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As Trump-era Justice Dept scandal intensifies, Republicans shrug

There are all kinds of questions about the latest Trump-era Justice Department scandal. GOP lawmakers aren't at all eager to hear the answers.


Even those who've come to expect the worst from the Trump administration were taken aback last week with new revelations about the Republican-led Justice Department. The New York Times was first to report that federal investigators secretly seized communications records from at least two Democratic members of Congress, some of their staffers, and even some their family members.

The subpoenas did not produce any damning evidence, and all of this had been kept secret, with the Justice Department securing a gag order on Apple, so that the targeted lawmakers, aides, and their families wouldn't know that they'd been targeted.

New, overnight reporting suggests the controversy is still intensifying -- and isn't limited to Capitol Hill.

The Justice Department subpoenaed Apple for information in February 2018 about an account that belonged to Donald F. McGahn II, President Donald J. Trump's White House counsel at the time, and barred the company from telling him about it, according to two people briefed on the matter. Apple told Mr. McGahn about the subpoena last month, said one of the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter. Mr. McGahn's wife also received a similar notice from Apple, the person said.

It's not at all clear why the Justice Department would have any interest in secretly obtaining Don McGahn's communications records, but as the New York Times' report added, "[T]he disclosure that agents had collected data of a sitting White House counsel, which they kept secret for years, is extraordinary."

The timeline is of particular interest: Apple notified McGahn and his wife that the company had received the subpoena on Feb. 23, 2018. That's shortly after the public saw reports about Donald Trump ordering McGahn to arrange for Special Counsel Robert Mueller's ouster. The then-White House counsel refused and threatened to resign.

Almost immediately thereafter, the then-president pushed McGahn to issue a false public statement, contradicting the accurate reporting. When the Republican lawyer refused that directive, too, Trump began privately trashing McGahn as a "liar" and a "leaker."

And then the Justice Department thought it'd be a good idea to quietly subpoena McGahn's communications records.

As the scandal intensifies, relevant players seem awfully eager to distance themselves from possible culpability. Both of Trump's attorneys general -- Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr -- denied any knowledge of the subpoenas late last week, and former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has also reportedly said he was unaware of the efforts.

Since the subpoenas couldn't have materialized out of thin air, the need for answers seems obvious. To that end, the Justice Department's inspector general's office announced late last week that it would review what transpired. But what about Congress?

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) issued a joint statement on Friday, which said Barr and Sessions, among others, "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 use of the phrase "subject to" was of interest, because in practical terms, it's not entirely up to Schumer and Durbin: In an evenly divided Senate, the Judiciary Committee has equal numbers of Democratic and Republican members. For the panel to issue a subpoena, at least one GOP senator will have to agree.

That now appears unlikely. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, released a mind-numbing written statement late Friday, indicating that he does not care about the controversy. Even Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), an ostensible "moderate," yesterday conceded on CBS News' "Face the Nation" that the allegations are "serious," but would only go so far as to endorse the review from the Justice Department's inspector general, not a congressional probe.

In other words, there's reason to believe that the Justice Department secretly obtained the communications records of Donald Trump's perceived foes; there are all kinds of unanswered questions about the who, why, and how; and for now, GOP lawmakers aren't at all eager to hear the answers.