On a day in August when President Trump promoted law enforcement efforts to tackle electoral misconduct as part of his false narrative of rampant electoral fraud, the Justice Department was already quietly working on the matter.
In a memo to prosecutors across the country that day, the department eased decades of policy to prevent law enforcement from affecting election results. Politicians had prohibited prosecutors from making headlines in the run-up to an election for election fraud.
The President’s remarks were one of many instances in which he has falsely claimed that widespread mail-in polls were fraudulent.
“This email was simply part of this ongoing process of providing routine guidance on election-related matters,” said Lloyd, a spokesman for the department’s crime department. “No political officer had a role in directing, preparing, or sending this email.”
However, former Justice Department officials from both parties have warned that the Department, under Attorney General William P. Barr, is slipping into a partisan mire it has long wanted to avoid, affecting public confidence in both the independent prosecution and the November election Has .
“I’ve never seen anything like it and served as federal prosecutor during Watergate,” said Stuart M. Gerson, acting attorney general during President Bill Clinton’s first term and former advisor to President George Bush. “The administration of justice should not be based on political prejudice.”
According to experts, any election fraud is extremely rare, if a little less common in mail-in voting, which is expected to be used more frequently this year as voters try to avoid in-person voting due to the coronavirus pandemic.
For decades, Justice Department policies prevented electoral fraud investigations in the weeks and months leading up to an election, fearing that it might suppress voter turnout or undermine confidence in the results, or the investigation itself might become a campaign topic.
The shift to release prosecutors to investigate election fraud began quietly on August 20 when a group of the most trusted US attorneys received a memo from Mr. Barr highlighting exceptions to the department’s policy of “non-interference” in elections, according to documents and Interviews with current and former Justice Department officials. ProPublica previously reported on the memo.
At the heart of Mr Trump’s arguments over election fraud are misleading claims that non-citizens vote illegally and that postmen are discarding ballots cast for him. The political exceptions mentioned in the memo concerned investigations into potential criminal offenses involving two types of person: “an illegal alien fraudulently registering to vote” and “a federal official tasked with facilitating the voting process, such as a Post man”.
On the same day, in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, the President telegraphed how the Justice Department was dealing with election fraud.
“We have people watching,” said Mr. Trump. “We have US attorneys watching. We have sheriffs watching. We have US marshals watching. “
The department went ahead late last week, saying that any suspected election fraud involving a federal official could still be investigated, effectively gutting politics for the remainder of the 2020 presidential cycle.
Current and former department officials said this exception is tempered somewhat by the fact that certain investigations are to be approved by professional attorneys in the Washington Public Integrity Department.
The division’s new guidelines seem to have already helped the President’s cause. He has spread several false or misleading narratives about election fraud.
In September, Mr Trump announced in an interview with Fox News that law enforcement was investigating whether ballots cast on his behalf had been thrown in the trash. “They were Trump voting papers,” he said.
At the time, his statements were unclear. But hours later a U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania issued a highly unusual statement that his office was investigating nine discarded ballots in Luzerne County, seven of which were cast for Mr. Trump, he said, an unusual revelation in itself. Prosecutors are not allowed to discuss current criminal investigations.
According to a department official, Mr. Barr had given Mr. Trump the details of the investigation before it became public.
The White House and Mr. Trump campaign have publicly highlighted the case as an example of an anti-Trump tendency in the elections. Local election officials have since attributed ballot dropping to human error, although an investigation continues.
On Wednesday, the US attorney in New Jersey announced the arrest of a postal worker accused of throwing dozen of ballot papers among nearly 1,900 pieces of discarded mail. The ballot papers were recovered and then mailed.
Mr Trump appeared to have a preview of further Justice Department investigations on Thursday. He told Fox Business Network that United States marshals and attorneys were “watching” officials in Nevada and New Mexico, adding, “We have people watching like no one has ever done before.” The Justice Department has not yet announced such investigations.
The president also reiterated his claims that law enforcement would play a direct role in monitoring election fraud.
“It’s going to be a disaster like we’ve never seen before,” he said. “We will never have seen an election take place. Thousands of ballots across the country are reported, some thrown in trash cans with my name on it. Some thrown in trays in a river. What’s going on is absolutely insane. “
Even if charges are never brought, the investigative disclosures would provide Mr. Trump and his allies with issues for discussion that could undermine the credibility of a Biden victory, with a particular focus on the postal service, which will be handling more mail – on ballot papers than ever before because of the pandemic.
“The Justice Department feeds the story that this election is somehow rigged,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union. “You are scapegoating postal workers – dedicated, hard-working officials out here on the front lines of this pandemic. The DOJ should be ashamed to get into this narrative. “