- According to an internal email first accessed by ProPublica, the Department of Justice is rolling back a decades-long rule that bars prosecutors from publicly announcing election-related criminal investigations or engaging in similar activities in the months before the election.
- The rule was intended to prevent prosecutors from taking actions that could sway the election by hurting public confidence in election results or depressing voter turnout.
- Many experts say the move is an intentional effort by Attorney General Barr, who has backed the many false claims President Trump has made about the security of mail-in voting, in order to generate more public distrust in the system and help Trump’s re-election chances.
- In a statement, the DOJ said the email was part of routine guidance for election preparations, and that no political appointee had any role in “directing, preparing or sending” it.
DOJ Weakens Decades-Old Rule
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has weakened a 40-year-old rule that prohibited federal prosecutors from interfering in elections by announcing fraud-related criminal investigations or arrests in the months before Election Day, according to an internal email first reported by ProPublica Wednesday.
The email, according to the outlet, was sent on Friday by an official in the DOJ’s Public Integrity Section to a group of prosecutors, specifically outlines “an exception to the general non-interference with elections policy.”
Under that exception, federal prosecutors can now take public investigative actions before an election is over if they suspect election fraud has occurred that involves postal workers or military employees.
Previously, the long-standing department rule barred federal prosecutors from taking public steps in the months before an election due to concerns that they could depress voter turnout or erode public confidence in election results and thus sway the outcome.
For decades, the rule had been engrained in official DOJ policies and literature, including the most recent official DOJ handbook for Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses.
That handbook explicitly says that starting a public investigation before the election ends, “runs the obvious risk of chilling legitimate voting and campaign activities. It also runs the significant risk of interjecting the investigation itself as an issue, both in the campaign and in the adjudication of any ensuing election contest.”
Experts Voice Concerns
Notably, DOJ officials told ProPublica that the exception is written in a way that it could cover other types of investigations. However, the fact that it specifically singled out postal workers and defense employees — who play a role in delivering military ballots — is incredibly significant.
As the report notes, both are groups that President Donald Trump has repeatedly and falsely claimed are susceptible to fraud and will result in a rigged election.
While the vast majority of experts have said that is not true, Attorney General Bill Barr has also backed Trump in spreading falsities. As a result, many experts are concerned that Barr will use this exemption to the decades-long DOJ policy to bolster those false claims and help Trump’s re-election chances by undermining public confidence in the outcome of the election.
With this move, the DOJ could “build a narrative, despite the absence of any evidence, of fraud in mail-in voting so Trump can challenge the election results if he loses,” Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney in Alabama under the Barack Obama administration told The New York Times.
“They’ve told us this is their strategy, and we’re watching them implement it.”
That point was also echoed by Justin Levitt, a former official in the Justice Department’s civil rights division who worked on voting issues.
“It’s not good to have an exemption from a noninterference in elections policy,” he told The Washington Post. “That means, ‘here are the ways we are allowed to interfere in elections.’ I worry that this policy is a green light to use federal law enforcement investigations for partisan political purposes.”
But Justice Department officials pushed back against the claim that this decision was politically motivated.
“Career prosecutors in the Public Integrity Section of the Department’s Criminal Division routinely send out guidance to the field during election season,” DOJ spokesperson Matt Lloyd said in a statement to the media. “This email was simply part of that ongoing process of providing routine guidance regarding election-related matters. No political appointee had any role in directing, preparing or sending this email.”
Department officials also told reporters that the email was not intended to reflect a policy change, but instead to highlight certain exceptions to the policy that had already existed.
But many election experts, career prosecutors, and other former DOJ officials contradicted both those remarks.
“This is anything but routine,” former federal prosecutor Anne Milgram told CNN. “DOJ has not in the history that I have known relaxed any rule in a way like this. It is giving a green light to impact the election.”
Others also pointed to the fact that avoiding election interference has been a long-held, overarching tradition within the DOJ and something that Barr himself even reiterated in guidance he issued back in May.
“Partisan politics must play no role in the decisions of federal investigators or prosecutors regarding any investigations or criminal charges,” he wrote.
“Law enforcement officers and prosecutors may never select the timing of public statements (attributed or not), investigative steps, criminal charges, or any other action in any matter or case for the purpose of affecting any election, or for the purpose of giving an advantage or disadvantage to any candidate or political party.”
Pennsylvania Ballots and DOJ Justifications
Regarding that May guidance specifically, numerous experts have also speculated that part of the reasoning behind this new change was to justify a widely criticized announcement made by Barr and the DOJ a few weeks ago, which appeared to violate those very same guidelines.
In an incredibly unusual decision, the DOJ broke with long-standing policy and publicly announced it was investigating whether local elections officials in Pennsylvania illegally discarded nine mail-in military ballots, seven of which the agency said were cast for Trump.
The announcement itself — and especially the decision to include the part about seven of the ballots being cast for Trump — was condemned by several experts. Many noted that not only did it go against Barr’s own guidance, but it was also irrelevant to the investigation and specifically helped feed Trump’s baseless attacks on mail-in voting.
Trump has since repeatedly used the Pennsylvania incident to fuel his false claims that the system voting is riddled with fraud, despite the fact that the state’s top election official later said that early indications have shown that the incident was “a bad error” and “not intentional fraud.”
The combination of Trump using this incident and the DOJ announcing it has sparked concern over the DOJ using its power to help Trump. Especially because, at the time, it was reported that Barr himself had personally told Trump about the incident before the DOJ made the announcement.
In fact, it was actually Trump who first mentioned the Pennsylvania ballots during a media interview, with the DOJ then issuing its release later.
With this new guidance allowing prosecutors to intervene in elections, experts say that not only may this be a justification for the Pennsylvania announcement, but Americans could also expect to see more events like this moving forward.
“It makes me think that what’s coming is a series of announced investigations or partial theories of incomplete facts, pertaining to the mail-in voting process, that are further designed to undermine the integrity of an election process that is actually quite secure,” Levitt said.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (CNN)
House To Send Impeachment Article Monday, Starting Impeachment Trial Process
- Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the House will send the impeachment article against former President Donald Trump to the Senate on Monday, triggering the start of the impeachment trial process.
- The news comes one day after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell requested that the trial be delayed until mid-February so that Trump’s legal team could have two weeks to prepare.
- The senators could still come to their own agreement to delay the start of oral arguments and give Trump’s team more time to file pretrial briefs.
- Some Democrats have signaled support for this move because it would give them extra time to confirm President Joe Biden’s nominations before the trial starts.
Pelosi To Send Impeachment Article
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Wednesday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) will send the impeachment article against former President Donald Trump to the Senate on Monday.
The move will officially trigger the start of the impeachment trial process. The announcement comes one day after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) requested that the trial be delayed until mid-February so that Trump’s legal team could have two weeks to prepare.
Despite Pelosi’s decision, the senators still could come to their own agreement to start the ceremonial proceedings but delay the start of oral arguments and give Trump’s team more time to file pretrial briefs.
In fact, Democrats, who have been pushing for a schedule that would allow them to still confirm President Joe Biden’s nominees before the trial proceedings start each day, have signaled that they might not oppose a delay because it would give them extra time for confirmations.
During his announcement this morning, Schumer indicated that the details were still being hashed out.
“I’ve been speaking to the Republican leader about the timing and duration of the trial,” he said. “But make no mistake a trial will be held in the United States Senate and there will be a vote on whether to convict the president.”
McConnell, for his part, responded by reiterating that his party will continue to press for Trump’s team to be given enough time.
“This impeachment began with an unprecedentedly fast and minimal process over in the House,” he said. “Senate Republicans strongly believe we need a full and fair process where the former president can mount a defense.”
While the leaders may not have worked out the particulars yet, according to reports, both parties have already agreed that this trial will be shorter than Trump’s first impeachment, which lasted three weeks.
Implications for Power-Sharing Deal
The new impeachment trial deadline could also speed up the currently stalled negotiations between Schumer and McConnell regarding how power will be shared in a Senate with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats.
Democrats effectively control the Senate because Vice President Kamala Harris will be the deciding vote, but she cannot always be there to resolve every dispute.
As a result, McConnell and Schumer have been working to come up with a power-sharing deal for day to day operations, similar to one that was struck in 2001 the last time the Senate was split 50-50. However, those negotiations have hit a roadblock: the legislative filibuster.
The filibuster is the long-standing Senate rule that requires a supermajority of at least 60 senators to vote to end debate on a given piece of legislation before moving to a full floor vote. Technically, all 50 Democrats and Vice President Harris could agree to change the rule to just require a simple majority to legislation advance, or what’s known as the “nuclear option.”
That move, in effect, would allow them to get through controversial legislation without any bipartisan support, as long as every Democrat stays within party lines. Many more progressive Democrats have pushed for this move, arguing that the filibuster stands in the way of many of their and Biden’s top priorities.
Given this possibility, McConnell has demanded that Democrats agree to protect the filibuster and promise not to pursue the nuclear option as part of the power-sharing deal.
But top Democrats have rejected that demand, with many arguing that having the threat of filibuster is necessary to get Republicans to compromise.
In other words: if Republicans fear that Democrats will “go nuclear,” they will be more likely to agree to certain bills and measures to avoid that.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Politico) (The Wall Street Journal)
Biden Signs 17 Executive Order During His First Day in Office. Here’s What You Need to Know
- In the first hours of his presidency, Joe Biden signed 17 executive orders and proclamations, many of which focused on rolling back Trump administration policies regarding immigration, the environment, and protections for minority groups.
- Biden also implemented several measures to tackle the coronavirus, including requiring masks to be worn on federal property and by federal employees. He is also expected to announce a new national strategy aimed at restructuring the federal response to the pandemic.
- On Thursday, Biden will also invoke the Defense Production Act, which would speed up the development and distribution of vaccine-related equipment.
Biden Rolls Back Trump Policies
President Joe Biden signed 17 executive actions and proclamations Wednesday afternoon. Many of his first acts in office are focused on rolling back several policies implemented by former President Donald Trump that Biden’s aides said have caused the “greatest damage” to the country.
“I thought there’s no time to wait, get to work immediately,” Biden told reporters present during the signed of several of the orders.
Here is a breakdown of some of the key measures Biden implemented.
Biden immediately ended all construction on the border wall by overhauling the national emergency declaration Trump had enacted to divert billions in federal funds to his central campaign promise.
The new president also expanded protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) and overturned a Trump policy that made immigration enforcement more strict and
In similar actions, he also ended the travel ban on multiple Muslim-majority countries and revoked a Trump administration order that would have excluded non-citizens from the 2020 Census count.
One of the most significant actions Biden took was signing a letter to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. It will take 30 days for the return to go into effect.
The president also issued a sweeping order that reversed a number of the Trump administration’s environmental policies, including revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, re-establishing a working group to look into the social costs of greenhouse gasses, and temporarily banning oil and natural gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Justice for Minority Groups
In one far-reaching order, Biden directed all federal agencies to review equity in their programs and policies. They are required to issue a report within 200 days that, among other things, details how each will remove barriers to opportunities and ensure all Americans have equal access to federal resources.
Biden also ended Trump’s policy that limited federal agencies, contractors, and other organizations from holding diversity and inclusion training. The same order also disbanded the 1776 Commission created by Trump to study his claims that the education system was too liberal in its teaching of American history.
In a separate order, the president issued changes that will broaden federal protections against sex discrimination to include LGBTQ+ Americans, reversing a previous action by Trump.
As part of a broad measure aimed at general accountability in the executive branch, Biden issued an order that will establish ethics rules for all people in his administration. The same order will also require all executive branch appointees to sign an ethics pledge.
Separately, the president additionally froze all new regulations Trump had put in place during his last few weeks in office until they can be further evaluated.
Economy and Coronavirus
Chief among Biden’s first acts in office were his plans for the coronavirus pandemic and the damage it has caused to the American people.
In terms of financial relief, Biden extended the ban on evictions and foreclosures and paused student loan payments until September.
As for direct actions concerning the pandemic, the president imposed a mask mandate for all federal employees and anyone on federal property. He also signed an extensive order aimed at restructuring the federal response to the pandemic.
Biden is expected to enact more policies in regards to the coronavirus in the coming days, including taking more executive actions to ramp up testing and vaccine distribution, safely reopening schools and businesses, and provide more money to states to help carry out those efforts, among other things.
To achieve these goals, he will also invoke the Defense Production Act, which will compel American companies to manufacture supplies for the pandemic response such as PPE and other items needed for vaccines.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (ABC News) (The Washington Post)
U.S. To Join WHO-led Vaccine Distribution Plan as Biden Implements a Flurry of COVID-19 Executive Orders
- Dr. Anthony Fauci indicated Thursday that President Joe Biden will join COVAX, a World Health Organization-led COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan.
- Fauci’s announcement comes one day after Biden signed an executive order reversing former President Donald Trump’s plan to remove the United States from the WHO.
- Among other orders, Biden plans to implement a mask mandate for airports, planes, trains, and other forms of interstate travel. He has already ordered masks to be worn on all federal property.
- Biden is also expected to invoke the Defense Production Act on Thursday, which would speed up the development and distribution of vaccine-related equipment.
U.S. To Join COVAX
Just one day after President Joe Biden signed an order to keep the United States in the World Health Organization, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the country will join its global COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan.
That plan, COVAX, is a collaborative effort between 92 countries to ensure that COVID vaccines aren’t only distributed in wealthy countries.
The idea behind the plan is that establishing a global herd immunity will be much more effective at curbing the spread of the virus than just establishing herd immunity in countries that can afford to buy large quantities of the vaccine, especially when international travel picks back up.
The plan is not without its shortcomings. Earlier this week, the WHO stated that some countries participating in COVAX have been disregarding the plan and buying large quantities of vaccines for themselves.
Nonetheless, in a video conference call Thursday morning with the WHO’s executive board, Fauci — now chief medical advisor to the president — said the Biden administration believes it can inoculate every American while also helping people in other countries.
Biden’s plan to join COVAX is a stark contrast from the Trump administration, which refused to participate in the program.
Fauci said Biden will issue the directive to join COVAX later Thursday.
Additionally, Fauci noted that the U.S. once again “intends to fulfill its financial obligations” to the WHO.
In his attempt to leave the organization, Trump cut off payments from the U.S.; however, his administration never got the chance to fully cut ties with the organization because the U.S. wasn’t scheduled to officially leave until July of this year.
Biden Signs Mask Mandate, Other Orders To Come
Among other COVID-related executive orders signed Wednesday, Biden implemented a national mask mandate for people on federal property.
Sometime Thursday, Biden is also expected to sign another order requiring masks to be worn in airports, as well as on airplanes, trains, and other interstate transit systems.
Also on Thursday, Biden is also expected to sign an order that will establish a COVID-19 testing board. Once implemented, the board will be responsible for increasing testing rates, addressing supply shortfalls, and determining the rules and regulations for international travelers coming into the U.S. It will also have the power to distribute resources to minority communities that have been disproportionately affected by the virus.
On top of that, Biden plans to sign an order that will direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse states and Native American tribes for their emergency response efforts. Notably, those reimbursements include costs related to reopening schools.
Finally, Biden is expected to invoke the Defense Production Act on Thursday. Such a move would speed up the production of masks and other equipment needed to help administer vaccines.