June 20, 2019

Whitehouse, Jeffries, Blumenthal, Harris Introduce Bill to Protect Justice Department from White House Meddling

Security from Political Interference in Justice Act would increase transparency to protect DOJ law enforcement decisions from political interference

Washington, DC – Today, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) introduced the Security from Political Interference in Justice Act, to increase transparency in the relationship between the U.S. Department of Justice and the White House and prevent political interference in law enforcement decisions.  The bill would impose important reporting requirements for contacts between the Justice Department and White House pertaining to specific cases or investigations.

“Politics has no place in the Department of Justice’s enforcement of the law,” said Whitehouse, a former U.S. Attorney.  “Never before have we seen a president so heedless of the Department’s traditions and spirit, and so singularly focused on his own political and personal self-interest at the expense of justice.  This bill would protect the Department against the likes of Donald Trump by shining a much-needed light on the channels that have enabled political influence to flow into the Department.”

“Justice Brandeis famously observed that sunlight is the best disinfectant.  His words have been proven true time and time again,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08). “This bill would increase transparency surrounding communication between the White House and Department of Justice.  It is a critical piece of our commitment to fulfill our constitutional duty as a check and balance on the executive branch.  Senators Whitehouse, Blumenthal and Harris should be commended for their leadership in this essential effort.”

“When I argued cases as a Department of Justice lawyer, I introduced myself in court by saying ‘Richard Blumenthal, for the United States’ because that’s who I represented – our country, its institutions, and the American people, not partisan political interests,” said Blumenthal, also a former U.S. Attorney.  “The independence of the Justice Department is sacrosanct and absolutely fundamental to our system of laws.  Unfortunately, the Trump Administration seems determined to turn Justice Department lawyers into its political henchmen.  Our bill would institute basic safeguards against the White House’s political interference in the Department of Justice and bring some much-needed transparency to a relationship the Trump Administration seems intent on corrupting.”

“The administration of justice should be blind, not driven by politics.  But the President’s attempts to derail the Mueller investigation, paired with Attorney General Barr’s refusal to give clear answers to Congress, have raised serious concerns about DOJ’s independence,” said Harris. “The honor system isn’t enough anymore – we need a law.  I’m proud to work with Senators Whitehouse and Blumenthal to create transparency and give Congress important oversight tools to help restore the American people’s trust in the Department of Justice.”

The Justice Department has historically enjoyed a measure of independence from political interference in order to ensure even-handed administration of the laws.  While presidents and White House officials may properly engage with the Department on broad policy questions, it threatens the equal and just administration of law when the White House seeks to influence Department decision-making on individual law enforcement matters.  When this important norm has been violated, presidents have received heavy criticism. 

Although both the Department and the White House have long maintained policies that define and prohibit such inappropriate contacts, these policies lack the force of law and can be violated without remedy.  As a result, presidential administrations have continued to violate this norm. Under President Trump, the principle of Department independence has further deteriorated, demonstrating clearly that the current contacts policies are not effective.  Indeed, public reporting has revealed numerous contacts between White House and Department officials that, on their face, violate the contacts policies.

The Security from Political Interference in Justice Act would help to ensure the Justice Department’s independence by increasing transparency and accountability in the relationship between the White House and the Department.  The bill would require that:

  • Both the White House and Justice Department log all communications between White House and Justice officials and staff pertaining to specific cases or investigations that DOJ might undertake.  The log would include (1) the names of participants in the communication, (2) the topics of the communications, and (3) a statement describing the purpose and necessity of the communication.
  • The logs be disclosed every six months to Congress and to the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility of the Department.  It directs Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility to review the logs and to notify Congress if any of the logged communications are inappropriate from a law enforcement perspective or raise concerns about improper political interference.  The bill exempts certain top-level contacts from disclosure to Congress, but requires those contacts to be logged, shared with the Inspector General’s office and the Office of Professional Responsibility, and disclosed in response to a Congressional subpoena.  Both the logging and disclosure requirements would remain in place irrespective of the White House and/or Department’s internal contacts policies.

A complete summary of the bill is available here.  Bill text is available here.

Also on Thursday, a bipartisan group of advocates called on members of the House and Senate to cosponsor the bill.  The groups include the Brennan Center, Common Cause, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Niskanen Center, the Project on Government Oversight, Protect Democracy, Public Citizen, Republicans for the Rule of Law, Stand Up Republic, and Tech Freedom. 

Copies of their letter to members of Congress can be found here (Senate) and here (House).



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