Senate panel interviews former US attorney in Trump probe

FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2019, file photo, U.S. Attorney Byung J. "BJay" Pak is seen following a news conference in Atlanta. The Senate Judiciary Committee met privately Wednesday. Aug. 11, 2021, with the former U.S. Attorney in Georgia who resigned in January as former President Donald Trump waged a pressure campaign on state and federal officials to overturn his presidential defeat part of a larger probe into Trump's actions after the November election.(AP Photo/Ron Harris, File) (Ron Harris, Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee met privately Wednesday with a former U.S. attorney in Georgia who resigned in January as then-President Donald Trump waged a pressure campaign on state and federal officials to overturn his presidential defeat — part of a larger probe into Trump’s actions after the November election.

The interview was with Byung J. “BJay” Pak, who resigned as a U.S. attorney in Atlanta the day after a call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger became public, according to a person familiar with the committee meeting.

In a recording of the call between Trump and Raffensperger, obtained the day after by The Associated Press and other outlets, Trump is heard urging Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s win in the state. He also appeared to criticize Pak, whom he had appointed, indicating Pak hadn’t done enough to try and overturn the election. Trump called Pak a “never Trumper.”

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said after Wednesday's interview that Pak "answered all questions in a seemingly honest and candid way, and my impression is that he believes in the rule of law and that he stood up for it.” Blumenthal did not provide details of the conversation.

The interview is part of efforts by Democrats in the House and Senate to investigate the former president’s baseless claims about widespread election fraud — refuted by election officials and courts across the country — and his push within the Justice Department to investigate the matter. Trump's pressure on the department came just before the Jan. 6 insurrection, when hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol and interrupted the certification of Biden’s victory. Months later, Trump is still pushing the false fraud claims.

As part of its investigation, the Judiciary Committee spent several hours on Saturday interviewing Trump’s acting attorney general at the time, Jeffrey Rosen. Senators also interviewed his former top deputy, Richard Donoghue, virtually on Friday. It is unclear if the committee will interview more officials.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Sunday that Rosen “was very open" during the interview "and there’s a lot there.”

Durbin said the pressure from Trump on Justice Department officials after Attorney General William Barr resigned was “real, very real” and “very specific.” Barr resigned in December after telling the AP that the Justice Department had found no evidence of the widespread fraud, leaving others at the department vulnerable to Trump’s repeated demands.

“I think it’s a good thing for America that we had a person like Rosen in that position, who withstood the pressure,” Durbin said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” He said he thinks “history is going to be very kind to Mr. Rosen when it’s all over.”

Rosen also met on Friday with the Justice Department’s inspector general, whose office is investigating Trump’s claims and the internal pressure on Justice officials. His testimony to investigators in both interviews was described to the AP by five people with direct knowledge of the interviews and Trump’s efforts to influence the Justice Department. All spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private details of those conversations.

Rosen told both the inspector general and Congress that Jeffrey Clark, then in charge of the Justice Department’s civil division, pressed others in the department to make false statements about the election in an effort to push Trump’s baseless claims that the election was fraudulent. Rosen also spoke of efforts by both Clark and Trump to oust him as the acting attorney general because he was refusing to go along with their plan.

Trump demanded Rosen appoint a special counsel to investigate his baseless election fraud claims — something Barr had pointedly refused to do. He continued calling Rosen to say he didn’t understand why the Justice Department wasn’t uncovering evidence supporting his claims and complained that Rosen wasn’t fighting hard enough for him.

Rosen also told investigators that Clark met with Trump and crafted a letter that Trump wanted Rosen to send to Georgia state lawmakers. It told them to void Biden’s electoral win and claim that the Justice Department was investigating fraud in the state’s election. But Rosen and his top deputy, Rich Donoghue, refused to send it, those familiar with the interview said.

Rosen told them that he and Donoghue decided to resign if Rosen were fired, and eventually informed Trump of that plan in a White House meeting. Trump backed down and allowed Rosen to stay, he said.

Durbin has said he would also like to speak to Clark and Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, but it’s unclear whether they would appear. The other officials received specific clearance for the interview from Biden’s Justice Department.

The House Oversight committee has also been investigating the Justice Department pressure, and last week interviewed Patrick Hovakimian, a former associate deputy attorney general who had also been given clearance to testify, according to a person familiar with the congressional investigation. The person was not authorized to discuss it publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hovakimian discussed with the committee a Jan. 3 document he drafted for public dissemination in the event that Trump fired Rosen. In the letter, reported by Politico last week, Hovakimian described how Rosen had over the last week “repeatedly refused the President’s direct instructions to utilize the Department of Justice’s law enforcement powers for improper ends.” It said that he and Donoghue were resigning, effective immediately.

The letter, which was never sent, was intentionally addressed to Justice Department component heads and other senior officials so that a broad audience of employees could understand what had happened and who precisely had stood up for the Justice Department’s “institutional interests,” according to the person familiar with the investigation who was granted anonymity to discuss it.

The Oversight panel has now turned over parts of their probe to a new House panel investigating the insurrection. Leaders of that committee have said they plan to conduct extensive interviews about events that led up to the violent attack, including Trump’s falsehoods about the election.