- Former President Trump’s Justice Department secretly obtained phone records from Washington Post journalists covering Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, the outlet reported Friday.
- The DOJ seized records of the work, home, and cellphone numbers of three reporters from April 15 to July 31, 2017. Those records included who the calls were with and how long they were, but not what was said.
- Many journalists and Free Speech activists condemned the action and called on the Biden administration to end the practice of record subpoenas, which are often used by the government to find clues about possible sources and can harm key newsgathering.
- A DOJ spokesperson defended the previous administration’s actions, arguing that the news media are not the targets of such investigations but rather, “those with access to the national defense information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”
Washington Post Reporters Subpoenaed
The Washington Post reported Friday that the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump secretly obtained phone records from some of its journalists regarding reporting they did on Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
According to the outlet, the DOJ sent three separate letters dated May 3 and addressed to three former Post journalists to inform them they were “hereby notified that pursuant to legal process the United States Department of Justice received toll records associated with the following telephone numbers for the period from April 15, 2017 to July 31, 2017.”
The letters, which listed work, home, or cellphone numbers, also stated that prosecutors had gotten a court order to obtain records for the reporters’ work email accounts, but that they did not ultimately not obtain those records.
The phone records, the outlet said, “included the numbers of all the calls made to and from the targeted phone over the specified time period, and how long each call lasted, but do not include what was said in those phone calls.”
“Investigators often hope such records will provide clues about possible sources the reporters were in contact with before a particular story published,” it added.
The Post reported that the letters do not say why the DOJ was seizing the phone records. However, it did note that toward the end of the time period outlined, the three reporters had written a story about classified U.S. intelligence intercepts that indicated then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had discussed the Trump campaign with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. when he was a sitting senator in 2016.
The alleged move is significant because it is rare for the DOJ to use subpoenas in order to obtain records of reporters in leak investigations. In fact, the last high-profile seizure of communication records was part of an investigation into a source cited in 2017 reporting that was also about the investigation into Russian election interference.
Also very notably, these subpoenas need to be approved directly by the attorney general. A spokesperson for the DOJ told The Post that the records had been requested in 2020, meaning it would have likely taken place under Attorney General William Barr, who stepped down on Dec. 23.
The allegations immediately drew criticism from First Amendment advocates and journalists, who have long opposed the practice of obtaining these kinds of records, and argued that attempts to identify sources of leaks hurt critical news gathering and reporting.
“We are deeply troubled by this use of government power to seek access to the communications of journalists,” said Cameron Barr, the current acting executive editor of The Post. “The Department of Justice should immediately make clear its reasons for this intrusion into the activities of reporters doing their jobs, an activity protected under the First Amendment.”
Many other journalists also demanded that the Biden administration ensure such practices are not replicated, noting the escalated efforts to subpoena reporters records under both the Trump and Obama administrations.
However, a DOJ spokesperson defended the previous administration’s decision to subpoena The Post reporters in a statement to the outlet.
“While rare, the Department follows the established procedures within its media guidelines policy when seeking legal process to obtain telephone toll records and non-content email records from media members as part of a criminal investigation into unauthorized disclosure of classified information,” the spokesperson said.
“The targets of these investigations are not the news media recipients but rather those with access to the national defense information who provided it to the media and thus failed to protect it as lawfully required.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Variety) (CNN)
Gov. Abbott Says Texas Will Build Border Wall With Mexico
The announcement follows months of growing tension between the Texas governor and President Biden over immigration policies.
Texas Border Wall
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced during a press conference Thursday that the state would build a border wall with Mexico, extending the signature campaign promise of former President Donald Trump.
Abbott provided very few details for the border wall plans, and it is unclear if he has the authority to build it.
While some of the land is state-owned, much of it belongs to the federal government or falls on private property.
Even if the state were able to build on federal ground, private landowners who fought the Trump administration’s attempts to take their land through eminent domain would still remain an obstacle for any renewed efforts.
During his term, Trump built over 450 miles of new wall, but most of it covered areas where deteriorating barriers already existed, and thus had previously been approved for the federal project.
The majority of the construction also took place in Arizona, meaning Abbott would have much ground to cover. It is also unclear how the governor plans to pay for the wall.
Trump had repeatedly said Mexico would fund the wall, but that promise remained unfulfilled, and the president instead redirected billions of taxpayer dollars from Defense Department reserves.
While Abbott did say he would announce more details about the wall next week, his plan was condemned as ill-planned by immigration activists, who also threatened legal challenges.
“There is no substantive plan,” said Edna Yang, the co-executive director of the Texas-based immigration legal aid and advocacy group American Gateways. “It’s not going to make any border community or county safer.”
Abbott’s announcement comes amid escalating tensions between the governor and the administration of President Joe Biden.
Biden issued a proclamation that stopped border wall construction on his first day of office, and has since undone multiple Trump-era immigration policies. Abbott, for his part, has blamed Biden’s rollback of Trump’s rules for the influx of migrants at the border in recent months.
Two weeks ago, the governor deployed over 1,000 National Guard members and troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety to the border as part of an initiative launched in March to ramp up border security dubbed Operation Lone Star.
Last week, Abbott issued a disaster declaration which, among other measures, directed the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to strip the state licenses of all shelters that house migrant children and have contracts with the federal government.
The move, which federal officials have already threatened to take legal action against, could effectively force the 52 state-licensed shelters housing around 8,600 children to move the minors elsewhere.
During Thursday’s press conference, Abbott also outlined a variety of other border initiatives, including appropriating $1 billion for border security, creating a task force on border security, and increasing arrests for migrants who enter the country illegally.
“While securing the border is the federal government’s responsibility, Texas will not sit idly by as this crisis grows,” he said. “Our efforts will only be effective if we work together to secure the border, make criminal arrests, protect landowners, rid our communities of dangerous drugs and provide Texans with the support they need and deserve.”
See what others are saying: (The Texas Tribune) (The New York Times) (CNN)
Biden Ends Infrastructure Talks With Republicans
The president is now looking at other paths forward, including a plan being drafted by a bipartisan group of senators or the possibility of passing his proposal without Republican support.
Biden Looks to Bipartisan Group as Negotiations Collapse
After weeks of negotiations, President Joe Biden ended his efforts to reach an infrastructure deal with a group of Senate Republicans Tuesday.
Hopes for the centerpiece of Biden’s domestic agenda, however, are not dead. Lawmakers have already moved quickly to craft contingencies, outlining three main pathways for the next steps forward.
First, while an agreement between Biden and Republican senators is no longer an option, a joint deal is not off the table. Amid the ongoing negotiations, a bipartisan group of centrist senators have been quietly crafting an alternative plan in case the talks collapsed.
Currently, very few details of that plan are public, but the moderates have made it clear that their biggest division right now is the same sticking point that hung up Biden and the GOP group: how to fund the plan.
Negotiations on that front could prove very difficult, but they could also yield more votes. As a result, Biden indicated this path is his first choice, calling three members of the group Tuesday evening to cheer on their efforts.
Even if the group can come up with a deal that appeases Biden, the possibility still exists that not enough members would embrace it. In addition to funding questions, there are still disputes between Democrats and Republicans in regards to what constitutes “infrastructure.”
The president wants to expand the definition to more broad, economic terms. Republicans, however, have repeatedly rejected that, instead opting for more traditional conceptions of infrastructure.
As a result, while GOP lawmakers are worried that any proposal from the moderates would be too expansive, Democrats are concern that key provisions would be cut.
If a joint agreement cannot be reached, Biden’s second option for his infrastructure plan would be to forge ahead to pass a deal with just Democratic support in the Senate through budget reconciliation, the same procedure used to get the stimulus bill through.
Biden, for his part, does appear to at least be considering this option. In addition to calling the bipartisan group moderates Tuesday evening, he also spoke to Senate Majority Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) about drafting a new budget outline Democrats could use for the reconciliation process.
That path, however, also faces hurdles. In order for Democrats to even approve legislation through this process, they need all 50 members to vote in favor — something that is not guaranteed, given that some moderate senators have voiced their opposition to passing bills without bipartisan support.
While Schumer did say that he would still start work on a reconciliation package, he also outlined the third possible option: two separate bills.
“It may well be part of the bill that’ll pass will be bipartisan, and part of it will be through reconciliation,” he said Tuesday. “But we’re not going to sacrifice the bigness and boldness in this bill.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (NBC News)
Senate Committees Release Most Detailed Report on Insurrection to Date
The first congressional report on the Jan. 6 attack shows that Capitol Police had additional intelligence about the threat earlier than previously known to the public.
Senate Inquiry Published
Two bipartisan Senate committees released the first congressional report on the Jan. 6 insurrection on Tuesday, marking the most comprehensive, detailed account to date of the numerous security failures and miscommunications.
The probe shows that U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) and other agencies had collected much more intelligence — and much earlier intelligence — than previously known.
Perhaps most significantly, the 127-page report revealed that the authorities had specific intelligence as early as Dec. 21 that supporters of former President Donald Trump planned an armed insurrection of the Capitol on Jan. 6.
That included information from the Capitol Police intelligence unit that pro-Trump demonstrators planned to “bring guns” and other weapons to the Stop the Steal rally, which precluded the attack, and use them against law enforcement officers.
Some of those individuals also shared maps of the Capitol complex and tunnels online, discussing the best ways to enter and seal lawmakers inside, the Senate report stated.
Despite those alarming indications, USCP failed to widely circulate its own internal intelligence. In fact, two separate security assessments from Dec. 23 and Dec. 30 made no mention of the findings.
The USCP was not alone in its failure to take key intelligence seriously. An F.B.I. memo from the day before the insurrection that warned there were people traveling to D.C. for “war” at the Capitol also never made its way up to top law enforcement officials.
Unclear Path Forward
The report also stated that the failure of law enforcement officials to take the threats seriously was coupled with a dysfunctional Capitol police force that lacked the resources, capacity, and training to properly deal with the attack.
As part of their findings, the two committees outlined 20 recommendations for the Capitol Police, including calling for better planning, training, and intelligence gathering.
In a statement Tuesday, the agency that it welcomed the Senate analysis, but defended its response and claimed there was a lack of information regarding a threat.
“The USCP consumes intelligence from every federal agency,” the statement read. “At no point prior to the 6th did it receive actionable intelligence about a large-scale attack.”
While the new report comes from three months of interviews, reviews, and testimonies, it was limited in scope because Republicans refused to ask questions about Jan. 6 that could result in the publication of unflattering information about Trump or other members of the party .
Notably, the committees did not outline any of Trump’s actions, motivations, or make any conclusions about if he was responsible for the insurrection. In fact, it does not even describe the event as an “insurrection,” despite the general use of the term by Republicans in the months following the attack.
This report, however, is likely the closest Congress will get to a bipartisan effort to study the insurrection. Previously, key committee leaders in both parties had drafted legislation for an independent commission to study the events of Jan. 6 and make recommendations to prevent future attacks.
While that proposal had been crafted jointly with Republican lawmakers, top GOP leaders who had previously sanctioned the deal voiced last-minute opposition, and hopes for the commission were ultimately struck down in the Senate.