While the nation turns its attention to the first anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, an important episode involving the Jan. 5, 2021 Georgia Senate runoff may easily be lost in the mix.
The timeline below tracks the Justice Department’s investigations of false claims of election fraud, a path the department took in sharp divergence from long-standing policy to refrain from overt investigative steps in the course of an election. The timeline focuses on actions that were not simply related to certification of the Nov. 3, 2020 election results, but were directly relevant to election fraud claims before voters went back to the polls in the Georgia runoff.
Investigations were apparently opened without being predicated on evidence of a crime or similar wrongdoing, and were instead internally justified in the Justice Department as an effort to address generalized public misgivings.
Congressional and media investigations appear to have conflated actions of U.S. officials that occurred in this timeline with a separate scheme by then-President Donald Trump to pressure the Justice Department to help overturn the presidential election. On the contrary, some of the actions taken – especially including by then-Attorney General Bill Barr in December — may have been intended to show the public the absence of election fraud. These actions followed an apparent agreement between then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the attorney general to convince Republican voters – that the voting system worked and that Joe Biden had won the election – in an effort to support the Republican candidates in the Georgia runoff.
The timeline points to three fundamental lessons:
1. The power of disinformation campaigns and how such efforts led to the use of the Justice Department’s investigative resources;
2. The potential for unexpected effects of the politicization of the Justice Department once policy guardrails are lifted; and
3. The importance of distinguishing between the core set of facts here and a separate scheme to pressure the Justice Department to help President Trump overturn the 2020 presidential election.
- October 2, 2020: In an internal email, the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section (PIN) reportedly announces “an exception to the general non-interference with elections policy,” thereby allowing public investigative steps for election fraud allegations involving postal workers or military employees. The announcement explains that the exception applies to investigations when “the integrity of any component of the federal government is implicated by election offenses within the scope of the policy including but not limited to misconduct by federal officials or employees administering an aspect of the voting process through the United States Postal Service, the Department of Defense or any other federal department or agency.”
- November 3, 2020: The 2020 election is held.
- Following Nov. 3, 2020: McConnell reportedly sends some of his field staffers to Georgia to help with the runoff campaigns. McConnell keeps in close touch with a field staffer in northwest Georgia, who tells McConnell that conservative voters do not trust the system and think their votes would not count. (Leonnig & Rucker, p. 432)
- November 4, 2020: White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, “worried about Georgia … because [Trump’s lead] kept shrinking,” asks lawyer Cleta Mitchell to help the Trump campaign in Georgia. She works in Georgia until Jan. 8, 2021. (see also Dec. 30 and Jan. 2 entries for Mitchell below)
- November 7, 2020: The 2020 presidential election is called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
- November 9, 2020: Attorney General William Barr issues a memorandum authorizing DOJ employees to “pursue substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities prior to the certification of elections in [their] jurisdictions in certain cases.” The memorandum applies to “clear and apparently-credible allegations of irregularities that, if true, could potentially impact the outcome of a federal election in an individual State.”
- According to Jonathan Karl’s “Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show,” Barr thought already that “it was highly unlikely there were any credible allegations of fraud big enough to tip the scales in the election. However, Barr “also knew that at some point Trump was going to confront him about it and he wanted to be able to say he had looked into the allegations and there was nothing to them.” Barr told Karl that “it was put up or shut up time,” because he “had no motive to suppress” evidence of fraud. Barr said that his “suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there,” and that the claims were “all bullshit.” (Karl, p. 188)
- Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue later testifies that “Barr’s focus was on the current election and making sure that we, the Department, were doing what we could in real time to ensure that the American people could have confidence in the outcome” (Donoghue testimony, p. 68).
- November 9, 2020: Richard Pilger, head of DOJ’s Election Crimes Branch within PIN, resigns his position and cites the “new policy and its ramifications” as the reason.
- November 13, 2020: District Election Officers from 15 U.S. Attorney’s Offices write a letter urging Barr to rescind the Nov. 9 memorandum.
- November 2020: According to “Betrayal,” conservative activist Heidi Stirrup begins a new position as the DOJ White House Liaison a few days after the election. John McEntee, Trump’s director of presidential personnel, had chosen her for the position. During her brief tenure, she yells at an unnamed senior DOJ official and Barr himself about the election being stolen. After her meeting with Barr, the attorney general bans Stirrup from the building. (Karl, p. 185-187)
- Mid-November 2020: The Barr-McConnell agreement
Barr and Sen. Mitch McConnell reportedly start talking about how to deal with Trump’s allegations of a stolen election. McConnell is worried that Trump’s allegations might suppress Republican turnout in the Georgia runoffs.
The two men reportedly agree that McConnell should not confront Trump because of the risk of Trump lashing out in a way “that could backfire and end up harming the Georgia senators” (Leonnig and Rucker p. 403; Karl p. 192). Barr also feels “a building pressure to put an end to [the] pretense about a second term” (Leonnig & Rucker, p. 402-403). McConnell reportedly thinks that Republicans in the Georgia Senate runoff need to argue for a Republican-controlled Senate as a check on an incoming Biden presidency’s power.
“Look, we need the president in Georgia,” McConnell tells the attorney general (Karl p., 192). McConnell says that Barr is “in a better position to inject some reality into this situation,” to which Barr responds that he “understands that” and is “going to do it at the appropriate time” (Karl, p. 192 emphasis added).
- November 20, 2020: Multiple polls find that Republicans have high levels of distrust in the presidential election.
- November 23, 2020: According to “Betrayal,” Barr goes to the White House and tells Trump that there is no evidence of the allegations Giuliani and others are making. (Karl, p. 192-194)
- November 23, 2020: Barr asks senior White House officials about Trump’s intentions to maintain election fraud claims
After his meeting with Trump, Barr meets with senior White House advisors including Mark Meadows and Pat Cipollone. Barr expresses concern about Trump’s election fraud allegations affecting the transition of power, asking “how far is he going to take this thing?” (Karl, p. 194). Barr says that Meadows and the others assured him Trump would come around soon and lay the groundwork for “a graceful exit” (Karl, 194).
- Late November 2020: McConnell urges Barr to make a public statement
Within days of Barr’s meeting with Trump, McConnell again urges Barr to speak out against the election fraud allegations, telling Barr that he is the “only person who can do it” (Karl, p. 194).
- November 29, 2020: On Fox Sunday Morning Futures with Maria Bartiromo, Trump questions whether the DOJ and FBI are doing enough to investigate allegations of election fraud.
After watching the interview, Barr reportedly tells his advisors that Trump has given Barr an opening by maligning the Justice Department, such that the attorney general could now weigh in publicly (Leonnig & Rucker, p. 404-405).
- December 1, 2020: Barr makes public statement in accord with McConnell plan
Barr reportedly decides to make a public statement that DOJ “ha[s] found no evidence of widespread election fraud.” Barr’s team, some of whom have been urging him to publicly speak out, plan for Barr to make the statement during an interview with the Associated Press. (Karl, p. 194) Barr states in the interview, “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
- December 1, 2020: Barr reportedly goes to the White House for a meeting with Trump after the Associated Press interview. Trump accuses Barr of not investigating various election fraud allegations in different states, among them allegations of after-hours ballot stuffing in Georgia. Barr tells Trump, “we’ve looked into these things and they’re nonsense” (Leonnig & Rucker, p. 407-408). Barr also reportedly tells Trump, “we are looking at [the allegations], and we are looking at it in a responsible way” (Karl, p. 197).
- December 3, 2020: Rudy Giuliani presents allegations of election fraud to the Georgia State Senate’s Judiciary Subcommittee, including an allegation that video footage captured election workers in the State Farm Arena bringing suitcases of ballots to be secretly counted.
- Following December 3, 2020: Trump allies, including Rep. Jim Jordan and Rep. Mo Brooks, significantly amplify Giuliani’s allegations of election fraud in Georgia. In response to this disinformation, several different independent outlets fact check the allegation and declare it false.
- December 4, 2020: Barr orders new investigation as a “top priority;” U.S. Attorney is concerned about overt actions with Georgia runoff elections
In the morning, Barr asks U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia Byung J. Pak to make Giuliani’s allegations about suitcases of ballots at State Farm Arena a “top priority.” Barr has an upcoming meeting with the White House and thinks the videotape might come up (Pak testimony, p. 13, 37). In his Senate testimony, Pak states, “this is during the election time where there’s an election cycle, and in particular in Georgia at the time, there was a U.S. Senate runoff election scheduled for January 5th.” Pak testified that he was “very sensitive to the fact that we can’t do anything overt that may be viewed one way or the other by the voters” ahead of the Georgia runoff election (Pak testimony, p. 15). In his testimony, Pak adds, once again, “we were very sensitive to that.”
- December 4, 2020: Georgia state and county election officials publicly debunk the State Farm Arena claims.
- December 6 or 7, 2020: Pak completes personally reviewing the State Farm Arena video and the Georgia Secretary of State’s investigational interviews, and determines that the allegations are not credible (Pak testimony, p. 21-22).
- Evening of December 6, 2020: Barr directs Deputy Attorney General to launch FBI investigations in Georgia
According to internal email correspondence, Barr tells Donoghue that the FBI should conduct interviews about the State Farm Arena allegations so that they “are not relying entirely on the work/assessments of non-federal law enforcement authorities” (in the words of Donoghue).
- December 7, 2020: According to internal email correspondence, PIN concludes that the State Farm Arena allegations are not in the scope of Barr’s Nov. 9 memorandum and that PIN does not concur in any overt investigative activity before certification of the Georgia elections. In his non-concurrence, PIN Chief Corey Amundson recognizes that Barr has “ultimate decision-making authority on this issue.”
- December 7, 2020: Donoghue tells FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich that, despite PIN’s non-concurrence, Barr “specifically directed that the FBI conduct some interviews” regarding the State Farm Arena allegations.
- Strikingly, Donoghue provides the following justification for conducting the investigation:
“[T]he 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 [Georgia Secretary of State], then that should give the public increased confidence in the election results in GA. If we come to a different conclusion, then we’ll deal with that.” (emphasis added)
Note-1: Pak admits in testimony that he agrees with Donoghue’s stated rationale (Pak testimony p. 58).
Note-2: In his Senate testimony, Donoghue initially defended the Department’s actions during the election period saying: “the appearance was always a concern, and it was something that we took into consideration. But, for instance, with regard to this, right, we didn’t do anything overtly. It’s not as if we issued grand jury subpoenas or began interviewing witnesses or anything like that” (Donoghue testimony, p. 22). However, Donoghue later admitted that following Barr’s order to interview witnesses for the State Farm Arena allegations, “ultimately, the witnesses who were there were interviewed. I can’t remember if FBI did the 15 interviews alone or they did them in conjunction with State authorities” (Donoghue testimony, p. 71; see also “We had interviews done of all the witnesses,” p. 72).
- In addition, as mentioned below, in his handwritten notes of a phone call with President Trump on Dec. 27, Donoghue transcribed the following response to Trump: “Sir we have done dozens of investig., hundreds of interviews, major allegations are not supported by evid. developed.”
- Donoghue later testifies that PIN non-concurred “several times” in potential investigative activity ahead of certification and that PIN’s non-concurrence once stopped an investigation from moving forward. (Donoghue testimony, p. 73)
- December 7 or 8, 2020 : According to Pak, the FBI finishes the interviews relating to the State Farm Arena allegations. Around this time, Pak tells Barr there is no basis for a case (Pak testimony, p. 35, 44).
- December 14, 2020: Barr publicly resigns his post as Attorney General, effective December 23.
- Barr later tells Jonathan Karl that it is true, as reported, that he would have liked to remain Attorney General during a potential second term by Trump. (Karl, p. 185)
- December 14, 2020: The electors vote in each state, selecting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as President and Vice President.
- December 15, 2020: McConnell congratulates Biden on his win, saying “the electoral college has spoken.”
- December 21, 2020: At a news conference, Barr reaffirms his statement about the absence of “allegations of systemic or broad-based fraud that would affect the outcome of the election.” He also states that he will not appoint a special counsel to investigate election fraud allegations and that there is no basis to seize voting machines (transcript).
- December 24, 2020: Jeffrey Rosen becomes the Acting Attorney General.
- December 27, 2020: According to Donoghue’s handwritten notes, Trump says on a phone call with Rosen and Donoghue, “just say the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R Congressmen” (per Donoghue’s handwritten notes and confirmed in Senate testimony). Donoghue’s notes from the call mention “dozens of investig., hundreds of interviews, major allegations are not supported by evid. developed -GA/PA/MI/NV.” About Georgia specifically, Donoghue writes, “looked at the tape, interviewed the Ws, no suitcases (ok – but they looked like that), [illegible] left, no multiple scanning of ballots.” Trump additionally expresses worry that people would not have confidence in the Georgia Senate races. Trump also appears to threaten to replace the DOJ leadership. He says that “people tell [him] Jeff Clark is great” and that Trump “should put [Clark] in,” which Donoghue understands to mean “possibly putting [Clark] in a leadership position in DOJ” (Donoghue testimony, pp. 58, 86-88; Donoghue notes, p. 6).
- December 28, 2020: Clark sends Donoghue and Rosen a “Georgia Proof of Concept” letter he has drafted from DOJ to the Georgia governor and legislature, which he wants to send to “each relevant state” after getting Donoghue and Rosen’s signatures. The letter states that DOJ has “identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple States,” and “urges the Georgia General Assembly to convene in special session to address this pressing matter of overriding national importance.” A little over an hour later, Donoghue responds and tells Clark, “there is no chance that I would sign this letter or anything remotely like this.”
- December 28, 2020: Rosen and Donoghue, having already agreed between them that they do not want to send the letter, meet with Clark and tell him that DOJ will not send the letter (Rosen transcript, pp. 101-03; Donoghue transcript, pp. 102-03).
- December 30, 2020: Meadows forwards Rosen an email from Cleta Mitchell about the Trump campaign’s lawsuit regarding alleged election fraud in Georgia, and Meadows asks Rosen, “Can you have your team look into these allegations of wrongdoing,” specifying “only the alleged fraudulent activity.” Meadows makes multiple such efforts asking DOJ to investigate election fraud allegations.
- December 31, 2020: Trump arranges for a White House meeting with Rosen, Donoghue, Cipollone, Meadows, and Patrick Philbin (Rosen testimony, p. 138; Donoghue testimony, p. 117). Trump expresses that DOJ “still haven’t found the fraud” (Rosen testimony, p. 139). Trump tells Rosen and Donoghue that people have told him to “get rid of both” of them and to “put Jeffrey Clark in” (Donoghue testimony, p. 118).
Note: According to Rosen, DHS general counsel Chad Mizelle attended the meeting as well (Rosen testimony, p. 138). Donoghue did not recall anyone else at this meeting (Donoghue testimony, p. 117).
- December 31, 2020 or January 1, 2021: Clark tells Rosen that Trump wants an answer from Clark by Monday (Jan. 4, 2021) about whether Clark is willing to be considered to replace Rosen as Acting Attorney General. Clark expresses that he is not satisfied with Donoghue and Rosen’s position on his letter to the Georgia legislature, and Clark says that he will decline the position of acting attorney general if Rosen follows Clark’s suggestions. Rosen again refuses to send Clark’s letter to the Georgia legislature (Rosen testimony, pp. 141, 144-46).
- January 2, 2021: Trump calls to ask Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes,” insisting that he “won very substantially in Georgia.” Trump brings up various fraud allegations, and Raffensperger says that they are wrong. The Washington Post obtains an audio recording of the calls and releases it on January 5, 2021. Others on the call include Cleta Mitchell and Meadows.
- January 3, 2021: Clark tells Rosen that Trump has offered Clark the position of Acting Attorney General and that Clark has accepted. Clark says that the schedule has moved up, and he will replace Rosen this same day (Rosen testimony, pp. 158-59).
- January 3, 2021: At a White House meeting between Trump, senior DOJ officials, and senior White House officials, Trump considers installing Clark as Acting Attorney General and sending Clark’s proposed letter. Donoghue and head of the Office of Legal Counsel Steve Engel tell Trump that all of the Assistant Attorneys General will resign if Trump replaces Rosen with Clark, and they warn that other DOJ officials may also resign “en masse.” Trump entertains the idea for most of the duration of the two to three hour meeting, but ultimately decides against installing Clark.
- January 3, 2021: At the same meeting, Trump tells Donoghue that Pak is a “never-Trumper” and that he wants to fire Pak. Donoghue tells Trump that Pak is going to resign the next day, and Trump agrees to let him resign (Donoghue testimony, pp. 160-61).
Note: Pak had been planning to submit a letter of resignation a few days after the Georgia runoff with a departure date effective on Jan. 20, and he informed Donoghue of his plans the week before (Pak testimony, pp. 93-94). He had thought to wait until after the runoff “just so that it’s not going to cause any views of potential irregularity” (Pak testimony, p. 94).
Trump calls U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia Bobby Christine and asks him to run the Northern District for “the next few weeks” (Donoghue testimony, pp.160-163).
- January 3, 2021: Donoghue tells Pak that Trump wants to fire him but will accept a resignation effective the next day (Donoghue testimony, pp. 164-165). Donoghue also tells Pak that Christine, rather than Pak’s first assistant, will replace Pak. Pak agrees to resign the next day (Pak testimony, p. 97).
- January 4, 2021: Pak asks Donoghue for clarification about the early resignation. Donoghue tells Pak that Trump does not feel that Pak has done enough due to Pak being a “never-Trumper.” Pak submits a “very bland resignation” and later testifies that he did not want to impact the election or DOJ negatively (Pak testimony, pp. 96-97).
- January 5, 2021: Georgia holds two runoff elections for the U.S. Senate.
- Following January 5, 2021: Post-election analyses find that many Republicans did not turn out to vote due to lack of confidence that their votes would be counted fairly and in areas of Georgia where Trump held rallies speaking about the “stolen” presidential election.