Four Democratic House committee chairs on Friday urged the Justice Department’s internal watchdog to launch an emergency probe into whether DOJ officials, including Attorney General William Barr, violated the law by taking actions intended to influence the upcoming presidential election.
The demand comes from Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), and House Administration Committee Chairperson Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) in a letter to Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
As Richard Hasen, professor of law and political science at UC Irvine School of Law, wrote in an op-ed for CNN this week, Barr has way overstepped the bounds of what is appropriate for an Attorney General to do in terms of politicizing his office. According to Hasen:
By repeating false and misleading statements about the potential for voter fraud and post-election violence, Attorney General William Barr has stepped out of his role as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer and marred the 2020 elections. This parroting of President Donald Trump’s unsupported rhetoric is irresponsible and dangerous, turning the job of the Department of Justice as the protector of voting rights on its head.
This sowing of doubt in the integrity of our elections could be even worse than Barr’s other recent comments comparing prosecutors to children, equating Covid-19 health restrictions to slavery and suggesting that some political protesters should be charged with “sedition.”
Sam Levine, reportong for the Guardian on Thursday, cited many experts who warn that Barr has emerged as Trump’s “most powerful ally in undermining” the 2020 elections.
Recent behavior and comments by Barr, Levine noted, “fit into a larger pattern that reflect a willingness to deploy the resources of the justice department to suit Trump’s political interests. Such a posture, especially around voting, is deeply alarming, say former justice department officials and civil rights advocates.”
The Friday letter from the House chairs points also to actions by Trump-appointee U.S. Attorney John Durham, whom Barr tapped last year to lead an inquiry into the origins of the so-called Russia probe—the purpose and scope of which Barr “has only provided vague and shifting statements,” the Democratic chairs wrote.
There are indications the attorney general will make “public disclosures” about the investigation that would be beneficial to the Trump campaign ahead of Election Day, the letter states.
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House Chairs Demand Emergency Inspector General Investigation Into AG Barr’s Efforts to Improperly Influence November Presidential Electionhttps://t.co/TReHY2o58B
— House Judiciary Dems (@HouseJudiciary) September 18, 2020
“Attorney General Barr has signaled repeatedly that he is likely to allow DOJ to take prosecutorial actions, make public disclosures, and even issue reports before the presidential election in November,” the lawmakers wrote. “Such actions clearly appear intended to benefit President Trump politically.”
In their letter Friday, the lawmakers write that Barr “has indicated that he would consider taking such steps in the Durham investigation—including the issuance of a report or other summary—within 60 days of the upcoming election. These concerns are even more pressing in light of the resignation of Assistant U.S. Attorney Nora Dannehy, who reportedly resigned due to political pressure from Attorney General Barr on the investigative team to produce a report before the election.”
Dannehy resigned last week. According to the Hartford Courant:
Colleagues said Dannehy is not a supporter of President Trump and has been concerned in recent weeks by what she believed was pressure from Barr, who appointed Durham, to produce results before the election. They said she has been considering resigning for weeks, conflicted by loyalty to Durham and concern about politics.
“Trump hopes that Durham will discredit the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation into his 2016 campaign, and allies, including Barr, have questioned whether the Russians showed a preference for Trump in 2016,” CNN reported. “But the US intelligence assessment released last month threatens to undercut those goals,” the outlet added, “making clear the Russians are doubling down on their pro-Trump efforts to undermine Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign.”
The House Democrats’ letter comes day after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, led fellow Democrats on the committee in urging IG Horowitz to look into whether “Durham’s investigation complies with Department of Justice policies, including policies that protect criminal investigations from political influence.”
Read the House committee chairs’ letter in full below:
Dear Inspector General Horowitz:
We write to ask that you open an emergency investigation into whether U.S. Attorney General William Barr, U.S. Attorney John Durham, and other Department of Justice (“DOJ”) political appointees are following DOJ’s longstanding policy to avoid taking official actions or other steps that could improperly influence the upcoming presidential election. We also request that you evaluate the authority and scope under which U.S. Attorney Durham is operating, as Attorney General Barr has only provided vague and shifting statements about the purpose and scope of the investigation.
We are concerned by indications that Attorney General Barr might depart from longstanding DOJ principles to take public action related to U.S. Attorney Durham’s investigation that could impact the presidential election. Under longstanding DOJ policy, the Attorney General is expected to refrain from commenting on an ongoing investigation. Attorney General Barr and U.S. Attorney Durham have made several public comments that could violate this Department policy and related guidelines.Attorney General Barr has signaled repeatedly that he is likely to allow DOJ to take prosecutorial actions, make public disclosures, and even issue reports before the presidential election in November.Such actions clearly appear intended to benefit President Trump politically.Specifically, Attorney General Barr has indicated that he would consider taking such steps in the Durham investigation—including the issuance of a report or other summary—within 60 days of the upcoming election. These concerns are even more pressing in light of the resignation of Assistant U.S. Attorney Nora Dannehy, who reportedly resigned due to political pressure from Attorney General Barr on the investigative team to produce a report before the election.
DOJ’s Justice Manual states that “DOJ generally will not confirm the existence of or otherwise comment about ongoing investigations,” and further provides that “DOJ personnel shall not respond to questions about the existence of an ongoing investigation or comment on its nature or progress before charges are publicly filed.”The Hatch Act prohibits a federal employee from using “official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”At DOJ, the law has been understood to prohibit DOJ employees from using their authority “for the purpose of affecting election results.”
A DOJ memorandum provides that “prosecutors may never select the timing of investigative steps or criminal charges for the purpose of affecting any election, or for the purpose of giving an advantage or disadvantage to any candidate or political party.”As you noted in your June 2018 report reviewing various actions by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) in advance of the 2016 election, the Department has a longstanding practice “to avoid overt law enforcement and prosecutorial activities close to an election, typically within 60 or 90 days of Election Day.” Attorney General Barr himself had previously strongly supported a strict interpretation of this policy.
A series of high ranking former Department officials have also confirmed that prosecutors should not take overt investigative and prosecutorial actions or disclosures in the run up to an election if there is a possibility the action could impact the election, even if a candidate or a proxy is not the subject or target.
With potentially devastating consequences for our democracy, Attorney General Barr appears to have changed his position and no longer supports the longstanding DOJ policy of refraining from taking overt actions or disclosures in the run up to an election if there is a possibility the action could impact the election.During an April 2020 interview, Attorney General Barr explained that he now interprets election sensitivity policies only to apply to investigative or prosecutorial actions specifically targeting candidates or their close proxies.
The Attorney General’s vague answers and apparent departure from precedent come in the context of DOJ’s apparent failure to follow your 2018 report’s recommendations. In particular, two recommendations appear relevant to Attorney General Barr’s conduct, as well as any report that Mr. Durham may issue:
We recommend that the Department and the FBI consider adopting a policy addressing the appropriateness of Department employees discussing the conduct of uncharged individuals in public statements.
We recommend that the Department consider providing guidance to agents and prosecutors concerning the taking of overt investigative steps, indictments, public announcements, or other actions that could impact an election.
On June 11, 2018, the Department responded to your office that it “concurs” in those recommendations.
For these reasons, we ask that you conduct an emergency review examining the following issues related to Attorney General Barr’s actions and U.S. Attorney Durham’s work:
1. Whether the statements, any directives given, or other actions taken by Attorney General Barr related to U.S. Attorney Durham’s investigation comply with Department policy, procedures, guidance, or other practice, including with the Justice Manual, relevant memoranda by Attorney General Barr and predecessors, and the practices identified in your 2018 report regarding DOJ and FBI actions preceding the 2016 presidential election relating to an ongoing investigation or election year sensitivities;
2. Whether the Department implemented the recommendations on election year sensitivities in your 2018 report regarding DOJ and FBI actions preceding the 2016 presidential election;
3. If U.S. Attorney Durham issues a report in advance of the 2020 election, how this report and any statements or other actions by U.S. Attorney Durham comply with Department policy, procedures, guidance, or other practice, including with the Justice Manual, relevant memoranda by Attorney General Barr and predecessors on election year sensitivities, and the practices identified in your 2018 report regarding DOJ and FBI actions preceding the 2016 presidential election;
4. Whether and to what extent the Department has implemented the recommendations from your 2018 report regarding DOJ and FBI actions preceding the 2016 presidential election, and to what extent the implementation of—or failure to implement—those recommendations has impacted the actions of Attorney General Barr and U.S. Attorney Durham related to U.S. Attorney Durham’s investigation;
5. The legal authority under which U.S. Attorney Durham has operated in this investigation, including complying with any scoping memorandum or similar documents, and whether such legal authority, if any, allows any future actions that U.S. Attorney Durham takes pursuant to the investigation, including issuance of a report or any criminal or civil legal proceedings; and
6. Whether, apart from regulations authorizing the public release of a report by a duly-appointed Special Counsel, a Department prosecutor has the authority to issue a public report about a subject who has not yet been charged in a federal court and the basis for such authority.
Our request that you investigate these matters while Mr. Durham’s investigation remains ongoing falls well within the ambit of past Office of Inspector General precedent.In 1997, the Office of Inspector General investigated allegations of wrongdoing within the FBI laboratory in the midst of the prosecution and then trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. And when terminating U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in the Southern District of New York, Attorney General Barr himself authorized your office to investigate any claims of improper interference in ongoing SDNY investigations.
Few actions would prove more damaging to public confidence in the integrity of the DOJ and our democratic process than the perception that federal prosecutorial power can be used to prejudice a pending investigation or influence an upcoming election. As such, we believe it is imperative that this matter be immediately investigated, that you inform our Committees of your decision to open an investigation, and that you report the results promptly to our Committees.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this urgent matter and your continuing commitment to transparency and accountability on behalf of Congress, the Department of Justice, and the American people.