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Watchdog investigates seizure of Democrats’ phone data by Trump DoJ

Watchdog investigates seizure of Democrats’ phone data by Trump DoJ
The records of at least 12 people connected to the House intelligence committee were eventually shared, including Adam Schiff, the panel chairman. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The US justice department’s internal watchdog launched an investigation on Friday after revelations that former president Donald Trump’s administration secretly seized phone data from at least two House Democrats as part of an aggressive leaks inquiry related to the Russia investigation into Trump’s conduct.

Democrats in Congress called the seizures a “shocking” abuse of power, while the White House labeled the revelations “appalling”.

The announcement by the DoJ inspector general, Michael Horowitz, came shortly after the deputy attorney general, Lisa Monaco, made the request on Friday morning.

Horowitz said he would examine whether the data turned over by Apple followed department policy and “whether any such uses, or the investigations, were based upon improper considerations”.

It was revealed late on Thursday that the US justice department under Trump had taken data from the accounts of at least two members of the House of Representatives intelligence committee in 2018 as part of an aggressive crackdown on leaks related to the Russia investigation and other national security matters, according to a committee official and two people familiar with the investigation.

Prosecutors from the previous president’s DoJ subpoenaed Apple for the data, according to the people, who were granted anonymity to discuss the secret seizures first reported by the New York Times.

The records of at least 12 people connected to the intelligence panel were eventually shared, including the chairman, Adam Schiff, who was then the top Democrat on the committee.

The California Democratic congressman Eric Swalwell was the second member, according to spokeswoman Natalie Edelstein. The records of aides, former aides and family members were also seized, including one who was a minor, according to the committee official.

Apple informed the committee last month that their records had been shared, but did not give extensive detail. The committee is aware, though, that metadata from the accounts was turned over, the official said.

The records do not contain any other content from the devices, like photos, messages or emails, one of the other people said. The third person said that Apple complied with the subpoena, providing the information to the DoJ, and did not immediately notify the members of Congress or the committee about the disclosure.

While the justice department routinely conducts investigations of leaked information, including classified intelligence, opening such an investigation into members of Congress is extraordinarily rare.

Schiff tweeted: “Trump repeatedly demanded the DoJ go after his political enemies. 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. And how much he imperiled our democracy.”

Trump repeatedly demanded the DOJ go after his political enemies.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.And how much he imperiled our democracy.— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) June 11, 2021

The disclosures, as first reported by the New York Times, raise questions about what the department’s justification was for spying on another branch of government and whether it was done for political reasons.

The Trump administration’s attempt to secretly gain access to data of individual members of Congress and others connected to the panel came as the president was fuming publicly and privately over investigations – in Congress and by the special counsel Robert Mueller – into his campaign’s ties to Russia. Trump called the inquiries a “witch-hunt”, regularly criticized Schiff and other Democrats on Twitter and repeatedly dismissed as “fake news” leaks he found personally harmful to his agenda. As the investigations swirled around him, he demanded loyalty from a justice department he often regarded as his personal law firm.

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said in a statement that “these actions appear to be yet another egregious assault on our democracy” waged by the former president.

“The news about the politicization of the Trump administration justice department is harrowing,” she said.

Schiff, now the panel’s chair, also confirmed in a statement on Thursday evening that the DoJ had informed the committee in May that the investigation was closed. Still, he said: “I believe more answers are needed, which is why I believe the inspector general should investigate this and other cases that suggest the weaponization of law enforcement by a corrupt president.”

The justice department told the intelligence panel then that the matter had not transferred to any other entity or investigative body, the committee official said, and the department confirmed that to the committee again on Thursday.

The panel has continued to seek additional information, but the department has not been forthcoming in a timely manner, including on questions such as whether the investigation was properly predicated and whether it only targeted Democrats, the committee official said.

It is unclear why Trump’s justice department would have targeted a minor as part of the investigation.

Another Democrat on the intelligence panel, the Illinois representative Mike Quigley, said he did not find it even “remotely surprising” that Trump went after committee members’ records during the Russia investigation.

“From my first days as part of the Russia investigation, I expected that eventually, someone would attempt this – I just wasn’t sure if it would be a hostile government or my own,” Quigley said.

And the Florida congresswoman Val Demings, an impeachment manager in Trump’s first Senate trial, and who is now challenging Republican Florida senator Marco Rubio for his seat, tweeted: “It is outrageous but not surprising. We have a former president with no regard for the rule of law or for those who enforce the laws.”


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