The slow leak of Trump's corruption is a problem for Biden's DOJ

Under Bill Barr, the DOJ targeted House Democrats and their families

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published June 11, 2021 12:58PM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Merrick Garland and Joe Biden  (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Merrick Garland and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The Justice Department seems to be having some trouble running away from the past it's apparently so desperate to shake off.

Amid reports of corruption running far deeper within the DOJ under the Trump administration than previously acknowledged, current Attorney General Merrick Garland, has taken a number of curious steps to defend the former administration in the past week despite Biden's campaign promise to "restore the soul of America."

On Friday, the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department in 2018 quietly subpoenaed Apple to obtain the records of two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee. The two lawmakers – Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the panel's current chairman – both confirmed that the probes have since been closed. 

"It is concerning that they continued to seek our records with no evidence that there was any wrongdoing other than that they were calling the president out for his corruption," Swalwell told the Post, adding: "It's a fragile time for our democracy." 

The request, which demanded the data of former House members as well as their family members, was part of a larger Trump crusade to get to the bottom who had leaked classified information to various media outlets throughout his term.  

Last week, it was found that the Trump DOJ subpoenaed a number of reporters from The New York Times – a move also made against journalists from both CNN and The Washington Post months prior. The Times probes specifically concerned the paper's coverage of Russia's influence in the 2016 election. 

Last Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki condemned the practice, alleging that the current president "is committed — strongly — to the rights of the freedom of press, as you have seen for decades, and to standing up for the rights of journalists."

However, The New York Times found that the forceful seizure of reporters' records continued under Biden's watch. In fact, the Biden administration reportedly pressured a number of Times executives with a gag order preventing them from revealing Trump's former subpoenas. Though the gag order was lifted on March 3, Psaki claimed that no one had known about its enforcement until last Friday. 

Reports of Trump's attacks on various media come amid deeper revelations surrounding Trump's effort to undermine the Biden presidency both before and after Biden was elected in 2020.

This week, CNN revealed leaked audio from 2019 of longtime Trump advisor Rudy Giuliani pressurizing two top Ukranian officials to publicly announce an investigation to President Biden and his son, Hunter. 

"All we need from the President [Zelensky] is to say, I'm gonna put an honest prosecutor in charge, he's gonna investigate and dig up the evidence, that presently exists and is there any other evidence about involvement of the 2016 election, and then the Biden thing has to be run out," Giuliani said in the tape. "Somebody in Ukraine's gotta take that seriously."

Trump would later call the president of Ukraine himself, Volodymyr Zelensky, to exert pressure on country to open an inquiry – the implication being that if a probe was not opened, the U.S. would suspend military aid to the Ukraine, undermining the country's military position in its proxy wars with Russia.  

Revelations also came this week about Trump's saga to overturn the 2020 election results following Biden's win. According to The Washington Post, back in late December, during the final weeks of Trump's term, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows penned a spate of emails to acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, pressurizing Rosen to investigate unsubstantiated claims of widespread election fraud. 

In his letters, Meadows asked Rosen to probe several baseless conspiracy theories about a "stolen" election in various states throughout the U.S. One theory involved the idea that Italian satellites had been weaponized to manipulate U.S. voting machine counts.

Rosen has repeatedly maintained that the Justice Department did not comply with any Trump officials' requests to look into the results of the 2020 election despite facing the threat of removal by Trump. 

During his campaign, Biden was steadfast about his desire to "move on" from the all-encompassing nature of Trump's corruption, emphasizing the need to "restore the soul of America." However, in recent weeks, it's fair to say that the Justice Department has assumed a series of legal postures that appear to flout the president's promise.

In late May, Garland committed the DOJ to blocking the full release of the "Barr memo" – an internal document that shows how former Attorney General William Barr managed to ensure Trump would not be charged by former special counsel Robert Mueller during Mueller's investigation into whether Trump allowed Russia to meddle in 2016 election. 

The memo, which specifically analyzes whether some presidential actions by Trump constituted obstructions of justice, was only partially publicized by the DOJ, which has been accused of mischaracterizing the document. 

"The Department of Justice had an opportunity to come clean, turn over the memo, and close the book on the politicization and dishonesty of the past four years," Noah Bookbinder, president of government watchdog CREW, told NPR. "Last night it chose not to do so. In choosing to fight Judge Jackson's decision, the DOJ is taking a position that is legally and factually wrong and that undercuts efforts to move past the abuses of the last administration. We will be fighting this in court."

Last week, the department again sparked ire from progressives when it asked a federal judge to shut down a civil rights lawsuit filed against Trump and Barr for violently sweeping Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters at the height of the George Floyd Protests back in June. 

Federal attorneys have argued that the intervention was necessary to ensure the safety of the former president, though ACLU attorneys have disputed the notion that Trump was in any real danger, instead claiming the protesters were targeted with undue force "because of their viewpoint, their message, their speech."

On Monday, the Department of Justice sent shockwaves through progressives for a third time when it announced that it would continue to defend Trump in a defamation suit filed in 2019 by one of Trump's rape allegers, former Elle columnist E. Jean Carroll. 

The department has argued that because the allegations date back to Trump's time in office, he should remain immune from the suit – a privilege afforded to public officials in the case of defamation suits. 

Justice Department attorneys explained: "Given the president's position in our constitutional structure, his role in communicating with the public is especially significant, the president's statements fall within the scope of his employment for multiple reasons."

Carroll's lawyers have rebutted that Trump, who accused Carroll of lying while in office, made remarks that were way out of his official purview. "There is not a single person in the United States — not the president and not anyone else — whose job description includes slandering women they sexually assaulted," her legal team contended.

Many on the left have found Garland's unexpectedly lenient – and perhaps protective – treatment of Trump deeply troubling. This week, Jeff Hauser, the founder and director of the Revolving Door Project, argued that Garland's actions demonstrate a dark side of "liberalism's belief in process itself." He wrote in The New Republic:

"When standard procedure is sacrosanct, all that the right needs to do is make it standard procedure to never hold them accountable. Notably, Garland consistently promised 'that politics would play no role in his decisions' during his confirmation hearing, after numerous prompts by Senate Republicans. That's intentional. The GOP was framing it as wrongfully partisan to reverse course from the most wrongful, partisan, and most importantly, anti-democratic President in history."

Many speculated that Garland's confirmation as attorney general, which boasted bipartisan support from Congress, would mark a clean break from the Trump administration.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., indicated that Garland's confirmation would begin the dawn of a new era. "After Donald Trump spent four years – four long years – subverting the powers of the justice department for his own political benefit, treating the attorney general like his own personal defense lawyer, America can breathe a sigh of relief that we're going to have someone like Merrick Garland leading the justice department," he declared. "Someone with integrity, independence, respect for the rule of law and credibility on both sides of the aisle."

As Trump's past improprieties within the DOJ continue to emerge, Garland's commitment to these virtues will no doubt be tested far more intensely than they already have been.

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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