WASHINGTON — President Donald J. Trump pressed top Justice Department officials late last year to declare that the election was corrupt even though they had found no instances of widespread fraud, so he and his allies in Congress could use the assertion to try to overturn the results, according to new documents provided to lawmakers.
The demands were an extraordinary instance of a president interfering with an agency that is typically more independent from the White House to advance his personal agenda. They are also the latest example of Mr. Trump’s wide-ranging campaign during his final weeks in office to delegitimize the election results.
The exchange unfolded during a phone call on Dec. 27 in which Mr. Trump pressed the acting attorney general at the time, Jeffrey A. Rosen, and his deputy, Richard P. Donoghue, on voter fraud claims that the Justice Department had found no evidence for. Mr. Donoghue warned that the department had no power to change the outcome of the election. Mr. Trump replied that he did not expect that, according to notes Mr. Donoghue took memorializing the conversation.
“Just say that the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me” and to congressional allies, Mr. Donoghue wrote in summarizing Mr. Trump’s response.
Mr. Trump did not name the lawmakers, but at other points during the call, he mentioned Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, whom he described as a “fighter”; Representative Scott Perry, Republican of Pennsylvania, who at the time promoted the idea that the election was stolen from Mr. Trump; and Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, whom Mr. Trump praised for “getting to bottom of things.”
Mr. Jordan and Mr. Johnson denied any role in Mr. Trump’s efforts to pressure the Justice Department.
“Congressman Jordan did not, has not, and would not pressure anyone at the Justice Department about the 2020 election,” said Russell Dye, a spokesman for Mr. Jordan, who voted to overturn election results in key states but has downplayed his role in the president’s pressure campaign. “He continues to agree with President Trump that it is perfectly appropriate to raise concerns about election integrity.”
Mr. Johnson had “no conversations with President Trump about the D.O.J. questioning the election results,” said his spokeswoman, Alexa Henning. She noted that he had acknowledged Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the president-elect but that he had also called for what he sees as election irregularities to be fully investigated and addressed to restore confidence in future elections.
Mr. Perry did not respond to requests for comment. He has continued to assert Mr. Trump won, but has not been tied directly to the White House effort to keep him in office.
The phone call by Mr. Trump was perhaps the most audacious moment in a monthslong pressure campaign aimed at enlisting the Justice Department in his crusade to overturn the election results.
After the departure of Mr. Rosen’s predecessor, William P. Barr, became public on Dec. 14, Mr. Trump and his allies harangued Mr. Rosen and his top deputies nearly every day until Jan. 6, when Congress met to certify the Electoral College and was disrupted by Mr. Trump’s supporters storming the Capitol, according to emails and other documents obtained by Congress and interviews with former Trump administration officials.
The conversations often included complaints about unfounded voter fraud conspiracy theories, frustration that the Justice Department would not ask the Supreme Court to invalidate the election and admonishments that department leaders had failed to fight hard enough for Mr. Trump, the officials said.
The Justice Department provided Mr. Donoghue’s notes to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which is investigating the Trump administration’s efforts to unlawfully reverse the election results.
Typically, the department has fought to keep secret any accounts of private discussions between a president and his cabinet to avoid setting a precedent that would prevent officials in future administrations from candidly advising presidents out of concern that their conversations would later be made public.
But handing over the notes to Congress is part of a pattern of allowing scrutiny of Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. The Biden Justice Department also told Mr. Rosen, Mr. Donoghue and other former officials this week that they could provide unrestricted testimony to investigators with the House Oversight and Reform and the Senate Judiciary Committees.
The department reasoned that congressional investigators were examining potential wrongdoing by a sitting president, an extraordinary circumstance, according to letters sent to the former officials. Because executive privilege is meant to benefit the country, rather than the president as an individual, invoking it over Mr. Trump’s efforts to push his personal agenda would be inappropriate, the department concluded.
“These handwritten notes show that President Trump directly instructed our nation’s top law enforcement agency to take steps to overturn a free and fair election in the final days of his presidency,” Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said in a statement.
Trump’s Bid to Subvert the Election
- A monthslong campaign. During his last days in office, President Donald J. Trump and his allies undertook an increasingly urgent effort to undermine the election results. That wide-ranging campaign included perpetuating false and thoroughly debunked claims of election fraud as well as pressing government officials for help.
- Baseless claims of voter fraud. Although Mr.Trump’s allegations of a stolen election have died in the courts and election officials of both parties from every state have said there is no evidence of fraud, Republicans across the country continued to spread conspiracy theories. Those include 147 House Republicans who voted against certifying the election.
- Intervention at the Justice Department. Rebuffed by ranking Republicans and cabinet officials like Attorney General William P. Barr, who stepped down weeks before his tenure was to end, Mr. Trump sought other avenues to peddle his unfounded claims. In a bid to advance his personal agenda, Mr. Trump plotted to oust the acting attorney general and pressed top officials to declare that the election was corrupt. His chief of staff pushed the department to investigate an array of outlandish and unfounded conspiracy theories that held that Mr. Trump had been the victor.
- Pressuring state officials to ‘find votes.’ In a taped call, Mr. Trump urged Georgia’s secretary of state to “find 11,780 votes” to overturn the presidential election and vaguely warned of a “criminal offense.” And he twice tried to talk with a leader of Arizona’s Republican party in a bid to reverse Joseph R. Biden’s narrow victory there.
- Contesting Congress’s electoral tally on Jan. 6. As the president continued to refuse to concede the election, his most loyal backers proclaimed Jan. 6, when Congress convened to formalize Mr. Biden’s electoral victory, as a day of reckoning. On that day, Mr. Trump delivered an incendiary speech to thousands of his supporters hours before a mob of loyalists violently stormed the Capitol.
Mr. Trump’s conversation with Mr. Rosen and Mr. Donoghue reflected his single-minded focus on overturning the election results. At one point, Mr. Trump claimed voter fraud in Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Arizona, which he called “corrupted elections.” Mr. Donoghue pushed back.
“Much of the info you’re getting is false,” Mr. Donoghue said, adding that the department had conducted “dozens of investigations, hundreds of interviews” and had not found evidence to support his claims. “We look at allegations but they don’t pan out,” the officials told Mr. Trump, according to the notes.
The department found that the error rate of ballot counting in Michigan was 0.0063 percent, not the 68 percent that the president asserted; it did not find evidence of a conspiracy theory that an employee in Pennsylvania had tampered with ballots; and after examining video and interviewing witnesses, it found no evidence of ballot fraud in Fulton County, Ga., according to the notes.
Mr. Trump, undeterred, brushed off the department’s findings. “OK fine — but what about the others?” Mr. Donoghue wrote in his notes describing the president’s remarks. Mr. Trump asked Mr. Donoghue to travel to Fulton County to verify signatures on ballots.
The people “saying that the election isn’t corrupt are corrupt,” Mr. Trump told the officials, adding that they needed to act. “Not much time left.”
At another point, Mr. Donoghue said that the department could quickly verify or disprove the assertion that more ballots were cast in Pennsylvania than there were voters.
“Should be able to check on that quickly, but understand that the D.O.J. can’t and won’t snap its fingers and change the outcome of the election, doesn’t work that way,” Mr. Donoghue wrote in his notes.
The officials also told Mr. Trump that the Justice Department had no evidence to support a lawsuit regarding the election results. “We are not in a position based on the evidence,” they said. “We can only act on the actual evidence developed.”
Mr. Trump castigated the officials, saying that “thousands of people called” their local U.S. attorney’s offices to complain about the election and that “nobody trusts the F.B.I.” He said that “people are angry — blaming D.O.J. for inaction.”
“You guys may not be following the internet the way I do,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document.
In a moment of foreshadowing, Mr. Trump said, “people tell me Jeff Clark is great, I should put him in,” referring to the acting chief of the Justice Department’s civil division, who had also encouraged department officials to intervene in the election. “People want me to replace D.O.J. leadership.”
“You should have the leadership you want,” Mr. Donoghue replied. But it would not change the department’s position on a lack of widespread election fraud, he noted.
Mr. Donoghue and Mr. Rosen did not know that Mr. Perry had introduced Mr. Clark to Mr. Trump. One week later, they would be forced to fight Mr. Clark for their jobs in an Oval Office showdown.
During the call, Mr. Trump also told the Justice Department officials to “figure out what to do” with Hunter Biden, Mr. Biden’s son. “People will criticize the D.O.J. if he’s not investigated for real,” he told them, violating longstanding guidelines against White House intervention in criminal investigations or other law enforcement actions.
Two days after the phone call with Mr. Trump, Mr. Donoghue took notes of a meeting with Justice Department officials that also included Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows; the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone; and the White House deputy counsel Patrick Philbin. They met to discuss a conspiracy theory known as Italygate, which asserts without evidence that people in Italy used military technology to remotely tamper with voting machines in the United States.
The Justice Department officials told the White House that they had assigned someone to look into the matter, according to the notes and a person briefed on the meeting. They did not mention that the department was looking into the theory to debunk it, the person said.
While the Justice Department officials kept the pressure campaign hidden from public view, the emails obtained by Congress and interviews with former Trump administration officials show they were alarmed by Mr. Trump’s behavior, particularly when he complained about the U.S. attorney in Atlanta, Byung J. Pak, whom he viewed as not doing enough to examine voter fraud accusations there.
Mr. Pak abruptly stepped down on Jan. 4, after Mr. Donoghue told him about the president’s plot with Mr. Clark and of Mr. Trump’s concerns about Atlanta, according to documents and interviews.
Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.