Attorney General Merrick Garland is scrambling to contain the fallout of a widening Justice Department scandal as Democratic allies and the press express outrage over revelations that his agency secretly obtained records of lawmakers, reporters and dozens of others as it carried out aggressive leak investigations during the Trump presidency.
Just three months on the job, Garland said Monday he has referred the matter to the agency’s inspector general to conduct a “thorough and independent” investigation. He’s also directed Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco to scrutinize the agency’s policies and procedures for obtaining records from Congress. Monaco, he said, “is already working on surfacing potentially problematic matters deserving high level review.”
Garland on Monday also met with executives from CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post to explain why the Department of Justice (DOJ) sought records from eight reporters from those outlets.
Separately, the DOJ’s top national security lawyer, John Demers, is resigning from his post amid questions about what the Trump appointee knew about the agency’s efforts to secretly obtain phone, email and other records from reporters and a pair of vocal Trump critics on the House Intelligence Committee, Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).
Demers’s departure, set for the end of the week, comes as Schiff and others have demanded that Garland “clean house” of any officials involved in partisan or politically motivated investigations.
“What I think we are seeing is that it was worse than all of us even imagined. We knew the Department of Justice had become, in a sense, the personal arm of the Donald Trump protection racket,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) said Monday during a Washington Post Live event. “These stories sound Nixonian but they are actually worse than Nixonian.
“I do hope Merrick Garland, whether it’s through an IG or other process, gets to the bottom of this and makes clear that a Biden Justice Department would not be going after journalists, not be going after political opponents,” Warner added. “I hope this is a dark chapter that we can close.”
In a statement Monday, Schiff said he had spoken to both Garland and Monaco about the DOJ subpoenas and indicated that he was satisfied with the steps that the agency’s top brass had taken in recent days.
“I am pleased they recognize the importance of the issues at stake and have given their commitment to an independent IG investigation,” Schiff said. “I have every confidence they will also do the kind of top-to-bottom review of the degree to which the department was politicized during the previous administration and take corrective steps.”
House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) wasn't as patient. While he was "encouraged" by Garland's actions Monday, Nadler said that his committee would launch an investigation into the "surveillance" of lawmakers, reporters and others.
"I have instructed my staff to begin that work without delay," Nadler said.
Journalists and House Democrats, their staff and family members weren’t the only ones whose records were swept up in the subpoenas to tech giant Apple during the early years of the Trump presidency.
The New York Times reported Sunday that the DOJ subpoenaed Apple for the communications of Trump’s own White House counsel, Don McGahn, and his wife, in 2018. It is unclear if the McGahns themselves are the target of a DOJ leak probe or if investigators came across their contacts while digging through other records, but it represented a rare and extraordinary step for DOJ to seize the records of the then-president’s attorney.
The matter shows both the level of distrust among White House staff and the degree to which the Justice Department under Trump was determined to crack down on leaks related to the Russia collusion investigation and other sensitive matters.
In closed-door testimony with the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month, McGahn denied being a source for a New York Times story that Trump had pushed him to have Robert Mueller fired from his special counsel post. But McGahn acknowledged being a source for a Washington Post article about his threat to resign amid the effort — something he implied had been done at the discretion of the White House press shop to make clear that he had not communicated that directly to Trump.
Critics, even those who once worked for Trump, say the DOJ’s clandestine targeting of Democratic congressmen, Hill aides, reporters and others demonstrated how the 45th president had weaponized the agency to go after his political enemies.
“Like the mafia, the Justice Department became nothing more than a corrupt arm of the Trump administration, run by Donald J. Trump as its head of the family,” said Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney. “Every person whose account was subpoenaed should be notified and the complete list of individuals should immediately be released to the media."
The McGahn development has raised questions about who else might have been targeted in DOJ’s leak probes and whether these new disclosures are just the tip of the iceberg. Apple said it turned over to the DOJ information for customers and subscribers tied to 73 phone numbers and 36 emails; one individual was a minor. Microsoft also responded to a DOJ subpoena as did Google, which fought to alert the Times of the effort.
In many cases, however, the communications companies were barred by gag orders — initiated by Trump but continued under Biden — from alerting their customers their data had been subpoenaed.
Sources close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her top lieutenants — some of the fiercest Trump critics — told The Hill that, so far, they have not been notified that their records were seized as part of this investigation.
“We are not aware that any members of leadership or leadership staff" were targeted by DOJ, said a senior Democratic aide. “But it's not clear the full extent of this or who had their data accessed. That's why we need complete and full transparency from the DOJ.”
To date, no GOP lawmakers have indicated that their records had been seized by the DOJ.
Lawmakers are not above the law. The DOJ successfully prosecuted former Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) for insider trading in 2019, though Trump later pardoned him, and the FBI is currently investigating another Trump ally, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), for sex trafficking.
But Pelosi and others are objecting to what they see as the overt politicization of the Justice Department by the Trump administration. And over the weekend, the Speaker warned that the Trump DOJ’s broad seizure of records from lawmakers and reporters was more egregious than the actions of Nixon, who used the government to attack and investigate his political foes.
Veteran CNN Pentagon reporter Barbara Starr said Monday that she was “horrified” to recently learn that Trump’s Justice Department had spent months secretly trying to obtain thousands of her work and personal emails and phone records.
Even as the DOJ faces mounting pressure to address Trump’s leak investigations, Republicans are pressing Garland to investigate other matters.
At a recent Senate hearing, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) referenced a ProPublica article that disclosed the private tax information of some of the wealthiest Americans, calling the story a “breach.”