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Senate Democratic leaders call secret seizure of Schiff and Swalwell’s data a ‘gross abuse of power’

The Justice Department’s internal watchdog on Friday ordered a probe of the Department’s use of subpoenas to seize communications information on at least two members of Congress as well as members of the press – following bombshell revelations about the tactics.

DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced the ‘review’ Friday afternoon, just hours after initial public reports about the EOJ use of the authority on two prominent Democratic lawmakers amid leak probes during the Trump Administation.

‘The DOJ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is initiating a review of DOJ’s use of subpoenas and other legal authorities to obtain communication records of Members of Congress and affiliated persons, and the news media in connection with recent investigations of alleged unauthorized disclosures of information to the media by government officials,’ Horowitz’s office said in a statement.

‘The review will examine the Department’s compliance with applicable DOJ policies and procedures, and whether any such uses, or the investigations, were based upon improper considerations. If circumstances warrant, the OIG will consider other issues that may arise during the review.’

The announcement came after Senate Democratic leaders demanded that former Trump attorneys general Bill Barr and Jeff Sessions testify about what they called a ‘gross abuse of power’ following bombshell revelations prosectors secretly obtained Apple communications data from House Intelligence panel members. 

And the deputy attorney general of the Justice Department, Lisa Monaco, has asked the agency’s nonpartisan Inspector General to probe the seizure of lawmakers’ personal information during the Trump administration, the Associated Press reported. 

The lawmakers demanded both men appear to testify under oath – and threatened to subpoena them if they would not cooperate. The public pressure on the Senate side of the Capitol comes hours after it was revealed that Trump nemeses Rep. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell were both targeted for monitoring as part of a leak probe. 

Democrats want former Attorney General Bill Barr to testify about federal prosecutors subpoenaing Apple for information on Reps. Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff

Democrats also want former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to testify

Democrats also want former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to testify

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Durbin called the Trump Justice Department’s actions in a leak probe a ‘gross abuse of power’

‘The revelation that the Trump Justice Department secretly subpoenaed metadata of House Intelligence Committee Members and staff and their families, including a minor, is shocking,’ wrote Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard Durbin of Illinois.

‘This is a gross abuse of power and an assault on the separation of powers. This appalling politicization of the Department of Justice by Donald Trump and his sycophants must be investigated immediately by both the DOJ Inspector General and Congress,’ they wrote. 

‘Former Attorneys General Barr and Sessions and other officials who were involved must testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee under oath,’ they continued. ‘If they refuse, they are subject to being subpoenaed and compelled to testify under oath.’

Justice Department prosecutors seized metadata records from Apple for accounts belonging to Rep. Adam Schiff, pictured, and other members of the House Intelligence Committee

Justice Department prosecutors seized metadata records from Apple for accounts belonging to Rep. Adam Schiff, pictured, and other members of the House Intelligence Committee

Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, pictured, revealed he also had data from their Apple devices secretly seized by the Trump administration

Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, pictured, revealed he also had data from their Apple devices secretly seized by the Trump administration

Barr told Politico he was ‘not aware of any congressman’s records being sought in a leak case.’ 

He said Trump ‘was not aware of who we were looking at in any of the cases – not withstanding Trump’s regular practice of calling out ‘leakers and liars’ publicly.

‘I never discussed the leak cases with Trump. He didn’t really ask me any of the specifics,’ said Barr.

The lawmakers also called on DOJ, now overseen by AG Merrick Garland, to ‘provide information and answers to the Judiciary Committee, which will vigorously investigate this abuse of power.’ 

‘The reports of the behavior of the attorney general under Donald Trump are appalling,” White House comms director Kate Bedingfield told MSNBC. ‘He obviously has a very different relationship with his Department of Justice than Trump did his,’ she said.

Schumer and Durbin wrote: ‘This issue should not be partisan; under the Constitution, Congress is a co-equal branch of government and must be protected from an overreaching executive, and we expect that our Republican colleagues will join us in getting to the bottom of this serious matter.’

The move comes as Swalwell, one of two lawmakers whose data is known to have been taken, said Trump’s DOJ was ‘weaponized’ against political opponents. Trump regularly inveighed against Swalwell and ‘liddle Adam Schiff’ during the Russia probe. Both were prominent opposition figures in the matter.

Whether the lawmakers will succeed in forcing Barr and Sessions to appear in unclear. Former White House counsel Don McGahn appeared before House Judiciary last week after a two-year legal battle.

According to the New York Times, which broke the story, Apple handed over metadata and account information to the government, but did not provide photos or the internal content of the data. The data they handed over did not establish proof either man leaked the information being probed.  

CNN reported that the effort began in 2018, when Sessions was serving as attorney general, despite suffering repeated attacks from Trump for recusing himself from the Russia probe. Sessions resigned his post in November, 2018.

‘This is about everyday Americans who don’t want to see their government weaponize law enforcement against them because of their political beliefs,’ Swalwell told CNN. 

Apple, one of the largest companies in the world, has yet to comment. They were under a judicial gag at the time they provided the data. 

Schiff said Donald Trump’s Justice Department broke rules brought in after Watergate by secretly trawling his communications to try and identify the source of embarrassing leaks. 

Schiff and his fellow representative Eric Swalwell had data from their Apple devices seized and analysed as part of a probe revealed Thursday.

And Schiff – who also sits on the House Intelligence Committee – shared his outrage with Chris Cuomo on CNN Thursday.

He told Cuomo he had never heard of a White House administration opening such a probe, adding: ‘And you know we brought about these new norms after Watergate to prevent exactly this kind of abuse. But they didn’t survive this presidency and — but it is shocking.’ 

Schiff and Swalwell – both members of the House Intelligence Committee – had metadata taken from their devices by Justice Department prosecutors as officials tried to work out who was leaking information about meetings between Trump associates and Russian leaders.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions began the probe in 2017, with more records seized in 2018. A dozen people with links to the House Intelligence Committee – which is privy to classified intelligence – had their metadata examined. 

Their family members – including one minor child – were also targeted, amid concerns the suspected leakers may have been using children’s devices to try and cover their tracks.

Justice Department prosecutors also sought a gag order to keep the probe secret, with none of those whose data was targeted aware of what was going on.

They finally found last month, with Schiff and Swalwell both sharing their outrage in separate CNN interviews on Thursday night. 

Schiff told Chris Cuomo he was ‘shocked but not surprised’ by the ‘terrible abuse of the rule of law,’ and called for an inquiry into the DoJ probe. 

He added: ‘I love my experience there. And to see how it was turned into this bludgeon to go after the president’s enemies and a shield to protect those who lied for him, people like Roger stone and Mike Flynn and others, it’s disgraceful, but it’s also, such a body blow to our democracy.’

Schiff also told the Times: ‘It is increasingly apparent that those demands did not fall on deaf ears.’

‘The politicization of the department and the attacks on the rule of law are among the most dangerous assaults on our democracy carried out by the former president.’

Speaking on Don Lemon’s show later on Thursday, Swalwell said: ‘It’s wrong. This is what they do – they smear.’  

The subpoenas which were used to obtain the information were first revealed to the The New York Times.

Trump and his administration were infuriated after detailed conversations between his aides and the Russian ambassador to the US were leaked shortly after he took office in January 2017. 

The revelations show the extent of Trump's obsession over leaks and the extraordinary lengths his administration would go through to investigate them

The revelations show the extent of Trump’s obsession over leaks and the extraordinary lengths his administration would go through to investigate them

They are said to have identified then-FBI director James Comey and his deputy Andrew McCabe as possible sources for leaks, as well as the House Intelligence Committee. 

Embarrassing leaks included details of Trump’s first national security Michael flynn’s conversations with Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. Flynn was later fired and charged, then later convicted, for lying to the FBI about his contact with Russia. He was later pardoned by Trump.  

The seized data ultimately did not tie members of the House Intelligence Committee – including Schiff – to leaks to the press regarding contacts between associates of Donald Trump and Russia, the outlet reported. Exactly how much was seized remains unknown. 

Schiff and other members of the committee had access to secret material, including intelligence on the Trump administration’s ties to Russians.  

The Justice Department also secured a gag order against Apple preventing them from telling the lawmakers they were being investigated, sources told the outlet. That gag order finally expired this year and Apple told the committee members that they were investigated last month.  

Those investigators, who worked under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, discussed if the Justice Department should close its investigation into the leaks of the classified information to the press.

Schiff released a statement on Thursday addressing the revelations

Schiff released a statement on Thursday addressing the revelations

Sessions, 74, was ultimately forced out as Attorney General and replaced by William Barr – who revived attempts to investigate Schiff and his alleged connection to information leaks, The New York Times reported. 

He is said to have done so after accusing investigators tasked with trying to identify the leakers of deliberately dragging their heels.  

Barr even moved Osmar Benvenuto, a New Jersey prosecutor, to the main Justice Department offices in February 2020 to work on the case related to Schiff and about six others, sources told the outlet.

A former Justice Department leak investigator David Laufman also condemned the probes begun by Sessions and continued by Barr.

He said: ‘Notwithstanding whether there was sufficient predication for the leak investigation itself, including family members and minor children strikes me as extremely aggressive.

‘In combination with former President Trump’s unmistakable vendetta against Congressman Schiff, it raises serious questions about whether the manner in which this investigation was conducted was influenced by political considerations rather than purely legal ones.’ 

Prosecutors also subpoenaed records from news reporters at The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN in an attempt to identify their confidential sources, which also remained secret until the Justice Department recently disclosed them.

The revelations show the extent of Trump’s obsession over leaks and the extraordinary lengths his administration would go through to investigate them. 

The Justice Department routinely investigates leaks of classified information – though officials noted to The New York Times that they could not recall any time when a lawmaker’s records had been seized.

‘President Trump repeatedly and fragrantly demanded that the Department of Justice carry out his political will, and tried to use the Department as a cudgel against his political opponents and members of the media,’ Schiff said in a statement released on Thursday.

‘It is increasingly apparent that those demands did not fall on deaf ears. The politicization of the Department and the attacks on the rule of law are among the most dangerous assaults on our democracy carried out by the former President.’

He added: ‘Though we were informed by the Department in May that this investigation is closed, I believe more answers are needed, which is why I believe the Inspector General should investigate this and other cases that suggest the weaponization of law enforcement by a corrupt president.’  

News reports based on sensitive or classified information began to surface almost immediately after Trump was inaugurated in 2017.

Among the first leaks, to The New York Times, included details of conversations between Sergey I. Kislyak, then Russia’s ambassador to the United States, and some of Trump’s top aides.

U.S. intelligence agencies had already started investigating if the Trump campaign colluded with Russians in attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. Trump’s White House was resolved to prosecute anyone who leaked information to the press.

The Justice Department started to look into Obama administration national security officials and opened cases focusing on former FBI director James Comey and former FBI Deputy Director deputy Andrew McCabe, sources told The New York Times. 

A grand jury subpoenaed Apple and another internet service provider, which was not revealed, for the the committee’s Democratic members, aides and even members of their families – including a minor, The New York Times reported. 

It was not clear if any Republicans were also subpoenaed and the outlet noted that the records for members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were seemingly not  subpoenaed. 

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