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Who Is Jeffrey Clark, and How Did He Try to Destroy Democracy?

The January 6 commission’s latest subpoena target was willing to become Trump’s attorney general and help him invalidate the election. He spent a career preparing for that moment.

Jeffrey Clark, acting assistant U.S. attorney general, at a news conference
Jeffrey Clark, an acting assistant U.S. attorney general at the time, at a news conference in 2020

On Wednesday, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol subpoenaed Jeffrey Clark, the former acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Division of the Justice Department in the Trump administration’s waning days. The subpoena was the latest of 19 subpoenas targeting former Trump administration officials by the congressional investigative panel. It was also the result of a report from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which said Clark was instrumental in President Trump’s push to spread his unsubstantiated voter fraud claims. Clark declined to participate in a sit-down for that report.

In other words, much as Clark became a central figure in Trump’s scheming to undermine the 2020 election results, he is also becoming a central figure in congressional investigators’ probe of the attack on the Capitol and the lead-up to it.

Specifically, investigators say that Clark drafted a letter that would have gone to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and state legislators there and elsewhere, urging them to delay certifying election results until the Justice Department had thoroughly investigated alleged voter fraud. Trump also considered removing Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and replacing him with Clark, who was more willing to follow Trump’s lead in attempting to overturn the 2020 election. Representative Scott Perry, an outspoken Trump loyalist, urged acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue to have Clark pay more attention to how the Justice Department was investigating the allegations of voter fraud, the Senate report said. Put more simply, Clark was willing to become the attorney general of the United States, use that perch to spread lies about allegations of voter fraud with no basis in evidence, and then use those lies to launch official investigations.

The report’s findings and Clark’s professional background show he is the type of elite Republican lawyer whom conservative lawmakers depend on when the American legal system is the focus. A Philadelphia native, Clark is one of those Washington lawyers with elite academic credentials—an undergraduate degree in history and economics from Harvard, a master’s in urban affairs and public policy from the University of Delaware’s public policy school (now named after Biden, ironically), and a law degree from Georgetown University Law School.

He spent years at the hard-charging law firm Kirkland & Ellis—the legal shop that housed Ken Starr, John R. Bolton, Bush administration Solicitor General Paul Clement, Brett Kavanaugh, Jeffrey Rosen, John Eastman, Pat Cipollone, and former Trump Attorney General William Barr, among a who’s who list of attorneys who went to work in conservative administrations (the firm has employed attorneys who became Democratic lawmakers as well). The firm’s clientele list includes BP, General Motors, Jeffrey Epstein, and the Brown & Williamson tobacco company.

A report from the Revolving Door Project detailed Kirkland & Ellis’s history of employing lawyers who would eventually work in the federal government, as well as the firm’s extensive list of “right-wing connections” (Robert Bork was a Kirkland & Ellis alum before going on to almost snag a seat on the Supreme Court).

“The ties between conservative jurisprudence and Kirkland extend beyond Kavanaugh and Bork. Former Kirkland partner and Bush DOJ lawyer Viet D. Dinh is a prominent conservative legal scholar best known as one of the lead architects of the Patriot Act, which dramatically increased law enforcement funding and surveillance in the name of fighting terrorism,” the Revolving Door Report said. “Dinh left Kirkland in 2018 to become Fox Corporation’s chief legal and policy executive.”

The firm also produced the folks who helped defend Trump in a defamation lawsuit about E. Jean Carroll’s rape allegations.

During his time at Kirkland & Ellis, Clark represented relatives of Elian Gonzalez during the controversy over Gonzalez’s custody. That was an intensely partisan battle during the later Clinton years over whether Gonzalez, a small Cuban boy whose mother had drowned trying to bring him to America, should be repatriated to his father in Cuba, which Clinton did. Clark was an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law. In 2016, the Koch Foundation and an anonymous donor offered a $30 million donation for the school to rename itself the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, as it is now known. He clerked for appellate Judge Danny J. Boggs, a Federalist Society–connected conservative judge who made George W. Bush’s shortlist for the Supreme Court. Clark served as an energy policy adviser for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. During that campaign, Romney was eager to respond to questions on energy policy by talking about opening up more land for oil and gas drilling.  

Unlike Romney or the former presidential candidate’s top advisers, Clark had no problem working for Trump after the 2016 election. From 2018 to just a week short of the end of Trump’s time in office, Clark worked as the assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division and, concurrently, the Civil Division. Bloomberg Law described his tenure at ENRD as characterized by “championing the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda and revamping policies that guide environmental settlements and internal processes.”

At one point during his most recent time at the Justice Department, Clark found himself at the center of the legal community’s attention for letting his bar license lapse.

Clark’s long history with Kirkland & Ellis (he did two stints there, 1996 to 2001 and then 2005 to 2018) didn’t help his job prospects after the Trump administration. He was described in the law community as “radioactive” by a consultant for the legal industry in a Bloomberg News article and was one of the former Trump administration officials bucking the trend of returning to prior institutions with more fanfare. Instead, Clark joined a nonprofit called the New Civil Liberties Alliance, or NCLA, which describes itself as a “nonprofit civil rights organization which protects constitutional freedoms from violations of the Administrative State.” It’s an organization that’s fought a Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring companies to list board diversity statistics. It’s also been involved in representing a client in a fight about vaccine mandates at Michigan State University.

The NCLA trumpeted Clark’s hiring, but more recently his august title at the organization—chief of litigation and director of strategy—and bio page have coincidentally disappeared. His connections to the firm seem to have been scrubbed recently.

To watchdog groups, Clark has been a person of interest for months. In August, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington urged Attorney General Merrick Garland to look into whether Clark broke federal law for following Trump in trying to use the Justice Department to cast doubt on the 2020 election results.

In the Judiciary Committee report, Chairman Dick Durbin has also urged the D.C. Bar association to “open an investigation into Jeffrey Clark’s compliance with applicable rules of professional conduct.” Those rules bar a lawyer from advising clients in helping to orchestrate fraud or other crimes.

And now Clark is the newest high-ranking Trump administration official—and perhaps more importantly, Justice Department official—under intense scrutiny by the House investigatory committee. He has until October 29 to produce documents and come forward for a deposition for the committee. It’s not clear whether Clark will comply, as Trump has ordered others not to.

The fact that Clark finds himself subpoenaed and under scrutiny by multiple congressional investigations underscores the lengths Trump and his allies were willing to go to try to twist the American voting system to his whims. They were, the investigations suggest so far, willing to use the Justice Department to advance Trump’s political agenda. There’s no sign that Clark’s long legal background caused him to hesitate for even a moment. 

That should be no surprise. For most of Clark’s career—from clerkships to advising the Republican nominee for president, to working at one of the most elite law firms in the country—he’s opted for the type of legal training and experience that would make him essential in Trump’s move to attack the American democratic process. Clark is not the only one to take this approach, he’s just the one who’s now in the spotlight.