WASHINGTON – The tech company Apple recently notified former White House counsel Donald McGahn and his wife that the Justice Department had secretly requested their information in 2018, an individual familiar with the request said Sunday.
The notification to McGahn came last month, and the notification to his wife came before that, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the politically sensitive case.
It was not immediately clear what was being investigated that prompted the Justice Department to seek the data. The move was first reported Sunday by the New York Times.
Seizing a White House counsel's data is striking. The latest development comes amid widespread criticism of Trump-era leak investigations involving members of Congress and journalists. Meanwhile, Republicans have questioned the pursuit of records of Rudy Giuliani, former president Donald Trump's personal attorney.
The Justice Department's internal watchdog announced Friday that he would review how officials sought the data of journalists and others as part of an aggressive crackdown on leaks during the Trump administration – after it was revealed that the department a few years ago had secretly obtained the data of two congressmen known for their criticism of Trump.
The Justice Department declined to comment Sunday, and it could not immediately be learned whether investigators were targeting McGahn and his family specifically or whether they came across the pair incidentally, while sifting through the records of someone else. In McGahn's case, it was not immediately clear what precise data was sought or for what period.
McGahn declined to comment through his attorney, William Burck.
When investigators obtain a person's phone or email records – who they contacted and who contacted them – one of the things they must do is identify who owns all of the accounts on a lengthy list.
That leads them to subpoena communications companies for data associated with the accounts – such as names and credit card information – to learn who controls them.
An Apple spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
McGahn, who had also been a lawyer representing the Trump campaign, was a key figure in former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and it is possible that his data could have been swept up as prosecutors probed those with whom he might have been in contact.
McGahn himself cooperated extensively with Mueller and recently testified behind closed doors to the House Judiciary Committee.
Apple told McGahn that the subpoena for his data was issued in February 2018, the person familiar with the matter said. The month before, the New York Times and The Washington Post had reported on a conversation in which then-President Trump sought the firing of Mueller in a conversation with McGahn.
McGahn, according to The Post's report, contemplated resigning over the matter, though he did not convey his threat to do so directly to the president.
According to Mueller's report, Trump complained about the reporting and called McGahn's attorney seeking to have McGahn dispute it.
While it is possible that Trump would have wanted to investigate how the episode made its way into press reports, the disclosure did not appear to involve classified information, which is normally what is needed to trigger a Justice Department leak probe.
The leak probe investigations drew complaints recently, particularly after it was disclosed last week that records of two House Democrats from California – Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell – were sought in February 2018 in connection with a leak investigation, along with data of staffers and others connected to the House Intelligence Committee.
Schiff, who headed the investigation that led to Trump's first impeachment, in 2019, and Swalwell have been outspoken critics of the former president.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Friday demanded that former attorneys general William Barr and Jeff Sessions testify about the matter on Capitol Hill.
If they did not do so voluntarily, Schumer and Durbin said, they would be subpoenaed to appear before Durbin's committee. Such a move would require the support of at least one Republican on the panel.
Barr has declined to comment on whether he would, referring questions to the Justice Department. Sessions has not responded to a message forwarded to him by a representative last week.
“What the Republicans did – what the administration did … goes even beyond Richard Nixon,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told CNN in an interview Sunday. “Richard Nixon had an enemies list. This is about undermining the rule of law, and for these attorneys general … or Sessions, at least, to say they, too, didn't know anything about it is beyond belief.”
Kenneth Starr, who served in the Justice Department and was the independent counsel who investigated then-President Bill Clinton, said he was concerned about the recent reports of searches, including those of McGahn, Congress members, journalists and Giuliani.
“The loss of liberty begins with small incursions by powerful sources. All too soon, the small incursions become a larger trend. That's happening now. It needs to be stopped,” he said.
It is possible that the lawmakers, too, were not targeted directly, but rather, the Justice Department got their information in seeking to identify accounts associated with numbers in the records of someone else. Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who were running the department in February 2018, have told people in recent days they were unaware that the lawmakers' records were subpoenaed.
Apple has said that the Justice Department's request sought customer or subscriber account information for 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses. Microsoft has acknowledged that it, too, received a subpoena related to a personal email account of a congressional staffer.