Justice Watchdog to Probe Trump-Era Subpoenas of Lawmakers’ Data

The Justice Department’s internal watchdog will investigate a Trump-era effort to secretly subpoena data of at least two House Democrats, a revelation that prompted calls from Congress for answers from former attorneys general Bill Barr and Jeff Sessions.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said Friday he is initiating a review of the department’s use of subpoenas to get communications records of members of lawmakers as well as members of the news media in connection with investigations into leaks.

“The review will examine the Department’s compliance with applicable DOJ policies and procedures, and whether any such uses, or the investigations, were based upon improper considerations,” Horowitz said in a statement.

Separately, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin said they want Barr and Sessions to testify under oath about the subpoenas, issued in an attempt to track down leaks that had led to news reports about former President Donald Trump’s circle and Russia.

“The revelation that the Trump Justice Department secretly subpoenaed metadata of House Intelligence Committee members and staff and their families, including a minor, is shocking,” Schumer and Durbin said in a joint statement. “This is a gross abuse of power and an assault on the separation of powers.”

The senators threatened to subpoena Barr and Sessions if they don’t appear voluntarily.

Barr and Sessions didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Barr told Politico that he was “not aware of any congressman’s records being sought in a leak case,” the news organization reported. He also said that he never discussed any leak investigations with Trump.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said Thursday night that the Justice Department had secretly subpoenaed personal communications records of several people tied to his panel

Schiff, a California Democrat who enraged Trump with congressional investigations of his administration, released a statement after the New York Times reported that the department had seized his records and those of several other people. The Times reported that prosecutors subpoenaed metadata from Apple Inc. for accounts of at least two Democrats on the Intelligence panel, as well as aides and family members.

Justice Watchdog to Probe Trump-Era Subpoenas of Lawmakers’ Data

The Times said that the inquiry began when Sessions was attorney general and was revived under Barr.

Altogether, the paper said, records belonging to at least a dozen people, including Schiff, were seized in 2017 and 2018.

Schumer and Durbin called it an “appalling politicization” of the Justice Department and that the Judiciary Committee will demand answers from department.

“This issue should not be partisan,” they said. “Under the Constitution, Congress is a co-equal 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.”

Apple said in a statement on Friday evening that “we regularly challenge warrants, subpoenas and nondisclosure orders.”

The company added that, in this case, “the subpoena, which was issued by a federal grand jury and included a nondisclosure order signed by a federal magistrate judge, provided no information on the nature of the investigation and it would have been virtually impossible for Apple to understand the intent of the desired information without digging through users’ accounts.”

Schiff, who did not mention in the statement whether his own records had been seized, said that while “we were informed by the department in May that this investigation is closed,” more answers were needed.

Lauren French, a spokeswoman for the Intelligence Committee, said Schiff became aware of the subpoenas in May, adding that he is unaware of whether he was a target of the investigation, but that the committee itself was.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a separate statement that she supports Schiff’s call for an investigation.

Justice Watchdog to Probe Trump-Era Subpoenas of Lawmakers’ Data

She called the news harrowing, and that “these actions appear to be yet another egregious assault on our democracy waged by the former president.”

A senior Intelligence Committee Democrat, Mike Quigley of Illinois, said in an interview that he had never been briefed about the Justice Department targeting of individuals associated with the committee -- and was never aware of it.

But Quigley said he long “had expected that eventually, someone would attempt this – I just wasn’t sure if it would be a hostile government or my own.”

“The stakes were so high,” said Quigley, referring to the committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He accused Trump of repeatedly using the Justice Department for his own political ends.

The Times report reverberated across the Capitol. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said “Donald Trump’s efforts to surveil Adam Schiff as part of a political vendetta is both a direct attack on the separation of powers and Congressional independence.”

The revelation of the subpoenas for of the lawmakers’ records follows reports by the New York Times, CNN and the Washington Post that the Trump Justice Department had seized or tried to seize phone and other records of their journalists.

Last weekend, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that “the issuing of subpoenas for the records of reporters in leak investigations is not consistent with the president’s policy direction to the department, and the Department of Justice has reconfirmed it will not be used moving forward.”

President Joe Biden told reporters on May 21 that it was “simply, simply wrong” for the Justice Department to obtain the telephone and email records of journalists, and “I will not let that happen.”

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