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The Justice Department Watchdog Will Review A Trump-Era Probe Of Democratic Lawmakers

The Trump Justice Department sought metadata from Apple to investigate Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee.
Patrick Semansky
The Trump Justice Department sought metadata from Apple to investigate Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee.

Updated June 11, 2021 at 3:47 PM ET

The Justice Department inspector general will review the Trump administration's seizure of metadata from Apple products belonging to at least two Democratic lawmakers, their staff and family members.

In 2018, the Trump Justice Department took the highly unusual step of subpoenaing Apple to obtain the metadata of members of the House Intelligence Committee as well as their current and former staff, and even family, including a minor, according to a committee official.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called for an immediate investigation by the department watchdog and by Congress, describing the reported actions by the Trump administration a "gross abuse of power."

The Trump-era subpoena, which The New York Times first reported, was part of an aggressive push by the Justice Department to find the source of leaks of classified information in the early years of the Trump administration. There is no indication that the subpoenaed material tied the committee to the media leaks.

The two lawmakers who had their data seized are Reps. Adam Schiff, the committee's top Democrat, and Eric Swalwell. Both men were outspoken critics of former President Donald Trump and took frequent aim at him in TV and radio appearances.

The department also secured a gag order in the case, preventing Apple from informing the committee about the subpoena. The company was only able to tell the panel after the gag order was lifted in May, the committee official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The committee contacted the Biden Justice Department, which informed the panel that the investigation had been closed, the official said.

It is highly unusual for the Justice Department to subpoena members of Congress. If it does happen, it's usually in connection to a corruption investigation. But the subpoena fits into the Trump Justice Department's aggressive approach toward investigating leaks to the media.

That approach became clear recently when it emerged that the department had secretly sought to obtain phone and email records of reporters from The Times, The Washington Post and CNN in 2020.

Schiff, the California Democrat who now chairs the House Intelligence Committee, confirmed the Justice Department informed him last month that an investigation into his committee had been closed.

Swalwell, a California Democrat who also sits on the panel, said in a statement that Apple had notified him as well that his data was seized.

Schiff accused Trump of repeatedly placing demands on the Justice Department to go after his political opponents and the media.

"It is increasingly apparent that those demands did not fall on deaf ears," Schiff said in a statement. "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."

Later Friday, Schiff applauded the inspector general's decision to look into the reports as "an important first step" but that the attorney general should "do a full damage assessment of the conduct of the department over the last four years and outline all of the accountability and mitigation necessary to protect the public going forward."

The House Intelligence Committee conducted an investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential race.

The committee was later instrumental in the impeachment inquiry into Trump's dealings with Ukraine. The House of Representatives ultimately impeached Trump as a result of that investigation.

Schumer and Durbin sharply criticized the Trump administration in a joint statement Friday following the reports and called on former Attorneys General William Barr and Jeff Sessions to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"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," the two Democratic leaders said. "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 added that if Barr and Sessions were to refuse a request to testify, "they are subject to being subpoenaed and compelled to testify under oath."

"In addition, the Justice Department must provide information and answers to the Judiciary Committee, which will vigorously investigate this abuse of power," Schumer and Durbin said. "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."

NPR political reporter Alana Wise contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.