WASHINGTON – Attorney General William P. Barr, who dealt with President Trump’s unfounded allegations of widespread electoral irregularities, told federal prosecutors on Monday that they could investigate allegations of electoral fraud before confirming the results of the presidential race.
Mr Barr’s approval prompted Justice Department officer overseeing the electoral fraud investigation, Richard Pilger, to resign from his post within hours. This emerges from an email Mr. Pilger sent to colleagues at the New York Times.
Mr Barr said he has cleared “certain cases” of investigative steps in some cases. But he made one thing clear carefully worded memo The public prosecutor was authorized to investigate only “material allegations” of irregularities and warned that “flimsy, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims should not be the basis for initiating federal investigations”.
Mr Barr’s policy ignored the Justice Department’s longstanding policy of preventing law enforcement from affecting the outcome of an election. And it followed a step weeks before the election in which the department lifted a ban on pre-election investigations into electoral fraud.
“Given that the voting in our current election is now complete, I authorize you to pursue material allegations of voting and voting irregularities prior to the confirmation of elections in your country,” wrote Barr.
A Justice Department official said Mr. Barr cleared investigation of allegations of ineligible voters in Nevada and retroactive postal ballot papers in Pennsylvania. Republicans have been making both claims in the past few days with no evidence to support them.
Mr Barr did not write the memo on instructions from Mr Trump, the White House, or any Republican lawmaker, the official said.
Mr Barr has privately told department officials in the days since the election that any disputes arising from the campaigns themselves should be settled in court, according to three people who were briefed on the talks. He has said that he did not see massive fraud and that most of the allegations of electoral fraud are related to individual cases that do not suggest a major systemic problem, people said.
However, critics of Mr. Barr immediately condemned the memo as a political act that undermined the Justice Department’s typical independence from the White House.
“It would be problematic enough if Barr reversed the Justice Department’s longstanding guidance on substantial, substantiated allegations of wrongdoing – which could presumably be dealt with at the local and state levels,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
“But doing so when there is no such evidence – and when the president’s clear strategy is to delegitimize the results of a due election – is one of the more problematic attorney general acts in my life,” added Vladeck.
Mr. Pilger, a prosecutor in the department’s public integrity division who oversaw investigations into voting fraud, told colleagues that he would play a non-prudential role in prosecuting corruption.
“Unfortunately, after familiarizing myself with the new policy and its implications, I have to resign from my role as director of the electoral crimes division,” he wrote. A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Mr. Pilger’s message.
Justice Department policies prohibit prosecutors from taking overt steps such as questioning witnesses or securing subpoenas for documents in order to initiate a criminal investigation into electoral matters until the voting results have been confirmed to prevent their existence in reaches the public and influences voters or local election officials who ensure the integrity of the results.
“Public knowledge of criminal investigations could affect the decision of electoral disputes and competitions in state courts,” said the Justice Department’s longstanding election guidelines for prosecutors. “Accordingly, it is the general policy of the department not to conduct open investigations.”
Other covert investigative steps, such as an undercover agent, are permitted but require permission from a professional prosecutor in the department’s crime department.
Mr Barr’s memo allows U.S. attorneys to bypass this prosecutor and forward their requests to his office for approval, effectively weakening an important safeguard that prevents political interference with an election of the party in power.
The memo is unlikely to change the election result, but it could undermine public confidence in the election results, Justice Department prosecutors warned, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. They said the department’s public stance also gave Republicans, including Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, an instrument to refuse to recognize Mr. Biden as President-elect.
Mr. McConnell and Mr. Barr met on Monday afternoon. Representatives from both bureaus declined to comment on their discussion.
Mr Trump faces an uphill battle in his attempt to change the election results. Mr Biden declared victory on Saturday after several media organizations declared him the winner on the basis of tabular election results.
While Mr. Trump’s campaign attorneys have raised about a dozen legal objections to the results in battlefield states, none appeared to gain approval in court. And none would give the president any advantage in the votes he would need to change the outcome of the race.
Justice Department investigators are examining a referral from the Republican Party in Nevada that claims over 3,000 people living outside the state voted in their election, the department official said. The officer would not say whether the department had opened a full investigation. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in court last week.
The department is also examining an affidavit from a postal worker in Erie, Pennsylvania alleging postal officials have worked out a plan to backdate postal ballots in the state, the official said.
The local postmaster has denied the allegations and said that the prosecutor has been disciplined several times in the past. This affidavit was sent to the division by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who is a close ally of the president.
In the days following the election, Mr. Barr was pressured by Mr. Trump and his aides to intervene to help the president. Conservative commentators criticized Mr Barr’s lack of action, saying he was looking the other way.
Mr Barr had remained silent about election fraud for the past few weeks after issuing unsubstantiated warnings of widespread fraud because of the large number of postal ballot papers that were cast in those elections. Election fraud is rare and no major cases have occurred in the elections.
At the same time, the department has made it easier for prosecutors to track electoral fraud cases and release details from the investigation that made headlines that helped Mr Trump, leading to harsh criticism from Democrats and civil rights lawyers.