For a brief moment in early January 2021, it looked like Jeffrey Clark’s moment in the sun had arrived. He was poised to become a major player in Washington.
All he needed to do was successfully convince then-President Donald Trump to install him as acting attorney general, then demand that key swing states won by Joe Biden send a separate slate of pro-Trump electors to Congress, thus overturning Biden’s Electoral College win.
Up to that point, Clark was, in the eyes of true Washington insiders, a schnook, a comparative nobody.
It wasn’t that he was unaccomplished. Clark had a solid resume as a graduate of Harvard and Georgetown Law, and spent over a decade as a partner at the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis. He had even been Senate-confirmed. In 2018, Trump nominated Clark to be assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division at the Department of Justice. He was confirmed on a near party-line vote, with opposition due to the fact that Clark, who represented BP in his private practice, was a climate science skeptic. Clark was exactly the type of smart guy with a ceiling that makes up the upper-middle class of Washington policymakers.
But Washington law firms and Nationals Park box seats are jam-packed with unobtrusive Republicans who represent the fossil fuel industry. There are fewer who sought to actively overturn a democratic election and vied to be the hatchet man for an outgoing president determined to stay in power.
The latter part of Clark’s resume is why this particular former bureaucrat will get a different sort of moment in the glaring spotlight on Thursday, when those activities will be a focus of the select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
Clark himself won’t be on the witness stand. He appeared before the committee in February, only when he was facing a possible contempt referral after refusing to answer questions at a prior deposition. In that February appearance, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination over 100 times.
Much of what we know about Clark’s actions comes from a deposition from his former colleague Richard Donoghue, who was also acting assistant attorney general. Clark first approached his boss, acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, in late December 2020. Clark reached out to Rosen on December 28 for permission to get a briefing on whether China could control Dominion voting machines via smart thermostat and a draft letter for the Department of Justice to send to key Georgia officials asking them to block certification of the state’s election results. This letter was a model, which, if approved, could be sent to other key states won by Biden as well. Rosen rebuffed him.
However, Clark then went around Rosen, directly to Trump. The Justice Department official had been connected to the then-president by Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), the head of the hard-right Freedom Caucus and one of Trump’s most ardent supporters on Capitol Hill.
In a dramatic Oval Office meeting featuring Trump, Clark, and top lawyers from the Justice Department and the White House counsel’s office, Clark urged the president to give him his moment in the sun.
“History is calling. This is our opportunity. We can get this done,” Clark said, according to the deposition by Donoghue. Everyone else in the meeting is said to have pushed back against Clark’s attempt to take control of the DOJ. Donoghue, along with Steve Engel, another top DOJ official appointed by Trump, said they would resign if Trump replaced Clark with Rosen.
Donoghue, by his own account, went on to threaten the specter of mass resignations if Trump went through with his plot. “And we’re not the only ones. You should understand that your entire department leadership will resign. … You could have mass resignations amongst your US attorneys. And then it will trickle down from there; you could have resignations across the Department. And what happens if, within 48 hours, we have hundreds of resignations from your Justice Department because of your actions?”
This was echoed by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who, according to Donoghue, said at one point in the meeting, “Well, I’m not going to stand for this, I’m not going to be here if it happens either.”
Donoghue said he then denigrated Clark’s legal abilities, telling Trump, “Jeff Clark is not even competent to serve as the attorney general.” After Clark protested and insisted that he was up for the task, Donoghue says he essentially told him to go home and get his shine box.
“That’s right,” retorted Donoghue. “You’re an environmental lawyer. How about you go back to your office, and we’ll call you when there’s an oil spill.”
Eventually, Trump blinked. Although he made complaints to Rosen and Donoghue like “You two haven’t done anything” and “Everyone says I should fire you,” he didn’t follow through on his plan to elevate Clark. He announced at the end of the meeting that he was going to let it go. Clark’s moment had passed.
Since leaving the Justice Department, Clark has joined a Trumpist think tank, the Center for Renewing America. However, while he is not likely to wield power anytime soon, he will be the center of attention in Thursday’s hearings. Rosen, Donoghue, and Engel will all testify about Trump’s efforts to weaponize the DOJ to overturn the 2020 election.
There are still questions about Clark’s involvement in the effort to overturn the election, like who else the environmental lawyer was working with as well as the nature of his ties to Perry, that remain unresolved.
As one select committee aide told reporters on Wednesday, “Jeffrey Clark is certainly an important figure when it comes to the pressure campaign against the Department of Justice.”
But despite his best efforts, Clark is unlikely to be an important figure in history. Instead, it appears he will be a bit character who made one bumbling attempt toward relevance, and failed.