The Justice Department’s internal guard has launched an investigation into efforts by former President Donald Trump’s administration to secretly seize communications data from Democrats in the US House of Representatives.
The announcement by Inspector General Michael Horowitz came shortly after Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco filed the application on Friday. Horowitz said he would check whether the data submitted by Apple was in line with the department’s guidelines and “whether any such use or investigations were based on improper considerations.”
Reports surfaced Thursday that the Trump administration had seized phone data from House Democrats in 2018 as part of an aggressive investigation into leaks.
Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell were informed that the Trump Justice Department seized their metadata from Apple three years ago as part of an aggressive crackdown on leaks related to the Russia investigation and other national security matters, according to three people, those with the seizures, who spoke to the Associated Press news agency.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, USA on February 28, 2021 [File: Octavio Jones/Reuters]Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin said in a statement Friday that former Attorney General William Barr and Jeff Sessions “must testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee” and are subject to subpoena if they stand refuse.
Schiff and Swalwell were serving on the House Intelligence Committee at the time. Schiff is now chairman.
While the Department of Justice routinely investigates leaked information, including classified intelligence, the initiation of such an investigation against members of Congress is extremely rare. The revelations show that part of the government is using investigative and law enforcement powers to spy on another.
The records of at least 12 people connected to the intelligence panel were eventually shared by the company.
The Justice Department received metadata – likely recordings of calls, texts, and locations – but no other content from the devices such as photos, messages, or emails, according to one of the people. Another said Apple complied with the subpoena, provided the information to the Justice Department, and did not immediately notify members of Congress or the committee of the disclosure.
Apple told the committee last month that the record was shared and the investigation closed, but did not provide full details. The files of helpers, former helpers and family members, one of whom was a minor, were also confiscated, the committee official said.
The secret seizures were first reported by the New York Times.
The Trump administration’s attempt to secretly gain access to the data came when the president publicly and privately railed about investigations – in Congress and on then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller – into his campaign’s links with Russia.
Trump called the investigation a “witch hunt”, regularly criticized Democrats and Müller on Twitter and repeatedly dismissed the leaks, which he found harmful to his agenda, as “fake news”.
With the investigation swirling around him, Trump repeatedly called for loyalty from Justice Department officials.
Schiff and Swalwell were two of the most visible Democrats on the Republican-led committee during the Russia Inquiry. Both California lawmakers appeared frequently on cable news. Trump watched these channels closely, if not obsessively, and seething with the coverage.
The committee official said the panel had continued to seek additional information, but the Justice Department had not commented on questions such as whether the investigation was correctly predicted or whether it focused only on Democrats.
The Justice Department under former President Trump reportedly secretly seized data from the accounts of at least two Democratic lawmakers in 2018 [File: Alex Brandon/AP Photo]On CNN Friday, Swalwell said he would “not be surprised” if the department followed up on other members. He said an internal Justice Department investigation could find out. The Senate Intelligence Committee had not been similarly attacked, according to a fourth person who knew about the investigation and provided anonymity to discuss it.
There is no evidence that the Justice Department used the records to prosecute anyone. After some of the information was released and made public in the later years of the Trump administration, some of the prosecutors were concerned that even if they could bring a leak case, it would be difficult and unlikely to be convicted, one of the people said.
Federal agents questioned at least one former committee employee in 2020, the person said, and prosecutors were ultimately unable to establish a case.