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Q. & A.
The Trump Administration’s Extraordinary Leak Investigations
A Times reporter on the news that Democrats’ and reporters’ phone data were seized by the Justice Department.
By Isaac Chotiner
June 16, 2021
Following the announcement that the Trump Justice Department had sought the records of several reporters, media executives met with Attorney General Merrick Garland.Source photograph by Kevin Dietsch / Getty
Last week, the Times reported that, during Donald Trump’s Presidency, the Justice Department subpoenaed Apple for the data of House Intelligence Committee members, their staff, and their families. The subpoenas, which were issued to find information about leaks to the media about the Russia investigation, were highly unusual and raise large questions about separation of powers. The first cases were opened in 2017, when Jeff Sessions was Attorney General; they were then revived by William Barr when he took over the Justice Department, in 2019. Representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, two of those targeted, were informed of the cases by Apple last month, after the Justice Department’s gag order on the company was lifted earlier this year. The Times later reported that the same thing had happened to Don McGahn while he was Trump’s White House counsel, and a major source of information for the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators; the department also revealed this year that, during the Trump Administration, it had sought the records of reporters at several news organizations, including the Times.
I recently spoke to Katie Benner, who covers the Justice Department for the Times and who was the lead writer on the first of the paper’s stories. She was also a member of the team at the paper that was awarded a share of the Pulitzer Prize three years ago for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how the Justice Department might have gone about taking such an extraordinary step, the Biden Administration’s approach to press freedom, and why the new leadership of the Justice Department might not be interested in a close look at the possible misdeeds of its predecessors.
You say in the piece that it is extremely unusual for members of Congress to be looked at. Do you understand how the decision was made to take this step?
It might be good to look at how it would typically be made.If you are going to do something like investigate a member of Congress, there’d typically be a lot of discussion about the reason why, what evidence existed that would lead the department to take such an extraordinary measure. There’d be discussion of the Constitution’s speech-and-debate clause, which is something that has often made it difficult to investigate members of Congress. There’d be discussion of the political fallout. There would be discussion of whether or not this was absolutely necessary. There’d be a lot of debate, and it wouldn’t be done casually.
This was such an unusual time at the Justice Department. You had Attorney General Jeff Sessions in place. You had Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in place. You didn’t have a confirmed head of the national-security division. You didn’t have confirmed U.S. Attorneys in at that point in time, so there were some leadership gaps. At the same time, you had this tremendous public pressure coming from the White House to stanch the flow of leaks to the press. We know that there were investigations into at least one member of the House Intelligence Committee staff, and that there was debate over that and there was conversation about whether or not it would be appropriate to move forward with that investigation. But we’ve now seen people close to Rod Rosenstein say that he does not recall any conversations, and people close to Jeff Sessions say they don’t recall any of the sort of discussions that I just described, that would normally have to happen before a member of Congress saw their records seized by the Justice Department.
After Sessions leaves and William Barr becomes the Attorney General, you write in the piece, “Mr. Barr’s overall view of leaks led some people in the department to eventually see the inquiries as politically motivated.” Can you talk about what you mean by his view of leaks and why that would lead people to see the inquiries as politically motivated?
There were people inside the Justice Department who throughout the investigation felt that there wasn’t strong enough evidence to tie the leaks to people like Jim Comey or any of the other people who they were looking into who would be considered high-profile, like, for example, members of the House Intelligence Committee. And they felt that the investigations should be closed out because they were digging and digging and not finding evidence to suggest that continuing was going to prove fruitful. When Barr came in, he disagreed, and he felt that the investigation should be reinvigorated. He brought in an outside prosecutor from New Jersey to oversee that effort, which was something that we saw him do with other really sensitive investigations—for example, Michael Flynn’s case. He had a U.S. Attorney in St. Louis come in to take a second look at that because he did not feel that it had been properly executed.
So it was moves like that that made people wonder whether there was political motivation in what Barr was doing, coupled with the fact that there had been moments in public that led people inside the department, rank-and-file folks, career folks, to wonder whether Barr acted politically. I think the two big ones were the way that he presented the results of the Mueller report, and then the sentencing of Roger Stone, who was a close ally of the former President. So, when he wanted to reinvigorate these leak investigations, that was another red flag.
There are two ways I could see political decision-making occurring. One is making decisions based on your own political preferences. The other is trying to please your boss—in this case, President Trump—and your story also suggests that that was part of what’s going on. You write, of the decision not to charge Comey, “Mr. Barr was wary of how Mr. Trump would react, according to a person familiar with the situation. Indeed, Mr. Trump berated the attorney general, who defended the department, telling the president that there was no case against Mr. Comey to be made.” Were both going on here?
That was probably one of the most interesting things about William Barr and his tenure at the department. He personally agreed with many, many of the things that the President did. He did not think that it was wrong for the President to fire the F.B.I. director. He felt that’s within his purview as the President of the United States. He saw eye to eye with him on a lot of the Justice Department’s big responsibilities. At the same time, you had a President who was constantly attacking the Justice Department and saying what he wanted out of the Justice Department in full view on Twitter. So, when people would say, “Do you think that the President called William Barr and secretly pressured him to do X, Y, or Z?” I always thought that was a curious question. I wasn’t sure why a phone call would’ve been necessary.
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So you had both an Attorney General who was a member of the Trump Administration because he believed in the Administration’s core policies and how it saw the world, especially around law enforcement, and somebody who is smart enough to know that, when your boss goes on Twitter and says that he wants his Justice Department to protect him, that that is indeed probably what he wants. And so, when we look at Barr’s motivation, I’m not a mind reader, I can’t get into his head, but you can imagine that both of those things were probably a factor in everything that he did, even if he says and he truly believes that he was working in accordance with his interpretation of the facts involved.
How much does Barr’s denial of remembering being briefed on lawmakers having their metadata examined contradict your story?
It isn’t a contradiction because, remember, when the first subpoena for records went out, it was in 2017, and Barr didn’t become the Attorney General until 2019. I don’t know how he could have remembered that act. He wasn’t there.
Can you explain how a gag order works?
Generally speaking, when the Justice Department issues subpoenas to companies, the companies’ policy is to tell customers that their data has been taken. Now, the Justice Department can ask a company to not disclose that to the customer for a year. And then the different companies have worked out agreements with the Justice Department about how many times that order can be renewed. In the case of Apple, that do-not-disclose order was renewed two times. Each time it lasts for about a year. The first one came in 2018. It was renewed in 2019, it was renewed in 2020, and then it expired in 2021. And the company, when the department did not move to renew it again, informed its customers.
What can you tell us about the ways the Biden Administration is or isn’t going to be handling leaks differently than previous Administrations of both parties?
Biden has come out and said that he strongly supports press freedom, that he doesn’t want the records of reporters to be taken in leak investigations. Of course, the caveat being unless the reporter has committed a crime. That’s a little bit different. And the Justice Department has said that it agrees with the President and that’s going to be its new policy going forward. Curiously, however, the Justice Department has not answered key questions asked by the media and by members of Congress. It hasn’t answered whether records of Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee were taken as part of this investigation or whether it was Democrats only. The Justice Department has not said whether it was Attorney General Barr or acting Attorney General Rosen who signed off on the request for records from Google belonging to New York Times reporters. Google pushed back on that request, not necessarily for noble reasons but because they’re a subcontractor of the New York Times. Essentially, they run our e-mail and it’s part of their stated agreement they would tell us, so they had to push back based on the contract.
The [new Administration hasn’t] explained when its top Justice Department officials knew that the records of members of Congress had been seized. Again that’s such an extraordinary step. You would think it’s the kind of thing that you’d flag for the incoming boss, knowing that, if it suddenly became public, it would create something of a furor, which it certainly has. These are really big questions, and now the Justice Department, instead of answering them, is saying, “Well, the Inspector General is now investigating the matter, and, due to that investigation, we can’t talk about it at all.” So a little bit of stonewalling.
Do you have a sense from people you talk to at the Justice Department that looking into potential misdeeds of the previous Administration is high on the priority list for reasons of good government or justice? Or do they seem to think that it’s important to move on and not get too hung up on what happened in the past?
My broad sense is that this isn’t a Justice Department that’s really keen on attacking the previous Administration. I don’t think that that’s how they would even describe this inquiry into what happened with the media and with Congress. I think they would describe it as an investigation to determine what happened rather than an investigation to determine how misdeeds were committed. They’re extremely cautious about protecting the over-all reputation of the Justice Department and preserving this idea that the department works for the greater good of democracy, that it helps uphold democracy, that it is a standard-bearer of law enforcement. Yeah. [Laughs] That’s how they see it.
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Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.
More:
Donald Trump
U.S. Department of Justice
William Barr
Jeff Sessions
Investigations
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