Former Justice Dept. lawyer cuts Jan. 6 deposition short
WASHINGTON (AP) — A former assistant attorney general who aligned himself with former President Donald Trump after he lost the 2020 election has declined to be fully interviewed by a House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, ending a deposition after around 90 minutes Friday.
Jeffrey Clark, who championed Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, presented the committee with a letter saying he would not answer questions based on Trump’s assertions of executive privilege, including in an ongoing court case, according to a person familiar with the closed-door meeting who was granted anonymity to discuss it. Clark left the interview with his lawyer, who told reporters that they were heading “home.”
Clark, who was subpoenaed by the committee to appear, would not answer any questions from reporters as he departed.
In a statement Friday evening, Rep. Bennie Thompson, the committee’s chairman, confirmed that Clark refused to answer questions and said it was unacceptable. He said he had rejected the claims of privilege and said Clark “has a very short time” to reconsider and cooperate.
“It’s astounding that someone who so recently held a position of public trust to uphold the Constitution would now hide behind vague claims of privilege by a former President, refuse to answer questions about an attack on our democracy, and continue an assault on the rule of law,” Thompson said.
Clark’s refusal is just the latest fallout from Trump’s attempt to assert executive privilege in a lawsuit he filed against the committee and the National Archives. The suit aims to block the government from releasing a tranche of internal White House documents, including call logs, drafts of remarks, speeches and handwritten staff notes from before and during the insurrection. President Joe Biden has so far waived executive privilege on nearly all the documents that the committee has asked for, citing the panel’s need to investigate the violent attack.
Amid the legal wrangling, the House panel has struggled to gain cooperation from some of Trump’s other top allies — including his longtime associate Steve Bannon and former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows — as it conducts a sweeping investigation outside of public view. The committee has so far interviewed more than 150 witnesses so far, according to two people familiar with the interviews who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them.
The interviews have included a broad swath of former and current executive branch officials, Trump campaign aides, law enforcement officials and others. The panel has also talked to several people who helped organize a rally the morning of Jan. 6 where Trump told his supporters to “fight like hell.”
The committee has also interviewed Justice Department officials who were in office after the election. Thompson said Clark’s “refusal to answer questions about the former President’s attempt to use the Department of Justice to overturn the election is in direct contrast to his supervisors at the Department, who have come in and answered the committee’s questions on these important topics.”
Clark is one of almost 20 people the committee has subpoenaed so far. A report issued by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee last month detailed how he championed Trump’s efforts to undo the election results and clashed as a result with Justice Department superiors who resisted the pressure, culminating in a dramatic White House meeting at which Trump ruminated about elevating Clark to attorney general. He did not do so after several aides threatened to resign.
Thompson wrote in Clark’s subpoena that the committee’s probe “has revealed credible evidence that you attempted to involve the Department of Justice in efforts to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power” and his efforts “risked involving the Department of Justice in actions that lacked evidentiary foundation and threatened to subvert the rule of law.”
It is unclear whether the panel will move to hold Clark in contempt of Congress, as they did with Bannon. Thompson said the committee needs the information Clark is withholding and is willing “to take strong measures” to hold him accountable.
As they voted to hold Bannon in contempt, lawmakers on the panel — including two Republicans — made clear they would fight any assertions of executive privilege, which was developed over the years to protect a president’s private conversations and communications. Thompson said then that the panel “won’t be deterred” by any such claims.
A federal judge hearing the case also appeared to question Trump’s assertions this week, expressing skepticism when Trump’s lawyers argued the House panel did not have a legislative purpose for obtaining the documents.
“The Jan. 6 riot happened in the Capitol,” said U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan. “That is literally Congress’ house.”
The House committee could pursue similar contempt charges against Meadows and former Trump administration aides Dan Scavino and Kashyap Patel, who have all been in extended discussions with the committee about testifying after they were subpoenaed.
Despite Trump’s false claims about a stolen election — the primary motivation for the violent mob that broke into the Capitol and interrupted the certification of Biden’s victory — the results were confirmed by state officials and upheld by the courts. Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, had said the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread fraud that could have changed the results.
Associated Press journalists Rick Gentilo and Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report.