Trump’s Coup Attempt Didn’t Start on January 6

With each passing day, new tendrils of the former president’s efforts come into view.

Trump pointing and the U.S. Capitol
Getty / The Atlantic

Nothing concentrates the mind, Samuel Johnson said, like an impending hanging. Perhaps we might add a codicil: Nothing distracts the mind quite like a mock hanging.

On January 6, a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, leading to five deaths, many more injuries and COVID-19 infections, and plenty of property damage. Some of the insurrectionists erected a gallows on the National Mall, and many talked of lynching members of Congress or then–Vice President Mike Pence.

The attempted coup reshaped the debate over then-President Donald Trump’s attempts to steal the 2020 presidential election, focusing both opponents and defenders on the insurrection itself and what role he played in inciting it. Now out of office, Trump is facing a second Senate impeachment trial. But as blockbuster reports in three newspapers over the weekend imply, January 6 was not the only or even necessarily the most important example of Trump’s attempts to hang on to power despite losing an election.

Those articles, in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, sketch out a heretofore-unknown episode in early January involving an obscure Justice Department official named Jeffrey Clark, who was an assistant attorney general. He’d been appointed in 2018 to lead the DOJ’s environmental division, but became the acting head of the civil division in September.

After the election, Trump pressed Attorney General Bill Barr to turn up evidence of fraud in the voting. The Justice Department did not manage to find such evidence, nor has anyone else provided any persuasive proof of widespread fraud. Barr soon resigned, amid public browbeating from Trump on the topic. The president then began badgering Jeffrey Rosen, the acting attorney general, to intervene in lawsuits filed by his allies about election results and to appoint a special counsel. Rosen refused.

At some point, Representative Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican, told Trump that Clark was amenable to his crusade to overturn the election. Clark’s belief in fraud tainting the election was based not on inside information or some expert’s reading of the law, but—he reportedly told colleagues—on spending a lot of time reading on the internet.

Under the quaint, pre-Trump practices of “norms” and “propriety,” Clark would not have spoken directly to the president without his bosses’ permission. But Trump and Clark apparently developed a plan in which the president would fire Rosen and install Clark in his place. Clark would then use the DOJ’s power to assist Trump’s efforts to stay in office, including by taking cases to the Supreme Court.

Rosen and other officials were apparently stunned by the subterfuge. The ploy came to a head in a White House meeting where Clark and Rosen, a former mentor in the private sector, made their respective cases to Trump. The president was persuaded not to fire Rosen after top Justice Department officials threatened to resign en masse if he did so.

This caper would have been the crowning scandal of almost any administration; in this one, it is almost an afterthought. Part of that is because its path to success is hard to understand, other than on the “underpants gnomes” theory of election law. Let’s say Trump had fired Rosen and installed Clark. Then what? Maybe Clark would have gone to the Supreme Court (assuming he didn’t hit other roadblocks at the DOJ). The justices would likely have laughed him out onto First Street Northeast.

Trump’s real aim seems to have been giving the appearance of a federal challenge to the vote, which would have given Georgia legislators a pretext to throw out the state’s election results. That seems unlikely to have worked, even with a DOJ letter; if legislators had acted, the matter would have ended up in court, and likely been overturned; and anyway, being awarded Georgia’s electoral votes wouldn’t have been enough to make Trump the winner.

Writing the Clark gambit off as both a doomed, pie-in-the-sky plan and a revelation that comes too late to make much difference misses the point, however, although both of those things are true. The episode has to be viewed in the context of Trump’s broader effort to steal the election. Other facets included Trump’s demand cum threat to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes”; his pressure campaigns on the governors of Georgia and Arizona to throw out state results; his parallel courting of legislators in other swing states to do the same; and his intense lobbying of Pence, both privately and publicly, to derail certification of the results on January 6.

The idea of a violent coup was perhaps the most far-fetched element of this push. No one except the truest believer would have expected that the Capitol would be so poorly guarded and so easily overrun. Trump certainly wasn’t going to throw himself into that effort the way he had others. In fact, each of these ideas was probably doomed. Maybe they all were as a whole. What is dangerous is that the president of the United States had so many different tendrils of sedition active at once.

The January 6 riot quickly eclipsed all of the other machinations. The article of impeachment passed by the House of Representatives on January 13, for example, focuses almost entirely on the violent insurrection. It mentions the call to Raffensperger in one brief aside, and the other ploys not at all. The emphasis is partly because the riot was so shocking, partly because it personally threatened the lawmakers in a way Trump’s other actions did not, and partly because it facilitated a hasty impeachment.

But that narrow focus on the insurrection has also allowed some of Trump’s defenders to derail the conversation by debating whether Trump was culpable for the actions of the mob on January 6. Letting him off on this count requires ignoring not only his speech that day, but also his weeks of telling people the election was being stolen from him; if that had been true, they might have been acting rationally in storming the Capitol, but he was lying to them all the while. As the Clark gambit illustrates, Trump’s speech to the mob was just one of many improper and illegal efforts to retain power. Trump’s attempt to overturn the election was amateurish and poorly thought-out, like most of his initiatives, but it was also sprawling, dangerous, and unacceptable.

The Senate won’t begin the former president’s trial for another two weeks. According to the conventional wisdom, that cooling-off period benefits Trump, but it also leaves two weeks for more stories like this one to emerge—and for the nation to see the stakes of the trial, and to weigh the case for permanently disqualifying him from office.