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Senate plans investigation of Trump DOJ seizure of House Democrats’ data

Justice Department inspector general will also probe matter

“It’s hard to express just how shocking an abuse of power this really is,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff says of the reports that his records were obtained by the Trump-era Justice Department.
“It’s hard to express just how shocking an abuse of power this really is,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff says of the reports that his records were obtained by the Trump-era Justice Department. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate Judiciary Committee is prepared to subpoena Trump administration Justice Department leaders if that’s what it takes to get answers about reports that the DOJ obtained metadata related to House members, including the Intelligence Committee chairman.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, who also chairs the Judiciary panel, said the committee would conduct a full review of the matter, which was first reported Thursday by The New York Times.

As part of a sweeping leak investigation, the DOJ used subpoenas to obtain information from Apple, including cellphone metadata for at least two House members: House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both California Democrats. Swalwell and Schiff both confirmed their records had been obtained.

Schiff called for an investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general, which the DOJ confirmed Friday would happen. And it is clear from Schumer and Durbin that the Senate is planning its own probe, seeking testimony from Trump-era Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and William Barr, as well as other involved parties.

“In addition, the Justice Department must provide information and answers to the Judiciary Committee, which will vigorously investigate this abuse of power,” Schumer and Durbin said in a Friday statement. “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.”

In a bit of unfortunate timing for Congress, the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations subcommittees in both the House and Senate have already held their fiscal 2022 Justice Department budget hearings with Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. The Senate’s hearing was Wednesday, the day before the Times story was published.

Separately, a House Intelligence official confirmed that there has been frustration with the lack of transparency from the DOJ under Garland as it relates to this case.

Schiff, in a Thursday night interview with MSNBC, noted that the Intelligence Committee was conducting an investigation of Russian election interference and President Donald Trump at the same time as the subpoenas were apparently flying.

“It violates the separation of powers. But it also makes the Department of Justice just a fully-owned subsidiary of the president’s personal legal interests and political interests. And that does such damage to the department. So it’s extraordinary, maybe unprecedented, for the department to seek records like this of a member of Congress or staff of a member of Congress or staff of a committee, to do so in a partisan way, to do so when they’re investigating him, to do so openly calling on his department,” Schiff said. “It’s hard to express just how shocking an abuse of power this really is.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi backed Schiff’s call for an inspector general inquiry.

“The news about the politicization of the Trump Administration Justice Department is harrowing. These actions appear to be yet another egregious assault on our democracy waged by the former president,” the California Democrat said in a statement Thursday.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said Friday that his office would be conducting a review of the “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.”

A DOJ official confirmed to CQ Roll Call that Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco had referred the matter to the IG at Garland’s direction.

Sen. Ron Wyden, a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, has already announced plans to craft legislation.

“Revelations about the Trump Justice Department’s targeting of journalists and political rivals proves again how surveillance powers can be abused and the need to put strict limits on gag orders that prevent the targets of this spying from learning about it for years,” the Oregon Democrat said in a statement. “I plan to introduce legislation to reform the abuse of gag orders and provide more transparency about government surveillance.”

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