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DOJ watchdog to probe seizure of Democrat, reporter data during Trump

WASHINGTON (CN) — The inspector general of the Justice Department is launching an internal probe after it was revealed that the agency covertly seized data belonging to two House Democrats, their staff and family members, including a minor, as well as reporters, in reaction to leaks that could damage then-President Donald Trump.

“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,” Inspector General Michael Horowitz noted in a statement Friday. “If circumstances warrant, the OIG will consider other issues that may arise during the review.”

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, appointed by President Joe Biden, issued the order to Horowitz, a longtime career official appointed by former President Barak Obama, after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin demanded in an early Friday statement that former Attorneys General Bill Barr and Jeff Sessions testify before Congress about the covert surveillance conducted under the Trump administration.

The New York Times broke the news of the Trump-era activity late Thursday, saying that more than a dozen people with ties to the House Intelligence Committee and its members had their private records secretly seized by the Justice Department, first in 2017 and again in early 2018.

Justice Department prosecutors under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions were on a quest to unearth sources behind news stories the president deemed unsavory, specifically those about contact between Russia and Trump’s associates or administration officials.

In the surveillance crosshairs were two key Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee, Representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both of California.

But Barr on Friday denied knowledge of the Justice Department seeking “any congressman’s records … in a leak case.” Barr told Politico in a phone interview that Trump also “was not aware of who we were looking at in any of the cases.”

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

Schiff now serves as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Swalwell, who was overtly critical of the Trump administration before, during and after the 45th president’s first impeachment, confirmed publicly Thursday that his data had been subpoenaed.

Though the Justice Department under Sessions ultimately found nothing tying the committee or its members to leaks to the media, the investigation began anew upon Barr’s appointment as attorney general.

Barr obtained a gag order on Apple as well so that neither Schiff, Swalwell nor any other targets would be aware of the investigation. The order only recently lifted, according to The New York Times.

The Justice Department under President Joe Biden made the disclosure about the investigations earlier this week to reporters.

A former official who worked on the investigations said in a statement to The Times on Thursday: “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.”

The president tweeted his ire at the California congressman no less than 300 times, often referring to him as “Shifty Schiff.” When Trump was impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, Schiff served as lead impeachment manager in the House inquiry.

Schiff reacted to the news first by lamenting Thursday how Trump “repeatedly and flagrantly” manipulated the Justice Department against the rule of law. On Friday, he emphasized that the internal probe should only be one step of the government’s response.

“As crucial as it will be, the IG’s investigation will not obviate the need for other forms of oversight and accountability — including public oversight by Congress — and the department must cooperate in that effort as well,” Schiff said Friday afternoon. “In the meantime, the attorney general needs to 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.”

Schumer and Durbin said the revelations about the investigations floored them and called for an immediate investigation into “Donald Trump and his sycophants” at the Justice Department.

“This is a gross abuse of power and an assault on the separate of powers,” Schumer and Durbin said, adding that if Sessions and Barr refused to appear voluntarily before the Senate Judiciary Committee, they would be subpoenaed and compelled to testify under oath

Representative Swalwell appeared on CNN Friday and said that he believes it is likely the department under former Attorneys General Barr and Sessions also surveilled other members of Congress. It is unclear for now if the Senate Intelligence Committee was also targeted.

And there is also no evidence yet public that Barr or Sessions meant to use the records they obtained to build some sort of case against a lawmaker, staffer or reporter.

According to extensive first reporting by The New York Times, the Justice Department was reportedly targeting an array of individuals including some national security officials left over from the Obama administration, as well as James Comey and Andrew McCabe, the former director and deputy director, respectively, of the FBI.

A grand jury issued a subpoena to Apple in both 2017 and 2018 to another internet service provider for metadata, and it is uncertain why family members of lawmakers were also swept up into the probe.