In a conference room near the Capitol, young conservatives gathered in April to learn how to run for office — how to win and wield government power.
Among the keynote speakers at the summit, hosted by a group devoted to “training America’s future statesmen today,” was Jeffrey Clark, the former senior Justice Department official who in 2020 sought to use federal law enforcement power to undo then-President Donald Trump’s defeat.
Clark, who accused the Biden administration of abusing its power, “really fired up our attendees and inspired them to get more active in the political process,” recalled Aiden Buzzetti, president of the Bull Moose Project, which takes its name from Theodore Roosevelt’s split with the Republican Party in 1912. Clark was chosen to speak, Buzzetti added, because of his “very unique résumé and experience with the federal government.”
The criminal indictment of Trump unsealed on Tuesday depicts in vivid detail Clark’s alleged role in the conspiracy prosecutors accuse Trump of orchestrating. The indictment identifies Clark only as “Co-Conspirator 4,” but includes details that match existing reporting about Clark’s post-election role. It portrays him as a linchpin of plans to bypass the acting attorney general and use the imprimatur of the Justice Department to spread “knowingly false claims of election fraud” and deceitfully substitute legitimate electors for sham alternates supporting Trump.
But, as the April leadership summit shows, Clark has won admiration within the pro-Trump wing of the GOP, rather than being shunned for plotting to use Justice Department authority to strong-arm states into disregarding the will of voters.
Last year, he landed a top job at a think tank laying the groundwork for a possible second Trump term. A once-obscure government bureaucrat, Clark now appears as a pundit on conservative television and podcasts. In July, he was spotted at a party celebrating the publication of an authorized biography of former Fox host Tucker Carlson at Washington’s swanky Metropolitan Club. He recently posted a picture of himself at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, enthusing about the weather in South Florida.
With Trump the runaway favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, Clark, 56, is poised to gain sweeping authority if the former president should clinch another term — potentially even in the role of attorney general, which eluded him just before Jan. 6, 2021.
Clark would be “100 percent shortlist” for the nation’s top law enforcement position or else White House Counsel if Trump returned to the Oval Office, said Stephen K. Bannon, the Trump ally and onetime White House strategist, who has hosted Clark on his far-right “War Room” show. The hype that surrounds the former mid-level Justice Department official shows how Republicans are lionizing figures key to Trump’s efforts to overturn the election.
Clark has not been indicted by the special counsel, Jack Smith, who brought Tuesday’s indictment. But Smith has said his investigation is ongoing. A district attorney in Georgia is also probing Clark’s actions. And a D.C. Bar disciplinary office is pursuing ethics charges against him that could ultimately strip him of his law license. The charges, filed by the D.C. Bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel last summer, allege that Clark engaged in dishonest conduct and attempted to interfere with “the administration of justice.”
Clark directed questions to a spokesperson for the think tank where he works, the Center for Renewing America. The spokesperson, Rachel Cauley, said, “The regime hates those who don’t blindly obey, it insists on criminalizing and destroying those who disagree, and when that doesn’t work, it uses its scribes at The Washington Post to further abuse and intimidate us into submission.”
“It’s a good thing Jeff Clark and the Center for Renewing America are made of tougher stock than that,” Cauley added. “We are fighting alongside every American who has been taunted, abused, tailed, and staked out by our regime media and federal government.”
Clark has sought to move the dispute over his law license to federal court and accused the D.C. Bar disciplinary body of “grasping at straws.” On Twitter, he has called the investigations of Trump and his allies a “preemptive coup” to keep the former president from power and likened the special counsel to Inspector Javert, the merciless police detective pursuing the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s ”Les Misérables.”
Born in Philadelphia, Clark earned an undergraduate degree in economics and history from Harvard before studying urban affairs and public policy at the University of Delaware’s Biden School of Public Policy and Administration and a law degree at Georgetown.
He was confirmed to run the Justice Department’s environmental and natural resources division in 2018 and, in the summer of 2020, named acting chief of the civil division. It was his second stint in government, after he served in the same environmental division in the George W. Bush administration. In a report touting his division’s accomplishments in 2019, he wrote that “environmental law must always be guided by the bedrock principles enshrined in our Constitution.”
Former colleagues described Clark as wonkish and hard-working. “I wish you people would leave him alone and let him move on with his life,” said Jonathan Brightbill, a principal deputy under Clark.
After the 2020 election, Clark emerged as an important player in Trump’s efforts to stay in power, as the president and his allies pressured the Justice Department to pursue fantastical claims of fraud.
Clark circumvented department leadership to speak with Trump multiple times in late December and early January, according to Tuesday’s indictment. Prosecutors allege that Clark encouraged Justice Department leaders to sign a draft letter to officials in key swing states declaring that the agency had reason to doubt the legitimacy of their elections and encouraging them to send alternate slates of pro-Trump electors to Congress.
After the Justice Department officials refused, the indictment states, Clark “tried to coerce” them into signing the letter by saying that Trump was offering to make him acting attorney general. Clark accepted that offer on Jan. 3, 2021, according to the indictment. Prosecutors portray Clark as having been dismissive when a White House lawyer urged him to rethink his actions, suggesting that riots would erupt in the nation’s cities if Trump tried to remain in office. “That’s why there’s an Insurrection Act,” the indictment alleges that Clark responded, suggesting that protests could be put down by the military.
The machinations led to a dramatic showdown in the Oval Office on the evening of Jan. 3, when Trump balked, declining to promote Clark, after being warned that Justice Department leaders and White House lawyers would resign en masse. “Will call shortly,” Jeffrey Rosen, the acting attorney general at the time, who vigorously opposed Clark’s proposals, wrote in a text message that night to a colleague, according to communications released by the Justice Department. “But we won.”
On Jan. 8, two days after a pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol and delayed the certification of President Biden’s victory, Clark emailed Rosen saying he planned to leave the Justice Department at noon on Jan. 14.
“I have some projects to finish up before then and, of course, will continue to work on normal package flow approval up until the prior evening,” he wrote in the previously unreported communication, which was obtained by the watchdog group American Oversight and shared with The Washington Post. “I believe I’ve left a legacy of accomplishment starting after my confirmation in 2018.”
Clark said he would “miss the Justice Department,” telling Rosen and another colleague, “On most matters, we have been in total and vigorous agreement or in virtually all situations in at least in substantial agreement. But no one can agree on all things and reasonable minds can differ. Yet friendships and mutual professional respect endure.”
He signed off with a flourish: “Thanks and God bless you, the Department, and its lawyers and staff!”
The documents show that Rosen never replied. But four days later, he forwarded the message to a colleague and explained his silence.
“I am not going to respond to Jeff Clark’s message given the events that took place with him,” Rosen wrote. “Those were not things on which ‘reasonable minds can differ’ and simply move along.”
Rosen added, “It appears he still does not recognize how harmful his actions and proposals were.”
Rosen declined to comment for this article.
Clark soon set about crafting his own account of his actions.
By the fall of 2021, he had drafted an outline of an autobiography, according to an order issued last fall by a federal judge in D.C. The government had sought the notes, which Clark argued were protected by attorney-client privilege and as attorney work product.
Then-Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell rejected that argument, finding that Clark failed to prove that the drafts were communicated with counsel or prepared as part of a legal defense. According to her order, which made the materials available to government investigators, Clark drafted the outline in notes autosaved to his Google account.
The outline included a prologue, introduction, nine numbered sections that “chronologically narrate Clark’s life” as well as a conclusion, according to the order, which quotes from Clark’s drafts.
The prologue, according to the order, describes Clark’s involvement in Bush v. Gore, the 2000 case before the U.S. Supreme Court that handed the presidency to Bush. In the draft, Clark wrote that he “never thought [he’d] have a bird’s eye view of a second deeply contested presidential election,” but that he “would be wrong” about that expectation.
In the outline’s introduction, Clark wrote how he learned about a New York Times story in January 2021 about how he “headed up a plot to take over as Acting AG and ‘subvert democracy,’” according to the order. Six chapters then address the 2020 election, according to the order, including a description of Trump’s purported reaction to Clark’s never-sent letter to swing states: “Good letter,” Clark wrote that Trump told him.
It’s not clear if Clark finished the autobiography or attempted to publish it.
In June 2022, Clark’s Virginia home was searched by federal agents. The next day, his efforts to keep Trump in power were the focus of a hearing by the House panel probing the Jan. 6 attack. The hearing featured footage of Clark meeting with committee investigators but repeatedly invoking his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination and declining to answer questions.
But that night, he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox, describing the search of his home and saying he was ordered outside in his pajamas. “Increasingly, Tucker, I don’t recognize the country anymore with these kinds of Stasi-like things happening,” he said, referring to the dreaded secret police of Communist East Germany.
As his actions at the end of the Trump administration came under scrutiny, Clark expanded his influence among Trump’s supporters. The same month that his home was searched, Clark was announced as a senior fellow at the Center for Renewing America, the Trump-aligned group led by Russell Vought, Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The nonprofit organization gave Clark a prominent platform at a group that fashions itself as the intellectual engine of Trump’s political movement. Its mission, according to a tax filing, is to “renew a consensus of America as a nation under God with unique interests worthy of defending that flow from its people, institutions, and history, where individuals’ enjoyment of freedom is predicated on just laws and healthy communities.”
This past May, Clark published a position paper on the Center for Renewing America’s website that some of the former president’s allies see as a blueprint for bringing the Justice Department to heel, one of a number of policy proposals the organization has produced for a possible second Trump term. The paper, titled “The U.S. Justice Department Is Not Independent,” advocates a unitary theory of the executive that would give the president sweeping authority over the whole federal bureaucracy.
Breaking with post-Watergate norms creating distance between the president and particular law enforcement decisions, the paper claims that the agency’s independence is an invention of “influencers on the Left.”
The ideas illuminate how Clark may operate if named attorney general — taking an approach that many lawyers worry could turn the Justice Department into an instrument of the president’s personal and political agenda. At the same time, Clark and others at the Center for Renewing America have been some of the loudest voices claiming that Biden is using law enforcement to target his adversaries as he presides over what the nonprofit organization calls a “woke and weaponized government.”
Heath Mayo, an attorney and founder of an anti-Trump nonprofit group called Principles First, said Republicans are contradicting themselves by accusing Biden of weaponizing the Justice Department while at the same time pledging to crush the agency’s independence and give the president the power to steer investigations.
“Trump needs the Jeffrey Clarks of the world who, for the purpose of getting a nice office in the executive branch, are willing to concoct these cockamamie legal theories so he has the pretext to do whatever he wants,” Mayo said.
As Clark came to represent growing right-wing hostility to the Justice Department, his stock rose in the pro-Trump wing of the GOP. Recent invitations included a June meeting of the D.C. Young Republicans. Photos he has posted on social media show he has visited not only Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Fla., but also the former president’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J.
He is active on Twitter, complaining at least seven times in the past eight months about his follower count being “frozen” or “throttled,” often appealing directly to the platform’s owner, Elon Musk. Clark created his account only in March of last year and has now amassed nearly 60,000 followers.
Last fall, he sparred on the social media site with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie star and former governor of California, calling him a “faux Republican.” That prompted Schwarzenegger to post a photo of pajama-clad, bare-legged Clark during the search of his home, offering “some tips on squatting to build up those legs.”
The exchange caught the attention of Erik Scharf, who clerked alongside Clark in 1995-1996 for an appeals court judge, Danny Boggs. Scharf, now an appellate lawyer based in Miami, said he has seen former clerks in unusual places, including on the game show “Jeopardy!” (Boggs is known for subjecting prospective clerks to a general knowledge test assessing their understanding of obscure trivia.)
But “the last place I would expect to see” a former clerk, Scharf said, “is in a Twitter war with Arnold.”
Scharf recalled Clark as hard-working and frugal. “He typically packed a lunch in a small igloo cooler and ate at his desk whereas I typically went out for lunch,” Scharf said.
Clark had an appreciation for heavy metal music, his former co-clerk said, and once attended what Scharf recalled as a Metallica concert with clerks from the adjoining chambers.
Scharf said he did not recall Clark speaking about wanting to climb the ranks of the Justice Department. Instead, Clark was clear, as a judicial clerk, about “his ultimate personal and professional ambition,” Scharf said.
“To one day,” Scharf said, “become a federal judge himself.”
Magda Jean-Louis and Jeremy B. Merrill contributed to this report.