Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a long-awaited directive Wednesday seeking to limit political influence on law enforcement matters by strictly limiting contacts between Justice Department personnel and the White House.
The memo follows through on campaign pledges by then-candidate Joe Biden to reestablish the department’s independence after a series of episodes where President Donald Trump publicly and privately complained about prosecutors’ decisions, urging them to lay off his friends and target his political enemies.
Garland did not mention those instances in his five-page memo, but did speak of the importance of preserving the Justice Department’s public reputation.
"The success of the Department of Justice depends upon the trust of the American people," Garland wrote in the five-page department-wide memorandum obtained by USA Today. "That trust must be earned every day, and we can do so only through our adherence to the long-standing departmental norms of independence from inappropriate influences, the principled exercise of discretion and the treatment of like cases alike."
The memo says the president and his staff should not generally be given a heads-up about criminal or civil enforcement actions, although the directive does contemplate exceptions.
“The Justice Department will not advise the White House concerning pending or contemplated criminal or civil law enforcement investigations or cases unless doing so is important for the performance of the President’s duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective,” Garland wrote.
The policy also seeks to route permitted contacts about such cases through the department’s most senior officials, namely Garland and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, and through White House Counsel Dana Remus and her top deputies.
Garland’s directive does not limit contacts about some matters not related to specific cases, such as budget and criminal justice policy issues. Matters involving national security are also largely exempt from the policy.
The directive is similar to other “White House Contacts” memos issued under previous administrations beginning with one in 1979 from Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
The White House also issued a parallel, but broader, memo Wednesday giving guidance to White House officials about their interactions with various agencies including the Justice Department.
“Specific procedures apply to communications with the Department of Justice (DOJ) in order to ensure that DOJ exercises its investigatory and prosecutorial functions free from the fact or appearance of improper political influence,” Remus wrote in her 14-page directive. “DOJ plays many different roles — including as a prosecutorial and law enforcement agency, legal adviser to the President and Executive Branch departments and agencies, litigator that defends U.S. government policies and actions, and policymaker on a range of issues. The proper White House approach to the Department depends on which DOJ function is involved.”
A Biden White House official stressed that “nearly all” of the rules were put in place on Inauguration Day, but said they merited reemphasizing as Garland rolled out his policy.
“We felt it was appropriate to reissue and publicize this guidance alongside the DOJ rules,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
During the Trump administration, the Justice Department issued no White House contacts memo. Officials said they left in place the policy Attorney General Eric Holder issued on the topic in 2009. Trump White House Counsel Donald McGahn did issue a policy on Justice Department contacts on Jan. 27, 2017, just a week after Trump was sworn in.
None of the policies seem to bind or apply directly to the president, who in the last administration often sought to weigh in on law enforcement matters. Trump not only raised specific requests for investigations directly with his attorneys general, but sometimes reached out to U.S. Attorneys, particularly as he tried to enlist federal prosecutors in chasing down ephemeral claims of election fraud.
Emails also show White House aides subject to the contact limits, such as chief of staff Mark Meadows, making investigation-related requests to top Justice Department officials in Trump’s final weeks in office. It is unclear whether those contacts were approved by White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.
The Trump administration also breached norms against discussions of specific criminal cases from the White House briefing room, sometimes inviting prosecutors to speak from the podium to reporters about crackdowns on gangs and crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.