Current and former Justice Department officials said Tuesday they were stunned and frustrated by Attorney General William P. Barr’s move to loosen internal restrictions on how and when federal prosecutors investigate certain election-fraud cases before the results are certified — and worried that Barr was aiding President Trump’s effort to cast doubt on his defeat.
The blow to morale was felt most acutely in the Justice Department’s criminal division, which is typically a key player in prosecuting election-related offenses and setting department policy in that area, people familiar with the matter said. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal Justice Department deliberations.
Some weeks ago, when Barr had first proposed the move, officials in the criminal division — including political leadership — had pushed back vigorously and thought they had dissuaded the attorney general from taking such a step, the people said. Then, without warning, Barr’s memo hit their email inboxes Monday night.
Within hours, the head of the department’s election-crimes branch, Richard Pilger, told colleagues he was stepping down from that job and taking a lesser position at the department, citing the new guidance, as others privately seethed.
“It’s hard to know yet whether this amounts to something worrisome or whether it’s just pleasing the boss,” said Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine who wrote a book, “Election Meltdown,” about the growing public distrust of election results.
Hasen said that the nuts and bolts of 2020’s election went fairly well, particularly considering the extra complication of a pandemic.
“The real problems came because of the delay in counting the votes,” Hasen said, faulting Republican legislators in some states who did not support early counting, which he said created “space for all kinds of conspiracy theories,” including from the president.
Current Justice Department officials said they were puzzled by what could have motivated Barr’s move. His memo suggested prosecutors could take public steps in cases “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.”
But current and former Justice Department officials said they were unaware of any such cases amid the myriad allegations raised by the Trump campaign and the president’s supporters. Even if judges agreed with the campaign, the officials said, the challenges generally did not seem to implicate enough votes to change any results.