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Friday, June 11, 2021

Independent Watchdog Launches Inquiry into Trump-Era Seizure of Lawmakers’ Data. The announcement from the Justice Department’s independent inspector general followed one by Senate Democrats, who announced that they would open their own investigation into the Trump Justice Department’s decision to go after records associated with Congress.

Independent Watchdog Launches Inquiry into Trump-Era Seizure of Lawmakers’ Data

The announcement from the Justice Department’s independent inspector general followed one by Senate Democrats, who announced that they would open their own investigation into the Trump Justice Department’s decision to go after records associated with Congress.

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Rep. Eric Swalwell of California was one of at least two Democrats on the Intelligence Committee whose records were seized.
Pool photo by Joshua Roberts

The Justice Department’s independent inspector general opened an inquiry on Friday into the Trump administration’s secret seizure of data from House Democrats and reporters as prosecutors sought to hunt down the sources of leaks of classified information.

In a statement, Michael E. Horowitz, the inspector general, announced he would review the department’s use of subpoenas and other legal maneuvers to secretly access communications records of Democratic lawmakers, aides, and at least one family member, which was first reported on Thursday by The New York Times.

Mr. Horowitz also said he will look at other recently disclosed actions to secretly seize data about reporters. The Biden Justice Department in recent weeks has disclosed that prosecutors during the Trump administration also sought and obtained phone records for journalists at The Washington Post, CNN, and The New York Times and then sought to stop the information from becoming public.

“The review will examine the department’s compliance with applicable D.O.J. policies and procedures, and whether any such uses, or the investigations, were based upon improper considerations,” Mr. Horowitz said.

Hours earlier, top Senate Democrats had also announced that they would open their own investigation into the Trump Justice Department’s decision to go after records associated with Congress. They demanded public testimony from former Attorney General William P. Barr and other Justice Department officials.

“This issue should not be partisan; under the Constitution, Congress is a coequal branch of government and must be protected from an overreaching executive, and we expect that our Republican colleagues will join us in getting to the bottom of this serious matter,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, and Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

They called on Republicans to join them in demanding answers, but so far none have.

Mr. Horowitz’s announcement followed a referral by the deputy attorney general, Lisa O. Monaco, according to a senior Justice Department official; Attorney General Merrick B. Garland directed Ms. Monaco to take that step, the official said. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also called for an inspector general investigation.

The two investigations came as Democrats and privacy advocates decried the seizures and aggressive investigative tactics as a gross abuse of power to target another branch of government. They said the pursuit of information on some of President Donald J. Trump’s most visible political adversaries in Congress smacked of dangerous politicization.

The Times reported that as it hunted for the source of leaks about Trump associates and Russia, the Justice Department had used grand jury subpoenas to compel Apple and one other service provider to hand over data tied to at least a dozen people associated with the House Intelligence Committee beginning in 2017 and 2018. The department then secured a gag order to keep it secret.

Though leak investigations are routine, current and former officials at the Justice Department and in Congress said seizing data on lawmakers is nearly unheard-of outside of corruption investigations. The Times also reported that after an initial round of scrutiny did not turn up evidence tying the intelligence committee to the leaks, Mr. Barr objected to closing out the inquiry and helped revive it.

Investigators gained access to the records of Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee and now its chairman; Representative Eric Swalwell of California; committee staff aides; and family members of lawmakers and aides, including one who was a minor.

“I hope every prosecutor who was involved in this is thrown out of the department,” Mr. Swalwell said in an interview on Friday. “It crosses the line of what we do in this country.”

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced on Friday that the Justice Department would double its staff within the Civil Rights Division dedicated to protecting voting rights.Pool photo by Stefani Reynolds

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland laid out a detailed plan on Friday for protecting voting rights, announcing that the Justice Department would double enforcement staff on the issue, scrutinize new laws that seek to curb voter access and act if it sees a violation of federal law. 

Mr. Garland announced his plan as Republican-led state legislatures push to enact new restrictive voting laws, and amid dwindling chances for sweeping federal voter protection laws introduced by Democrats.

“To meet the challenge of the current moment, we must rededicate the resources of the Department of Justice to a critical part of its original mission: enforcing federal law to protect the franchise for all eligible voters,” Mr. Garland said in an address at the department. 

The Justice Department will also scrutinize current laws and practices to determine whether they discriminate against nonwhite voters, he said. It was not clear how many people work on voting rights enforcement, nor what the total would be after the department adds to the staffing levels.

In more than a dozen states, at least 22 new laws have been passed that make it more difficult to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive public policy institute that is part of the New York University School of Law.

Mr. Garland also said that the department was monitoring the use of unorthodox postelection audits that could undermine faith in the nation’s ability to host free and fair elections, adding that some jurisdictions have used disinformation to justify such audits. 

“Many of the justifications proffered in support of these postelection audits and restrictions on voting have relied on assertions of material vote fraud in the 2020 election that have been refuted by the law enforcement and intelligence agencies of both this administration and the previous one, as well as by every court — federal and state — that has considered them,” Mr. Garland said.

The department’s Civil Rights Division has sent a letter expressing concerns that one of those audits may have violated the Civil Rights Act, Mr. Garland said, in part because it could violate a provision in the act that bars voter intimidation. He did not specify which state, but in Arizona, a weekslong audit is widely seenas a partisan exercise to nurse grievances about Donald J. Trump’s election loss.

The Justice Department will publish guidance explaining the civil and criminal statutes that apply to postelection audits and guidance on early voting and voting by mail, and will work with other agencies to combat disinformation.

Democrats have sued over some new voting laws, but that litigation could take years to resolve and may have little power to stop those laws from affecting upcoming elections. 

Two major federal election bills  — the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — are also the subject of fierce debate in Congress. 

Earlier this week, Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, said that he would oppose the For the People Act, dashing hopes among progressives that the far-reaching bill intended to fight voter suppression would become law. 

Mr. Garland has said that protecting the right to vote is one of his top priorities as attorney general, and his top lieutenants include high-profile voting rights advocates such as Vanita Gupta, the department’s No. 3 official, and Kristen Clarke, the head of the Civil Rights Division. 

Ms. Clarke’s long career advocating on behalf of voting rights protections — including at the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the New York attorney general’s office and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — will make her a key player in the Justice Department’s work to preserve voting access. 

But that work is made more difficult by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down pieces of the Voting Rights Act that forced states with legacies of racial discrimination to receive Justice Department approval before they could change their voting laws.”

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