Justice Department and Garland ban political activity of appointees before midterm

Justice Department appointees may not participate in campaign-related activities in any capacity, Attorney General Merrick Garland said Tuesday, describing the change as necessary “to maintain public trust and ensure that the policy – ​​both in fact and in appearance – does not compromise or affect the integrity of our work.

The new policy underscores the intense political scrutiny Garland faces two months before the midterm elections, as his agency investigates former President Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents since leaving office and the potential involvement of Trump and other Republican politicians in efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Since August 8 unprecedented FBI raid Trump’s Florida residence as part of the investigation into the documents, the former president has repeatedly accused the Justice Department of being a politicized organization seeking to harm him.

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The notices that Garland sent to employees of the the sprawling federal law enforcement agency on Tuesday is not unusual; attorneys general typically send reminders of employee rights — and restrictions — on political expression. But Garland made a notable change to the policy, changing a rule that government appointees could “passively” engage in partisan activity with permission. The new rule allows no exceptions.

“As employees of the Department, we have been entrusted with the authority and responsibility to enforce the laws of the United States in a neutral and impartial manner,” Garland wrote. “In discharging this responsibility, we must do everything possible to maintain public trust and ensure that politics – both in fact and in appearance – does not compromise or affect the integrity of our work.

In his memo, Garland explains how political appointees must adhere to the Hatch Act, which prohibits public officials from running for partisan office or using their title or government resources while engaging in political activities. — though most public servants still have a First Amendment right to the policy. expression on its own time.

Political appointees – commonly referred to as “non-career appointees” – were previously allowed to attend political events in certain circumstances, including if they had close relatives who were running for office or had obtained permission from their parents. bosses. They could also attend events in their personal capacity on election day. This is no longer the case.

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“I know you agree that it is essential that we hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards to avoid even the appearance of political influence as we carry out the Department’s mission,” Garland wrote. “It is in this spirit that I have added these new restrictions on the political activities of non-career employees.”

Trump has a long history of urging the FBI and accusing agents and top officials of being politically motivated. For years, he pointed out that the wife of former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, Jill ran for office in 2015 and received campaign donations from a group controlled by then-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D), a longtime ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Andrew McCabe, who at the time headed the FBI’s Washington field office, and his wife met McAuliffe at the governor’s mansion before a political event, according to a 2018 inspector general report. The inspector general concluded that McCabe had rightfully recused himself from an investigation involving McAuliffe and that there was no evidence that he “had participated in making or supervising substantive decisions” in the case.

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Garland made the announcement of the employees’ political activity just days before the Justice Department entered its traditional 60-day “blackout” period before midterms. Meanwhile, the department typically refrains from taking public action on politically related matters — such as executing a search warrant or charging someone — that could be perceived as politically motivated. and could affect the results of the election.

Officials are still responding to court deadlines during this time, and grand juries — which operate behind closed doors — can still meet in potentially high-profile political cases.

The breakdown is not official law or policy, though Justice Department officials generally try to follow the rule when investigating cases involving candidates, said Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a legal advocacy organization. He said the blackout can also apply to cases affecting politicians with significant influence in the upcoming elections.

“It would generally impact the people who are currently on the ballot,” Bookbinder said. “Donald Trump is kind of a weirdly special case. He’s not in office, and he’s not running for office, but some people would say that whatever happens to Donald Trump could impact the next election.

Garland also sent a memo to employees on Tuesday reminding them that they cannot communicate with senators, representatives or congressional committees without approval from the Office of Legislative Affairs, an office of the Department of Justice.


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