The House Judiciary Committee — which, at present, is led by chair Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) — has begun an investigation into the Trump Justice Department’s obtaining of communications data for two prominent Democratic members of Congress. A new report from The Guardian explains how this investigation includes an examination of whether an “unlawful shadow operation” was in place at the Justice Department during the Trump era, as the publication put it. Generally, subpoenas along the lines of the ones that went out for Democratic data would’ve needed approval from high-ranking Justice Department figures including the Attorney General — but Trump era Attorney Generals Bill Barr and Jeff Sessions have both claimed ignorance.
The idea is that officials — presumably loyal to Trump — could have used the machinations of the Justice Department to punitively go after the then-president’s challengers. If a so-called “shadow operation” was operating at the Justice Department against prominent Trump opponents, that “would be significant because it could render the subpoenas unlawful,” The Guardian notes, based on remarks from a source. The Democrats whose data was seized include Reps. Adam Schiff (Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (Calif.), both of whom are members of the House Intelligence Committee and both of whom have been leading figures in efforts to hold ex-President Donald Trump accountable for his corrupt foreign ties, and besides the seizures of their data, staffers and family members of both were also targeted by Trump’s administration.
As The Guardian explains it, “[If] the subpoenas were issued without proper authorization from the attorney general level, it could also leave the officials involved in the effort open to prosecution for falsely operating with the imprimatur of law enforcement.” Neither Schiff nor Swalwell were apparently targets of the investigation, which searched for the source of leaks of government information, but the Congressmen’s communications were swept up without visibly systematic hesitation on the part of the Justice Department anyway, and as The Guardian pointedly notes, “the use of subpoenas to seize data belonging to the accounts of sitting members of Congress with gag orders to keep their existence secret remain near-unprecedented.”
No evidence has apparently ever emerged tying either Schiff or Swalwell to the leaks. Senate Democrats on that chamber’s Judiciary Committee have also kickstarted their own investigation into the matter, while Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who oversees the Justice Department, is also looking into it. Horowitz is also examining the Trump Justice Department’s efforts to obtain communications data for certain journalists from prominent outlets.