DOJ escalates Jan. 6 probe, targets Trump allies ahead of midterms
"I am happy to see that more holistic strategy apparently at work," said Andrew Weissmann, a key member of the special counsel team that investigated since-debunked allegations of Trump-Russia collusion.
The Justice Department's accelerating Jan. 6 investigation has expanded far beyond its original focus on the Capitol breach to target those who questioned the 2020 presidential election, focusing on former President Donald Trump and his associates — just two months before Election Day as President Biden spearheads a political offensive vilifying opposition party leaders and voters alike as threats to democracy.
Over the past week, the department has subpoenaed several Trump associates as part of an ongoing probe that critics describe as an intimidation campaign meant to instill fear in Trump supporters.
According to the New York Times, about 40 subpoenas have been issued seeking information about the 2020 election and Capitol riot. Among those subpoenaed were top Trump advisers Boris Epshteyn and Mike Roman, who reportedly had their phones seized as evidence.
Many other Trump aides and confidantes close to the 45th president both in and out of the White House were also subpoenaed, including Dan Scavino, his former social media director.
Others to be served by federal prosecutors reportedly included the Trump 2020 campaign's chief financial officer Sean Dollman and first daughter Ivanka Trump's chief of staff Julie Radford, among several others.
Many of the subpoenas seek information about plans to block or delay Congress's certification of Biden's victory in the 2020 election by submitting slates of electors pledged to Trump from swing states that Biden won.
Other subpoenas relate to a new interest of the government's investigation: Trump's fundraising efforts between the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 Capitol breach.
Specifically, the government is looking into the Trump-aligned Save America PAC, which was formed soon after Election Day in 2020 and received a wave of donations while pushing Trump's claims that the vote was stolen.
Since its inception, the PAC has brought in more than $135 million, including transfers from affiliated committees, and spent just $36 million, leaving it with about $99 million in cash on hand at the end of July, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
The subpoenas came days after Biden attacked Trump and supporters of the Make America Great Again movement aligned with him as threats to the country in a polarizing speech delivered in Philadelphia. The timing is not a coincidence, according to Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich.
"It should surprise no one that days after Biden declared Trump supporters a 'threat' to democracy, his admin goes after those very same supporters & Save America PAC, which is committed to Make America Great Again," Budowich tweeted last week. "Biden is using government to divide & destroy this nation."
Critics and legal experts have decried the latest escalation in the government's probe as a political witch hunt casting too wide a net.
"The Department of Justice is conducting an unprecedented investigation into the political activities of one of the two major parties," said Michael Columbo, a lawyer representing some of the individuals being investigated by the department. "It is zealously including in its expansive dragnet people that range from top government officials, campaign staff, party officials, and attorneys to ordinary citizens. Moreover, it is scrutinizing a range of actions that run from objective acts of violence or vandalism to an individual's subjective political beliefs at the time they engaged in political speech."
Columbo, a partner at the Dhillon Law Group, added that by probing actions protected by the Constitution such as freedom of speech and assembly, the Justice Department will overreach.
"An investigation of this breadth and intensity into activity at the core of constitutional protections will almost inevitably produce excesses and outrages," he said. "The risk is all the more acute because the DOJ's culture and practices reflect a mission typically targeting violent criminal enterprises, terrorists, and fraudsters — and partisan members of Congress desperate to influence votes in the impending election have been goading it to be more aggressive."
Just the News has previously reported on growing outcry among legal experts and civil libertarians over what they described as the Justice Department's strong-arm tactics targeting Trump allies and critics of the Biden administration. Many of the incidents under scrutiny were related to the Jan. 6 probe.
"Law enforcement seems to be using arrest tactics on Trump supporters that are generally reserved for violent and/or fleeing suspects," renowned civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz said at the time. "They do not seem justified in many of these cases."
Dershowitz recently told Just the News that Trump critics both in and out of government are "stretching the law" in order to "get" the former president and see him criminally charged as part of the Jan. 6 investigation.
The Justice Department didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.
The latest wave of subpoenas appears to represent a strategic shift for the Justice Department, which for months had focused on investigating, arresting, and charging protesters who were on the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6.
The Justice Department has arrested nearly 900 people for charges related to Jan. 6, imprisoning most without a trial. Several have said the FBI, Justice Department, and federal prison officials under the Biden administration violated their civil and constitutional rights. The vast majority weren't accused of carrying a weapon, assaulting law enforcement, or destroying property. Many didn't even enter the Capitol building.
Amid these arrests, some observers argued the Justice Department had the wrong approach — most notably Andrew Weissmann, a former top Justice Department official and senior prosecutor in the Trump-Russia investigation.
Weissmann criticized the Justice Department for adopting a "bottom-up" criminal investigation by focusing primarily on Jan. 6 protesters rather than Trump and his top allies.
"A myopic focus on the Jan. 6 riot," wrote Weissmann, "is not the way to proceed if you are trying to follow the facts where they lead and to hold people 'at any level' criminally accountable, as Attorney General Merrick Garland promised."
Weissmann argued the Democrat-led House committee investigating Jan. 6 has presented evidence at a series of recent hearings that should "transform" the Justice Department's probe.
"The evidence gathered in the hearings describes a multiprong conspiracy — what prosecutors term a hub and spoke conspiracy — in which the Ellipse speech by President Trump and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol were just one 'spoke' of a grander scheme" to cause an insurrection by overturning the results of the 2020 election, said Weissmann.
The country will "be a banana republic if we ignore an illegal coup by a former president," Weissmann added on Twitter.
Just the News asked Weissmann whether he thinks he pushed the Justice Department to shift the focus of its investigation.
"I really could not say if I or others had an effect on DOJ or caused folks there to rethink the strategy," he told Just the News. "Whatever the cause, I am happy to see that more holistic strategy apparently at work."
Whatever the direction of the probe, the 2020 election and Capitol riot aren't going away ahead of the midterm elections, as House Democrats' Jan. 6 committee gears up to resume its public hearings as Congress returns from its August recess.
Over the roughly six-week recess, committee members reportedly interviewed witnesses and tried to get cooperation from others, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and former Vice President Mike Pence.