For Americans fearful that Trump may transition from complaining of a “stolen” election to actively trying to steal the election, six days of inaction from Attorney General William Barr signaled that the president might not deputize the Department of Justice to pursue another four years in the White House. That grace period ended on Monday night, when the Associated Press reported that Barr has authorized federal prosecutors to examine “substantial allegations” of voting “irregularities” before the election is certified in early December.
While some consider Barr’s action to have been primarily to assuage the president, it was enough to cause the Justice Department official who oversees investigations of voter fraud to step down hours after the memo was distributed. Below is everything we know about the emerging situation at the Department of Justice and how it might affect Republican efforts to question the election’s results.
What does Barr’s order say?
The attorney general’s memo authorized U.S. Attorneys to investigate state-level election results if “there are clear and apparently-credible allegations of irregularities that, if true, could potentially impact the outcome of a federal election in an individual State.” These inquiries into “specific allegations” of voter fraud before the results are certified on December 14 flout the DOJ’s standing policies designed to keep the department from influencing the outcome of an election.
In the weeks leading up to November 3, Barr also authorized federal prosecutors to look into allegations of voter fraud in a memo that contradicted the department’s guidelines not to intervene so close to an election. “Starting a public criminal investigation of alleged election fraud before the election to which the allegations pertain has been concluded runs the obvious risk of chilling legitimate voting and campaign activities,” reads the DOJ’s federal prosecution of election offenses handbook written by Richard Pilger, the official who oversees investigations of election fraud. In the same handbook, Pilger advises the department not to engage in any inquiries “involving alleged fraud in the manner in which votes were cast or counted until the election … has been concluded, its results certified, and all recounts and election contests concluded.”
Who was the official that stepped down in the wake of the order?
According to the New York Times, hours after the memo was distributed, Richard Pilger, the official who wrote the handbook on investigating voter fraud, stepped down:
Mr. Pilger, a career prosecutor in the department’s Public Integrity Section who oversaw voting-fraud-related investigations, told colleagues he would move to a nonsupervisory role working on corruption prosecutions.
“Having familiarized myself with the new policy and its ramifications,” he wrote, “I must regretfully resign from my role as director of the Election Crimes Branch.”
“It would be problematic enough if Barr were reversing longstanding Justice Department guidance because of significant, substantiated claims of misconduct — that could presumably be handled at the local and state level,” Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, told the Times. “But to do so 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 more problematic acts of any attorney general in my lifetime.”
Will the order genuinely affect Republican attempts to contest the election?
It’s unclear how the memo will amplify Trump’s claims that he was undone by “illegal votes,” though some have suggested Barr’s guidance was designed more to assuage the president than concretely aid his pursuit to overturn last Tuesday’s results. “This is much more giving Trump a headline he can wave around (still dangerous!) than telling the U.S. Attorneys to get out there and start overturning some state counts,” tweeted MSNBC host Chris Hayes. Reuters political correspondent James Oliphant concurred:
Is there any evidence of serious voting ‘irregularities’?
No. As Republicans file lawsuits to contest the election in states that tipped the Electoral College in favor of Joe Biden, judges are throwing out the suits due to a lack of evidence. Lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada have either been dropped or dismissed because Trump allies and lawyers for his campaign have not provided evidence of their claims.