Barr sparks DOJ firestorm with election probes memo
Attorney General William Barr’s decision to have the Department of Justice (DOJ) probe any “substantial allegations” of voter fraud has triggered a wave of backlash that he is seeking to breathe life into President Trump’s unfounded claims of a stolen election.
Barr’s announcement Monday quickly sparked fallout at the agency, with the top official in charge of voting crimes investigations saying just hours later that he would step down from his role.
In a carefully worded memo, the attorney general authorized federal prosecutors to take investigative steps on “specific instances” of abuse “prior to the certification of elections” in their respective jurisdictions, but he warned that “specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims should not be a basis for initiating federal inquiries,” according to reports.
The move was swiftly condemned by former DOJ officials who argued Barr was breaking longstanding precedent that says the agency should avoid getting involved in such investigations until after an election is certified.
“Overt criminal investigative measures should not ordinarily be taken in matters involving alleged fraud in the manner in which votes were cast or counted until the election … has been concluded, its results certified, and all recounts and election contests concluded,” the DOJ policy states.
Elie Honig, a legal analyst and former federal prosecutor in New York who has been critical of Barr, warned that the attorney general’s actions would risk mixing politics and prosecution.
“This policy has been in place for decades and the purpose couldn’t be more simple: keep prosecution out of politics, keep politics out of prosecution,” Honig told CNN on Tuesday.
“Now, with yesterday’s resignation, we’ve seen seven dedicated, career, nonpartisan prosecutors resign off of four different cases. … That is not normal, and the reason they all resigned is from Bill Barr’s political weaponization of the Justice Department,” Honig said.
Other former agency officials took their criticisms further.
“Barr authorizing federal prosecutors to investigate non-existent election fraud suggests only one thing: Trump has not yet delivered Bill Barr his much-needed pardon,” Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor who served in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C. for 24 years, wrote on Twitter.
Barr’s actions were enough to prompt Richard Pilger, a career prosecutor in the DOJ’s Public Integrity Section who oversaw probes related to voter fraud, to inform colleagues Monday that he would be taking on a non-supervisory role that focuses on corruption prosecutions, according to a letter first obtained by The New York Times.
“Having familiarized myself with the new policy and its ramifications,” Pilger reportedly wrote, “I must regretfully resign from my role as director of the Election Crimes Branch.”
The newspaper noted that Barr has greenlighted the review of allegations of voter fraud in Nevada and Pennsylvania, accusations that come as the president and his allies have made claims about widespread fraud while providing no supporting evidence.
Some former officials said that while serious claims should be probed, Barr now risks being seen as interfering in an election, even if that’s not the case.
“The guidance issued by the attorney general is certainly unusual; the reason why there is a longstanding practice of not investigating election fraud claims until after certification is so that you avoid the appearance of political involvement in the electoral process,” said Jamil N. Jaffer, former counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security during the George W. Bush administration.
Jaffer noted that previous attorney generals have also become ensnared in election-related controversy, pointing to the controversial meeting in 2016 between former President Clinton and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
“Of course, the Justice Department has a responsibility to protect the people’s right to a free and fair election, so it should investigate any serious claims of voter fraud. But when election investigations take place during or in the immediate aftermath of an election campaign, there will inherently be concerns about political interference, just as there were in the Obama administration as it conducted its investigation into foreign interference during the 2016 campaign,” said Jaffer, who also served as an associate counsel to former President George W. Bush.
Following the election, Barr has reportedly faced pressure — and criticism — from Trump allies for failing to intervene on behalf of the president.
The Times reported that while Barr made the decision on his own to pursue election probes, the president has not shied away from circulating beliefs that the election is “rigged” or that there has been “massive ballot counting abuse.”
“WATCH FOR MASSIVE BALLOT COUNTING ABUSE AND, JUST LIKE THE EARLY VACCINE, REMEMBER I TOLD YOU SO!” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
Under Barr’s memo, U.S. attorneys are now able to bypass a career prosecutor to take more covert investigative steps; previously, they had to get permission from the career prosecutor in the department’s Criminal Division.
Multiple news outlets, including The Associated Press, called the race for President-elect Joe Biden on Saturday after his expanding lead in key battleground states. He has received congratulations from multiple Republican lawmakers, former presidents and world leaders.
While Barr’s memo gives Republicans more ammunition to refuse to acknowledge Biden’s victory, the Trump campaign is pressing ahead with multiple lawsuits in battleground states challenging the results.
Democrats say such efforts will be fruitless, but it could nonetheless undermine confidence in the election process.
“Barr cannot change the outcome of the election—but in aiding President Trump in spreading lies about election officials, and in seeding doubts about the legitimacy of the election without a shred of evidence to back up their claims, Barr and the President’s other enablers threaten real harm to our country,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Tuesday.
“This approach is as short-sighted as it is cynical and destructive,” he added.
Even some Republicans are also slamming Barr.
“I’ve been a Republican for 40 years. I’ve raised money for Republican candidates. I’ve knocked doors for Republican candidates … but this latest move to employ the Department of Justice in all of this is so wildly inappropriate,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) said.
“Stalling an orderly transition process, especially at a time like this, is equally unacceptable.”