The Justice Department’s internal watchdog has launched an investigation into efforts by former President Donald Trump’s administration to secretly seize Democrats’ communications data in the United States House of Representatives.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s announcement came shortly after Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco made the request on Friday. Horowitz said he would examine whether the data transmitted by Apple followed departmental policy and “whether such uses, or investigations, were based on improper considerations.”
Information was released Thursday that the Trump administration seized phone data from House Democrats in 2018 as part of an aggressive investigation into the leaks.
Democratic Representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell were told that Trump’s 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 issues, according to three people familiar with the seizures who spoke to the Associated Press news agency.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin said in a statement Friday that former Attorneys General William Barr and Jeff Sessions “must testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee” and are under subpoena if they refuse.
Schiff and Swalwell were then on the House Intelligence Committee. Schiff is now the president.
While the Department of Justice routinely investigates disclosed information, including classified information, the initiation of such an investigation into members of Congress is extraordinarily rare. The disclosures reveal that one branch of government is using its investigative and prosecutorial powers to spy on another.
The files of at least 12 people connected to the intelligence panel were finally shared by the company.
The Justice Department obtained metadata – likely recordings of calls, texts and locations – but not other content from the devices, like photos, messages or emails, according to one of the people. . Another said Apple complied with the subpoena, providing the information to the Justice Department, and did not immediately notify members of Congress or the committee of the disclosure.
Apple informed the committee last month that the cases had been shared and the investigation had been closed, but did not give detailed details. The files of helpers, former helpers and family members, including a minor, were also seized, according to the head of the committee.
The secret seizures were first reported by The New York Times.
The Trump administration’s attempt to covertly access the data came as the President ranted publicly and privately about investigations – in Congress and by then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller – into the links to his campaign with Russia.
Trump has called the investigations a “witch hunt,” has regularly criticized Democrats and Mueller on Twitter, and has repeatedly called leaks he found damaging to his agenda “fake news”.
As investigations revolved around him, Trump repeatedly called for the loyalty of Justice Department officials.
Schiff and Swalwell were two of the most visible Democrats on the then Republican-led committee during the Russia inquiry. The two California lawmakers have made frequent appearances on cable news. Trump watched these channels closely, if not obsessively, and boiled over the cover.
The committee official said the panel continued to seek additional information, but the Justice Department failed to answer questions such as whether the investigation was properly founded and whether it focused solely on on the Democrats.
On CNN on Friday, Swalwell said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the department had attacked other members as well. He said an internal Justice Department investigation could find out. The Senate Intelligence Committee was not targeted in the same way, according to a fourth person who was aware of the investigation and granted anonymity to discuss it.
There is no indication that the Department of Justice used the files to prosecute anyone. After some information was declassified and made public during the last years of the Trump administration, some of the prosecutors feared that even if they could file a leak case, trying it would be difficult and a conviction would be unlikely, l one of the people said.
Federal agents interviewed at least one former committee staff member in 2020, the person said, and ultimately prosecutors were unable to substantiate a case.