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New Testimony Reveals Trump Pressured The DOJ To Falsely Question Election Results

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Donald Trump's attempts to subvert the 2020 election results and declare himself the winner are being investigated by the Department of Justice's inspector general, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. My guest, New York Times reporter Katie Benner, broke the story that led two investigations. That article revealed that Jeffrey Clark, the acting head of the Justice Department's Civil Division, tried to get DOJ leaders to falsely claim that investigations into voter fraud in Georgia cast doubt on the Electoral College results. She also reported that Clark had plotted with President Trump to oust the acting attorney general, replace him with Clark and use the Justice Department's power to force Georgia state lawmakers to overturn its presidential election results.

Benner covers the Justice Department for the Times and has been continuing to report on these investigations into Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the election and what she describes as the former president's desire to batter the Justice Department into advancing his personal agenda. We're going to talk about what has been revealed so far, who else is involved and what the legal consequences might be.

Benner won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for a contribution to the Times' reporting on sexual harassment. Her article was about the culture of harassment in Silicon Valley. We recorded our interview yesterday morning. Later in the day, Benner reported that a former U.S. attorney in Atlanta, Byung J. Pak, had just told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a closed-door session that his abrupt resignation on January 4 had been prompted by a warning from DOJ officials that Trump intended to fire him for refusing to say that widespread voter fraud had been found in Georgia.

Katie Benner, welcome to FRESH AIR.

KATIE BENNER: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Let's start with the story you broke that led to the ongoing investigations into Trump. What was the New Year's Eve meeting about in the Justice Department? And this is New Year's Eve 2020.

BENNER: So on New Year's Eve, Justice Department officials met with a man named Jeff Clark. Very few people outside of the department knew anything about him. He was the acting head of the Civil Division. And they wanted to talk to him because they had finally realized that he was trying to work with the president to send a letter to Georgia that would basically imply that the Justice Department felt that the election results in that state were invalid.

As you can imagine, they were extremely upset about this. They felt that, you know, one, this wasn't true. The Justice Department's own investigations had not borne this out. And they didn't understand why Jeff Clark had been going around them secretly to have these meetings with the president, which is also a violation of Justice Department policy. The White House and the Justice Department are to communicate only through very official channels, and, you know, the attorney general would be notified. And instead, Jeff Clark had been doing this in secret.

So they met to discuss Jeff Clark's behavior - his refusal to hew to the department's conclusion that the election results were valid, his decision to continually contact the White House without permission. And one of those officials - the No. 2 at the department, Rich Donoghue - told Jeff Clark that what he was doing was wrong. Nevertheless, Clark continued to speak to the White House despite the fact that he was not supposed to. And he secretly met with the president again. And this time, it was going to eventuate in the ouster of the acting attorney general, Jeff Rosen, so that the president could put Mr. Clark into his place.

GROSS: Yeah, let's talk about that plot a little bit. So tell us more about the communication between Clark and the president and the plot that they came up with to oust Jeffrey Rosen, who was the acting attorney general.

BENNER: So we don't know the full details of this, but what we do know is that Jeff Clark was talking to the president. He felt that there was a plan that could be implemented that nobody else in the department wanted to do, which was to send a letter to Georgia, and perhaps other states, falsely saying that the election results in that state were invalid.

As you can imagine, former President Trump really liked this plan. And he thought, I finally have a guy I can put at the top of the department who will - as he, in his own words, would put it - would fight for him. He was always accusing the Justice Department of not fighting for him. And he felt he found somebody inside who would do just that - fight for him, fight for him in Georgia, fight for him in other states and overturn the results of the election or at least convince the American public the results were invalid and prolong this, you know, Electoral College process and make it really hard for Joe Biden to become president.

GROSS: What did you learn about how Trump planned on ousting Jeffrey Rosen and installing Jeffrey Clark?

BENNER: Well, from the point of view of the Justice Department officials who I spoke with, what they understood is that the president was amenable to making this replacement and that they felt they needed to intervene and do something. So Jeff Rosen, the acting attorney general - he reached out to the White House when he found out about this, that he could be replaced. And he said, I need to meet with the president directly to talk about this. This is ridiculous. And this is all happening on January 3. It was a really hectic day. He reaches out to the White House.

In the meantime, his deputy, Rich Donoghue, is reaching out to every other head of the department, saying, this is what's going on. You haven't known about it, but it's a real problem. Can we get on the phone to discuss what we as leaders of the Justice Department will do if Trump replaces Jeff Rosen with Jeff Clark? They have an emergency phone call, and at the end of it, all of the top officials of the Justice Department agree that they will resign if this replacement happens, that they feel it would be a disaster for democracy; it would be a disaster for the department, that it would be a disaster for the election and they need to do something to stop it.

So armed with that information, you see Jeff Rosen, Rich Donoghue and another department official named Steve Engel walk over to the White House and confront Jeff Clark and speak to President Trump and say, if you do this - if you replace the top of the department with Jeffrey Clark, everybody will resign. And the ensuing chaos will subsume any attention paid to your false claims of election fraud. All the American public will actually be paying attention to is this chaotic mass resignation. And that helps convince Trump not to fire Jeff Rosen.

GROSS: So what happened to Jeffrey Clark? How far did he get with Trump?

BENNER: You know, we know that he got far enough to convince Trump that he could possibly make a dent in the election result, that he could do something to, if nothing else, undermine the validity of the election result in the minds of the American people. We know that the president really liked Jeff Clark. You know, we see in handwritten notes that have since been revealed by investigators and Congress, that, on a phone call, you know, Trump said to Jeff Rosen and Rich Donoghue, I hear a lot of good things about Jeffrey Clark. I really - I hear that he really understands some options that could be used to, you know, possibly convince leaders in Georgia that the election result isn't valid.

And in those notes, Rich Donoghue writes down what the president has said. And he writes down his own response, which is, you should have the leadership that you want, but making Jeff Clark the head of the Justice Department is absolutely not going to change the results of this election. It is not going to change anything. So you saw this sort of foreshadowing in a phone call with Donald Trump that happened just days before this showdown in the Oval Office.

GROSS: It's alarming that department officials hadn't threatened to resign en masse that Trump might have succeeded with his plan to oust the acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, and install Trump's own guy, Jeffrey Clark, as the head of the DOJ with the expectation that Jeffrey Clark would carry out Trump's will and subvert the election results and declare Trump the winner - and help declare Trump the winner.

BENNER: Yeah, it is alarming. And I think that for the officials inside the department in that key period of time between, you know, New Year's Eve and January 6, they were in complete shock. You know, you saw Jeff Rosen in shock that somebody who had been working for him had betrayed him in this way, somebody, by the way, who he had mentored when they both worked together in private practice at Kirkland & Ellis. You saw Rich Donahue, as you can see from his notes and other emails, just horrified by the fact that the White House refuses to listen when officials continually say these allegations of voter fraud you're bringing to us we have investigated and we have not found evidence to support them. To have that fall on deaf ears, you can see is really disturbing to him.

And then when Rosen and Donohue have to tell the other officials, hey, this has been going on the whole time, the president has been trying to use the department improperly, and he found a sympathetic ally in one of your own peers - from our reporting, we saw just complete horror, again, to your point, shock and people feeling that they had no other choice but to perhaps quit their jobs en masse and make a public fuss, make a public statement and raise an alarm that nobody at the Justice Department at the very top of the department had been willing to consider through the entirety of Trump's tenure as president.

GROSS: Something that I kept wondering reading your articles was, why didn't Jeffrey Rosen fire Jeffrey Clark? Would he have had the power to do that?

BENNER: So Jeffrey Clark was Senate confirmed. And only the president can fire Jeffrey Clark.

GROSS: Oh, well, there you go (laughter). I guess that wasn't going to happen.

BENNER: But what is so unusual about this situation is that they have this really tense meeting, as you can imagine, late into the evening on Sunday night of January 3. And Jeff Clark comes into work the next day on Monday, January 4, because he's still an employee. In some of the reporting, some of the folks I spoke with, you know, they said there were just these increasingly bizarre situations where, for example, Clark is saying hi to people as though nothing happened. He wants to see if people want to go get lunch with him. There wasn't a lot of appetite for that, but that was sort of one of the very bizarre situations playing out inside of the department after this showdown is that Clark continued, to come to work and he continued to be a part of the department.

GROSS: What has Jeffrey Clark admitted so far? And were you able to get a comment from him?

BENNER: I'd heard, you know, rumblings inside of the department - this was all after January 6 - when I would be speaking to people and calling them to see what was going on about the January 6 investigations. I heard a lot of, yes, this is really important, but you would not believe what we just lived through over here in this building. And I couldn't figure out what people are talking about. I thought they were talking about January 6, but I kept probing. And then it clearly turned out that there was something else had happened before January 6 that people thought was really disturbing. And it was this activity by Jeffrey Clark.

So, of course, in reaching out to him for comment, he did provide comment to The New York Times and other reporters who matched the story. And it said - his comment said, quote, "all my official communications were consistent with law. There was a candid discussion of options and pros and cons with the president. It is unfortunate that those who are part of a privileged legal conversation would comment in public about such internal deliberations while also distorting any discussions."

So he doesn't say that the conversations about how the department could have helped overturn the election results never happened. He doesn't say that his conversations with Trump didn't happen. What he is saying is that he feels that they are both legal and appropriate.

GROSS: So let me reintroduce you here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Katie Benner, and she reports on the Justice Department for The New York Times. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Katie Benner. She reports on the Justice Department for The New York Times. She's reporting on investigations into Donald Trump's attempts to subvert the 2020 election results and declare himself the winner. This is being investigated by the inspector general of the Justice Department, the Senate Judiciary Committee and investigators in the House of Representatives. These investigations were kicked off by an article she reported last January.

So if Jeffrey Clark considers his conversations with Trump privileged conversations, does that mean that he has the right to refuse to testify to any of the people currently investigating Trump's attempts to subvert the election results?

BENNER: That is normally what that would mean because every administration has protected the idea of privilege, the idea that communications between the president and top administration officials should be kept secret and confidential because the decisions they make are extremely difficult and that the public does not need to know what goes into those decisions. They want to protect that. They want to protect those conversations, so they protect them for the administrations before them and for their own so that they will always be protected in the future. In this case...

GROSS: Is there a but? Yeah (laughter).

BENNER: In this case, something different happened several months later. This summer, the Justice Department under Merrick Garland made a very different decision in these conversations about the election between the White House and the Justice Department. What Merrick Garland said - what his department said, rather, because he didn't write this letter, it was a career official, not Merrick Garland. What Merrick Garland's Justice Department said was that because the investigations deal with really inappropriate behavior, privilege does not need to be invoked. The idea of executive privilege, the department argues, is something that's supposed to protect the government and the American people and allow for, you know, all Americans to benefit in some way from this idea of executive privilege. In this case, the department argues that what is being looked at is such inappropriate behavior that it's not right to invoke executive privilege because of executive privilege should not be invoked to essentially just protect the personal interests of the former president.

GROSS: So let's talk about the phone call between Trump, Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and his top aide, Richard Donohue. What was that phone call about?

BENNER: Sure. So this phone call takes place on December 27. It is many weeks after the election has been declared for Biden, but Trump is still obsessed with this idea that he can overturn the results or that he can somehow subvert them. So on this phone call, he starts making demands. Why aren't you looking into this? Why aren't you looking to that? And he brings up one theory that, in notes taken by Richard Donohue, the No. 2 at the time, you see Donohue say, OK, this is something we can actually investigate. Trump says, hey, I think more people cast ballots in Pennsylvania than there were registered voters. That seems really fishy to me.

Donohue in his notes tells the president, OK, we can look into that fraud claim. The others you've mentioned, we've already looked into it, didn't find evidence, but we will look into that one. But he warns that no matter what they find, the department does not have the power to change the outcome of the election. And then he puts Trump's response in quotes - "just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and our congressmen." So he's saying just say that that it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and to my allies in Congress.

You know, Trump doesn't name who those allies would be, but the implication is that if the Justice Department, the nation's top law enforcement agency - still respected, still with a lot of weight with the American public - says that the election was corrupt, that is enough to create a narrative so powerful that Trump can wield it. And he can convince a lot of Americans that, no matter what happens, Joe Biden should not be president.

GROSS: So what was the response to Trump's request?

BENNER: So you see Donahue quote Trump as well as he can, perhaps because he found Trump's response to be so notable. And then you see in his notes that throughout the conversation he is continually saying we've already looked into this, and based on the evidence, we haven't found support for it. He tries to continue to come back to the evidence again and again. We can only act on the actual evidence developed is something that Donohue writes in his notes.

You also see Trump continue to castigate his officials, saying that people are calling their local U.S. attorney's offices to complain about you. Nobody trusts the FBI. People are angry. People are blaming the Justice Department for inaction. He is really trying to do a variety of things. Trump is trying to threaten them. He's trying to say you guys are doing a bad job. He's continually saying other people are upset with you. He doesn't really say he's upset. He says other people are upset with you.

And then he also says you guys don't know everything. In one of the quotes and Donoghue's notes, he says, "you guys may not be following the internet the way I do," you know, according to these documents. So he is trying a variety of things. He is cajoling. He is, you know, suggesting that they could just do a better job. And he's also suggesting that they themselves don't need to overturn the results of the election. They only need to say that the results are corrupted and that he'll take care of the rest. He's just trying to get Rosen and Donohue to work with him a little bit. And Rosen and Donohue, in this very lawyerly way, push back by saying again and again we're not seeing what you're seeing. We don't have evidence to support this, and we will not do anything without evidence.

GROSS: Do you know what Trump meant when he said, leave the rest to me? What did he have in mind? What - do you think that that was firing Rosen? Or what do you think?

BENNER: I think that he understood that once an official body like the Justice Department says that the presidential election is corrupt and cannot be trusted, that that would be a really big deal, and it would throw everything into chaos and everything into disarray. And you can do a lot with chaos and disarray as a politician, any politician can. You know, you can sell your own narrative. You can put forth your own narrative. You can, you know, grab support from voters who might not have believed you before. You just need that official statement. What it really reminded me of so much was the Ukraine phone call that Trump had that led to the first impeachment.

And I don't know if you remember this, but during that first impeachment hearing, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who was apprised of the phone call, understood that Trump wanted Ukrainian officials to say they were investigating the Bidens - Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Sondland testified it was never necessary for any investigations to be opened. The investigations only had to be declared. That was the most important thing to Trump and his allies. Again, that use of an official statement in order to sow doubts in the minds of the public is something that Trump understood as a really powerful tool.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Katie Benner. She covers the Justice Department for The New York Times. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you're just joining us, my guest is Katie Benner. She reports on the Justice Department for The New York Times. And we're talking about Donald Trump's attempts to subvert the 2020 election results and declare himself the winner. This is being investigated by the Department of Justice's inspector general, the Senate Judiciary Committee and investigators in the House of Representatives.

So another story you reported on is a meeting between Richard Donahue, who was the top official under Jeffrey Rosen in the Justice Department, Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, and White House deputy counsel Patrick Philbin. What was this meeting about?

BENNER: So during this meeting in the Oval Office, Mark Meadows was explaining that the Justice Department needed to look into an unfounded conspiracy theory that is known as Italygate. It's a widely debunked claim that people in Italy use military technology and satellites to remotely tamper with voting machines in the United States and switch votes that had been cast for Trump to votes for Biden. Now, there is nothing that the intelligence community has found to support such a thing. Donahue doesn't say at any point in his notes that they have found anything to support this kind of theory. He does say in his notes that they have an official looking into it.

I spoke with different people from the previous Justice Department about that. And my sources say that indeed what they'd done is they did assign an official to kind of babysit the Italygate theory so that they could always be responsive to questions about it and basically say truthfully that they had researched it and not found anything and not found that this was true, they didn't feel that the sources involved were credible, and they could come back with real and better information.

But it's a really good example of both how much Trump was willing to believe in terms of conspiracy theories brought to him, how he was willing to embrace them if they - if he felt that they gave him a shot of holding on to the presidency and how he was willing to then push those theories down through his top officials like Mark Meadows to the Justice Department with the understanding that if an agency that had credibility like the department was also willing to support or somehow cosign these theories, he could use that as a way to increase doubts about the election.

GROSS: I keep wondering, why didn't anyone in the Justice Department come forward when they knew how Trump was trying to subvert the election results?

BENNER: I think this is one of the big questions that investigators are also trying to get to the bottom of. When you think about what was going on in those really chaotic days after the election was declared for Biden, chaotic particularly in the White House and at the Justice Department, what we've seen from reporting from fantastic colleagues at the Times and at The Washington Post is that Trump becomes increasingly desperate, increasingly frantic about how can he make the results different.

And that takes us into December. And then he starts pushing on the Justice Department ever more ardently to try to get them to do something, to try to get the Supreme Court to vacate the results, to come out and just say that something was fraudulent or corrupt, whether or not that's the case, to reexamine claims that they've already said they didn't find evidence for. And amid that push, from my reporting, what I've been told is that people were just scrambling to keep their heads above water to fend off these demands. Nobody seemed to stop to think what would the impact be if instead of simply trying to fend off the demands, if instead of simply saying that we're looking into it, to debunk it, you know, for a variety of conspiracy theories, if one of the officials had come out and said, this is what's happening, it is improper, the American public needs to know, followed by either resignation letter or just some sort of declaration - how would that have changed things?

I think investigators are very curious about this issue, and that's one of the things that they have questioned, you know, they have asked officials about. I'm not sure what the answer has - you know, I'm not sure how they've answered those questions to investigators. But again, in my own reporting, what I was told is that people had begun to fear that if they left, they were not sure, one, who Donald Trump would install. Would it be somebody actually willing to do what he wanted? And two, that it would just create too much chaos. Now, we can sit here and, you know, agree or disagree that those are good-enough excuses for not publicly declaring what was going on, but that's just what I've been told.

GROSS: Have any of the people who worked on behalf of Trump spoken with you recently about these ongoing investigations?

BENNER: Another way to look at it, though, is whether or not any of the White House officials involved in those last few weeks of the administration have spoken with investigators, and to our knowledge, they have not. That would include former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. It would include Pat Cipollone, the former White House counsel. We do know that during his nearly seven hours of interview with the Senate Judiciary Committee that Jeff Rosen was very forthcoming about the role that Pat Cipollone, the former White House counsel, played in these final weeks. He felt that Cipollone was both privately supportive of the Justice Department and that in key moments he was willing to push back on Mark Meadows and on Donald Trump.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Katie Benner. She covers the Justice Department for The New York Times. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Katie Benner. She covers the Justice Department for The New York Times. We're talking about Donald Trump's attempts to subvert the election results so that he could declare himself the winner.

What are Trump and his lawyers trying to do to prevent people from testifying in the ongoing investigations?

BENNER: So that's a really interesting thing. You would have thought that the former president would have sued to prevent people from testifying or he would have made some sort of motion to prevent what could be really damning testimony being given to both the Justice Department inspector general and to investigators in Congress. Instead, he had his lawyer, the former representative from Georgia, Doug Collins, write a letter.

And it wasn't a letter to Congress - which can actually make decisions about the investigation - but to write a letter to the witnesses, oddly, that simply said, we think that it's totally wrong for the Justice Department to not invoke executive privilege. We think that waiving it was disrespectful and illegal. However, we're not going to stop you from testifying. If investigators want to speak with other people who don't work at the Justice Department or who haven't already been, you know, asked to speak, then we might change our minds and file some sort of legal brief to stop it.

It was a strange letter. It was strangely worded, basically saying you guys can testify, but we will act if other people are called before investigators. So you can imagine that that would include somebody like Mark Meadows.

GROSS: So just to clarify, who are they saying could testify, and who would they try to stop from testifying?

BENNER: So investigators in Congress - they've asked for the testimony of a few key former Justice Department officials. That would include Jeffrey Rosen, who was the acting attorney general at the time, Rich Donoghue, his deputy, the acting deputy attorney general. They've asked for testimony from a man named Patrick Hovakimian, who had acted as chief of staff to top officials and was knowledgeable about, you know, all of the efforts by Jeff Clark to both subvert the election results and perhaps even become attorney general himself. They've asked for Jeff Clark, and then they've asked for two U.S. attorneys in Georgia to come in.

And what Trump said in his letter was this group of officials - I'm not going to stop them from testifying. Even though I think it's totally wrong and outrageous that the Justice Department has said they can, I'm not going to stop them. However, if investigators ask for anyone else, I could change my mind. And you could imagine that the anyone else would be likely to include somebody like Mark Meadows, the former chief of staff, who - based on documents, emails, the handwritten notes of Donoghue and our own reporting - shows, you know, that he was deeply involved in all of these efforts to pressure the Justice Department.

GROSS: The Justice Department already had some clues about what was happening in terms of Trump trying to overturn the election results a few days before January 6, a few days before the attack on the Capitol. What have you learned about the reaction within the Justice Department after the Capitol was invaded by Trump supporters?

BENNER: In the hours after the January 6 attack, I think that the best description for what was going on inside of the Justice Department was a feeling of complete horror. You know, they felt that they had survived what they saw as a coup attempt by one of their own colleagues just days before. They felt that the election certification on January 6 would give everybody the all-clear. They could relax. The January 6 certification would happen. Biden would be officially, officially, officially declared the winner. Nothing could be done to stop it. And then it was just going to be limping through the next 14 days of, you know, whatever requests came from the White House, but they would be able to handle it.

Instead, what you saw was this devastating attack on the Capitol. It was an attack on democracy. It was something that was abhorrent to the officials remaining in the building, but also kicked off the very largest criminal investigation in generations within the Justice Department - not just investigating people who would attack the Capitol, but investigating the supporters of the president. So it was also extremely politically fraught.

Keep in mind, in the United States of America, we don't investigate political supporters generally. We have free and fair elections instead. We try to depoliticize law enforcement, and instead, they are put in the position of investigating the president's supporters who attacked the Capitol. It's really difficult.

GROSS: There's some very incriminating information that has come out so far about what Donald Trump tried to do to nullify the Biden victory and declare himself the winner. So why do you think that it's more likely that other officials would be prosecuted, but not Trump himself? Because if he's the one pulling the strings and if he's the one doing the ask, why would he be not prosecuted? Why wouldn't he be prosecuted?

BENNER: I guess the reason I'm hesitant to say that the Justice Department would want to open up an investigation to President Trump first - I guess there are two reasons for that. One is really practical, and the other is a little bit more philosophical, maybe. But the first one is that the Justice Department, as it builds cases traditionally in almost any criminal matter - you start with lower level players, and you work your way up, finding evidence and, based on the evidence, move up the chain higher. So you would start with somebody lower level, who might have just been helping the president in his efforts, figure out through that investigation what you find and whether or not it supports the idea of moving higher toward the president. So that's just a practical matter.

And the other is that the very idea of criminally investigating and prosecuting a former president is really much more politically difficult in the United States than I think that, you know, the public has treated it over the last four years. We had an extremely unusual presidency marked by investigations, marked by two impeachments, so constantly marked by accusations of, you know, misdemeanors, high crimes and actual violations of the criminal code.

That is not usual, but the public has been primed to believe that the idea of prosecuting a president or a former president is something that can just be done. It is something that is so unusual and we must be so careful about in the United States - truly believe that we have a democracy, we have elections, and we generally have been taught that we don't go after people because of their politics. We don't criminally investigate them or indict them. So to make that distinction is really difficult for the Justice Department. To make the distinction that we are investigating the former president for his actions rather than his political beliefs is going to be a very hard thing to do, and the department's not going to want to take that on unless they feel really certain that they can do that based on evidence.

GROSS: You know, in addition to Trump's efforts to overturn the election results, we're also seeing a lot of efforts by Republicans to pass and, in many cases, succeed in having new, restrictive voting laws. We're looking at state legislatures who are passing or trying to pass laws that say they can declare fraud in the state's election results and then choose the electors for the Electoral College themselves. And we're still seeing an ongoing, you know, audit of the votes in Maricopa County, Ariz., in what is an apparent attempt to look for fraud, which has not been discovered so far, in what appears to be an attempt to overturn the election results in that county.

So now the Justice Department - it's a Biden administration Justice Department. Merrick Garland is the attorney general. So what is the Merrick Garland Justice Department trying to do to protect voting rights in the U.S.?

BENNER: So protecting voting access is one of the very top, top, top goals of the Merrick Garland Justice Department. It's something that Garland feels extremely strongly about. The head of the Civil Rights Division currently is a voting rights expert who has worked throughout her career to expand the right to vote and protect the right to vote. Her name's Kristen Clarke. And Garland, in June, basically announced a multipronged plan to protect voting access that we've seen him very deliberately implement over the subsequent two months.

He said he's going to challenge restrictive voting laws. And indeed, the Justice Department did sue the state of Georgia over its recently enacted law, saying that this deliberately will disenfranchise and that it intends to disenfranchise Black voters. It was a really aggressive lawsuit because it says not just that the law does disenfranchise Black voters but that it intends to, and that's going to be a big thing to prove in court.

The Justice Department has also sent out letters to, for example, Arizona about the audit that you've mentioned, saying this could violate - potentially violate the Civil Rights Act. One of the things that the Civil Rights Act says is that the documents around an election, including the ballots, need to be preserved for a number of months after the election. And by giving these ballots over to a private company to perform a private audit, it's unclear whether or not the documents themselves have been protected and preserved appropriately in a way that the Justice Department would deem OK.

And so it's already sent out a warning signal to Arizona saying, this audit - this could violate the law. And in that case, we would take action. And the department has publicly said that Congress needs to pass voter rights legislation. Merrick Garland has personally said multiple times publicly that Congress must protect the right to vote. They must enshrine it in law because there's really only so much the Justice Department can do.

GROSS: Katie Benner, thank you so much for talking with us, and thank you for your reporting.

BENNER: Thank you.

GROSS: Katie Benner covers the Justice Department for The New York Times. Our interview was recorded yesterday morning. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews the new debut album by Samara Joy, winner of the 2019 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, "'03 BONNIE AND CLYDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.