WASHINGTON – Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to open an investigation on Friday, a senior Justice Department official told The Associated Press, after revelations that former President Donald Trump’s administration seized phone data from House Democrats in 2018 as part of an aggressive leaks investigation. The request came after Senate Democratic leaders demanded that Trump-era Attorneys General Bill Barr and Jeff Sessions testify about the seizures.
The Justice Department during the Trump administration secretly seized the Apple phone data of Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee as well as their family members as part of a leak investigation.
The New York Times, which first reported on the seizure Thursday night, said the Justice Department subpoenaed the tech giant for phone data of about a dozen people, including two Democrats on the committee, their aides and family members, one of whom is a minor.
Rep. Eric Swalwell confirmed that his phone data, as well as those of lawmakers’ family members, were among those that were seized. The California Democrat also said that Apple, which was under a gag order preventing it from telling lawmakers their data were subpoenaed, had notified him that his records were seized.
“I believe (the family members) were targeted punitively, not for any reason in law, (but) because Donald Trump identified Chairman Schiff and members of the committee as an enemy of his,” Swalwell told CNN Thursday, adding that the gag order was motivated by fear of a public perception that the Trump administration was targeting perceived political enemies.
Phone data of Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee chairman, was also seized. The Times reported that the leak investigation, which began in 2017 under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, sought to find out sources of media reports about contacts between Trump associates and Russia. But the investigation ultimately did not find evidence tying the committee to the leaks, the Times reported.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
House Democrats promptly denounced the data seizure and called for an inspector general investigation.
“The news about the politicization of the Trump administration Justice Department is harrowing,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. “These actions appear to be yet another egregious assault on our democracy waged by the former president.”
Democrats have also long said that Trump used the Justice Department to go after his perceived political enemies, an allegation that Schiff repeated Thursday night.
“It’s clear his demands didn’t fall on deaf ears. This baseless investigation, while now closed, is yet another example of Trump’s corrupt weaponization of justice, Schiff said.
In an interview with CNN Thursday, Schiff said several more lawmakers or staffers’ phone data may have been targeted as part of the leak investigation. He said people who received notices from Apple initially thought the emails were either spam or phishing attempts.
Trump and his former aides have publicly condemned leaks to the press that often led to unflattering news about the White House. The Justice Department during the Trump administration also secretly obtained the phone records of journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN.
Faced with criticism from journalists and media advocates, the Biden administration announced it will no longer secretly obtain reporters’ records during leak investigations, a departure from a policy used by previous administrations to try to identify sources who provided journalists with classified information.
This story will be updated.