Why Barr authorizing probes of election 'irregularities' matters

The official who oversees federal investigations into election crimes saw what Barr was up to, and felt the need to resign soon after.
Image: Donald Trump William Barr
President Donald Trump shakes hands with US Attorney General William Barr during the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor presentation ceremony at the White House on May 22, 2019.Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images file

Late last week, as vote tallies pointed to his likely defeat, Donald Trump made little effort to hide his agitation. The Daily Beast reported that the Republican president was especially impatient with the Justice Department and its "seeming unwillingness to immediately intervene on Team Trump's behalf."

Referring to conspiracy theories about the election, Trump reportedly asked, "Why isn't [DOJ] on this?" It came on the heels of weeks of public lobbying in which the incumbent pressed Attorney General Bill Barr to launch pre-election prosecutions of his political opponents.

It was against this backdrop that Barr yesterday issued a memo authorizing prosecutors "to pursue substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities prior to the certification of elections." As NBC News' report noted, this represented a shift in DOJ policy, which had previously advised prosecutors that "overt investigative steps ordinarily should not be taken until the election in question has been concluded, its results certified, and all recounts and election contests concluded."

At first blush, this seemed ridiculous, but it was an open question as to whether the memo would prove to be consequential. After all, the attorney general has an unmistakable track record of approving pointless, politically inspired investigations intended to make the White House happy, which haven't amounted to much.

Unless someone, somewhere, can find credible evidence of "vote tabulation irregularities," investigators at the Department of Justice will spin their wheels for a while before moving on.

But the developments that soon followed raised some additional eyebrows. NBC News' report added:

The head of the branch of the Justice Department that prosecutes election crimes resigned Monday hours after Attorney General William Barr issued a memo to federal prosecutors to investigate "specific allegations" of voter fraud before the results of the presidential race are certified. Richard Pilger, who was director of the Election Crimes Branch of the DOJ, sent a memo to colleagues that suggested his resignation was linked to Barr's memo, which was issued as the president's legal team mount baseless legal challenges to the election results, alleging widespread voter fraud cost him the race.

"Having familiarized myself with the new policy and its ramifications, and in accord with the best tradition of the John C. Keeney Award for Exceptional Integrity and Professionalism (my most cherished Departmental recognition), I must regretfully resign from my role as Director of the Election Crimes Branch," Pilger's letter said, according to a copy obtained by NBC News.

In other words, the official who oversees federal investigations into election crimes saw what the attorney general was up to, and was so opposed to Barr's antics that he felt the need to step down from his position.

The day before the election, the HuffPost's Ryan J. Reilly wrote a good piece, noting that many former Justice Department officials feared that the "the long-term fate of federal law enforcement" was in jeopardy if Trump won a second term. As Barr prepares to exit the building in 71 days, he's finding new ways to bolster the point.