The investigation has since been closed, the Times reports, which appears to clear the committee of any charges of leaking.
The immediate question is whether the Justice Department did this as part of an express effort to carry out Trump’s wishes for direct retaliation against two high-profile political foes, which would be an appalling abuse of power.
The truth may turn out to be a good deal less incriminating. But either way, the news underscores the need not just for an investigation of this affair, but also for a full accounting of Trump’s deep corruption of the department across the board.
Here are three takeaways:
The Justice Department is not being forthcoming.
An official on the House Intelligence Committee tells me that Schiff’s office has been seeking extensive information from the department about this affair, and is getting very little cooperation.
Members of the committee were informed last month by Apple that prosecutors had subpoenaed their account data, according to the Times report. The subpoenas were for metadata, purportedly to track possible leaks.
The subpoenas targeted a dozen people connected to the committee, including Schiff, Swalwell and numerous aides, the committee official confirms.
Since then, the committee official tells me, Schiff’s office has been asking the department to specify what the legal predicate was for including members of Congress and their aides in this data sweep, and what, exactly, prompted the department to target them.
They’ve also been asking the department for a timeline of when the department sought the data involving members of Congress and staff, who else was subpoenaed, and whether that included Republicans. There’s been some back-and-forth discussion, but no meaningful answers.
“We have repeatedly posed basic and readily answerable questions to the department for more than a month, but have received virtually no information beyond a confirmation that the investigation is closed,” the committee official told me. “The department’s refusal to provide information is unacceptable.”
Schiff alluded to some of this in an interview with Rachel Maddow, noting that the committee has asked the department whether this was just directed at Democrats. “They’ve not been forthcoming,” Schiff said.
Schiff and other Democrats are calling for an investigation by the department’s inspector general. But the department has not yet commented on any of this, the Times reports.
Trump himself repeatedly called for this to happen.
Importantly, Trump also said this: “If they don’t stop it, I can’t imagine that people are not going to go after them and find out what’s happening.”
In early 2018, Trump made a similar charge, raging that Schiff was “illegally” leaking “confidential information” and “must be stopped.”
The timeline here is murky, but that may sync up with what we’re learning. The Times piece reports that the initial requests came early, under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. After the cases subsequently languished, Barr came in and ordered prosecutors to continue the investigation, leading some inside the department to suspect politics was the driver, the Times reports.
Notably, Trump’s public statements show that he wanted that to happen all throughout. Whatever the direct role of those statements, all this underscores the need for the department to be more forthcoming about this whole affair.
Merrick Garland needs to step up.
Attorney General Merrick Garland needs to take a more prominent role in assuring the public that we’re going to see real transparency and accountability, according to Noah Bookbinder, the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
Remember, the department is also refusing to release the full legal memo purporting to offer the legal rationale for Barr’s decision not to charge Trump of criminal obstruction of justice, after the special counsel documented extensive evidence of his obstruction efforts.
That memo could reveal that Barr relied on a sham rationale for exonerating Trump. And we’re now learning new details about the ways in which the department may have been turned into a political weapon against his foes.
Bookbinder said the department should be forthcoming about the genesis of these efforts to target members of Congress, where the orders came from and what the directives were. Bookbinder told me CREW would file a Freedom of Information Act request for this information.
Bookbinder added that Garland should play a more public role in vowing transparency, even if he ends up recusing himself from any accounting.
“I know he’s trying to be careful not to do anything that looks politically motivated,” Bookbinder told me. “But this goes to the core of reestablishing a credible, nonpolitical justice system. He needs to take steps to ensure that this is being investigated, and assure the public of that.”