WASHINGTON — In Donald J. Trump’s final weeks in office, Mark Meadows, his chief of staff, repeatedly pushed the Justice Department to investigate unfounded conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, according to newly uncovered emails provided to Congress, portions of which were reviewed by The New York Times.
In five emails sent during the last week of December and early January, Mr. Meadows asked Jeffrey A. Rosen, then the acting attorney general, to examine debunked claims of election fraud in New Mexico and an array of baseless conspiracies that held that Mr. Trump had been the actual victor. That included a fantastical theory that people in Italy had used military technology and satellites to remotely tamper with voting machines in the United States and switch votes for Mr. Trump to votes for Joseph R. Biden Jr.
None of the emails show Mr. Rosen agreeing to open the investigations suggested by Mr. Meadows, and former officials and people close to him said that he did not do so. An email to another Justice Department official indicated that Mr. Rosen had refused to broker a meeting between the F.B.I. and a man who had posted videos online promoting the Italy conspiracy theory, known as Italygate.
But the communications between Mr. Meadows and Mr. Rosen, which have not previously been reported, show the increasingly urgent efforts by Mr. Trump and his allies during his last days in office to find some way to undermine, or even nullify, the election results while he still had control of the government.
Mr. Trump chose Mr. Meadows, an ultraconservative congressman from North Carolina, to serve as his fourth and final chief of staff last March. A founder of the hard-right Freedom Caucus, Mr. Meadows was among Mr. Trump’s most loyal and vocal defenders on Capitol Hill, and had been a fierce critic of the Russia investigation.
Mr. Meadows’s involvement in the former president’s attack on the election results was broadly known at the time.
In the days before Christmas, as Mr. Trump pressed the lead investigator for Georgia’s secretary of state to find “dishonesty,” Mr. Meadows made a surprise visit to Cobb County, Ga., to view an election audit in process. Local officials called it a stunt that “smelled of desperation,” as investigations had not found evidence of widespread fraud.
Mr. Meadows also joined the phone call that Mr. Trump made on Jan. 2 to Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, in which Mr. Trump repeatedly urged the state’s top elections official to alter the outcome of the presidential vote.
Yet the newly unearthed messages show how Mr. Meadows’s private efforts veered into the realm of the outlandish, and sought official validation for misinformation that was circulating rampantly among Mr. Trump’s supporters. Italygate was among several unfounded conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 elections that caught fire on the internet before the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. Those theories fueled the belief among many of the rioters, stoked by Mr. Trump, that the election had been stolen from him and have prompted several Republican-led states to pass or propose new barriers to voting.
The emails were discovered this year as part of a Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into whether Justice Department officials were involved in efforts to reverse Mr. Trump’s election loss.
“This new evidence underscores the depths of the White House’s efforts to co-opt the department and influence the electoral vote certification,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the committee, said in a statement. “I will demand all evidence of Trump’s efforts to weaponize the Justice Department in his election subversion scheme.”
A spokesman for Mr. Meadows declined to comment, as did the Justice Department. Mr. Rosen did not respond to a request for comment.
The requests by Mr. Meadows reflect Mr. Trump’s belief that he could use the Justice Department to advance his personal agenda.
On Dec. 15, the day after it was announced that Mr. Rosen would serve as acting attorney general, Mr. Trump summoned him to the Oval Office to push the Justice Department to support lawsuits that sought to overturn his election loss. Mr. Trump also urged Mr. Rosen to appoint a special counsel to investigate Dominion Voting Systems, an election technology company.
During the weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 attack, Mr. Trump continued to push Mr. Rosen to do more to help him undermine the election and even considered replacing him as acting attorney general with a Justice Department official who seemed more amenable to using the department to violate the Constitution and change the election result.
Throughout those weeks, Mr. Rosen privately told Mr. Trump that he would prefer not to take those actions, reiterating a public statement made by his predecessor, William P. Barr, that the Justice Department had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
Mr. Meadows’s outreach to Mr. Rosen was audacious in part because it violated longstanding guidelines that essentially forbid almost all White House personnel, including the chief of staff, from contacting the Justice Department about investigations or other enforcement actions.
“The Justice Department’s enforcement mechanisms should not be used for political purpose or for the personal benefit of the president. That’s the key idea that gave rise to these policies,” said W. Neil Eggleston, who served as President Barack Obama’s White House counsel. “If the White House is involved in an investigation, there is at least a sense that there is a political angle to it.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Meadows emailed Mr. Rosen multiple times in the end of December and on New Year’s Day.
On Jan. 1, Mr. Meadows wrote that he wanted the Justice Department to open an investigation into a discredited theory, pushed by the Trump campaign, that anomalies with signature matches in Georgia’s Fulton County had been widespread enough to change the results in Mr. Trump’s favor.
Mr. Meadows had previously forwarded Mr. Rosen an email about possible fraud in Georgia that had been written by Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who worked with the Trump campaign. Two days after that email was sent to Mr. Rosen, Ms. Mitchell participated in the Jan. 2 phone call, during which she and Mr. Trump pushed Mr. Raffensperger to reconsider his findings that there had not been widespread voter fraud and that Mr. Biden had won. During the call, Mr. Trump asked Mr. Raffensperger to “find” him the votes necessary to declare victory in Georgia.
Mr. Meadows also sent Mr. Rosen a list of allegations of possible election wrongdoing in New Mexico, a state that Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani had said in November was rife with fraud. A spokesman for New Mexico’s secretary of state said at the time that its elections were secure. To confirm the accuracy of the vote, auditors in the state hand-counted random precincts.
And in his request that the Justice Department investigate the Italy conspiracy theory, Mr. Meadows sent Mr. Rosen a YouTube link to a video of Brad Johnson, a former C.I.A. employee who had been pushing the theory in videos and statements that he posted online. After receiving the video, Mr. Rosen said in an email to another Justice Department official that he had been asked to set up a meeting between Mr. Johnson and the F.B.I., had refused, and had then been asked to reconsider.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is one of three entities looking into aspects of the White House’s efforts to overturn the election in the waning days of the Trump administration. The House Oversight Committee and the Justice Department’s inspector general are doing so as well.
Mr. Rosen is in talks with the oversight panel about speaking with investigators about any pressure the Justice Department faced to investigate election fraud, as well as the department’s response to the Jan. 6 attack, according to people familiar with the investigation.
He is also negotiating with the Justice Department about what he can disclose to Congress and to the inspector general given his obligation to protect the department’s interests and not interfere with current investigations, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Mr. Rosen said last month during a hearing before the oversight committee that he could not answer several questions because the department did not permit him to discuss issues covered by executive privilege.
Mr. Durbin opened his inquiry in response to a Times article documenting how Jeffrey Clark, a top Justice Department official who had found favor with Mr. Trump, had pushed the Justice Department to investigate unfounded election fraud claims. The effort almost ended in Mr. Rosen’s ouster.
Last month, Mr. Durbin asked the National Archives for any communications involving White House officials, and between the White House and any person at the Justice Department, concerning efforts to subvert the election, according to a letter obtained by The Times. He also asked for records related to meetings between White House and department employees.
The National Archives stores correspondence and documents generated by past administrations.
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