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A House Panel Will Investigate Trump DOJ Surveillance Of Lawmakers And Journalists

The U.S. Department of Justice is seen Friday.
Kevin Dietsch
Getty Images
The U.S. Department of Justice is seen Friday.

Updated June 14, 2021 at 10:19 PM ET

The Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee will open an investigation into efforts by the Trump-era U.S. Department of Justice to seize metadata from devices belonging to members of Congress, journalists and the then-White House counsel.

Word of the partisan probe came as current Attorney General Merrick Garland, said the DOJ will "strengthen" its policies on obtaining records from lawmakers.

The developments follow the recent lifting of gag orders, which has revealed the use of subpoenas by the Trump administration's Justice Department.

The department secretly subpoenaed Apple in February 2018 for account information of then-White House counsel Don McGahn and his wife, and secured a gag order that barred the tech giant from telling them about it, a person familiar with the matter told NPR's Ryan Lucas.

Apple informed the McGahns of the subpoena last month after the gag order expired, Lucas reported Sunday.

And last week, it emerged that the Trump-era Justice Department had also subpoenaed Apple for the metadata of at least two Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee — Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both of California — as well as the data of some of their staffers and family members.

As Lucas reported, that subpoena "was part of an aggressive push by the Justice Department to find the source of leaks of classified information in the early years of the Trump administration. There is no indication that the subpoenaed material tied the committee to the media leaks."

Schiff and Swalwell have been harsh critics of former President Donald Trump, and their committee investigated possible ties between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia.

"Recent reports suggest that, during the Trump Administration, the Department of Justice used criminal investigations as a pretext to spy on President Trump's perceived political enemies," House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said in a statement announcing the committee inquiry. "It remains possible that these cases—which now include Members of Congress, members of the press, and President Trump's own White House Counsel—are isolated incidents. Even if these reports are completely unrelated, they raise serious constitutional and separation of power concerns."

This House effort is not unexpected. Democratic Senate leaders have also called for a congressional investigation into the DOJ's practices, and on former Attorneys General William Barr and Jeff Sessions to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Speaking on the Senate floor Monday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., labeled Democrats' call for Barr and Sessions to testify "politically motivated."

The Department of Justice's inspector general has also announced an investigation of the data seizures.

"There are important questions that must be resolved in connection with an effort by the department to obtain records related to Members of Congress and Congressional staff," Garland said in a statement Monday. He added of the department inspector general's inquiry: "If at any time as the investigation proceeds action related to the matter in question is warranted, I will not hesitate to move swiftly."

Garland added that while that review is pending, he has asked Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco "to evaluate and strengthen the department's existing policies and procedures for obtaining records of the Legislative branch."

Garland also met Monday with leaders from The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post following disclosures that the department had, during the Trump administration, seized phone and email records for reporters at those outlets — apparently as part of a hunt for the source of government leaks.

"As previously announced, the department will no longer use compulsory process to obtain reporters' source information when they are doing their jobs," the DOJ said in a readout of Monday's meeting. "The group had a productive conversation about the need for new rules implementing the policy change."

"While we welcome the new policy to refrain from using compulsory legal procedures to seize reporter records in leak investigations, we feel steps must be taken to ensure it is durable and binding on future administrations," Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan said in a statement. "It is also essential that there be a full and complete public accounting of all the actions taken against our news organizations, including the secret subpoenas and gag orders, and an explanation as to what has been done with the information that was seized."

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Ben Swasey is an editor on the Washington Desk who mostly covers politics and voting.