A deluge of Justice Department leaks has sprung up in the run-up to the Nov. 8 midterm elections, and legal analysts say it appears to be designed to remind voters about the investigations of former President Donald Trump.
The media leaks have increased in frequency in The New York Times and The Washington Post since mid-October and cast Mr. Trump in a bad light.
The stories have covered a slew of accusations, including Mr. Trump’s defiance of a Justice Department subpoena by ordering aides to move documents out of a storage unit at his Mar-a-Lago residence and claims that the documents detail secrets about Russia and China that could imperil U.S. national security.
How much it is impacting voters is an open question, but veteran prosecutors and political players say the leaks are clearly designed to keep Mr. Trump’s legal problems on voters’ minds.
The unauthorized disclosures to news media buttress the Democratic Party message that a vote for Republican candidates encourages Mr. Trump’s lawlessness.
“Democrats don’t have an answer to inflation and crime, so they are trying to make it as if Trump were on the ballot,” said Andy McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor. “It’s not just these leaks, but all the investigations are stepping up at a time helpful for Democrats because they don’t have an argument for crime and inflation for the midterms.”
Among other legal moves:
• The Democratic-run House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol issued a subpoena for Mr. Trump to testify under oath.
• A grand jury in Atlanta, convened by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, a Democrat, subpoenaed Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, to testify in the investigation of Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential vote in Georgia.
• New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, filed a civil lawsuit late last month accusing Mr. Trump’s real estate business of corrupt business practices.
Legal analysts say the leaks from the FBI’s criminal investigation into Mr. Trump’s handling of classified government documents are particularly egregious. The Justice Department has strict rules against disclosing information in a criminal investigation. Punishments include termination and criminal charges.
The unauthorized disclosures also run afoul of a Justice Department rule against taking action that could influence voters within 60 days of an election.
During an August press conference to discuss the FBI raid on Mr. Trump’s residence and office at his private Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department will “speak through its court filings and its work.”
Yet the investigation has been plagued with leaks from the start.
“Washington floats on a sea of leaks, but, even in this city, the leaks from the Garland Justice Department are shocking. What began as a concerning trickle of leaks has become a virtual tsunami,” said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. “These leaks make a mockery of the policy against filings that might influence an election. These officials are achieving the same purpose through media allies.”
A Justice Department spokesperson referred all questions to its inspector general’s office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Taylor Budowich, a Trump spokesman, compared the leaks to the FBI’s $1 million offer to former British spy Christopher Steele to verify the salacious anti-Trump accusations in the dossier he compiled for the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
“The endless leaks and lies from a weaponized Justice Department which offered a $1 million bounty to encourage the fabrication of totally false claims against President Trump, just further exposes their witch hunt and destroys the credibility of a once honorable agency,” Mr. Budowich said in a statement to The Washington Times.
Since Oct. 13, The Post and The New York Times have run a slew of tidbits suggesting that Mr. Trump engaged in nefarious activities related to the documents. The articles are attributed to anonymous “people familiar with the matter.”
The New York Times this month reported that a Trump aide was caught on a security camera moving boxes out of a room at Mar-a-Lago. The staffer moved the boxes out of a storage room after the Justice Department issued a subpoena in May ordering Mr. Trump to turn over classified documents.
Hours later, the newspaper followed up by reporting that Mr. Trump explicitly directed employees to move documents out of the storage area to his private residence. The next day, The New York Times identified the employee who moved the documents as Walt Nauta, who worked as a valet in the Trump White House. Mr. Nauta was also identified as a key witness in the FBI investigation.
The Post recently reported that some of the documents removed from Mar-a-Lago included “highly sensitive” intelligence regarding Iran and China that could expose U.S. intelligence-gathering methods that could put national security at risk. The article said some of the documents included information about Iran’s missile program.
Mr. Turley said the targets for the information could go beyond voters.
“Some [of the leaks] may be designed to influence the judges in these cases, but some seemed directed at the public,” he said.
In August, The Post published a report based on a leak from sources that the documents detailed information about nuclear weapons.
Mr. Trump has insisted the story is false.
A federal judge in August publicly released a heavily redacted version of the affidavit the FBI used to justify the unprecedented search of Mr. Trump’s home. Nothing in the affidavit indicated that FBI agents found nuclear information at Mar-a-Lago.
A partial log of seized materials was inadvertently posted in a public court docket this month. It revealed that mundane materials such as legal bills, details of calls with foreign presidents and insurance forms were among the items the FBI seized.
Mr. Trump’s attorneys have condemned the leaks in court filings. They said a neutral third-party special master would be needed because Justice Department employees were talking to the press.
The special master, U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie, named a third-party vendor this month to store copies of the materials on a secure server. The Trump team urged Judge Dearie to craft strict penalties to discourage vendor employees from leaking details to the press.
They asked the special master to punish any leakers by holding them in contempt of court “or any other legally available sanction that the court deems appropriate.”
Although Mr. Trump and his allies have pointed fingers at the Justice Department, Mr. McCarthy said the leaks might have come from somewhere else. He said the case originated from a grand jury, expanding the pool of people with knowledge about the investigation to jurors, lawyers whose clients appeared before the grand jury, and witnesses.
“Once you get nongovernment people involved in an investigation, it’s very hard to pin down where a leak came from,” he said. “The only way you could do that is by questioning the journalists, which the government doesn’t want to do.”
Still, the volume and types of leaks point to a high-level official within the Justice Department, said Eric Caron, who worked leak cases in various law enforcement positions at the Treasury and Homeland Security departments and the international police organization Interpol.
“The leaks tell me that the Department of Justice is trying Donald Trump in the public domain by swaying the American people into believing he is a criminal who violated the Espionage Act,” he said. “I don’t see a midlevel manager at the FBI or DOJ trying to do this because that’s putting their job on the line to communicate with the media.”
Analysts say it is unlikely that the Justice Department will investigate the sources of the leaks. Mr. Garland last year issued a broad ban on using subpoenas, warrants or court orders to seize reporters’ records in a leak investigation, severely curbing investigators’ powers.
“The only real way you are going to catch a leaker is through the media people they leaked to, but if Garland is giving a wide berth to journalists, you can’t get too crazy about leaks because that is the only way you can clamp down on them,” Mr. McCarthy said.
Under federal law, it is illegal to leak grand jury information. Any information obtained elsewhere would be punishable only by disciplinary action. That would likely leave the Justice Department with little appetite to spend time and resources tracking down a person for a human resources matter.
Mr. Turley said the lack of action sends the wrong message.
“There is no public acknowledgment from Garland that he is upset with these leaks and committed to finding the leakers. That silence sends a message to all of those considering leaking to the media. This is clearly not a public priority for the attorney general,” he said.