Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions is telling associates he had no idea his Justice Department seized phone records of two top Democratic congressional critics of then-President Donald Trump.
In the hours since The New York Times broke the news on Thursday that prosecutors subpoenaed Apple metadata from Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Eric Swalwell (D-CA), former Attorney General Sessions has privately told people that he wasn’t aware of, nor was he briefed on, the reported data seizures while he led the Trump DOJ. This week’s revelations were a surprise to him, according to a source familiar with the matter, and another person close to Sessions.
“[What’s been reported] is explicitly the kind of thing that Donald Trump would often say he wanted out of his Justice Department,” said the individual familiar with the matter. “But right now, it’s unclear how many top officials [at the time] even knew about this.”
Sessions did not immediately respond to a phone call or messages seeking comment on Friday afternoon.
Under Sessions, the Justice Department launched dozens of probes into leaks of classified information. Leak investigations skyrocketed 800 percent over the Obama administration—a statistic he proudly touted in congressional testimony. One of those investigations concerned the disclosure of key details of the probe into Russian election meddling. The targeting of members of Congress’ communications—as well as the seizure of records from reporters at The New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN—are all believed to be part of that Russia-related leak hunt.
Ordinarily, the attorney general would’ve been aware of such politically sensitive subpoenas. But Sessions’ tenure was anything but ordinary. And he famously recused himself from the broader Russia probe following revelations that, as an Alabama senator, he privately met with the Russian ambassador, despite public testimony to the contrary.
“In a normally-functioning department, that is not a call that would be made without the attorney general’s approval,” Matthew Miller, a former top spokesperson for the Justice Department under the Obama administration, told The Daily Beast.
“This is explicitly the kind of thing that Trump would often say he wanted out of his Justice Department… But right now, it’s unclear how many top officials [at the time] even knew about this.”
— individual familiar with the matter
“The question to me would be whether he [Sessions] was recused or not. We know he was recused from the Russia investigation, and so if he decided that recusal extended to related leak investigations, then it would make sense that he wouldn’t know. Recusals are bright lines,” he added.
According to The New York Times, prosecutors reportedly considered Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell as potential sources of the leaks, given their access to classified information as members of the House intelligence committee. So the prosecutors issued a subpoena to Apple for metadata about the congressmen’s communications, according to the Times. But it’s unclear why prosecutors focused on them rather than others who may have had access to the same information. The Times reported that prosecutors cast a wide net while investigating Schiff and Swalwell, and went so far as to subpoena Apple for phone records from their staff and children.
While prosecutors obtained Schiff and Swalwell’s phone records before Attorney General Barr took office in 2019, the Times reported that the investigation continued in his tenure and saw FBI agents interview a former House intelligence committee staffer. Later that year, when then-Senator Kamala Harris asked Barr if the Trump White House had suggested he open an investigation into anyone, he claimed not to know.
On Friday, former Trump attorney general William Barr told Politico that both he and Trump were “not aware” that the Justice Department had investigated sitting members of Congress, staff, and family members.
Congressional Democrats have called for both Barr and Sessions to testify about the investigation and the Justice Department’s Inspector General announced an inquiry into the subject on Friday.