WASHINGTON – Attorney General William Barr has authorized U.S. attorneys to pursue “substantial allegations” of voting irregularities during the 2020 elections, contradicting longstanding Justice Department practice of not taking steps that could impact the results of an election.
“Such inquiries and reviews may be conducted 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,” Barr said in a memo to federal prosecutors Monday.
Though President Donald Trump and his campaign have repeatedly claimed there has been fraud, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. In fact, election officials from both political parties have publicly stated the election went well, though they’re having been minor issues that are typical in elections, including voting machines breaking and ballots that were miscast and lost.
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Barr noted in his memo that the Justice Department has not concluded that “voting irregularities have impacted the outcome of any election.”
The memo would allow prosecutors to pursue investigations into election-related matters before results are certified. The action could raise criticisms that Trump, who has yet to concede after losing to President-elect Joe Biden, will use the Justice Department to try to tip the results in his favor.
The memo also prompted Richard Pilger, who oversees election crime investigations within the Justice Department, to step down from his post, according to the New York Times and Reuters. The department did not respond to questions from USA TODAY regarding Pilger.
Vanita Gupta, who oversaw the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, said Barr’s memo had “no factual basis,” and states, not the federal government, is in charge of elections.
“Scaremongering about opening investigations doesn’t change (the) result,” Gupta tweeted.
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In an email to colleagues Monday, Pilger said he’s resigning from his position after familiarizing himself with the Justice Department’s new policy “and its ramifications.” Gupta shared the email on Twitter.
“I have enjoyed very much working with you for over a decade to aggressively and diligently enforce federal crime election law, policy, and practice without partisan fear or favor,” Pilger wrote.
The Trump campaign has filed several lawsuits in battleground states that Biden won by thousands of votes; some of which have been tossed by the courts for lack of evidence.
Biden holds substantial leads in five battleground states, and experts say it’s unlikely that any legal action the Trump campaign pursues would affect the outcome. The closest state, Georgia, which will hold a recount, has Biden ahead by more than 10,000 votes as of Monday.
In the memo to U.S. attorneys, which was first reported by the Associated Press, Barr wrote “it will likely be prudent” to begin preliminary investigations into election-related matters.
“While it is imperative that credible allegations be addressed in a timely and effective manner, it is equally imperative that Department personnel exercise appropriate caution and maintain the Department’s absolute commitment to fairness, neutrality and non-partisanship,” Barr wrote.
States have until Dec. 8 to resolve election disputes, including recounts and court contests over the results. Members of the Electoral College meet Dec. 14 to finalize the outcome.
The Justice Department also recently issued new guidance allowing prosecutors more authority to take action on voter fraud allegations even as voting is underway. Spokesman Matt Lloyd said last month that the guidance was part of communication that is “routinely” sent via email to federal prosecutors during election season.
Earlier on Monday, Barr met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill. The Justice Department declined to comment on the meeting.
McConnell backed Trump’s legal efforts, saying the president is “100% within his rights” to challenge the election results, although he did not echo baseless claims about voter fraud and a Democratic conspiracy to steal the election.
Contributing: Christal Hayes, Ledge King and Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY and the Associated Press