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DOJ internal watchdog to investigate Trump-era leak hunt that targeted lawmakers, journalists

House Intel Chairman Schiff, whose files were among those subpoenaed, has been unable to get Biden administration officials to provide details, a source said.

WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice's internal watchdog will investigate the Trump-era seizure of communication records from some Democratic lawmakers and journalists, the agency announced Friday.

It joins a burgeoning effort in Congress to unearth more details about what happened in 2017 when the DOJ under President Donald Trump asked Apple to turn over communication metadata for at least two Democratic House members, their staff and family members. The investigation became public on Thursday in a report by The New York Times.

Separately on Friday, Democrats Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin threatened to subpoena former attorneys general William Barr and Jeff Sessions to testify before Congress about the investigations.

Democrats on the House Intelligence have grown frustrated since learning last month that their data was targeted and have been unable to get more information from the Department of Justice, according to a House official.

Apple spokesman Fred Sainz said in a statement on Friday that the company regularly challenges warrants, subpoenas, and nondisclosure orders and usually notifies affected customers. But, the company said, in this case, the subpoena was issued in 2018 by a federal grand jury and included a nondisclosure order signed by a federal magistrate judge for information related to 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses.

"[It] provided no information on the nature of the investigation and it would have been virtually impossible for Apple to understand the intent of the desired information without digging through users’ accounts," Sainz said. "Consistent with the request, Apple limited the information it provided to account subscriber information and did not provide any content such as emails or pictures."

Microsoft also issued a statement, saying it received a subpoena in 2017 "related to a personal email account" but was prevented from notifying the unnamed user for "more than two years because of a gag order."

"As we’ve said before, we believe customers have a constitutional right to know when the government requests their email or documents, and we have a right to tell them," a company spokesperson said in a statement. "As soon as the gag order expired, we notified the customer who told us they were a congressional staffer. We then provided a briefing to the representative’s staff following that notice. We will continue to aggressively seek reform that imposes reasonable limits on government secrecy in cases like this.”

A House Intelligence Committee official said Friday that the panel's Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, who was among those targeted, has been unable to obtain information about the subpoena from Biden administration officials. For instance, the committee specifically asked what metadata was included in the subpoenas and the Justice Department has not provided answers, the official said.

“We have repeatedly posed basic and readily answerable questions to the Department for more than a month, but have received virtually no information beyond a confirmation that the investigation is closed,” the aide said in a statement. “The Department's refusal to provide information is unacceptable, and they will need to provide a full accounting of this and other instances in which law enforcement was weaponized against Donald Trump's political opponents.”

The official added that the only notification of the subpoenas came via email from Apple — an email that some who saw it believed might be spam, until they checked further.

Schiff welcomed the announcement from the DOJ watchdog in a statement on Friday, calling it "an important first step."

“As crucial as it will be, the IG’s investigation will not obviate the need for other forms of oversight and accountability — including public oversight by Congress — and the Department must cooperate in that effort as well," he said. "In the meantime, the Attorney General needs to do a full damage assessment of the conduct of the department over the last four years and outline all of the accountability and mitigation necessary to protect the public going forward.”

The New York Times reported Thursday that under former President Donald Trump, the Justice Department subpoenaed metadata in February 2018 from Apple related to accounts belonging to at least two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee. Their aides and family members, including a minor, were targeted as well. A source confirmed to NBC News that the lawmakers and staff had been notified by Apple.

The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post previously disclosed they were notified recently by the DOJ that records of reporters at their outlets were obtained.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a frequent and vocal critic of Trump, was also targeted.

At the time the records were sought, the House Intelligence Committee was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. The newspaper reported that the records were sought as part of an investigation into leaks of classified information.

Mary McCord, a Georgetown law professor who was the acting head of the DOJ's National Security Division until May 2017, said Sessions aws "very interested in pursuing leak investigations" early in the Trump administration.

"Under department practice, any investigation into an elected official would have been considered a sensitive matter that would have required high-level approval," she said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, appeared to dismiss arguments made by Democrats about the partisan nature of the Trump-era probe, calling it's "nothing new."

"We also know that classified information in Congress’ possession can leak to the press," he said, citing the Russian investigation.

He added that both "classified leaks and abuses of power are serious offenses that must be met with strict consequences."

House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., also welcomed the investigation in a statement but warned that his committee would provide additional oversight of the DOJ if the inspector general fails to provide top-to-bottom review of the matter.

"My concern at this hour is that the corruption may run deeper than has already been reported," Nadler said. "We expect the Department to provide a full accounting of these cases, and we expect the Attorney General to hold the relevant personnel accountable for their conduct. If the Department does not make substantial progress towards these two goals, then we on the Judiciary Committee will have no choice but to step in and do the work ourselves."

Schumer and Durbin said in a statement that Congress and the Justice Department’s inspector general must investigate these actions by the Trump administration.

Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin approach the podium to speak to members of the media after a Senate Democratic Policy Luncheon on Jan. 17, 2018 at the Capitol.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

“Former Attorneys General Barr and Sessions and other officials who were involved must testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee under oath. If they refuse, they are subject to being subpoenaed and compelled to testify under oath,” their statement said.

Schumer and Durbin said that the Justice Department must also provide information to the Judiciary Committee about what they called an “gross abuse of power” and “an assault on the separation of powers.”