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California Congressman 'Very Troubled' By Trump DOJ's Secret Seizure Of His Data

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Just how far was the Trump Justice Department willing to go to investigate leaks as the Russia investigations played out? Pretty far, it turns out. In recent weeks, we have learned the DOJ secretly obtained phone records for reporters who were breaking stories at The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN.

Now, The Times has broken this story. Prosecutors also subpoenaed records from the accounts of Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, as well as staffers and family members, including a minor. The Justice Department's own inspector general is launching a review. Democratic senators are calling for testimony.

And we are going to question one of the lawmakers whose records were seized, Congressman Eric Swalwell of California. And he joins us now. Congressman, welcome.

ERIC SWALWELL: Thanks for having me back.

KELLY: How did you first learn about this?

SWALWELL: By an email that I almost deleted. I thought it was spam. And then when I read it carefully, it was clear that Apple had complied with a Department of Justice records request. From there, I learned, just as everyone else has, that was a part of a larger effort to target Chairman Schiff, myself and staffers on the Intelligence Committee at a time that we were doing our job to hold the president accountable.

KELLY: I'll just let listeners in on that you're - we're on a cellphone to you. You're in the car on the way to the airport. So we'll try to bear with this line. If I repeat things, it's because it's coming in...

SWALWELL: Sure.

KELLY: ...A little bit garbled. But I mean, just what went through your mind when you did figure out this was an email you should pay attention to? What was your reaction?

SWALWELL: I was very troubled that the department would do this, you know, and especially once I had learned. Because the real national security threat was not Chairman Schiff or myself or our staffers. It was the acts of Michael Flynn and the Trump administration and people who were, you know, abusing power and drawing us close to Russia. So this isn't about me or Mr. Schiff. And it's really about a president who would weaponize the Department of Justice to go after his political opponents.

KELLY: You mentioned Mr. Schiff. That's Adam Schiff, who, at the time, was the ranking Democrat. He's now chair of the Intelligence Committee. He and you are the two that we have confirmed so far whose records were subpoenaed. To your knowledge, did it go wider than that? Anyone else?

SWALWELL: I know staff were also subpoenaed. I know that - family members of those subpoenaed, including a minor, a child. I'm not aware of other members. And that's why I support Chairman Schiff's call for an inspector general report. And reading public reporting, it looks like we're headed that way. And that should get to the bottom of this to make sure that there's real consequences for people who may have violated the law.

KELLY: This was reportedly in the service of finding out who might have been leaking to reporters. So let me ask you for the record, were you leaking to reporters?

SWALWELL: No. No. I did not then, and I have not since.

KELLY: If the Justice Department had legitimate reason to believe that the House Intelligence Committee was a source of leaks of classified information, is there anything wrong with them subpoenaing the records and trying to find out what was going on?

SWALWELL: Well, if you have a good legal reason, you know, probable cause. But just because Donald Trump would, on a daily basis, identify Adam Schiff as a leaker, that doesn't give you probable cause. And so you have to develop an investigation, not just have a wide, fishy expedition, which is what it looks like. This was - I'm really troubled that this lasted for so long, from multiple attorneys general. And it looks like it's only shut down recently.

KELLY: You're referring to - we are told that this began when Jeff Sessions was attorney general, that it went dormant for a bit and then was revived under Bill Barr, President Trump's - former President Trump's last attorney general. What does that tell you about how determined that administration was to go after leakers?

SWALWELL: We saw a pattern in the Trump administration, a determination to go after political opponents, and so - the smear-and-clear operation against Masha Yovanovitch in Ukraine, the effort to try and have the Ukrainians put dirt on his perceived presidential opponent at the time, Joe Biden. And then, of course, to go after members of the House Intelligence Committee.

Look. I'm not above the law. Chairman Schiff's not above the law. But this is a pattern of going after political opponents. And it's not based on any evidence that he or I did anything wrong. And we didn't, which is why the investigation, rightfully, has been called.

KELLY: Well, let me ask, what next? We know that the Senate Judiciary Committee says that they want testimony from Barr, from Sessions. They're prepared to subpoena if they need to. Will the House Intelligence Committee investigate, it squaring the circle in a way, investigating the investigation (laughter) of your committee?

SWALWELL: Yeah. Well, I think the inspector general investigation is important. I'll leave it to Chairman Schiff and Speaker Pelosi and other committees who may have jurisdiction to decide what's next. But look. This is not a 500-year flood, right? This is a president who is seeking to come back in power, tells people he may be reinstated by August, may run again in 2024. And I don't think he'll be so patient next time to wait for the Department of Justice to do his dirty business. And he may just say that whoever the political opponent is should just be thrown in jail, and to hell with an investigation. And that's what worries me if we don't do anything to remedy this.

KELLY: That is Congressman Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California. We caught him on his cellphone, headed to the airport. Safe travels, and thanks for taking the time.

SWALWELL: Sounds good. All right. Thank you.

KELLY: And NPR has reached out to the Justice Department and former AG Jeff Sessions. They are declining comment. And we have so far been unable to reach former Attorney General Barr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.