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DOJ to probe Trump-era subpoenas of lawmaker records

The Justice Department’s internal watchdog will investigate the secret seizure of data from Democratic lawmakers and reporters during leak investigations initiated under the Trump administration.

The probe follows news of a department decision in 2017 and 2018 to issue subpoenas seeking metadata from House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffTrump DOJ seized House Democrats’ data from Apple Hillicon Valley: Meat producer JBS USA hit by cyberattack | White House says JBS hack likely from Russia | Report finds Amazon injury rate above warehouse standard New Russian hacks spark calls for tougher Biden actions MORE (D-Calif.) and fellow committee member Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellGaetz, under investigative cloud, questions FBI director GOP lawmaker deletes tweet that appeared to mistakenly reveal email password The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Biden, Harris take US goals abroad MORE (D-Calif.) during leak investigations. In recent weeks the Department of Justice (DOJ) also notified reporters at three different outlets their records were sought in similar investigations and dropped the gag orders limiting disclosure of the seizure.

“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,” Michael Horowitz, DOJ’s Inspector General, said in a statement.

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News of the probe comes shortly after lawmakers called for an OIG investigation and congressional review of the matter.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerBiden seeks to unite allies on China Manchin insists he supports voting rights — we’ll see Biden talks reconciliation with Schumer as infrastructure negotiations falter MORE (N.Y.) and Judiciary Chair Dick DurbinDick DurbinSenate confirms first Muslim American federal judge ‘The era of bipartisanship is over’: Senate hits rough patch Business giants join initiative to crack down on counterfeits MORE (Ill.) also called for two of former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump DOJ seized House Democrats’ data from Apple Iowa governor questions lack of notice on migrant children flights to Des Moines Senate confirms first Muslim American federal judge MORE’s attorneys general, Bill Barr and Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump DOJ seized House Democrats’ data from Apple Shelby backs ex-aide over Trump-favored candidate in Alabama Senate race Mystery surrounds Justice’s pledge on journalist records MORE, to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“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. This is a gross abuse of power and an assault on the separation of powers,” Schumer and Durbin said in a joint statement Friday. “This appalling politicization of the Department of Justice by Donald Trump and his sycophants must be investigated immediately by both the DOJ Inspector General and Congress.”

Early in Trump’s presidency, his Justice Department subpoenaed Apple for metadata for Schiff and Swalwell, two staunch critics of Trump, and their family members and fought to place a gag order on the company. The revelation, first reported by The New York Times, comes as DOJ has come under increasing scrutiny for its seizure of records from journalists at three news outlets in its search for leakers under Trump.

On Capitol Hill and on cable TV, Schiff and Swalwell became some of Trump’s most vocal and visible political foes, particularly on the Russia story; Pelosi would later tap Schiff as lead prosecutor during Trump’s first Senate impeachment trial, while Swalwell served as a prosecutor during Trump’s second impeachment trial.     

In statements Thursday night, both Schiff and Pelosi called for the DOJ’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, to investigate the actions of the former Trump officials.       

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“Though we were informed by the Department in May that this investigation is closed, I believe more answers are needed, which is why I believe the Inspector General should investigate this and other cases that suggest the weaponization of law enforcement by a corrupt president,” Schiff said.

“Trump repeatedly demanded the DOJ go after his political enemies. It’s clear his demands didn’t fall on deaf ears,” he added on Twitter Thursday night. 

Pelosi called the revelations that Trump’s Justice Department was targeting House Democrats “harrowing.”

“These actions appear to be yet another egregious assault on our democracy waged by the former president,” she said Thursday, a nod to DOJ issuing subpoenas to also target journalists and news outlets. 

“I support Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s call for an investigation into this situation and other acts of the weaponization of law enforcement by the former president. Transparency is essential.”

An OIG investigation could be key, as it’s unclear whether the Intelligence Committee could start a probe, given that Schiff, Swalwell, committee aides and their families were targets of the DOJ investigation into who was leaking information to news outlets about ties between Trump associates and Russia. 

And while the Senate suggested an eagerness for their own probe, that, too, faces challenges.

To carry out a subpoena on Barr or Sessions, Judiciary Democrats would need the support of at least one Republican given the committee’s even split between the parties.

The news of the subpoenas targeting lawmakers follows DOJ efforts in recent weeks to notify journalists at CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times that their records were also subpoenaed under investigations initiated during the Trump administration. 

The seizures were a deviation from a DOJ policy that typically requires the agency to notify reporters as soon as their records are sought. 

But the Trump administration took advantage of a provision that allows the attorney general to delay notification if there is a “threat to the integrity of the investigation” or a risk of grave harm to national security or death.

In such cases, DOJ is required to disclose that the records were obtained within 45 days, though the attorney general can extend that period for another 45 days.

While that time frame largely left the task to fall on the Biden administration, DOJ continued to seek gag orders seeking to block communications companies from notifying the new outlets their records were being sought.

Even once the department relented and allowed the news to be shared with lawyers at CNN and The Times, it continued to fight for gag orders limiting counsel from informing the reporters their records had been seized.

Schiff and Swalwell’s notification that their records had been subpoenaed followed a similar pattern. The duo was not notified until May, when a gag order DOJ sought for Apple had expired.

Though Joe BidenJoe BidenJill Biden, Kate Middleton to meet this week Al Gore lobbied Biden to not scale back climate plans in infrastructure deal White House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain MORE had been sworn in as president, DOJ officials this year did not inform lawmakers that they were being investigated in the leak probe — a revelation that has infuriated some Democrats on Capitol Hill. 

“There is a lot of frustration at DOJ’s lack of forthcomingness here,” said one congressional Democratic source. 

“We’ve asked a series of questions of DOJ. They have not been forthcoming, and we hope that will change.”

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