(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland delivers remarks on voting rights at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, U.S., June 11, 2021. Tom Brenner/Pool via REUTERS
By Jan Wolfe and Lisa Lambert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The top U.S. law enforcement official said on Monday the Justice Department will make its policies for obtaining records of U.S. lawmakers more rigorous after revelations that former President Donald Trump’s administration secretly secured data on members of Congress, journalists and a former White House lawyer.
Attorney General Merrick Garland in a statement https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/statement-attorney-general-merrick-b-garland also said that “political or other improper considerations must play no role in any investigative or prosecutorial decisions” and that anyone within the department who fails to live up to that principle “will be met with strict accountability.”
Democratic congressional leaders on Sunday vowed to investigate the department’s “rogue” actions under Trump including its move to obtain the communications records of House of Representatives Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell as part of a probe into leaks of classified information. Schiff and Swalwell both were critics of Trump, a Republican.
Garland said he has instructed Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco “to evaluate and strengthen the department’s existing policies and procedures for obtaining records of the Legislative branch.”
“Consistent with our commitment to the rule of law, we must ensure that full weight is accorded to separation-of-powers concerns moving forward,” Garland added, referring to the constitutional system of checks and balances among the U.S. government’s executive, judicial and legislative branches.
The department’s internal watchdog, Inspector General Michael Horowitz, on Friday said this office is launching a review of the use of subpoenas during Trump’s administration to obtain the records of lawmakers and journalists and whether “improper considerations” drove those decisions.
“There are important questions that must be resolved in connection with an effort by the department to obtain records related to Members of Congress and Congressional staff,” Garland added.
Garland said that if action related to Horowitz’s investigation is warranted, “I will not hesitate to move swiftly.” Garland also scheduled a meeting with officials from the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN to discuss the Trump Justice Department’s seizure of phone records for journalists from the three news organizations.
Under former attorneys general William Barr and Jeff Sessions, the department was accused by Democrats of putting Trump’s personal and political interests ahead of the law.
The Times on Thursday reported that under Trump the department subpoenaed Apple Inc (NASDAQ:AAPL) for data on Schiff and Swalwell. Apple also told Donald McGahn, who served as White House counsel under Trump, that the department had subpoenaed information about him in 2018 and barred the company from telling him, the Times reported on Sunday.
Schiff said he has spoken with Garland and Monaco about the subpoena that sought his phone records.
“I have every confidence they will also do the kind of top-to-bottom review of the degree to which the department was politicized during the previous administration and take corrective steps,” Schiff said.
Schiff added that the department “can never be used to protect a president’s friends or accomplices, or as a potential weapon against a president’s perceived political enemies.”
Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, decried the investigation announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats. Echoing Trump’s language on previous investigations, McConnell called this one “a witch hunt in the making.” McConnell said on the Senate floor that Horowitz is “fully equipped” to investigate the matter without Congress also doing so.
John Demers, who heads the department’s national security division and is a holdover from Trump’s administration, is expected to leave his post by the end of next week, the Times reported on Monday.
U.S. Justice Dept. to ‘strengthen’ policies on getting lawmakers’ records