Washington — Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee asked the Justice Department on Thursday to turn over a trove of records related to secret subpoenas issued by the Trump administration to obtain communications data from lawmakers and reporters.
The committee announced last week it opened an investigation into the efforts by the department under the previous administration to obtain the data as part of a probe into the leaks of classified information about contacts between then-President Donald Trump’s aides and Russia.
The request to Attorney General Merrick Garland for documents is the first issued as part of that probe. The committee is also seeking a briefing from the Justice Department by June 25.
“We must determine if the department sought these sensitive records for improper political purposes,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote in a letter to Garland. “We must ask why the department repeatedly pursued gag orders — preventing companies from notifying their users of the sweeping information requests by federal law enforcement — despite realizing early in the effort that no criminal charges would result from these investigations.”
The lawmakers said they “must identify the full set of individuals who may have also been the targets of politically-motivated investigations” since “the news media, the members of Congress identified in recent reports, and the former White House Counsel were so frequently targets of President Trump’s public ire.”
The committee is first seeking a list of actions after January 2017 relating to the unauthorized disclosure of information about three issues: Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election; the matter involving an intelligence community whistleblower who raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine; and his two impeachments.
Lawmakers are also seeking copies of documents and communications between the Justice Department and the president, White House Counsel’s Office or other White House officials relating to the subpoenas or initiation of an investigation, as well as copies of records between several high-ranking former and current Justice Department officials. Those officials include Dana Boente, former acting assistant attorney general of the department’s National Security Division, and John Demers, the current leader of that division who is stepping down on June 25.
In all, the Democrats identified 11 categories of records they want from the Justice Department.
“As you no doubt agree, if the Department of Justice used criminal investigations as pretext to target President Trump’s perceived political enemies, this conduct constitutes a gross abuse of power,” they told Garland.
The investigation by the Judiciary Committee joins a separate review by the Justice Department’s inspector general about the efforts by the Trump administration to seek the phone and email records of reporters, lawmakers, their families and congressional staff. Garland on Monday vowed to “move swiftly” to act in response to probe from the department’s internal watchdog and said there are “important questions that must be resolved in connection” with the seizure of communications records.
The Justice Department secretly obtained or tried to access phone and email data from journalists at three outlets, the Washington Post, CNN and New York Times, during the early years of the Trump administration. The department also imposed gag orders that prevented the organizations from disclosing knowledge of the leak investigation and legal battles against the efforts to seize the records.
It was then revealed that the Trump administration subpoenaed Apple in 2017 and 2018 for data from two Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee, its current chairman Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both of California, while investigating leaks. In addition to secretly seeking the data from the Democrats, the Justice Department also obtained records from committee aides and family members, including a minor.
The New York Times reported Sunday that the department also subpoenaed Apple in 2018 for data from Don McGahn, former White House counsel under Mr. Trump, and his wife in 2018.
The revelations about the Justice Department’s efforts under the last administration to seize information prompted swift backlash on Capitol Hill, as Democrats accused Mr. Trump of using the department to go after his political enemies.