By Jan Wolfe and Lisa Lambert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Justice Department will make its policies for obtaining records of U.S. lawmakers more rigorous after former President Donald Trump’s administration secretly secured data on members of Congress, journalists and a former White House lawyer, the top U.S. law enforcement official said on Monday.
Attorney General Merrick Garland in a statement https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/statement-attorney-general-merrick-b-garland also said that “political or other improper considerations must play no role in any investigative or prosecutorial decisions” and that anyone within the department who fails to live up to that principle “will be met with strict accountability.”
Democratic congressional leaders on Sunday vowed to investigate the department’s “rogue” actions under Trump, including its move to obtain the communications records of House of Representatives Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell as part of a probe into leaks of classified information. Schiff and Swalwell both were critics of Trump, a Republican.
Garland said he has instructed Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco “to evaluate and strengthen the department’s existing policies and procedures for obtaining records of the Legislative branch.”
“Consistent with our commitment to the rule of law, we must ensure that full weight is accorded to separation-of-powers concerns moving forward,” Garland added, referring to the constitutional system of checks and balances among the U.S. government’s executive, judicial and legislative branches.
The department’s internal watchdog, Inspector General Michael Horowitz, on Friday said his office is launching a review of the use of subpoenas during Trump’s administration to obtain the records of lawmakers and journalists and whether “improper considerations” drove those decisions.
“There are important questions that must be resolved in connection with an effort by the department to obtain records related to members of Congress and congressional staff,” Garland added.
Garland said that if action related to Horowitz’s investigation is warranted, “I will not hesitate to move swiftly.”
Garland also met on Monday with officials from the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN to discuss the Trump Justice Department’s seizure of phone records for journalists from the three news organizations.
The Justice Department in a statement said Garland had “a productive conversation” with the media representatives and they “agreed on the need for strong, durable rules.”
“In today’s meeting, we sought a full accounting of what happened and requested that the Department of Justice codify that it will no longer seize journalists’ records during leak investigations,” said New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger in a statement. “We were encouraged by Attorney General Garland’s statements but we will continue to push until our concerns are addressed.”
Washington Post Publisher Fred Ryan said in a statement: “While we welcome the new policy to refrain from using compulsory legal procedures to seize reporter records in leak investigations, we feel steps must be taken to ensure it is durable and binding on future administrations. It is also essential that there be a full and complete public accounting of all the actions taken against our news organizations, including the secret subpoenas and gag orders, and an explanation as to what has been done with the information that was seized.”
The House Judiciary Committee will also open an investigation, said the panel’s chairman, Democrat Jerrold Nadler.
Under former attorneys general William Barr and Jeff Sessions, the department was accused by Democrats of putting Trump’s personal and political interests ahead of the law.
The Times on Thursday reported that under Trump the department subpoenaed Apple Inc for data on Schiff and Swalwell. Apple also told Donald McGahn, who served as White House counsel under Trump, that the department had subpoenaed information about him in 2018 and barred the company from telling him, the Times reported on Sunday.
Schiff said he has spoken with Garland and Monaco about the subpoena that sought his phone records.
“I have every confidence they will also do the kind of top-to-bottom review of the degree to which the department was politicized during the previous administration and take corrective steps,” Schiff said.
Schiff added that the department “can never be used to protect a president’s friends or accomplices, or as a potential weapon against a president’s perceived political enemies.”
Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, decried the investigation announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats. Echoing Trump’s language on previous investigations, McConnell called this one “a witch hunt in the making.” McConnell said on the Senate floor that Horowitz is “fully equipped” to investigate the matter without Congress also doing so.
John Demers, who heads the Justice Department’s national security division and is a rare holdover from Trump’s administration, is expected to leave his post by the end of next week, the Times reported on Monday.
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Jan Wolfe. Additional reporting by Helen Coster; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Aurora Ellis and Will Dunham)