Trump DOJ secretly seized phone data; inspector general will review

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department’s independent watchdog on Friday announced that it was launching a broad investigation into whether the Trump administration and its two attorneys general improperly seized phone records of House Democratic lawmakers, their staff and journalists as part of an aggressive 2018 leak investigation.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz confirmed that he would launch an investigation into it as well as the use of subpoenas to obtain journalists’ phone records. Horowitz also said his watchdog agency would look beyond subpoenas to “other legal authorities [used] to obtain communication records … 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,” Horowitz said, “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.”

The Office of Inspector General can initiate investigations based on information received from a variety of sources, including its own hotline, referrals from agencies or Congress. In this case, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco made the request.

The announcement came after Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell confirmed that Trump-era DOJ officials secretly seized their Apple phone data as well as that of 10 or so House intelligence committee and family members.

Senate Democratic leaders demanded on Friday that then-President Donald Trump’s two attorneys general, William Barr and Jeff Sessions, testify about the seizure of phone records.

The New York Times, which first reported on the seizure Thursday night, said the Justice Department subpoenaed Apple for phone data of about a dozen people, including two Democrats on the committee, their aides and family members, one of whom is a minor.

Demanding answers

A House intelligence committee official confirmed the existence of the subpoenas in an interview with USA Today on Friday and described them as a politically motivated effort retaliate “against people who were rightly investigating the Trump administration for abuses.”

“A question that we have for the Department of Justice is what legally was this predicated on? When did it start? And how did it continue?” said the committee official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

“We have repeatedly posed basic and readily answerable questions to the Department for more than a month but have received virtually no information beyond a confirmation that the investigation is closed,” the committee official said. “The Department’s refusal to provide information is unacceptable, and they will need to provide a full accounting of this and other instances in which law enforcement was weaponized against Donald Trump’s political opponents.”

On Thursday night, after the Times published its report Swalwell went on CNN and confirmed that his phone data were among those that were seized, as well as other lawmakers and their family members.

The California Democrat also said that Apple, which was under a gag order preventing it from telling lawmakers their data were subpoenaed, had notified him that his records were seized.

“I believe (the family members) were targeted punitively, not for any reason in law, (but) because Donald Trump identified Chairman Schiff and members of the committee as an enemy of his,” Swalwell told CNN Thursday, adding that the gag order was motivated by fear of a public perception that the Trump administration was targeting perceived political enemies.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on May 17, 2017.

Phone data of Schiff, the committee chairman, was also seized. The Times reported that the leak investigation, which began in 2017 under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, sought to find out sources of media reports about contacts between Trump associates and Russia. But the investigation ultimately did not find evidence tying the committee to the leaks, the Times reported.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

‘Harrowing’ targeting of political opponents, Democrats say

House Democrats promptly denounced the data seizure and also called for an inspector general investigation.

“The news about the politicization of the Trump administration Justice Department is harrowing,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. “These actions appear to be yet another egregious assault on our democracy waged by the former president.”

Democrats have also long said that Trump used the Justice Department to go after his perceived political enemies, an allegation that Schiff repeated Thursday night.

“It’s clear his demands didn’t fall on deaf ears. This baseless investigation, while now closed, is yet another example of Trump’s corrupt weaponization of justice,” Schiff said.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

In an interview with CNN Thursday, Schiff said several more lawmakers or staffers’ phone data may have been targeted as part of the leak investigation. He said people who received notices from Apple initially thought the emails were either spam or phishing attempts.

Journalists targeted, too

The Justice Department during the Trump administration also secretly obtained the phone records of journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN. Trump and his former aides have publicly condemned leaks to the press that often led to unflattering news about the White House.

Faced with criticism from journalists and media advocates, the Biden administration announced it will no longer secretly obtain reporters’ records during leak investigations, a departure from a policy used by previous administrations to try to identify sources who provided journalists with classified information.

This story will be updated.

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