The Justice Department’s inspector general will investigate the department’s handling of a leak investigation into former President Donald Trump’s political enemies that included a subpoena to collect metadata of lawmakers, staff and some family members, the office announced Friday.
The request comes as House Intelligence Committee Democrats held a briefing led by Chairman Adam Schiff. A source said that members were ‘animated’ in trying to figure out who at the Justice Department and in the Trump administration were behind the effort to seize their records.
The activity follows the bombshell revelation that prosecutors in the Trump administration Justice Department subpoenaed Apple for data from the accounts of House Intelligence Committee Democrats along with their staff and family members as part of a leak investigation.
The prosecutors were looking for the sources behind news stories about contacts between Russia and Trump associates.
The Justice Department in 2018 demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses from Apple, the company said Friday night. While Apple says it would have normally informed customers, a nondisclosure order prevented them from doing so in this case, the company said. Also Friday night, Microsoft said it received a subpoena in 2017 related to a congressional staffer’s personal email account, which was also subject to a gag order.
Schumer and Durbin call for former attorneys general to testify
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin are calling for former Attorneys General William Barr and Jeff Sessions to testify on the matter.
“If they refuse, they are subject to being subpoenaed and compelled to testify under oath,” the Democrats said in a statement.
“This issue should not be partisan; 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,” Schumer and Durbin said.
But a Senate aide explained that Democrats would need the support of at least one Republican on the evenly divided Judiciary Committee to approve any subpoenas.
Very few Republicans have so far spoken up about the news of the Trump Justice Department probe into the House Democrats, and whether they will back any effort to bring the two former attorneys general to testify before the Senate.
House Democrats, however, can issue subpoenas without the consent of the GOP.
“We expect the Department to provide a full accounting of these cases, and we expect the Attorney General to hold the relevant personnel accountable for their conduct,” House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler said in a statement Friday. “If the Department does not make substantial progress towards these two goals, then we on the Judiciary Committee will have no choice but to step in and do the work ourselves.”
Democrats to ask Apple to determine if additional members were targeted by DOJ
Intelligence Committee Democrats plan to ask Apple to look into whether additional members were targeted by the Trump Justice Department, according to a source familiar with the matter.
The members are providing staff with all of their different numbers and accounts and the staff will ask Apple to provide information back about whether they were subjects of a DOJ subpoena.
There were generic “Apple notices” sent to members whose records were seized sent on May 5, the source said. But members are concerned those generic emails could have been ignored, deleted or swept up into their spam folders.
Barr says Trump didn’t direct him to target lawmakers
Barr does not recall the specifics of a leaks probe of the lawmakers, according to a person familiar with the matter. And Barr denied knowledge of the moves in an interview with Politico on Friday.
The person said cases that the attorney general weighed in on had been recommended by career officials in the criminal division and elsewhere in the department. The former attorney general did not brief Trump on any of the leak probes, though the President would bring up leaks and the need to investigate with the attorney general, the person said.
The leak investigation that targeted lawmakers was more than a year old when Barr took office in 2019, but Barr had vowed early on to help answer lingering questions from conservatives about the fairness of the Justice Department’s handling of politically sensitive investigations. Like Trump, Barr had suspicions about leaks and believed the department’s credibility was at stake if it couldn’t show it fully investigated them, people briefed on the matter said.
According to Politico, Barr said that while he was attorney general, he was “not aware of any congressman’s records being sought in a leak case,” during the time he was attorney general and said former President Donald Trump never directed him to target lawmakers for investigation.
Trump “was not aware of who we were looking at in any of the cases,” Barr told Politico. “I never discussed the leak cases with Trump. He didn’t really ask me any of the specifics.”
Republicans focus on potential leaks
Key Republicans issued statements focusing on the potential leaks DOJ was investigating rather than the methods, and withheld judgment on whether the department was following the rules.
“Both classified leaks and abuses of power are serious offenses that must be met with strict consequences,” said the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Iowa’s Chuck Grassley. “We know that the Justice Department is capable of abusing its power, as it did when it secretly spied on and ran intelligence operations against the Trump campaign. We also know that classified information in Congress’ possession can leak to the press, as was the case with the classified Carter Page FISA - the product of that abuse.”
He added that DOJ’s investigated lawmakers before.
“Investigations into Members of Congress and staff are nothing new, especially for classified leaks,” Grassley said in a statement.
Utah GOP Rep. Chris Stewart echoed the sentiment.
“I’ve been concerned, and voiced my concerns, about the leaking of classified information for many years. Leaks hurt our national security, break faith between government officials and the American people, and very often are deceptive, if not completely inaccurate,” Stewart, an Intelligence Committee member, said in a statement.
“I support investigating leaks of classified information,” he added. “When the DOJ is acting within their legal bounds, members of the Intelligence Committee shouldn’t be immune to appropriate investigations.”
White House calls reports ‘appalling’
In the Biden administration’s first on-camera reaction Friday, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield called the reports “appalling.”
“The reports of the behavior of the attorney general under Donald Trump are appalling,” Bedingfield said during an appearance on MSNBC from Cornwall, England.
Bedingfield suggested President Joe Biden has a “very different relationship” with the Justice Department than his predecessor, calling out the Trump administration’s “abuse of power” with the department, and adding that the Biden administration’s Justice Department is “run very, very differently.”
Biden, Bedingfield said, “respects the independence of the Justice Department, and it’s a critically important part of how he governs.”
Swalwell says Trump ‘weaponized’ Justice Department
California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, whose data was seized by the Trump administration, said Trump “weaponized” the Justice Department to dig into the private communications.
“This is about everyday Americans who don’t want to see their government weaponize law enforcement against them because of their political beliefs,” Swalwell told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on “Newsroom.”
Asked Friday by Sciutto if he leaked classified information involving investigations, Swalwell replied, “No, never.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s Betsy Klein, Ted Barrett, Ryan Nobles, Brian Fung, Katelyn Polantz and Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.