Court filing gives rare look inside FBI seizure of lawmaker’s phone in 2020 election probe

Dec 5, 2023, 10:06 PM

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Just how hard did some Republican members of Congress work to keep Donald Trump in office after his 2020 election loss? A court case is providing a few tantalizing clues.

Snippets and short summaries of texts and emails sent by Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, a top Trump ally, have emerged publicly for the first time as part of a court filing that was unsealed — perhaps inadvertently — by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., as part of a legal battle with federal prosecutors.

The messages reveal more about what investigators want to know, what actions Perry took in the weeks after the election and where Perry may fit in the web of Trump loyalists who were central to his bid to remain in power.

It was Perry’s efforts to elevate Jeffrey Clark to Trump’s acting attorney general — and likely reverse the Department of Justice’s stance that it had found no evidence of widespread voting fraud that would change the election — that have made him a figure of interest to federal prosecutors.

Perry, in the past, has said he merely “obliged” Trump’s request that he be introduced to Clark.

But the messages suggest that Perry was a key ally for Clark, providing encouragement as he sought to win Trump’s favor. At one point Perry told a nervous Clark that “you are the man” and seemingly helped him prep for an important meeting and secure a higher security clearance.

The court filing with Perry’s messages was unsealed last week — then resealed in a move the court has yet to explain. Copies of the filing were downloaded and posted online by news organizations and others.

Perry’s cell phone was seized by federal authorities last year as part of the investigation into attempts to subvert the results of the 2020 election and block the transfer of power to Democrat Joe Biden.

Details of the case have remained largely secret. But the filing offered new details about the legal reasoning and arguments in the case that some observers found revealing.

“I would say we learned a great deal from that,” said Grayson Clary, a staff attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which has pressed for transparency in the case.

What more information, exactly, will emerge from the seizure of Perry’s cell phone remains to be seen.

Judges continue to weigh which of Perry’s hundreds of texts and emails are constitutionally protected by Perry’s status as a member of Congress, and which of them are fair game for the FBI because they fell outside his duties as a member of the legislative branch.

Congressional inquiries have shown that Perry’s efforts to promote Clark came as Trump pressured members of the Department of Justice to challenge the 2020 election. At the time, Perry was also pressing Justice Department officials to investigate a variety of election fraud claims in Pennsylvania — claims that officials and the courts dismissed as baseless.

In one text exchange on Dec. 30, Perry texted Clark that Trump “seems very happy with your response. I read it just as you dictated,” the unsealed-then-resealed court filing said.

Clark responded, “I’m praying. This makes me quite nervous. And wonder if I’m worthy or ready.” Perry responded, “You are the man. I have confirmed it. God does what he does for a reason.”

The two then discussed when Trump would “pull the trigger on something new” and make an “absolute decision,” the court filing said.

Perry later prepped Clark for a meeting with the director of national intelligence and suggested he knew Trump had moved to boost Clark’s security clearance.

“POTUS is giving you a presidential security clearance,” Perry told Clark in a text.

At the time, Clark was the assistant attorney general of the Environment and Natural Resources Division and served as the acting head of the Civil Division.

Weeks before, Attorney General William Barr had refuted Trump’s campaign of baseless lies about election fraud, telling The Associated Press that the Justice Department had uncovered nothing that could change the outcome of the 2020 election.

But, by Christmas, Barr had resigned and Trump was searching for a like-minded successor to use the Department of Justice to help stall the certification of the election.

To that end, Clark had drafted a letter that he suggested sending to Georgia saying the Department of Justice had “identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election in multiple states, including the state of Georgia,” according to the August indictment in that state accusing Trump, Clark and 17 others of trying illegally to keep him in power.

Top department officials refused to sign it or send the letter, prosecutors said, and the showdown over Clark’s plan brought the Justice Department to the brink of crisis.

In a contentious meeting on Jan. 3, 2021 in the Oval Office, Trump toyed with elevating Clark to acting attorney general, but backed down after he was told that it would result in mass resignations at the Justice Department and his own White House counsel’s office.

Clark is now described in the federal indictment of Trump as one of six unnamed and unindicted co-conspirators in an effort to illegally subvert the 2020 election.

Perry has not been charged with a crime and has said investigators told his attorneys that he is not the target of the investigation. Meanwhile, Perry was one of four House Republicans who were referred to the House Ethics committee after they refused to cooperate with subpoenas from the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Amid it all, Perry’s influence in Congress has since grown.

He is now the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, a hardline faction of conservatives that exerts outsize influence on the GOP majority. Several members of the group were instrumental in the ouster of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy this fall, and its members remain closely aligned with Trump.

Perry is also the only sitting member of Congress whose cell phone was seized by the FBI in the 2020 election investigation.

Perry’s lawyer called the court’s unsealing “unfortunate” and argued that the communications should be constitutionally protected from release.

“The communications reflect his efforts to understand real-time information about the 2020 election,” Perry’s lawyer, John Rowley, said in a statement. “They were confidential and intended to address critical business before Congress in service of his constituents.”


Follow Marc Levy at www.twitter.com/timelywriter.

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Court filing gives rare look inside FBI seizure of lawmaker’s phone in 2020 election probe