Barr tells prosecutors to investigate ‘vote irregularities’ despite lack of evidence

The US attorney general, William Barr, has authorized federal prosecutors to begin investigating “substantial allegations” of voter irregularities across the country in a stark break with longstanding practice and despite a lack of evidence of any major fraud having been committed.

The intervention of Barr, who has frequently been accused of politicizing the DoJ, comes as Donald Trump refuses to concede defeat and promotes a number of legally meritless lawsuits aimed at casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election. Joe Biden was confirmed as president-elect on Saturday after he won the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania.

Barr wrote on Monday to US attorneys, giving them the green light to pursue “substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities” before the results of the presidential election in their jurisdictions are certified. As Barr himself admits in his letter, such a move by federal prosecutors to intervene in the thick of an election has traditionally been frowned upon, with the view being that investigations into possible fraud should only be carried out after the race is completed.

But Barr, who was appointed by Trump in February 2019, pours scorn on such an approach, denouncing it as a “passive and delayed enforcement approach”.

The highly contentious action, which was first reported by Associated Press, was greeted with delight by Trump supporters but with skepticism from lawyers and election experts. Within hours of the news, the New York Times reported that the justice department official overseeing voter fraud investigations, Richard Pilger, had resigned from his position.

“Having familiarized myself with the new policy and its ramifications,” Pilger reportedly told colleagues in an email, “I must regretfully resign from my role as director of the Election Crimes Branch.”

Doubts about Barr’s intentions were heightened after it was reported that a few hours before the letter to prosecutors was disclosed, he met with Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader.

McConnell has so far remained in lockstep with Trump. Earlier on Monday he expressed support for the defeated president on the floor of the chamber. He said: “President Trump is 100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.”

As news of Barr’s memo circulated, social media lit up. “Here we go,” tweeted Stephanie Cutter, Barack Obama’s deputy campaign manager in the 2012 presidential race after the Barr memo was revealed.

Mimi Rocha, a former assistant US attorney in the southern district of New York, decried the memo, saying it “negates DoJ policy re not getting involved til after election certified. Not good.” She added though that there were no “clear and apparently-credible allegations of irregularities”, as cited by Barr, and urged federal lawyers to “remain true to your oaths”.

The Barr memo is the culmination of months of cumulative controversy in which the attorney general has proven himself willing to imperil the reputation for impartiality of the justice department by following Trump into his election-fraud rabbit hole.

In particular, he has doubled down on Trump’s baseless claims about rampant fraud in mail-in voting. That included lying on television about an indictment for an electoral crime in Texas that his department later had to concede never took place.

Barr’s intervention emerged shortly after the Trump campaign filed another longshot lawsuit in Pennsylvania, attempting to block the state from certifying its election results. It was the calling of the Pennsylvania contest on Saturday by media organisations in favor of Biden, who remains about 45,000 votes ahead of Trump in the state, that tipped the Democratic candidate over the 270 electoral college mark and awarded him the presidency.

The new Pennsylvania lawsuit rehashes many of the already disproven claims that have failed to succeed so far in federal and state courts. The case hangs on the claim – posited without any new hard evidence – that voters were treated differently depending on whether they voted by mail or in person.

The legal action also claims that almost 700,000 mail-in and absentee ballots were counted in Philadelphia and Allegheny county, both Democratic strongholds, without observers present. That complaint has already been repeatedly debunked.

Josh Shapiro, the Democratic attorney general of Pennsylvania, dismissed the lawsuit as meritless. “I am confident Pennsylvania law will be upheld and the will of the people of the Commonwealth will be respected in this election,” he said.

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