WASHINGTON (CN) — Democrats sounded the alarm Tuesday after Attorney General William Barr tasked federal prosecutors with probing allegations of “vote tabulation irregularities,” acting on President Donald Trump’s unsupported claims of widespread election fraud.
“Attorney General Barr’s memo is both flawed and deeply disturbing. It is unlikely to open new legal avenues for the Trump campaign, but speaks to Barr’s dangerous and irresponsible impulse to pander to the President’s worst instincts,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said in a statement.
The directive from the attorney general, an outspoken ally of the president, goes against longstanding Justice Department policy, instructing politically appointed U.S. attorneys to look into voter fraud, a task typically handled by the agency’s Election Crimes Branch.
Hours later, Richard Pilger, head of the branch, stepped down in protest over Barr’s memo, writing in an email to his colleagues Monday evening that after reviewing “the new policy and its ramifications” he was regretfully resigning from his role as director.
An attorney for the Biden campaign, Bob Bauer, called Barr’s dictate “deeply unfortunate,” saying in a statement quoting the memo that it will “only fuel the ‘specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims’ he professes to guard against.”
The attorney general’s two-page memo stated that most probes into allegations of election misconduct are not weighty enough to tip the scales of the outcome, and so can wait for vote counts to be certified.
“That is not always the case,” Barr added. He wrote guidance issued by the Justice Department’s Election Crimes Branch was never “a hard and fast rule.”
Drawn up to ensure the integrity of the election, the past directive had instructed prosecutors to hold off taking action on voter fraud investigations until states certified election results, or, if they wished to proceed earlier, first consult the Election Crimes Branch and Public Integrity prosecutors.
“Such a passive and delayed enforcement approach can result in situations in which election misconduct cannot realistically be rectified,” Barr wrote, adding prosecutors should instead make “case-specific determinations and judgments.”
Democrats concerned with Trump’s lack of willingness to concede to President-elect Joe Biden, instead mounting legal battles across the country, argue a peaceful transition of power is at the core of America’s election system.
They argue Barr’s memo is just one more example of the attorney general acting as the president’s personal lawyer and undermining the integrity of the Justice Department, rather than serving as the top legal advocate for the American people.
Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip from Illinois, said Barr has turned the Justice Department into a political tool.
“What he did yesterday is unprecedented and unforgiving,” Durbin told reporters Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Republicans did not come out against the mandate to federal prosecutors. Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana said it was “perfectly appropriate.”
Senator Lindsey Graham seconded that the move by Barr was proper, and told reporters it showed the Justice Department was taking allegations of fraud seriously.
Asked about Democrats’ concerns over the agency not traditionally being involved in election disputes, the South Carolina Republican said the 2020 election was “fundamentally different” because of the unprecedented number of mail-in ballots.
“This is the wild, wild west out there when it comes to mail ballots. So I’m glad that he’s taken the allegations seriously,” Graham said. A steady backer of Trump, he added that, at the end of the day, the allegations may be nothing more than hearsay.
But Nadler warned that Barr humoring the president is as “short-sighted as it is cynical and destructive.”
“To be clear, Barr cannot change the outcome of the election — but in aiding President Trump in spreading lies about election officials, and in seeding doubts about the legitimacy of the election without a shred of evidence to back up their claims, Barr and the President’s other enablers threaten real harm to our country,” he said.
Republicans were cautious on Capitol Hill on Tuesday not to affirm the Trump campaign’s claims that Biden welcomed fraud and illegal votes.
Senators dodged questions as they headed into a caucus luncheon with Vice President Mike Pence, where they later said he briefly discussed the administration’s push to count all “legal votes.” Trump has filed legal challenges seeking to take back Biden’s victory in several states, including Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not address the Barr memo. But Monday, from the Senate floor, the Kentucky Republican professed equivocal support for the president’s post-election effort to hold onto power.
“Our institutions are built for this. We have the system in place to consider concerns. And President Trump is 100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options,” McConnell said.