The Justice Department’s increasingly ardent pursuit of former President Donald Trump and his associates, with 40 subpoenas and the seizure of at least nine cellphones in a week, shows prosecutors are feeling the heat to nail down their case before potential Republican congressional gains in the November elections.
That is the conclusion of veteran federal prosecutors and investigators after the flurry of activity in the Justice Department’s probe of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and Mr. Trump’s role in efforts to overturn 2020 election results.
The Justice Department is stepping up its campaign despite an unwritten rule that strongly discourages actions such as a criminal indictment that could influence voters within 60 days of an election. The onslaught of subpoenas signals that the Justice Department is trying to gather as much evidence now in case Republicans win control of the House and Senate in November and move next year to stymie the investigation, analysts say.
Robert Sanders, a former Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG) captain who teaches at the University of New Haven, said the looming midterm elections are among the factors playing into Attorney General Merrick Garland’s decision to escalate the investigation.
“Garland is proceeding on multiple paths, and some are contingent on what the American electorate may or may not do, so if he needs additional pieces of the puzzle and if he thinks he’s going to be denied or obstructed, he needs to get it now,” Mr. Sanders said.
A Republican-controlled Congress can’t stop the Justice Department’s investigation, but it can impede or starve it of resources. It could also shut down the House select committee created by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to investigate the riot, which has opened up new lines of inquiry for the Justice Department.
Republicans could summon Mr. Garland and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray before various committees and demand explanations. Committee chairs would have subpoena power and the authority to run investigations into the Justice Department’s activities.
If any former administration official the Justice Department is pursuing is working for a Republican lawmaker, Congress could prevent the person from cooperating. That would stall the investigation by forcing prosecutors to go to court and ask a judge to compel that person to cooperate.
“Congress has the ability to make life miserable for Garland and the Justice Department,” said Andy Leipold, a law professor at the University of Illinois who was part of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s team that investigated President Clinton over financial and perjury charges.
“If the climate were to change and the Democrats have big losses in the House and lose the Senate, there won’t be much enthusiasm for these investigations. If you’re asking about the escalation of activity, follow the politics,” he said.
Republican lawmakers have promised a protracted fight with the Biden administration over what they say is the “weaponizing” of the Justice Department and FBI to take down Mr. Trump, who is weighing another run for the White House in 2024. They have pledged to press the Justice Department over all of its investigations of Mr. Trump, including a probe of the suspected mishandling of classified government documents.
The investigation of documents, which is separate from the department’s inquiry about the Capitol riot, resulted in an FBI raid of Mr. Trump’s residence last month and the seizure of scores of documents.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican and presumed speaker if his party wins control of the House, has promised to “conduct immediate oversight” of the Justice Department and “leave no stone unturned.”
Multiple committees could have hearings following the same playbook Republicans used after the deadly September 2011 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Hearings carried on for months and repeatedly put top Democrats, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the hot seat.
“The Justice Department investigation into the former president will take a back seat to any congressional investigations related to the who, what, where and how of these probes,” said Eric Caron, a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. “The hearings will keep the spotlight on the Justice Department and why these two cases against President Trump were initiated.”
A swarm of subpoenas
As Republican lawmakers vow to scrutinize Mr. Garland and call him before Congress, the Justice Department is blanketing Trump associates with subpoenas seeking information related to the activities of the former president’s Save America political action committee, which has been Mr. Trump’s main fundraising vehicle since leaving the White House.
It was revealed late Tuesday that Mr. Trump’s former Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, has complied with a Justice Department subpoena regarding the events surrounding the riot at the U.S. Capitol, according to a report. He is the highest-ranking Trump official to have responded to a Justice Department subpoena.
Mr. Meadows turned over thousands of text messages and emails to the House select committee before he stopped cooperating. He provided the same materials to the Justice Department, meeting the obligations of the subpoena, CNN reported Wednesday.
Mr. Meadows previously withheld hundreds of messages from the committee, citing executive privilege, though it’s unclear whether those messages were withheld from the FBI. Efforts by The Washington Times to reach Mr. Meadows for comment were unsuccessful.
Within the past week, federal agents with court-authorized search warrants took phones from Boris Epshteyn, an in-house counsel who helps coordinate Mr. Trump’s legal efforts, and Mike Roman, a campaign strategist who oversaw Election Day operations for the Trump campaign in 2020, according to public reports.
The Justice Department also subpoenaed Ben Williamson, one of Mr. Meadows’ top deputies. That subpoena sought testimony and records related to the riot and Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Another subpoena recipient was Dan Scavino, Mr. Trump’s former social media director, who was a key West Wing aide and remains an adviser to the former president. Also subpoenaed was Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner who promoted claims of widespread voter fraud in 2020. Mr. Kerik is a longtime friend of Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former Trump attorney who has also been subpoenaed.
Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO and outspoken supporter of Mr. Trump’s claims of election fraud, said this week that the FBI served him with a subpoena for the contents of his cellphone in a separate but related case involving a Colorado county clerk under investigation for tampering with voting machines.
On his internet show, “The Lindell Report,” the pillow salesman said agents questioned him about Tina Peters, the clerk in Mesa County, Colorado, who is accused of allowing an unauthorized person to access voting machines.
Ms. Peters, who has espoused the theory that widespread voter fraud cost Mr. Trump the 2020 election, has pleaded not guilty to state charges against her.
Prosecutors say she helped an unauthorized person make copies of sensitive voting machine hard drives. Information from the machines and secure passwords were shared with election conspiracy theorists online.
Shortly after the data leak, Ms. Peters appeared at an event hosted by Mr. Lindell, who has also promoted widely discredited conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was rigged.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.