takeaways from the hearing:

1. The details of the pressure on the Justice Department showed Trump crossing all over the lines of the department's independence.

Justice Department officials serve at the pleasure of the president, but presidential interference in the department's investigations and inner workings have long been frowned upon in the American tradition.

None of that seemed to matter to Trump, according to multiple witnesses Thursday.

Trump called and met nearly every day after Election Day with top Justice Department officials, peppering them with false allegations to investigate. But when he was told there was no evidence for conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, it wasn't enough for him, witnesses said.

"We have an obligation to tell people that this was an illegal, corrupt election," Donoghue recalled Trump telling him, his notes shown on the screen behind committee members.

The clock was ticking on Trump, and the committee showed Trump to be a man who would do nearly whatever it took to stay in power — and saw the Justice Department as a key vehicle.

He publicly disagreed with his attorney general, Bill Barr, who quit under the pressure. Trump wanted Barr to appoint a special counsel. Conspiracy theorist lawyer Sidney Powell testified on camera that Trump asked her to be that special counsel.

Trump leaned on the new acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, calling or meeting with him nearly every day with the exceptions of Christmas and New Year's Eve, Rosen testified. And Trump threatened to replace Rosen with someone who would act on his election lies.

2. If senior DOJ officials wouldn't go along, Trump would find someone who would.

Trump threatened to install Jeffrey Clark, a lower-level DOJ environmental lawyer, in the top job. Rep. Scott Perry introduced Clark to Trump, and Clark was ready to do Trump's bidding.

Clark was going behind his superiors' backs to meet with the president, violating department protocols, the officials said. Clark had drafted a letter pressuring state officials to take steps to overturn the election, citing evidence he didn't have for problems with the voting.

"This other guy just might do something," Trump told Rosen, Rosen recalled, noting Trump's frustration with Rosen for not pursuing his election lies as legitimate.

Donoghue, for the record, said he and others in the department investigated each of Trump's far-flung conspiracies. All were without merit, he said. He and Rosen testified to that and that they told Trump so – repeatedly correcting him "in a serial fashion," as Trump went from one allegation to another.

Trump and his chief of staff Mark Meadows even bandied about a far-flung conspiracy theory that Italian satellites had been rigged to switch votes from Trump to Biden. This went so far that, despite Donoghue calling the theory "pure insanity" and "patently absurd," acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, at Meadows' request, called the Defense attache in Rome, who also knocked down the conspiracy.

Trump, though, thought there was something there. Why? "You guys may not be following the Internet the way I do," Trump said, per Donoghue's notes.

Frustrated, Trump very nearly appointed Clark attorney general. He only balked when Donoghue emphatically noted in a high-pressure Oval Office meeting that he and many others would resign if Trump took that drastic step.

"What do I have to lose?" Trump said at one point, per Donoghue. Donoghue tried to convince him he, personally – and the country – had quite a bit to lose.

Donoghue told Trump that Clark's promises were hollow, that he could not deliver what Trump wanted and do so in a matter of days, especially because the allegations had already been investigated – and proven false.

"It's absurd," Donoghue said he told Trump. "It's not going to happen, and he's going to fail."

3. Several members of Congress sought pardons

Another striking element of Thursday's hearing was the revelation that several right-wing Republican members of Congress, who were in one way or another involved in Jan. 6, sought pardons.

Multiple witnesses, including lawyers and White House staff, testified that at least five, perhaps six, Republicans asked for pardons – Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Mo Brooks, R-Ala., Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., and Scott Perry, R-Pa.

There was some question as to whether Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. asked for one, as well, as a White House staffer testified that she heard Greene did, but didn't know firsthand. Greene denies that she asked for one.

All have denied wrongdoing.

"The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is if you committed a crime," Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who led the questioning Thursday, said.

Of course, it's also possible that these members, so deeply enmeshed in conspiracy, in their minds, felt a newly minted Justice Department under a Democratic president, would go after them.

"It's not a crime to request a pardon in the United States of America," said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the committee, on CNN after the hearing of his colleagues who asked for pardons. "No one can be prosecuted for that, but I think if we use our common sense, if we use our Tom Paynian common sense, then it would indicate some consciousness of guilt or some fear that you could be prosecuted for what you did."

4. No one was too big or too small for Trump's pressure campaign in his desperate attempt to stay in power.

These five days of hearings have revealed just how far Trump would go to hold onto power.

His pressure was unrelenting and multifaceted. And no one was immune, from people as high up in the government as his vice president and top Justice Department officials to others doing the work of implementing elections, like Wandrea "Shaye" Moss.

Moss testified on Tuesday that her life had been turned upside down, that her personal life had literally been destroyed because of Trump's no-holds-barred bid to cling to the White House.

He pressed diligent local election officials, who don't normally get any attention – let alone death threats – to go along with schemes he and those around him concocted to upend the American election system.

It has to pain Trump that it didn't work, that for all of his effort, he couldn't pull it off. With all this cast into a bright light, it will be notable to see how Americans move after this. Does Trump continue to wield the kind of influence in the Republican Party, or will he seem more vulnerable if he decides to run again in 2024?

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.