WASHINGTON – The Department of Justice told federal prosecutors in an email on Wednesday that the law allows them to send armed federal agents to counting places across the country to investigate possible electoral fraud, according to three people who described the message.
The email created a specter of the federal government intimidating local election officials or otherwise interfering in the vote count amid calls by President Trump to end the compilation in the states he was in. is lagging behind in the presidential race, former officials have said.
A law prohibits the posting of armed federal agents to the polls on election day. But a senior official told prosecutors the ministry interpreted the statute to mean they could send armed federal agents to polling stations and places where ballots were counted at any time thereafter.
The law “does not prevent armed federal law enforcement agencies from responding to, investigating or preventing federal crimes at closed polling stations or other places where votes are counted,” the official said. , Richard P. Donoghue, to prosecutors in an email: he sent around 1:30 am Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr Donoghue, the No. 2 official in the Office of Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen, sent his email about half an hour before Mr Trump made reckless statements, including falsely declaring himself the winner election and calling on election officials to stop counting ballots.
“We want all votes to stop,” Mr. Trump said at the White House. He said, without giving details, that his campaign “would go to the Supreme Court of the United States” because of the election count. The Trump campaign said later in the day that it is suing several states, including Michigan, to interrupt or protest the vote count.
A state election official has vowed to resist any interference or intimidation efforts by federal officials.
“Elections are a matter of state, and we as state officials have authority over whoever attempts to enter places where the ballots are counted,” said Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts. “Everything else is a radical reinterpretation of the law. States can manage elections and we will make sure that the people decide the outcome. “
The election was both unusual and busy. A historic number of postal ballots, triggered by the pandemic, has slowed the work of local election officials who count them. And Mr Trump fueled fears over the integrity of the vote for months and amplified unfounded conspiracy theories that slow-counting states could not be trusted, escalating his baseless accusations as the tally stretched. on the last day of voting and his opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., gained an advantage in key states.
Attorney General William P. Barr also spent the months leading up to Election Day echoing the president’s grim warnings, claiming without evidence that the wave of ballots in the mail would lead to an unprecedented number of electoral fraud.
He cited an example of 1,700 forged ballots that the Washington Post deemed false. A department spokeswoman blamed an inaccurate memo from an assistant.
The new legal interpretation of armed officials in counting places appears to be another example of the attorney general reflecting Mr. Trump’s public posture, former Justice Department officials said.
“This appears to be a messaging tactic for the attorney general,” said Vanita Gupta, acting head of the department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama. “Legally, the Department of Justice cannot interfere with the counting of votes, enter polling stations or take ballots, even during an investigation.”
In cases where the ministry can gain access to ballots for any investigation, Ms. Gupta said federal law allowed law enforcement officials to “copy and inspect, but ballots votes remain in the hands of local election officials ”.
Justice Department officials said this week they expected lawyers for the Trump and Biden campaigns to take notice of election-related legal challenges, and that the Trump administration would have little or no role. .
Election experts said any effort by the Justice Ministry to blatantly interfere with the election would immediately lead to legal challenges. Still, armed officials arriving at counting sites, even for investigative purposes, could intimidate or disrupt the process, they warned.
“The very strong and long-standing standard is that the federal government does not seek to do anything to interfere with a state’s ability to count votes and certify elections,” said Kristy Parker, head of the Civil Rights Division of the department under the Obama administration.