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Justice Department opens investigation into new Trump-era scandal

Trump's Justice Department secretly seized communications records from at least two Democratic members of Congress. An Inspector General probe is underway.


The New York Times' reporting overnight was stunning in its implications. As part of the Trump administration's zeal to uncover leaks, the Justice Department "subpoenaed Apple" in order to secretly seize communications records from at least two Democratic members of Congress, some of their staffers, and their family members.

As we discussed this morning, the prosecutorial probe did not pan out, and federal law enforcement under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not find any evidence of leaks from Dems on the House Intelligence Committee. But then Bill Barr took office, brought in an allied prosecutor with little relevant experience, and "revived languishing leak investigations" -- just as Donald Trump demanded.

All of this was kept secret, with the Justice Department securing a gag order on Apple, so that the targeted lawmakers, staffs, and their families wouldn't know that they'd been targeted.

Congressional Democrats have responded to the revelations with hair-on-fire reactions, demanding an investigation. Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, the independent watchdog within Main Justice, announced a probe this afternoon in a press statement that read:

The DOJ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is initiating a review of DOJ's use of subpoenas and other legal authorities to obtain communication records of Members of Congress and affiliated persons, and the news media in connection with recent investigations of alleged unauthorized disclosures of information to the media by government officials. 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. If circumstances warrant, the OIG will consider other issues that may arise during the review.

As for possible congressional scrutiny, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) issued a joint statement this morning, condemning the Trump-era DOJ for its "gross abuse of power and an assault on the separation of powers," adding, "Former Attorneys General Barr and Sessions and other officials who were involved must testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee under oath. If they refuse, they are subject to being subpoenaed and compelled to testify under oath"

The trouble, of course, is that in an evenly divided Senate, the Judiciary Committee has equal numbers of Democratic and Republican members. In order for the panel to issue a subpoena, at least one GOP senator will have to agree.

The statement from Schumer and Durbin added, "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."

Given the state of the contemporary GOP, it might be best to lower expectations.

The Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee faces no similar constraints, and subpoenas from the panel appear likely.

For his part, Barr did a couple of interviews this morning, distancing himself from the controversy, and saying he doesn't recall the events.

Of course, given the former attorney general's track record, his denials are impossible to accept at face value, and none of this will deter those who want to see him testify under oath.