Trump official Jeffrey Clark loses bid to move Georgia trial to federal court

<span>Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP</span>
Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP

A federal judge on Friday denied a request from Jeffrey Clark, the former Trump justice department official, to transfer from state to federal court his criminal case for conspiring to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia, saying he had failed to prove he had been acting within the scope of his official duties.

The ruling from the US district judge Steven Jones, which came a day after Donald Trump decided against making a similar request, means Clark will be tried in Fulton county superior court – with its mainly Democratic jury pool – unless the ruling is overturned by the 11th circuit appeals court.

Related: Why is Trump desperate to move the Georgia trial to federal court?

Clark was charged last month alongside Donald Trump and top allies in the sprawling Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (Rico) Act case brought by the Fulton county district attorney, Fani Willis, because he had drafted a letter in December 2020 falsely claiming the justice department was investigating supposed election fraud in Georgia.

The letter was never sent to Georgia officials and Clark had argued he had been acting within the scope of his official duties as the acting US assistant attorney general for the civil division when he drafted the memo, making him immune from state prosecution under a special federal law.

But the judge rejected his arguments in a 15-page opinion that concluded the available evidence cut against him and his efforts to try to show he had satisfied a three-part test to determine whether he was eligible to move his case to federal court.

“The letter pertained to election fraud and election interference concerns that were outside the gamut of his federal office. Consequently, Clark has not shown the required nexus for federal officer removal,” Jones wrote.

Clark made two specific arguments at an evidentiary hearing last week: first, that he had been permitted to draft legal memos as the top official in the civil division, and second, that as an assistant attorney general, he could do work for any of the justice department’s sub-sections.

The judge concluded that Clark’s first argument failed because election-related matters have never been in the purview of the civil division, which is involved in defending lawsuits that are filed against the United States or officers of the federal executive branch.

The only witness to testify at the hearing, Jody Hunt, Clark’s predecessor as head of the civil division, also disclaimed Clark’s argument and affirmed that anything with respect to election irregularities would be handled by the civil rights division or the criminal division.

The judge wrote that deposition transcripts showed that even Clark’s own assistant who helped him draft the letter, Kenneth Klukowski, had recounted to prosecutors he had been “shocked” at the assignment because “election-related matters are not part of the civil’s portfolio”.

Clark’s lawyer had responded at the hearing that Clark had been in a unique position in 2020 because he defended the vice-president, Mike Pence, in an election-related lawsuit. But the judge dismissed that notion, saying Clark had to defend that suit because Pence was being sued as an actual federal officer.

Jones also entirely rejected Clark’s second argument – that he had been acting within the scope of his justice department role because Trump could have delegated him authority to write the December 2020 letter – because he had failed to show any evidence that had actually happened.

The contention from Clark’s lawyer Harry MacDougal at the hearing was that Trump had “ratified” Clark to look at election fraud allegations because he had been summoned to discuss the matter at an Oval Office meeting on 3 January 2020.

However, the judge noted it was unclear whether Trump had expressly given Clark authority to write the letter. “Other than his counsel’s own vague and uncertain assertions, the Court has no evidence that the President directed Clark to work on election-related matters,” Jones wrote.

“Instead, the evidence before this Court does not show the President’s involvement in this letter specifically until the January 3 meeting where the President decided not to send it to the Georgia officials,” Jones wrote, adding: “Any such delegation ... would have been outside the scope of DoJ more broadly.”