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Trump’s attempt to corrupt the Justice Department should surprise no one

The Jan. 6 committee lays out it for everyone to see.

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, are sworn in to testify in front of House select committee on Thursday.Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Each hearing of the House select committee on Jan. 6 has been a riveting story unto itself, and Thursday’s session was no exception.

We heard in detail about Donald Trump’s relentless pressure on the Department of Justice to join his jihad against the legitimate election results, including his call for a special counsel to investigate allegations of fraud he had been assured were baseless.

Mind you, after a point, this was no longer an attempt to discern the actual facts. Rather, it was aimed at generating a cloud of squid ink from the Justice Department to provide cover and justification for Trump’s broader efforts to steal the election from Joe Biden.


Indeed, then-Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue told the committee that during one phone conversation, Trump said this: “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.”

Donoghue and the acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, refused to do so. Thus was born Trump’s plan to replace Rosen with louche legal lightweight Jeffrey Clark. Why? Because Clark was willing to spread Trump-like lies about voting fraud, and on Department of Justice letterhead.

After making the false claim that the DOJ had “identified significant concerns” about the vote in a number of swing states, Clark would have urged their state legislatures to withdraw their certification of Biden’s victory and appoint slates of electors committed to Trump.

Trump backed down only because Rosen, Donoghue, and Steven Engel, who ran the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, threatened to resign in protest and bring dozens of other DOJ officials with them.

None of this should come as a surprise to any careful — or indeed, even casual — observer of Trump, who long tried to transform top law enforcement officials into his personal political praetorian guard. He demanded loyalty of FBI director James Comey, who said no and was later fired. He pushed his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to investigate Hillary Clinton for imaginary crimes. Sessions, who declined to open a probe of Clinton, fell out of Trump’s favor for being insufficiently compliant and was later fired.


And as much as politically purblind Trump supporters would like to pretend that none of this matters and that no one cares — speak of psychological projection! — the opposite increasingly appears to be true.

A new Quinnipiac University poll shows that 58 percent of Americans say they are following the committee’s work either closely or somewhat closely. Meanwhile, another poll shows that Republicans in politically astute New Hampshire now slightly favor — 39 percent to 37 percent — Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida over Tump for the 2024 Republican presidential nominee.

We also know that Trump himself is vexed by the proceedings and fuming that Republicans aren’t mounting an effective defense of his skulduggerous scheming.

But how, really, can one defend this?

I’ve been both amused and saddened by the pretzel logic some diehard Trump supporters have resorted in trying to do so. Here’s one such rationalization: Some of the very people Trump appointed helped block his efforts to subvert our democracy, so, net-net, the former president’s anti-constitutional conniving was really no big deal.

That’s akin to praising the fire department as a way of excusing the arsonist.


“There is much more to come,” Representative Liz Cheney declared at Thursday’s hearing.

There’s been an enormous amount already. Whether Trump committed a crime remains to be seen. But this much is now abundantly clear. He put his own political interests over Constitution and country — and he tried to corrupt the Justice Department into joining that effort.

Ambitious but amoral bureaucratic bounder that he is, Clark was willing to sign aboard. But not Rosen, Donoghue, and Engel.

“Think about what happens if these Justice officials make a different decision, what happens if they bow to the pressure,” said US Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois. “What would that do to us as a democracy, as a nation? Imagine a future where the president could screen applicants to the Justice Department with one question: Are you loyal to me or to the Constitution?”

He added: “It wouldn’t take long to find people willing to pledge their loyalty to the man.”

No indeed. We’ve already seen ample evidence of that, of abject hacks willing to mortgage the sorry dregs of their character for power and favor with Trump.

Fortunately for America, when confronted with his effort to corrupt the Justice Department, one of the most insidious aspects of his assault on the rule of law, Trump was thwarted by honorable men who did the right thing by our country and Constitution.

Those who cherish our democracy owe them our thanks.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.