The head of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) national security division, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, is stepping down from his post. The action comes amid revelations that during the Trump era, the department had subpoenaed phone records of Democratic lawmakers whom the former chief executive frequently castigated in public statements.
John Demers, who serves as assistant attorney general of the National Security Division at the Justice Department, announced on Monday that he will be resigning from his position effective next week.
Demers is not believed to have been involved personally with the start of an investigation by the Trump administration to determine who was leaking information to the media, as he was confirmed to his position after those subpoenas were issued.
Those subpoenas, which involved the seizure of phone records and data from Apple, affected at least two lawmakers, Democratic Representatives Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff, both of California, as well as members of their family, including a child. Reporters from The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times also had their phone records subpoenaed as part of the inquiry.
Trump frequently clashed with both Swalwell and Schiff, and vociferously objected to reports from those media organizations as “fake news” or other similarly pejorative terms.
Even though Demers wasn’t initially involved with the investigation, it’s likely he was briefed about the matter. In spite of the timing of his announced departure, an official within the DOJ said that Demers’s decision to resign was not related to the controversy, and was purportedly planned before reports about the subpoenas were made public late last week.
What Demers and others within the department knew about the subpoenas against Democratic lawmakers and members of the media will likely come under scrutiny by the pending investigations. The House Judiciary Committee plans to delve into why the subpoenas were issued, with the goal of determining whether they were politically motivated.
“Recent reports suggest that, during the Trump Administration, the Department of Justice used criminal investigations as a pretext to spy on President Trump’s perceived political enemies,” committee chair Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-New York) recently said.
In addition to the committee’s inquiry, the Justice Department’s inspector general also plans to investigate the subpoenas.
Trump’s DOJ in 2017 and 2018 obtained the phone data during the tenure of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The inquiry was eventually dropped but revived when former Attorney General William Barr took over the department. No evidence of malfeasance on the part of lawmakers or news organizations was ever uncovered.
Many DOJ officials viewed the investigation as having a political bent, rather than a legitimate concern over who was leaking information to the press. Officials who previously worked in the Justice Department have also opined that the investigations appear to be based on politics.
“In combination with former President Trump’s unmistakable vendetta against Congressman Schiff, it raises serious questions about whether the manner in which this investigation was conducted was influenced by political considerations rather than purely legal ones,” former DOJ official David Laufman said, speaking to The New York Times about the matter.