- 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)
Iran and Russia Obtained Voter Data for Election Meddling, U.S. Officials Say
- Top officials obtained the first concrete evidence of foreign interference in the 2020 election cycle, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announced Wednesday.
- Ratcliffe said Iran and Russia had obtained voter registration information for the purpose of meddling in the election.
- Officials also said that Iran was specifically responsible for a slew of email spoofs sent to voters, including emails sent to Democratic voters in four states on Tuesday threatening them to vote for Trump “or else.”
- Many condemned Radcliffe for claiming that Iran sent the emails to hurt President Trump and downplaying Russia’s role in election interference.
- Other’s also accused him of selectively declassifying intelligence to benefit Trump’s campaign.
U.S. Officials Announce Election Interference
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announced Wednesday that Iran and Russia had obtained voter registration information that could be used to disrupt the election, marking the first time top officials have provided concrete evidence of international interference in this election cycle.
“We have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran, and separately by Russia,” Ratcliffe said in a last-minute press briefing. “This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos, and undermine your confidence in American democracy.”
Ratcliffe also specifically claimed that Iran was behind a string of spoofed emails, including threatening messages sent to Democratic voters in at least four states earlier this week. Those emails, which were sent from a domain associated with the far-right group the Proud Boys, claimed to have “gained access into the entire voting infrastructure.” The messages also told recipients if they did not vote for President Donald Trump the group would “come after” them.
The Proud Boys denied any involvement, and Radcliffe’s announcement appears to support that. Notably, both Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray, who also spoke at the press conference, did not indicate that either foreign country had hacked into election infrastructure or voter registration systems. They also did not say that any election results or voter registration information had been changed.
In fact, intelligence officials who spoke to reporters said that the data they claimed both Iran and Russia and Iran had obtained was largely public, such as the names, party affiliations, and some basic contact info of registered voters.
That information, Ratcliffe said, was also used by Iran to email a video “that implies that individuals could cast fraudulent ballots, even from overseas.” He added that both emails were “designed to intimidate voters, insight social unrest, and damage President Trump.”
“Although we have not seen the same actions from Russia, we are aware that they have obtained some voter information just as they did in 2016,” he continued.
Shortly after Ratcliffe’s announcement, Google appeared to back up some of his claims about Iran. In a statement, the company confirmed that it had detected around 25,000 emails that targeted users as part of what it described as an Iran-linked disinformation campaign. Google added that about 10%, or 2,500 emails, had slipped through their spam filters.
But many people still had serious issues with Ratcliffe’s characterizations of the situation and dredged up past criticisms of him.
Many Democrats and former intelligence officials have accused Ratcliffe — who is supposed to be apolitical in his role of DNI — of being a Trump loyalist who has used his position to promote the president’s political agenda.
Those allegations are specifically concerning when it comes to foreign interference in the election because Ratcliffe has both actively spread information that the intelligence community had deemed to be false regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. and has promoted debunked conspiracies about the following investigation.
Beyond that, the DNI has also explicitly been accused of selectively declassifying intelligence pertaining to election interference to help the Trump campaign. In fact, earlier this month, many former top officials condemned him for doing just that when he released intelligence about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign that was not only unverified but also, according to intelligence experts, may have been Russian disinformation.
As a result, many condemned Ratcliffe’s announcement Wednesday as yet another example of him publicizing information to benefit Trump, specifically pointing to his claims that Iran sent the emails to “damage” the president.
Unpacking Ratcliffe’s Claims
It is true that since August, intelligence officials have said that Iran opposes Trump’s re-election. Still, Ratcliffe provided no evidence for the claim that Iran was trying to explicitly hurt Trump. On the contrary, many others have said the current evidence indicates that the country is simply trying to create general chaos and distrust.
Many pointed to the fact that the emails reported Tuesday explicitly threatened Democratic voters, and while some did argue that it was an attempt to make the Proud Boys and Trump look bad, at the end of the day, it was still an attempt to dissuade Democrat voters from either voting blue or going to the polls entirely.
Bennett Ragan, the campaign manager for a Democratic State House candidate in Florida, who claimed he received both of the threatening emails, told The Washington Post that he believed the messages were sent to intimidate Democratic voters in one of the most contested swing states.
“When you have people who have a voter roll and then send off emails, they will make a big splash,” he said. “They will scare people. That is without a doubt the intent.”
Similarly, others also pointed to the video that Ratcliffe said Iran sent voters with disinformation about voting overseas. According to The Post, which reviewed the video, it consisted of “Trump making disparaging comments about mail-in voting, followed by a logo with the name of the Proud Boys,” then going on to document what is supposed to “appear as a hack of voting data in an effort to produce a fraudulent ballot.”
Regarding the video, critics of Radcliffe argued that it was not intended to make Trump look bad because it was an attempt to spread disinformation about fraud in mail-in balloting by drawing from false statements the president himself made to undermine confidence in voting systems.
This general idea about undermining confidence is also another reason used to dispute Ratcliffe’s claim that this was meant to hurt Trump. The president has spent months trying to undermine the election results. Critics argued that, as a result, these alleged attempts by foreign actors are just them playing off the distrust and discord the president has already created.
That idea was also echoed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-Ny.) who said that based on a classified briefing he received, he “had the strong impression it was much rather to undermine confidence in elections and not aimed at any particular figure.”
“I’m surprised that DNI Ratcliffe said that at his press conference,” he added.
The official Twitter account for the House Homeland Security Committee also hit on a similar point, directly contradicting Ratcliffe, and calling his credibility into question.
“These election interference operations are clearly not meant to harm President Trump,” the committee tweeted. “Ratcliffe has TOO OFTEN politicized the Intelligence Community to carry water for the President.”
“You can’t emphasize one threat over another to suit the President’s ego,” it added.
To that point, many other people also accused Ratcliffe of playing down Russia’s role in election interference. In his announcement, Ratcliffe mostly focused on Iran and claimed that while Russia had the same information, they were not using it the same way. However, multiple U.S. officials who spoke anonymously to The Post “stressed that Russia still remained the major threat to the 2020 election.”
As for Iran and Russia, both have directly disputed the claims that they are interfering in the U.S. election. In a statement to the media, and Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the country strongly rejects “American officials’ repetitive, baseless and false claims.”
A spokesperson for Kremlin also denied Russia’s role in influencing the election in a similar statement.
“The accusations are poured out every day, they are all absolutely groundless, they are not based on anything, rather it is a tribute to the internal political processes associated with the upcoming election,” they said.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (CNN)
Senate Judiciary Committee Advances Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court Nomination Despite Democratic Boycott
- Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee bypassed rules Thursday, voting to advance the nomination of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court Justice pick, Amy Coney Barrett.
- The vote was 12-0 because Democrats boycotted the session in protest, leaving posters in their seats of people they say will be negatively impacted if Barrett joins the Supreme Court and helps strike down the Affordable Care Act in a case the court will hear November 10.
- The nomination now will move to the full Senate, with a final vote to confirm Barrett happening as soon as on Monday, only a month after Trump nominated her and just eight days before the election.
Democrats Protest Amy Coney Barrett’s Nomination
The Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12-0 Thursday to advance the nomination of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court Justice pick, Amy Coney Barrett.
Republicans skirted the panel’s rules to recommend her confirmation as Democrats boycotted the session in protest. The committee requires two members of the minority party to be present in order to conduct business, but Democrats remained firm in their opposition to selecting a new Supreme Court Justice before the election.
Instead of attending the hearing, Democrats put large posters around their seats of individuals they talked about during last week’s hearing– people who they argued would be negatively affected if Barrett joins the Supreme Court and possibly helps it strike down the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
That’s significant because on November 10, the court is set to hear arguments in a case that challenges the constitutionality of Obamacare.
However, their protest was largely symbolic since Democrats don’t have the votes to block Barrett in either the committee or the full Senate.
Experts say they’re mostly trying to tarnish the legitimacy of her confirmation and show the party’s progressive base they had fought until the end.
What Comes Next?
As far as what comes next, the nomination now moves to the full Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already indicated that he’s taking the rare step of keeping the chamber in session over the weekend in order to limit the opportunities for Democrats to delay the vote.
By Friday, procedural votes are expected, with a final vote to confirm Barret happening as soon as on Monday, only a month after President Trump nominated her.
If all goes to plan, Trump and his fellow Republicans will have raced to win this battle just eight days before the election, making Barrett the first justice in history to be confirmed so close to Election Day.
See what others are saying: (AP News) (CNBC) (The New York Times)
Voters in 4 States Received Emails Threatening Them To “Vote for Trump or Else!”
- Democratic voters in Alaska, Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania received threatening emails telling them to vote for Trump or else the Proud Boys would “come after” them.
- The email came from a domain associated with the Proud Boys, but the group denied that it had any involvement and said that the website in question was no longer in use because it had been dropped by Google Cloud services.
- According to The Washington Post, when the hosting service dropped the domain, it left it unsecured, meaning anyone online could take control of it.
- Multiple outlets that reviewed the emails also reported that the messages did not come from the email address listed, but rather from foreign internet servers.
Registered Democrats in four different states — including three hotly contested swing states — were sent threatening emails Tuesday from an address that appeared to be affiliated with the far-right group the Proud Boys. The message warned recipients that if they did not vote for President Donald Trump, the group would “come after” them.
According to a screenshot of the email obtained by CBS News, the subject line of the message reads “Vote for Trump or else!”
“We are in possession of all your information (email, address, telephone… everything),” the body of the email said. The sender went on to claim they know the recipient of the email is a Democrat because they “gained access into the entire voting infrastructure.”
“You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you,” the email continued. “Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for. I would take this seriously if I were you.”
Outlets that obtained copies of the email also reported that it concluded with the home address of the recipients they were sent to. Currently, voters in Alaska, Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania have reported receiving the threatening messages.
It remains unclear how many went out in total, but it does appear that most of them were sent to people in Florida and Alaska. In Alaska, local news outlets reported that the emails went out to over a dozen people. In Florida, a University of Florida spokesperson said that they knew of at least 183 Floridians who got the messages.
Officials in both states also announced that they have launched investigations, and the FBI was also looking into the matter.
Proud Boys Deny Involvement
While the sender’s address is listed firstname.lastname@example.org, a domain associated with the Proud Boys, the group’s chairman, Enrique Tarrio, immediately denied that they had any involvement.
“We don’t send emails. This is someone spoofing our emails and website,” he told reporters. “We have spoken to the FBI and are working with them. I hope whoever did this is arrested for voter intimidation and for maliciously impersonating our group.”
Tarrio also told The Washington Post that the group has been in the process of migrating from officialproudboys.com to another site. In fact, they said officialproudboys.com has not been used for weeks because that domain was recently dropped by a hosting company that uses Google Cloud services after concerns were raised about the group.
According to The Post, when the hosting service dropped the domain, it appeared to just be left unsecured, and thus “allowing anyone on the Internet to take control of it and use it to send out the menacing messages.”
Numerous outlets that reviewed the emails also said that they did not come from the email address that was displayed, but rather from foreign internet servers. According to CBS, the metadata from the emails they analyzed showed that the messages originated from IP addresses connected to servers in Estonian, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
While experts noted that the IP addresses do not necessarily mean that the senders were based in those countries because they could have routed the emails from almost anywhere, some cybersecurity experts have pointed to the possibility of foreign interference to sow chaos in the election.
“We’re 2 weeks from the last day to vote! This is also the perfect time for adversaries to create chaos by spreading bogus claims or overstating activity,” Chris Krebs, the director of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency tweeting, noting that his office was aware of the emails.
“Ballot secrecy is guaranteed by law in all states,” he continued. “These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections.”