What we have learned raises more questions than answers about how lawyers across the country acted and what exactly they were looking for. But it is clear that the Justice Department under Trump clearly took steps to pursue the leaks in an unusually aggressive manner, in a way that targeted Trump’s political opponents.
This suggests real weaknesses in the safety nets supposed to prevent abuse of the federal justice system – and opens up a new debate over who is responsible for actions taken during Trump’s presidency that weakened various pillars of the U.S. government.
Find out what we know so far below.
The leak hunt that started it
The summons included a gag order, which meant Apple was not allowed to tell anyone about it. That gag order was renewed three times before it expired this year, when Apple was allowed to notify targets, CNN reported. The House Intelligence Committee determined that, along with elected members of Congress and staff, the dragnet collected records from family members, including at least one minor.
A pattern of seized communications is emerging
The political opposition. Democratic lawmakers and their family members learned from Apple that the government secretly only obtained their communications after the gag order expired. The targets included Schiff and Representative Eric Swalwell from California, both opponents of Trump regularly criticized by Trump throughout his tenure.
Three Washington Post reporters who covered the FBI’s Russia investigation were told this month that in 2020 the Justice Department obtained their 2017 phone records. The Department of Justice had previously, in 2018, revealed that he obtained phone and email communications from journalists in 2017. To write articles on the Russia investigation for BuzzFeed, Politico and The New York Times.
Social media companies. Court documents revealed last week that the Justice Department subpoenaed Twitter in late November 2020 in an attempt to find out the identity of the user behind a parody account that criticized Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican and Trump ally.
David Vigilante is CNN’s general counsel and he described the covert process by which he was barred from discussing the case or even informing Starr that the government wanted access to his communications logs.
CNN’s arguments to the federal investigating judge who granted were countered by secret and classified information. A district court ultimately curtailed the government’s demand for Starr’s communications.
President Joe Biden’s Attorney General’s Department of Justice, Merrick Garland, did not come to brief the public on the activity. On the contrary, in each case the gag orders expired. This is what allowed CNN’s attorney to reveal the existence of the legal battle over Starr’s communications. It is also what allowed Apple to inform the Democrats of the House Intelligence Committee that their communications had been subpoenaed. It will take time and an investigation for the public to know how far Trump’s Justice Department was doing, if at all, since those investigations were shrouded in national security allegations.
It is also unclear which of these investigations may be ongoing.
We can presume there’s a lot more we don’t know
CNN discovered the attempt to seize Starr’s communications only because the government wanted to access them from servers owned by CNN’s parent company. Lawmakers discovered that Apple was subpoenaed only because the company informed them. The New York Times was informed by Google, which hosts its email accounts.
It’s a safe bet that the government did not content itself with assigning Apple for the communications of the Democrats. Similar subpoenas could have been served on Google, for example, or on telephony and data providers like AT&T or Verizon.
Do you remember Jeff Sessions?
Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was not involved in the House Intelligence Committee subpoenas, a source close to his tenure told CNN’s Katelyn Polantz.
In fact, Sessions had withdrawn from Russia-related affairs and Trump never forgave him for allowing the appointment of a special advocate, which eventually evolved into Special Advocate Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between Trump’s associates and the Russians.
Mueller’s investigation marked Trump’s first years in office. It also led to a guilty plea by Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the convictions of his former 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his adviser Roger Stone among others.
Most of the lawyers in the Department of Justice are apolitical and move from one administration to another. Understanding why the investigation was reinvigorated under Barr and whether there was a political element is a key thing to learn.
Ironically, Trump is the one who complained about being spied on. One of his most persistent complaints as president was that the FBI had essentially spied on him by investigating his aides for their involvement with the Russians when the Kremlin attempted to interfere in the US election.
Trump used this investigation to allege that former President Barack Obama had spied on his campaign, which was a complete twist of the facts. But, applying Trump’s logic, his Justice Department spied on Democrats.
What happens next?
The Justice Ministry’s inspector general will investigate the ministry’s handling of the leakage investigations, the office said on Friday.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Judicial Chairman Dick Durbin are asking Barr and Sessions to testify on the matter.
“If they refuse, they are likely to be subpoenaed and forced to testify under oath,” Democrats said in a statement.
“This question must not be partisan; under the Constitution Congress is a co-equal branch of government and must be protected from an over-ambitious executive, and we hope our fellow Republicans will join us in going to the the bottom of this serious matter. ”
What Biden will do is less clear.
White House communications director Kate Bedingfield on Friday called the reports “appalling.”
“The reports on the behavior of Donald Trump’s attorney general are appalling,” Bedingfield said during an appearance on MSNBC from Cornwall, England, where the president was meeting other heads of state at the G7 summit.
Bedingfield suggested that Biden has a “very different relationship” with the Department of Justice than his predecessor, denouncing the Trump administration’s “abuse of power” with the department, and adding that the Department of Justice of Biden administration is “run in a very, very different way.” Biden, Bedingfield said, “respects the independence of the Department of Justice, and that’s an extremely important part of how he governs.”
CNN’s Katelyn Polantz contributed to this report.