President Trump weighed in Thursday on a pending criminal case involving a former technology staffer for congressional lawmakers — another instance in which he publicly lobbied for a specific legal outcome and appeared to embrace and promote unfounded allegations.
The case surrounding Imran Awan and his wife has been the subject of interest among conservatives and conspiracy theorists for more than a year. They were charged last year with conspiring to commit bank fraud and making false statements on a loan application and unlawful monetary transactions.
But conservatives have suggested the couple were engaged in something much worse because Awan was an IT specialist for House lawmakers. An internal review found he and colleagues seemed to be bending rules on computer network access so they could share job duties. Conservatives called it a scandal with national security implications and questioned whether a server with sensitive information had gone missing; Democrats, including Awan’s employer, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), called that a bias-fueled conspiracy theory.
According to a recent court filing, the couple are nearing the end of plea negotiations with prosecutors.
Trump, who has tweeted about the case before, wrote Thursday: “Our Justice Department must not let Awan & Debbie Wasserman Schultz off the hook. The Democrat I.T. scandal is a key to much of the corruption we see today. They want to make a ‘plea deal’ to hide what is on their Server. Where is Server? Really bad!”
Awan’s lawyer, Christopher J. Gowen, called Trump’s statement “incredibly irresponsible” and a violation of Awan’s due process rights. “And it’s completely and totally false,” he said, adding, “We are very concerned that the head of the Justice Department, the president of the United States, is willing to publicly lie about our client and what the ramifications that kind of action will have on our client.”
In a statement, Wasserman Schultz responded: “I’m focused on doing my job. Donald Trump should focus on doing his.”
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
It is unusual, but not unprecedented, for a president to weigh in on specific criminal cases while they are pending. Trump has done so repeatedly. Last year, he suggested a terror suspect in New York should be sent to Guantanamo, before reversing himself. He also spoke out against Bowe Bergdahl during the American soldier’s military trial on desertion charges.
Claire Finkelstein, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, called it “highly improper for the president to weigh in on a pending case and to urge the Justice Department not to accept a plea deal involving Mr. Awan and his wife.”
She noted if the Awans’ plea talks break down, “the defendants would have a good case to say the negotiations were obstructed by the president’s tweet.”
Finkelstein said the president’s repeated interest in the Awan case “suggests that he has a vested interest in convincing the public that this right wing conspiracy theory is correct.”
The charges against Awan and his wife do not stem from their work on Capitol Hill, but rather equity lines of credit they allegedly received for rental properties prosecutors say were not their residences.
Trump is known to embrace unfounded allegations and conspiracy theories. On Tuesday, he tweeted the FBI had begun spying on his campaign in December 2015, an assertion that is not supported by any known evidence.
Separately, he urged the Justice Department on Thursday to take action on a different topic, referencing a Republican congressional investigation that concluded the Obama administration went out of its way in early 2016 to help Iran recoup previously sanctioned oil revenue after the nuclear deal went into effect and actively misled Congress regarding those efforts.
“This is totally illegal,” Trump tweeted, before referencing the work of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, ex-FBI Director James B. Comey and adding: “Investigate!”