Washington — Attorney General Merrick Garland pledged Monday he would "move swiftly" to take action in response to an investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general into an effort by the department during the Trump administration to obtain communications data from members of Congress and congressional staff.
In a statement, Garland said there are "important questions that must be resolved in connection" with the move by the Justice Department as it sought to determine the source of leaks of classified information about aides to then-President Donald Trump and their contacts with Russia.
"I have accordingly directed that the matter be referred to the Inspector General and have full confidence that he will conduct a thorough and independent investigation," Garland said. "If at any time as the investigation proceeds action related to the matter in question is warranted, I will not hesitate to move swiftly."
Garland said that while the review from the Justice Department's internal watchdog is pending, he has instructed Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco to "evaluate and strengthen the department's existing policies and procedures for obtaining records of the legislative branch."
"Consistent with our commitment to the rule of law, we must ensure that full weight is accorded to separation-of-powers concerns moving forward," the attorney general said.
Sources confirmed to CBS News last week that federal prosecutors under the Trump administrationin 2017 and 2018 for data from the accounts of two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, current Chairman Adam Schiff and Congressman Eric Swalwell, both of California, as part of a probe into leaks of classified information. Records of at least a dozen people connected to the House Intelligence panel were also seized, including data from committee aides and family members, including a minor.
Both Swalwell and Schiff were among the most vocal critics of Mr. Trump during his presidency.
In a statement Monday, Schiff called for "a thorough accounting to answer the many questions about how and why the Department of Justice subpoenaed records related to Members of Congress, their staff, and journalists."
"I've now spoken with the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General about this matter, and I am pleased they recognize the importance of the issues at stake and have given their commitment to an independent IG investigation," he said. "I have every confidence they will also do the kind of top-to-bottom review of the degree to which the department was politicized during the previous administration and take corrective steps."
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee demanded Garland demanded documents related to the subpoenas, writing in a letter to the attorney general on Monday that the committee will "vigorously investigate this apparent effort to weaponize DOJ against Trump's perceived political enemies." The group of senators, led by Chairman Richard Durbin, posed a series of questions about the episode and requested an "immediate briefing" on the matter.
Microsoft was also subpoenaed in 2017 for data from a congressional staffer, the company said. The New York Times first reported the subpoenas.
News of the requests for lawmakers' information caused an uproar on Capitol Hill, as Democrats accused the Trump administration of abusing its power and targeting Mr. Trump's political opponents. Senate Democratic leaders on Friday demanded Jeff Sessions and William Barr, who were attorneys general under the former president, testify before Congress about the efforts to secretly obtain the data from lawmakers' and others.
On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also called on John Demers, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's National Security division, to testify about the seizure of lawmakers' data. But a department spokesman confirmed to CBS News on Monday that Demers will be leaving the department on June 25.
Demers, who joined the Justice Department in February 2018, is the longest-serving political holdover from the prior administration. He did not assume his role until after the subpoenas at issue were executed and gag orders on the tech companies imposed.
The Justice Department has also come under recent criticism after it notified the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN that it had secretly obtained reporters' phone and email records during the early months of the Trump administration as part of leak investigations. The Justice Department said last week it willreporters' records during such probes.
Garland met Monday with top media executives from the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN, to discuss the need for new rules in implementing the policy change. During their discussion the Justice Department emphasized that reporters were never the subject or the target of the recent investigations. Garland and the media executives agreed on the need for strong, durable rules.
The Justice Department said Garland had "a productive conversation" with the executives, among them, executive director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Bruce Brown; AG Sulzberger, chairman and publisher of The New York Times; Fred Ryan, publisher and CEO of The Washington Post; The Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee; CNN senior vice president and Washington bureau chief Sam Feist.
Brown, speaking on behalf of the media companies, told reporters after the meeting that they were "very encouraged" by their nearly one-hour meeting with Garland and the Justice Department.
"It's about keeping government accountable, and these news organizations can't effectively do their job in that way unless they can protect confidential sources, and that was made very, very clear by this group today in the meeting, and we felt that that message was received well at DOJ," Brown said.
The Justice Department said that Garland will be releasing a memo within weeks on the policy, and that he has "committed to working with members of the news media to codify the memo setting out these new rules into regulation."