Emails: Senior DOJ officials wrangled over baseless Trump voter fraud allegations

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During Donald Trump's final weeks in office, top Justice Department officials wrangled over how the FBI should handle a particularly wacky voter fraud allegation promoted by the then-president and his allies. Unreleased emails obtained by POLITICO show just how tense the episode got.

The dispute pitted a senior career section chief against one of the DOJ’s top officials, with the FBI caught in the crossfire. Trump’s appointees at DOJ ultimately prevailed, and their investigation — a probe into a viral video from Georgia that didn’t actually find any evidence of fraud — ended up playing a role in torpedoing the president’s narrative. While Trump’s opponents fretted that the FBI’s involvement would undermine public confidence in elections and boost Republican talking points, it had the opposite effect.

At the time of the email dispute, Trump and his allies were lobbing a host of allegations about voter fraud, claiming wide-reaching and nefarious forces had conspired to steal the election for Biden. One allegation in particular commanded the president’s attention: a video showing election workers counting ballots at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Trump’s allies claimed it showed the workers secretly pulling ballots out of “suitcases” and using them to commit election fraud.

Officials in the office of Georgia’s secretary of state quickly debunked those claims. But on Dec. 5, Trump alluded to the video at a rally in Georgia, suggesting it proved poll workers were stuffing ballot boxes to help the Democrats.

Two days later, at 12:34 a.m. on Dec. 7, the head of DOJ’s Public Integrity Section (PIN) — which oversees investigations of voter fraud, along with a host of other issues — sent a four-paragraph email to an FBI official. Lawyers in the section had learned that FBI agents planned to interview people who appeared in a video showing votes being counted at State Farm Arena in Georgia –– a video Georgia’s secretary of state had already investigated. The email doesn’t give much detail about the video, but it appears to be discussing the same one that Trump referenced at his rally on Dec. 5.

The head of PIN — Corey Amundson, a career official with two decades of law enforcement experience — wrote that his team did not want the FBI to investigate the video.

“[Secretary of State] investigators have already conducted recorded interviews of the individuals at issue and such interviews reportedly revealed nothing to suggest nefarious activity with regard to the integrity of the election,” Amundson wrote. “The FBI ‘re-interviewing’ those individuals at this point and under the current circumstances risks great damage to the Department’s reputation, including the possible appearance of being motivated by partisan concerns.”

Before Attorney General William Barr took over, the DOJ had a long-standing approach to voter fraud probes: Agents waited to open these investigations until the elections were over, ballots were cast, and winners were certified. The policy was meant to stave off the perception that the FBI was deciding who won elections.

But the rules had changed. On Nov. 9, 2020, a few days after the networks called the election for Joe Biden, Barr issued a memo letting the FBI investigate some voter fraud allegations much more quickly. The move caused some distress in the department’s Criminal Division, as The Washington Post reported at the time.

As the FBI began executing Barr’s new policy, Amundson’s concerns quickly escalated to the highest levels of the Bureau. Shortly after 8 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 7, David Bowdich — the FBI’s second-in-command — emailed Richard Donoghue, a top DOJ official and a political appointee, about the conflict.

“This is putting us in a bad spot,” Bowdich wrote. “We need to get this PIN issue settled as to how to proceed. I feel like we are operating under an antiquated thought process here. Everyone understood that before the election we should not do these types of inquiries, but we are in a place right now in this election cycle in which these types of allegations are important to vet out, particularly when many in the country are still questioning the results.”

Donoghue replied to Bowdich a few hours later.

“It is antiquated indeed,” he wrote. He then noted that lawyers in Amundson’s section had pushed back against Barr’s November memo speeding up the FBI’s involvement in some election fraud cases. But, Donoghue continued, this wasn’t their call — it was the attorney general’s.

Barr had told Donoghue that the FBI needed to conduct some interviews about the State Farm allegations rather than relying solely on the secretary of state’s investigation, he informed Bowdich.

“It may well be that the GA SOS is correct in concluding that nothing nefarious happened there,” Donoghue continued, “but the fact is that millions of Americans have come to believe (rightly or wrongly) that something untoward took place and it is incumbent on the Department to timely conduct a limited investigation to assure the American people that we have looked at these claims.”

“If we come to the same conclusion as the GA SOS, then that should give the public increased confidence in the election results in GA,” Donoghue argued. “If we come to a different conclusion, then we’ll deal with that. Either way, the AG made it clear that he wants to be sure that we are actually doing our job and not just standing on the sidelines.”

Donoghue then repeated that this wasn’t up to Amundson.

“Moreover, given that the AG has specifically directed that the FBI conduct some interviews here (he leaves the number and depth of the interviews entirely up to the FBI), the decision has been made,” he wrote. “We all have a chain of command for a reason.”

He ended with a note of sympathy.

“Sorry that you and your team have been dragged into this again,” he concluded. “Unfortunately, this is the reality of working here these days.”

Donoghue then forwarded the email chain to Byung Jin “Bjay” Pak, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, which includes Atlanta. “JFYI,” he wrote. “Please do not forward.”

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform obtained these emails and planned to interview Donoghue. But then its probe of these matters was abruptly shut down.

Georgia on everybody’s mind

Pak, who answered Senate investigators’ questions virtually on Wednesday, would go on to become a minor character in Trump’s futile attempt to overturn the election results. He resigned on Jan. 3, as the president pushed him to pursue the claims of voter fraud, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Barr’s decision to have the DOJ charge ahead on voter fraud investigations also proved consequential. Even before the internal debate over the Georgia video, the FBI had scrutinized other allegations and found them unpersuasive. And in an interview with the AP published December 1, 2020, Barr said he’d seen no evidence of fraud that could have changed the election’s outcome.

The FBI kept investigating fraud allegations after Barr made those comments, as these new emails show. And Georgia and Pak in particular drew significant attention from the Justice Department — and from Trump himself.

By the start of the New Year, Barr had resigned and leadership of the department had fallen to his deputy Jeffrey Rosen, who soon became entangled in the president’s efforts — efforts he successfully stiff-armed.

Emails released by the House Oversight Committee show Rosen had emailed Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark Pak’s cell phone number with the subject line “atlanta” on Jan. 1, 2021, after then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows had asked Rosen to have Clark pursue voter fraud allegations in Georgia.

On Jan. 2, Rosen followed up with Clark about his call with Pak, and then later that day, Trump appeared to refer to Pak as a “never-Trumper U.S. Attorney” in a phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

The evening after a tumultuous Jan. 3 White House meeting between top Justice Department officials and Trump, Donoghue emailed Pak with the subject line “Please call ASAP.”

Pak submitted his resignation the next morning.

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