- 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)
Pelosi Reverses Course, Signals Openness to Stock Trading Ban for Congress
The move comes as public and bipartisan support for legislation banning Congress members from stock trading has grown in recent weeks.
Pelosi Backtracks on Member Trading
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) on Thursday signaled openness to legislation that would ban members of Congress from trading stocks, reversing her previous position on the matter.
“I do come down always in favor of trusting our members,” Pelosi said at a press conference. “If the impression that is given by some that somebody is doing insider trading, that’s a Justice Department issue and that has no place in any of this.”
“To give a blanket attitude of ‘We can’t do this and we can’t do,’ because we can’t be trusted, I just don’t buy into that. But if members want to do that, I’m okay with that,” she continued.
The speaker’s remarks come as she has faced mounting backlash for voicing opposition to such a ban.
“We are a free market economy,” she told reporters when asked about the matter last month. “They should be able to participate in that.”
While Pelosi herself does not trade, her husband has invested millions in stocks. Those trades have been made public under the 2012 STOCK Act, which has required Congress members and their spouses to disclose when they buy and sell stocks for the last decade.
But the law has a mixed track record. A recent investigation by Insider found that “dozens of lawmakers and 182 senior congressional staff” have violated the law.
The act also came under intense scrutiny after financial disclosures filed by lawmakers exposed that members of both parties made trades in 2020 that benefited their portfolios after receiving early briefings on the seriousness of the pandemic.
The Justice Department reviewed some of the cases, but it ultimately did not bring any charges.
Momentum Grows for Congressional Ban
In recent weeks, pressure to reform the STOCK Act has been growing both among the public and in Congress.
Proponents argue that Congress members should be banned from trading stocks altogether to ensure they do not have conflicts of interest or use their access to classified briefings to make money.
According to a new poll from the progressive firm Data for Progress, 67% of voters support a ban. That number rose to 74% when the respondents were given arguments both for and against the idea.
In Congress, there is widespread bipartisan support for legislation to impose stricter regulations, including among top leadership.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.) has reportedly said he is considering banning members from trading if Republicans win control of the House and select him as Speaker in 2022.
“I cannot imagine being a Speaker of the House with the power of what can come before committee, you name them and what can come to the floor and trading millions of dollars worth of options,” he told NPR earlier this month. “I just don’t think the American people think that’s right.”
Members of both parties have already put forth proposals. Last week, Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Mark Kelly (D-Az.) introduced legislation that would effectively ban lawmakers, as well as their spouses and dependents, from buying and selling stocks.
The same day, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) rolled out a very similar bill, though his version would not include dependents.
See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Hill) (Business Insider)
Supreme Court Allows Release of Jan. 6 Documents in Major Loss for Trump
The high court’s decision initiates the release of White House documents that the former president had attempted to block the Jan. 6 investigation committee from viewing.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected former President Donald Trump’s efforts to block the White House from handing over records to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Trump filed a lawsuit against the panel and the National Archives to prevent the committee from seeing key documents, testimonies, and other evidence lawmakers had requested.
In the suit, he argued that the records were protected by executive privilege, which he said still applied to him even though he’s not president anymore, and despite the fact that President Joe Biden decided not to exercise his executive privilege over the documents.
Trump also claimed that the information has “no reasonable connection to the events of that day” or “any conceivable legislative purpose.”
In an 8-1 decision with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting, the Supreme Court rejected the effort to block the records from the committee until the issue is resolved by the courts — a process that could take months if not years.
In their ruling, the justices wrote that there are “serious and substantial concerns” regarding whether a former president can obtain a court order to prevent the disclosure of records, especially when the incumbent president waived their right to exercise executive privilege over said documents.
However, they still agreed with the determination by an appeals court that Trump’s claim of privilege over the documents would fail “even if he were the incumbent.”
Records Handed Over to Committee
According to reports, within just hours of the ruling, the National Archives began sending the roughly 800 pages of documents to the Jan. 6 committee.
The documents have not been made public, and it remains unclear if and when they will be.
What is known is the nature of the content that the committee has requested, including records detailing all of Trump’s movements and meetings on Jan. 6.
Notably, the lawmakers also requested information about plans by the administration to undermine Congress’s confirmation of the electoral college vote and Trump’s pressure campaign to overturn the results of the elections.
Also unknown is what the panel will do with the documents if it finds damning evidence. While the committee’s powers are limited in scope, it could make a criminal referral to the Justice Department, which has its own ongoing probe into the insurrection and the events that preceded it.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Associated Press) (The Washington Post)
NY Attorney General Says Investigation of Trump Business Found “Significant Evidence” of Fraud
The state attorney general’s office accused the former president and his family business of falsely inflating the value of assets and personal worth to lenders, the IRS, and insurance brokers.
New York Attorney General’s Filing
New York Attorney General Letitia James announced late Tuesday she had “significant evidence” that former President Donald Trump and the Trump Organization “falsely and fraudulently” misrepresented the value of assets “to financial institutions for economic benefit.”
The allegations mark the first time James has made specific accusations against Trump and his business. They come as part of a nearly 160-page filing asking a judge to order the former president — along with Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. — to comply with subpoenas for the investigation after the family sued James to block her from questioning them.
The filing claims that Trump and the company inflated the value of six properties, including several golf courses and Trump’s own penthouse in Trump Tower, on financial statements to obtain favorable loans, tax deductions, and insurance coverage.
The document adds that many of the financial statements were “generally inflated as part of a pattern to suggest that Mr. Trump’s net worth was higher than it otherwise would have appeared.”
James outlined several specific examples, such as a financial statement where the value of Trump’s Seven Springs estate in Westchester was boosted because it listed seven mansions on the property worth $61 million that did not actually exist.
That resulted in Trump receiving millions of dollars in tax deductions on that property, as well as another in Los Angeles.
In another notable instance, the attorney general’s office said that the $327 million value of Trump’s penthouse in Trump Tower was calculated off a financial statement that falsely reported his home was nearly triple its actual size.
While the statement claimed the apartment was 30,000 square feet, Trump had signed documents stating it was actually 10,996 square feet.
Alleged Direct Involvement
The allegation regarding the apartment is especially significant because it directly ties Trump himself to the accusations of financial wrongdoing. It is also not the only instance where Trump was implicated.
The filing additionally asserts that Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg — who was indicted last summer on multiple criminal charges relating to the business’ tax dealings — implied the former president was involved in finalizing the false valuations.
According to the documents, Weisselberg “testified that it was ‘certainly possible’ Mr. Trump discussed valuations with him and that it was ‘certainly possible’ Mr. Trump reviewed the Statement of Financial Condition for a particular year before it was finalized.”
Another top Trump Organization executive also testified that he was under the impression Trump reviewed the statements before they were finalized.
While the filing provides less direct links to Trump’s children, it does detail their involvement. Specifically, it alleges that Ivanka Trump rented an apartment at Trump Park Avenue and was given an option to buy it for $8.5 million, despite the fact that the property was valued at $25 million.
It also connected Donald Trump Jr. to some of the properties flagged by claiming investigators found evidence he “was consulted” on the Statements of Financial Condition.
Citing these connections, James argued in a series of tweets Tuesday that it is necessary for her inquiry to question Trump and his two children on their alleged involvement.
“We are taking legal action to force Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., and Ivanka Trump to comply with our investigation into the Trump Organization’s financial dealings,” she wrote. “No one in this country can pick and choose if and how the law applies to them.”
The former president has not yet addressed the matter, but a Trump Organization attorney representing Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump responded by arguing the subpoenas violate the constitutional rights of the family and that the filing “never addresses the fundamental contentions of our motion to quash or stay the subpoenas.”
In a statement Wednesday, the Trump Organization denied James’ allegations as “baseless” and accused her of trying to “mislead the public yet again.”
As far as what happens next, James’ office has said it “has not yet reached a final decision regarding whether this evidence merits legal action.”
Because James’s investigation is civil, she can sue Trump, his company, and his children, but she cannot file criminal charges. However, her probe is running parallel to a criminal investigation into the same conduct led by the Manhattan district attorney, who does have that power.