WASHINGTON – Attorney General William P. Barr, addressing President Trump’s unfounded accusations of widespread electoral irregularities, told federal prosecutors on Monday that they were authorized to investigate “specific allegations” of electoral fraud before the results of the presidential race are not certified.
Mr Barr’s clearance prompted Justice Department official who oversees electoral fraud investigations, Richard Pilger, to resign from the post within hours, according to an email Mr Pilger sent to his colleagues and obtained. by the New York Times.
Mr Barr said he had authorized “specific cases” of investigative steps in certain cases. He clarified in a carefully crafted memo that prosecutors have the power to investigate, but he warned that “speculative, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched allegations should not be a basis for opening federal investigations.
Mr Barr’s directive ignored long-standing Justice Department policies to prevent law enforcement from affecting the outcome of an election. And it followed a movement weeks before the election in which the ministry lifted the ban on election fraud investigations before the elections.
“Since voting in our current elections is now over, I authorize you to pursue substantial allegations of voting and tabulation irregularities prior to certification of elections in your jurisdictions,” Barr wrote.
A Justice Department official said Mr Barr had authorized the review of allegations of ineligible voters in Nevada and backdated postal ballots in Pennsylvania. Republicans have circulated the two claims in recent days without any evidence emerging to back them up.
Mr Barr did not write the memo under the direction of Mr Trump, the White House or any Republican lawmaker, the official said.
Mr Barr privately told ministry officials in the days following the election that any dispute should be resolved in court by the campaigns themselves, according to three people briefed on the conversations. He said he had not seen massive fraud and that most of the election fraud allegations were linked to individual cases that did not signal a larger systemic problem, people said.
But Barr’s critics 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“It would be problematic enough if Barr rescinded the Department of Justice’s longstanding guidelines over substantial and substantiated allegations of misconduct – which could presumably be dealt with at the local and state level,” Stephen said. I. Vladeck, professor at the University of Texas School. of the law.
“But doing it when there is no such evidence – and when the president’s clear strategy is to delegitimize the results of a proper election – is one of the most problematic acts of any attorney general in my life.” , added Mr Vladeck.
Mr Pilger, a career prosecutor in the ministry’s Public Integrity Section who oversaw investigations related to fraudulent votes, told colleagues he would move to an unsupervising role working on corruption prosecutions.
“After familiarizing myself with the new policy and its ramifications,” he wrote, “I regret to resign from my role as director of the Electoral Crimes Directorate.” A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Mr Pilger’s post.
Department of Justice policies prohibit federal prosecutors from taking overt steps, such as questioning witnesses or obtaining subpoenas for documents, to initiate a criminal investigation into any election-related matter until the results of the trial. votes have been certified in order to prevent their existence from spreading into public view and to influence either voters or local election officials who ensure the integrity of the results.
“Public knowledge of a criminal investigation could have an impact on the adjudication of electoral disputes and contests in state courts,” say the Justice Department’s long-standing electoral guidelines for prosecutors. “Accordingly, the general policy of the ministry is not to conduct open investigations.”
More covert investigative steps, such as an undercover investigator, are permitted, but require permission from a career prosecutor in the department’s criminal division.
Mr Barr’s memo allows US lawyers to bypass this career prosecutor and submit their demands to his office for approval, effectively weakening a key guarantee that prevents political interference in an election by the ruling party .
The memo is unlikely to change the election outcome but could undermine public confidence in the results, Justice Department prosecutors have warned, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. They said the ministry’s public posture has also given Republicans, including Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, a tool to refuse to recognize Mr. Biden as president-elect.
Mr. McConnell and Mr. Barr met on Monday afternoon. Representatives from their two offices declined to comment on what they discussed.
Mr. Trump faces an uphill battle in his attempt to alter the election results. Mr Biden declared victory on Saturday after several news outlets declared him the winner on the basis of aggregated election results.
“It’s not just about showing evidence of fraud, but that the fault would actually affect the outcome in multiple states,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist. “You talk about changing hundreds of thousands of votes.”
While Mr. Trump’s campaign lawyers have filed a dozen legal challenges to the results in battlefield states, none appear to be gaining ground in the courts. And none were likely to give the president an edge in the votes he would need to change the outcome of the race.
Department of Justice investigators are reviewing a referral from the Nevada Republican Party, which claims more than 3,000 people living out of state voted in his election, the department official said. The official did not say whether the department had opened a full investigation. A federal judge dismissed the request in court last week.
The department is also reviewing a sworn affidavit written by a postal worker in Erie, Pa., Alleging that postal officials devised a plan to backdate postal ballots in the state, the official said.
The local postmaster denied the allegations and said the accuser had been punished several times in the past. This affidavit was sent to the department by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who is a close ally of the president.
In the days following the election, Barr was pressured by Mr. Trump and his aides to step in to help the president. Conservative commentators criticized Mr Barr’s lack of action, saying he was looking elsewhere.
Mr Barr had remained silent about voter fraud in recent weeks after issuing unfounded warnings of widespread fraud due to the large number of ballots in the mail in that election. Election fraud is rare, and no major cases of it emerged during the election.
At the same time, the ministry made it easier for prosecutors to prosecute electoral fraud cases and publicized details of the headline-grabbing investigations that aided Mr. Trump, drawing sharp criticism from officials. Democrats and civil rights activists.
Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.