The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP’s school board push remains an elaborate theory in search of evidence

Dissecting the House GOP’s new report on the Justice Department’s alleged ‘weaponization’ of the FBI against parents who complain to school boards

Attorney General Merrick Garland takes an oath before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this month. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
5 min

House Republicans issued an interim report this week that accuses the Justice Department of “weaponizing” the FBI against parents who engage in the “protected First Amendment activity” of criticizing school board officials. The report’s very first example in support of this claim is telling, but perhaps not in the way its authors intended.

“In one investigation, an FBI field office interviewed a mom for allegedly telling a local school board ‘we are coming for you,’” states the report, which was entered into the record at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing Thursday. It says the woman told the FBI that she was merely referring to “coming” for the officials electorally speaking.

House Judiciary Committee Republicans haven’t provided many details about the incident, but the details it has offered line up with an incident in Michigan in late-2021. Both involve an activist for Moms for Liberty, a tip to the FBI, and the activist talking about replacing school board members.

In the Michigan case, the activist’s comments went well beyond “coming for you.” According to video of the November meeting of the Brighton, Mich., school board, the woman said: “We’re coming for you. Take it as a threat. Call the FBI. I don’t care. You’re all either going to be recalled or you’re all — we’re all coming for you. That’s what’s happening.”

The committee wouldn’t confirm or deny this is the instance cited. But its use would conform with a long-running campaign by congressional Republicans that has often skirted or gone beyond the available facts.

Republicans have claimed that a 2021 memo from Attorney General Merrick Garland on combating a “disturbing spike” in school board threats was really about cracking down on dissent — “a political offensive meant to quell swelling discord,” in the words of the new report.

They’ve cited a letter the National School Boards Association issued immediately before Garland’s memo. The letter suggested such threats were akin to “domestic terrorism.” The NSBA later apologized for the language, but the Justice Department never used that language or endorsed it. And the Justice Department and Garland have always characterized their concerns as solely about threats, not complaints.

However one feels about the NSBA or the federal government’s becoming involved in such things, there remains no direct evidence that this effort was influenced by politics — and that includes in the new interim report.

The report accuses the Biden administration and the NSBA of having “extensively colluded” to “create a justification” for Garland’s memo. Its evidence is that the Justice Department had contact with another group, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, about school threats before Garland issued his memo, that the NSBA shared an embargoed copy of its letter with the Biden administration a day early, and that the Justice Department shared a copy of Garland’s memo with the NSBA shortly before its public release on Oct. 4, 2021.

But there is nothing in the report that addresses the conclusions of an independent report commissioned by the NSBA that “did not find direct or indirect evidence suggesting the Administration requested the Letter or specified, edited, or reviewed the contents of the Letter before the Letter was sent, or otherwise specifically requested that it be written.”

The report mostly rehashes old arguments. But it also repeatedly suggests Garland’s memo was made with the education-focused 2021 Virginia governor’s race in mind. It goes as far as to say, “The Administration’s goal seems to have been silencing the critics of its radical education policies and neutralizing an issue that was threatening Democrat Party prospects in the close gubernatorial race in Virginia.” But it offers no evidence or contemporaneous communications to back this up.

The report also provides little in the way of evidence that such authority has been abused.

It says the FBI acknowledged opening just 25 “assessments” in cases involving alleged school board threats, with just one leading to a “full investigation” and none leading to federal charges. The report casts the lack of arrests as “highlighting the political motives behind the Attorney General’s actions.” But it also acknowledges that a majority of cases were referred to state and local authorities.

(Reuters in February 2022 reported that school boards were being “inundated with threats of violence and other hostile messages,” citing 220 examples in a survey of 15 states.)

The report also continues a long trend of taking liberties with the evidence and layering the issue in political spin.

On Page 1, the report cites Garland’s October 2021 testimony, claiming he acknowledged the NSBA letter was, in its words, the “only basis” for the Justice Department’s actions. But in the exchange the committee highlighted for the claim, Garland didn’t say that; he called the letter “a relevant factor” and also cited “newspapers’ reports of threats of violence.”

The report also repeatedly refers to the Justice Department’s having directed tips about such threats to the National Threat Operations Center, describing it on five occasions as a “snitch-line.”

The “snitch-line” claim was broached in a hearing this month by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), who falsely suggested to Garland that the hotline had been set up specifically to report angry parents. Kennedy also echoed a series of other claims that have been fact-checked as false or baseless, including that the effort targeted parents who merely spoke out, and that the FBI applied so-called “threat tags” to such parents.

The argument has become a key part of the House GOP’s efforts to claim the government has been “weaponized” against conservatives, and it was broached again at the Judiciary subcommittee hearing Thursday. But thus far — as with other such “weaponization” claims — the rhetoric continues to far outpace the actual evidence.