WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democratic
leaders are demanding that Trump-era Attorneys General Bill Barr
and Jeff Sessions
testify about the secret seizure of data from House Democrats
in 2018, which they call "shocking" and a "gross
abuse of power."
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
Senator Dick Durbin said in a statement Friday that Barr and Sessions “must testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee” and will face a subpoena if they do not.
According to three people
familiar with the seizures, Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff
and Eric Swalwell
were notified three years ago that the Justice Department
under former President Donald Trump
seized their metadata from Apple
as part of an aggressive crackdown on leaks
related to the Russia investigation
and other national security
At the time, Schiff and Swalwell were members of the House Intelligence Committee; Schiff is now its chairman.
While the Justice Department routinely conducts investigations into leaked information, including classified intelligence, opening such an investigation into members of Congress
is extremely rare. The revelations show one branch of government using its investigative and prosecutorial powers to spy on another.
The seizures, according to Schiff, point to a corrupt president's "weaponization of law
According to a committee official and two other people with inside information, prosecutors from Trump's Justice Department subpoenaed Apple for the data, and the company eventually shared the records of at least 12 people connected to the intelligence panel.
To discuss the data seizures, the committee official and two others with knowledge of them were granted anonymity.
According to the committee official, records of aides, former aides, and family members, one of whom was a minor, were also seized.
According to one of the people, the Justice Department obtained metadata — most likely records of calls, texts, and locations — but not other content from the devices, such as photos
, messages, or emails. Another said Apple complied with the subpoena, providing the information to the Justice Department, but did not immediately notify members of Congress or the committee about the disclosure.
The New York Times
broke the news of the secret seizures first.
The Trump administration
's attempt to gain secret access to the data came at a time when the president was publicly and privately fuming about investigations into his campaign's ties to Russia, both in Congress and by then-special counsel Robert Mueller
As the investigations swirled around him, Trump demanded loyalty from a Justice Department he frequently regarded as his personal law firm, calling the probes a “witch hunt
,” regularly criticizing Democrats and Mueller on Twitter
, and repeatedly dismissing as “fake news
” leaks he found harmful to his agenda.
During the Russia investigation, Schiff and Swalwell were two of the most visible Democrats on the committee, which was then led by Republicans
, and both California
lawmakers made frequent appearances on cable news, which Trump watched closely, if not obsessively, and chastised.
In a late-night statement, Schiff demanded that the Justice Department's inspector general conduct an investigation into the seizures.
In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
, D-Calif., said the data seizures “appear to be yet another egregious assault
on our democracy
” waged by the former president.
“The news about the politicization of the Trump Administration Justice Department is frightening,” she said.
According to a committee official, the panel has continued to seek additional information, but the Justice Department has not provided answers to questions such as whether the investigation was properly predicated and whether it was limited to Democrats.
It is unclear why Trump's Justice Department would have targeted a minor as part of the investigation. Swalwell told CNN
on Thursday night that he was aware a minor was involved and believed that person was "targeted punitively and not for any reason in law."
On CNN Friday, Swalwell said he "would not be surprised" if the department went after other members as well, and that an internal Justice Department investigation could find out. The Senate Intelligence Committee, however, was not similarly targeted, according to a fourth person who was aware of the investigation and granted anonymity to discuss it.
There is no evidence that the Justice Department used the records to prosecute anyone. After some of the information was declassified and made public during the later years of the Trump administration, some prosecutors were concerned that even if they could bring a leak case, it would be difficult to prosecute and a conviction would be unlikely, one of the people said.
According to the source, federal agents interrogated at least one former committee staff member in 2020, but prosecutors were unable to establish a case.
Following revelations that the Justice Department had secretly seized phone records belonging to reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post
, and CNN as part of criminal leak investigations, the Justice Department announced last week that it would discontinue the practice of going after journalists
' sourcing information in response to an outcry from press freedom
This story was contributed to by Associated Press writer