Jan. 6 panel details how Trump tried to use the Justice Department to stay in office

Three top Justice Department officials on Thursday recounted how former President Trump wanted the department to undermine the 2020 election. Andrea Bernstein, co-host of the "Will Be Wild" podcast and a frequent NPR contributor, and attorney Michael Zeldin, host of the "That Said With Michael Zeldin" podcast who previously served in the Justice Department, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to further discuss today's hearings, I'm joined now by journalist Andrea Bernstein. She's co-host of the "Will Be Wild" podcast, and she is a frequent NPR contributor covering former President Trump's legal troubles. And attorney Michael Zeldin, host of the "That Said With Michael Zeldin" podcast, he served in the Department of Justice during the Reagan and the first Bush administrations.

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    Andrea Bernstein, I'm going to ask you first.

    I mean, what comes across? We have heard it again just now from Lisa and from Laura and what we have seen in the sound and heard in the hearing. This was a relentless campaign of pressure that the former president put on his own Justice Department to change the result of the election.

  • Andrea Bernstein, Investigative Journalist:

    So, at the end of this hearing, Adam Kinzinger, a Republican, gestured to the three witnesses, former top Trump appointees at the Department of Justice, and said, because of these individuals, the president's coup attempt — excuse me — the president's coup failed.

    He called it a coup, which is really a stunning thing to sort of have before us, that we have come to this point in our democracy. And the hearing today, which focused on this dramatic meeting on January 3, where President Trump wants to overthrow these top three men in the Justice Department, so he can put in Jeffrey Clark, a lower-level individual who appears to believe in the conspiracy theories and in the false allegations of voter fraud, to send letters to state legislatures across the country, telling them not to send the valid electors to Washington.

    So this meeting is happening. Clark is almost appointed. There's two hours of what was described as heated discussion. And then, finally, President Trump gives in because he can't — he doesn't think he can get it done.

    And when you think about the — where this hearing happened, the day before is the 67-minute call with the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, that we heard in the earlier hearing this week. On January 3, according to documents and testimony that have been introduced in the investigations, the Proud Boys had a well-developed plan to attack the Capitol.

    The next day, January 4, Trump berates his vice president, Mike Pence, to try to get him to acquiesce to not accepting the Electoral College vote.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    And then, of course, we know what happened on January 6.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Michael Zeldin, I mean, as someone who has worked at the Justice Department, as we mentioned, two administrations, this is a president who was told repeatedly that what he was looking at, there was no basis to believe there was enough — any fraud of any significance that had taken place.

    Yet he continued to push his own Justice officials to do this. Is there anything like that you have heard of in American history?

  • Michael Zeldin, Former Federal Prosecutor:

    No.

    Again, this is unique to the president of the United States in this moment in time. And the thing that I always listen to this evidence to hear is whether or not they can prove knowledge and intent, that is that the president of the United States, former President Trump, acted with knowledge and intent to obstruct an official proceeding and to defraud the United States.

    The evidence presented today was pretty compelling of that. There was a conversation that Rosen recounts where he says — the president says to Rosen, you aren't going to do anything about this, sending the fraud letter, this fraudulent fraud letter. And Rosen says to him, that's correct, because, constitutionally, it's required not to do anything.

    That is, if we do what you ask us to do, if we do what you ask us to do, we are violating the law. And yet the president insisted, and he was going to install Clark, whose house yesterday was raided by the FBI…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's right.

  • Michael Zeldin:

    … as the attorney general. Pretty stunning stuff.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stunning.

    And, Andrea Bernstein, I think, again, you have to come away from listening to all this deeply struck by how close the country came to this happening, that the president, former President Trump, was on the verge, in fact, there was some informal actions taken of naming Jeffrey Clark, completely unqualified, as far as we know, to be the attorney general.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Absolutely.

    In fact, Representative Kinzinger at one point put up a screen shot of a series of communications between Mr. Clark and former President Trump. You can see the president's calendar where, that day, before this meeting, clerk has already described on White House materials as the acting attorney general.

    I mean, I have spent a lot of time reading up on this meeting. It's been described in depositions and written testimony and e-mails. But the impact of hearing it described, I am stunned by how close we really came to this moment where somebody was going to be the attorney general of the United States, the top law enforcement officer, to carry out this plan of thwarting the will of the voters.

    And that, I do think is sort of where the committee has left it for the — if this were a TV series, this would be the midseason pause, where it's a real cliffhanger. What is going to happen next? What else are they going to bring us that takes us from the day of this hearing, which — this meeting…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    … which was January 3, to January 6?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what is not a cliffhanger, though, Michael Zeldin, is that these are all Republicans who are doing this testifying. These were top officials appointed under President Trump who were testifying today that they could not go along with what he — with his scheme that he was trying to do.

    So, for Republicans who are watching this, it's clear — and the committee day after day, it's been Republicans making this case.

  • Michael Zeldin:

    Exactly.

    And if we go back in time to Tuesday, one of the other elements of this DOJ pressure campaign was the testimony of the United States attorney for Georgia, Mr. Pak, who quit in the face of Trump's relentless pressure campaign against the Department of Justice in Georgia to, again, declare fraud and just let him and his corrupt friends perpetrate the big lie.

    So it is all coming together. The testimony of yesterday — or Tuesday and today creates this intertwining of activity that leads us to believe that there is evidence that they obstructed the workings of government, and in an effort to defraud it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, again, so much of the material, the information coming forward, these are members of the president — former president's own political party.

    They were supporters of the former president.

  • Michael Zeldin:

    Exactly.

    And in law, they say you make an argument to take the wind out of the sails of your opponent. Well, here, the people who are making that wind out of the sails argument are all people who have said that they worked for Trump, they voted for Trump, they hoped he would be reelected.

    But when it came down to it, truth and oath mattered more than his presidency. And that's an important lesson. It's a profile in integrity.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Zeldin, Andrea…

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Yes, I think what we really see here is government in action, oversight in action. This is what it looks like.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is what it looks like.

    Andrea Bernstein and Michael Zeldin, we thank you both.

  • Andrea Bernstein:

    Thank you.

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