The story itself—like so many things in Trump world—is comically bad, like something out of Veep. The New York Times reported in January that Trump had tapped Jeffery Clark, the assistant attorney general for the environment and natural resources division of the Department of Justice (and acting head of the DOJ’s civil division), in the weeks prior to help him undermine the election results when then acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen wouldn’t.
A little background about Clark: He’s most famous for being one of the lawyers who defended BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an event that many have called the largest environmental catastrophe in American history. He’s also famous for saying that efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions were “reminiscent of a Leninist program from the 1920s to seize control of the commanding heights of the economy.” Anyway, that guy was basically the engine of Trump’s attempts to overturn the election.
According to The New York Times, all of this started after Trump announced the resignation of Attorney General Bill Barr on December 14. The next day Trump called acting A.G. Rosen to the Oval Office, hoping to pressure the DOJ to back his supporters’ lawsuits to overturn his loss and “urged Mr. Rosen to appoint special counsels to investigate not only unfounded accusations of widespread voter fraud but also Dominion, the voting-machines firm.” Rosen wouldn’t do it, however, nor would Richard Donoghue, the deputy attorney general.
Yet Trump had a believer in Clark. In December, Clark gave Rosen and Donoghue the rather Trumpy line that he had “spent a lot of time reading on the internet—a comment that alarmed them because they inferred that he believed the unfounded conspiracy theory that Mr. Trump had won the election,” according to the Times.
Shortly after New Year’s, according to the Times, Clark told Rosen that “the president intended to replace him with Mr. Clark, who could then try to stop Congress from certifying the Electoral College results.” But that didn’t happen; according to Donoghue’s notes, Trump told Rosen to just “say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen,” later adding, “You guys may not be following the internet the way I do.”
And then The New York Times reported last weekend that Rosen on Friday told the Justice Department watchdog and congressional investigators that Clark and Trump had “unauthorized conversations” about getting the DOJ to cast doubt publicly on Biden’s victory. The goal was to undermine the count in the battleground states—Trump’s obsession, the red-to-blue state of Georgia, among them. Clark drafted a letter that he wanted acting A.G. Rosen to send to Georgia state legislators, contending that they should void Biden’s victory because the DOJ was investigating voter fraud in the state (though they were not). But that plot didn’t work, either—Clark wasn’t able to get his way, Rosen and Donoghue stayed on, and Congress certified the election on the morning of January 7, despite the best efforts of Trump and many of his supporters in the Republican Party.
The coup didn’t happen, but now that we are learning the details, I’m a little surprised that there isn’t more outrage. Perhaps the problem is that a human being can only contain so much of it or that—from the vantage of the Biden era—it all seems like it happened such a long time ago. Either way, you should care that a coup almost happened in this country because democracy isn’t a given; much of the world struggles under leaders who don’t care about the will of the people. As Ben Franklin once famously said to a lady at the constitutional convention in 1787, America is only a republic “if you can keep it.”
Why should this failed coup matter to you? Because next time it may work. Because the Republican Party is already behaving like the election was stolen from Trump, when what actually happened is that Trump tried to steal the election. You should care about this failed coup because each and every attempt to undermine an election frays the fabric of democracy. (Maybe this one didn’t work, but coups aren’t generally a sign of a healthy, functioning state.) We need a narrative to fight the backslide into authoritarianism. We need reporting and clarity on just what happened between the election and January 6. Trump’s first attempted coup failed—but history is filled with failed coups that led to successful ones.