U.S. Attorney General William Barr came under fire overnight after issuing a memo to federal prosecutors that critics warn aims to bolster President Donald Trump's continued baseless claims that rampant voter fraud—which doesn't factually exist—cost him reelection.
"To do so when there is no such evidence—and when the president's clear strategy is to delegitimize the results of a proper election—is one of the more problematic acts of any attorney general in my lifetime."
—Stephen I. Vladeck, University of Texas School of Law
According to the Huffington Post:
Barr's memo, sent to U.S. attorneys across the country, authorizes an exception to Justice Department guidelines, telling top federal prosecutors they could "pursue substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities prior to the certification of elections in your jurisdictions in certain cases." Barr wrote that he'd already done so in specific instances.
"Such inquiries and reviews may be conducted if there are clear and apparently-credible allegations of irregularities that, if true, could potentially impact the outcome of a federal election in an individual State," Barr wrote. "Any investigation of claims of irregularities that, if true, would clearly not impact the outcome of a federal election in an individual State should normally be deferred until after the election certification process is completed."
The reversal of longstanding DOJ policy—especially under circumstances when no allegations of significant fraud have been substantiated and as Trump continues his refusal to concede or acknowledge the vote tabulations which show he lost the electoral college and popular vote tallies by significant margins—was seen by legal experts as a brazen effort by Barr to legitimatize the president's baseless and dangerous narrative about the integrity of the election.
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, tweeted:
Let's be clear - this is about disruption, disinformation, and sowing chaos. Trump is furious, demanding all "his" lawyers take action. They have no evidence so they'll push the PR. Doesn't change the result.
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) November 10, 2020
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was unsparing in her rebuke:
Attorney General Bill Barr is a corrupt Trump henchman who should have been impeached months ago. If he cared one shred about our democracy, he’d be focused on the peaceful transition of power instead of doing the bidding of a wannabe dictator.https://t.co/rV5GEBmnBL
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) November 10, 2020
In response to the memo (pdf), Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, denounced the directive as a partisan effort to give comfort to the president's baseless claims while doing serious damage to the reputation of the DOJ as a non-political arm of the government.
"We condemn Attorney General's Barr post-election attempt to weaponize the Justice Department to breathe life into President Trump's baseless and unsubstantiated claims of vote fraud," Clarke said in a statement late Monday night. "Barr's attempt to interject and activate federal prosecutors is clearly part of a coordinated attempt to sow chaos and discord, and undermine confidence in the electoral outcome."
"Americans," she continued, "will see this move for what it is—a naked political ploy and it will not succeed. This move is especially astounding given the Justice Department's deafening silence regarding countless documented instances of voter suppression and voting discrimination this season."
Speaking with the New York Times, Stephen I. Vladeck, a University of Texas School of Law professor, said the memo is deeply troubling. "It would be problematic enough if Barr were reversing longstanding Justice Department guidance because of significant, substantiated claims of misconduct—that could presumably be handled at the local and state level," Vladeck said. "But to do so when there is no such evidence—and when the president's clear strategy is to delegitimize the results of a proper election—is one of the more problematic acts of any attorney general in my lifetime."
Following Barr's issuance of the memo, the Times' DOJ correspondent Katie Benner reported that Richard Pilger, the DOJ official who heads the voter fraud division, resigned his position in objection to the orders it contained:
NEW: Richard Pilger, the official who oversees election crimes has stepped down over Barr's memo:
“Having familiarized myself with the new policy and its ramifications… I must regretfully resign from my role as Director of the Election Crimes Branch.”https://t.co/HS1rByXgSJ
— Katie Benner (@ktbenner) November 10, 2020
Pilger will remain in the DOJ, but stepped aside from his job as head of the Election Crimes Branch.
Here is Richard Pilger's email to his colleagues. pic.twitter.com/dXZqzMbG6f
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) November 10, 2020
According to the Washington Post, "people said Barr had first broached a similar idea some weeks ago and that political leadership in the Justice Department's Criminal Division, of which the Election Crimes Branch is a part, pushed back. Those officials were blindsided when Barr's memo was released on Monday, the people said."