The thing about Donald Trump‘s four years in office is that despite the fact that we knew in real time about most of the awful, corrupt, legitimately evil shit he pulled, months after his departure from the White House we’re still learning about previously unknown but equally terrible stuff he did. Like, for instance, siccing the Justice Department on his enemies in Congress.
Weeks after it emerged that Trump’s DOJ surveilled numerous journalists from outlets he regularly attacked, The New York Times reports that the Justice Department, then led by Jeff Sessions, took the “highly unusual step” of subpoenaing Apple for data from the accounts of Democratic representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, who serve on the House Intelligence Committee. (Trump, you may recall, regularly called the California Democrat “Shifty Schiff” and on at least one occasion said he should be arrested and tried for treason.) And the administration didn’t just go after the records of the two lawmakers—it demanded those of aides and family members too, including one underage child. According to the Times, in an attempt to find out who was behind leaks of classified information concerning contacts between Trump associates and Russia, the DOJ seized the records of at least a dozen people connected to the Intelligence Committee between 2017 and 2018. And while the department under Sessions was ultimately unable to tie Schiff and Swalwell to the leaks, that didn’t stop his successor, the even slipperier Bill Barr, who used his gig as attorney general to settle Trump’s scores, from giving it another shot.
Per the Times:
William P. Barr revived languishing leak investigations after he became attorney general a year later. He moved a trusted prosecutor from New Jersey with little relevant experience to the main Justice Department to work on the Schiff-related case and about a half dozen others, according to three people with knowledge of his work who did not want to be identified discussing federal investigations. The zeal in the Trump administration’s efforts to hunt leakers led to the extraordinary step of subpoenaing communications metadata from members of Congress—a nearly unheard-of move outside of corruption investigations. While Justice Department leak investigations are routine, current and former congressional officials familiar with the inquiry said they could not recall an instance in which the records of lawmakers had been seized as part of one.
Moreover, just as it did in investigating news organizations, the Justice Department secured a gag order on Apple that expired this year, according to a person familiar with the inquiry, so lawmakers did not know they were being investigated until Apple informed them last month.
“Notwithstanding whether there was sufficient predication for the leak investigation itself, including family members and minor children strikes me as extremely aggressive,” David Laufman, a former Justice Department official who worked on leak investigations, told the Times. “In combination with former president Trump’s unmistakable vendetta against Congressman Schiff, it raises serious questions about whether the manner in which this investigation was conducted was influenced by political considerations rather than purely legal ones.”
According to the Times, despite the fact that people inside the DOJ argued internally that the investigation should be dropped—and that “the president’s attacks on Mr. Schiff and [James] Comey would allow defense lawyers to argue that any charges were attempts to wield the power of law enforcement against Mr. Trump’s enemies”—Barr insisted that prosecutors continue the probe.
After the records provided no proof of leaks, prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington discussed ending that piece of their investigation. But Mr. Barr’s decision to bring in an outside prosecutor helped keep the case alive. A CNN report in August 2019 about another leak investigation said prosecutors did not recommend to their superiors that they charge Mr. Comey over memos that he wrote and shared about his interactions with Mr. Trump, which were not ultimately found to contain classified information. Mr. Barr was wary of how Mr. Trump would react, according to a person familiar with the situation.
In a statement, Schiff called the subpoenas yet another instance of Trump using the DOJ as a “cudgel against his political opponents and members of the media,” adding, “It is increasingly apparent that those demands did not fall on deaf ears. The politicization of the department and the attacks on the rule of law are among the most dangerous assaults on our democracy carried out by the former president.” He said the Justice Department told him last month that the investigation into his committee was closed, but he called on its independent inspector general to investigate the matter and any others that “suggest the weaponization of law enforcement.“ Speaking to CNN on Thursday, Swalwell said it was his belief that family members “were targeted punitively, not for any reason in law, [but] because Donald Trump identified Chairman Schiff and members of the committee as an enemy of his.”
In possibly related news, here’s a fun throwback to Kamala Harris, then a senator, questioning Barr in 2019 about whether Trump had ever asked him to investigate any of his enemies:
Harris: Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?
Barr: Um, I wouldn’t, uh—
Harris: Yes or no?
Barr: Could you repeat that question?
Harris: Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone? Yes or no, please, sir.
Barr: Uh, the president or anybody else—
Harris: It seems you would remember something like that and be able to tell us.
Barr: Yeah, but I’m trying to grapple with the word suggest. I mean, there have been discussions of matters out there that they have not asked me to open an investigation, but...
Harris: Perhaps they’ve suggested?
Barr: I wouldn’t say suggested—
Barr: I don’t know.
Harris: Inferred? You don’t know?
Turns out he did!
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