Senate demands evidence on data seizure from Trump-era law chiefs

Donald Trump

Senate Democratic leaders are demanding that Trump-era attorneys general Bill Barr and Jeff Sessions give evidence about the secret seizure of House Democrats’ data in 2018. They’ve called it “shocking” and a “gross abuse of power”.

Barr and Sessions

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and Illinois senator Dick Durbin said in a statement that Barr and Sessions “must testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee” and are subject to a subpoena if they refuse. The demands came after Democratic representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell were notified that the Justice Department, under Donald Trump, seized their metadata from Apple three years ago.

The records of at least 12 people connected to the House Intelligence Committee were eventually shared by Apple. The 12 included Schiff, then the top Democrat on the committee and now its chairman.

Adam Schiff
Adam Schiff (J Scott Applewhite/AP)

The Justice Department routinely investigates leaked information, including classified intelligence. But opening such an investigation into members of Congress is extraordinarily rare. The disclosures reveal one branch of the government using its powers of investigation and prosecution to spy on another.

Schiff said the seizures suggest “the weaponisation of law enforcement by a corrupt president”.

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Apple informed the committee in May that it shared records and the investigation had been closed. But it did not give extensive detail. Also seized were the records of aides, former aides, and family members – one of them a minor according to the committee official.

The Justice Department obtained metadata — probably records of calls, texts, and locations — but not other content from the devices, such as photos, messages, or emails, according to one of the people. Another said Apple complied with the subpoena, providing the information to the Justice Department. And it did not immediately notify the members of Congress or the committee about the disclosure.

Eric Swalwell
Eric Swalwell, right (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

In public and private

The Trump administration’s attempt to secretly gain access to the data came as the then-president was fuming publicly and privately over investigations into his campaign’s ties to Russia. These were being carried out in Congress and by then special counsel Robert Mueller.

Trump called the probes a “witch hunt”. He also regularly criticised Democrats and Mueller on Twitter and repeatedly dismissed as “fake news” leaks he found harmful to his agenda. As the investigations swirled around him, he demanded loyalty from a Justice Department he often regarded as his personal law firm.

Schiff and Swalwell were two of the most visible Democrats on the committee, then led by Republicans, during the Russia investigation. Schiff called for an investigation on the seizures by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that the data seizures “appear to be yet another egregious assault on our democracy” by the former president. She added:

The news about the politicisation of the Trump administration Justice Department is harrowing

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