William Barr, the attorney general of the United States, has authorised federal prosecutors to look into any possible “substantial” allegations of voting irregularities in last week’s presidential election, despite no evidence of widespread fraud.
Barr’s memo on Monday followed days of attacks on the integrity and legality of the election by President Donald Trump, who has not conceded the election to Democrat Joe Biden and thrown the presidential transition into tumult by blocking government officials from cooperating with the president-elect’s team.
Biden on Saturday secured more than 270 votes in the Electoral College to capture the presidency.
There has been no indication of enough improperly counted or illegally cast votes that would shift the outcome and, in fact, election officials from both political parties have publicly stated the election went well, though there have been minor issues that are typical in elections, including voting machines breaking and ballots that were miscast and lost.
Barr’s action prompted the resignation of the senior Department of Justice official who oversees investigations of voter fraud.
In a memo to federal prosecutors and the FBI director, Barr wrote that investigations “may be conducted if there are clear and apparently-credible allegations of irregularities that, if true, could potentially impact the outcome of a federal election in an individual State”.
He said nothing in his memo should be read to indicate that the DoJ had in fact uncovered voting irregularities that affected the outcome of the election, writing: “Nothing here should be taken as any indication that the Department has concluded that voting irregularities have impacted the outcome of any election.”
The letter was the first time Barr had addressed claims of voter fraud since last Tuesday’s showdown between Trump and Biden.
“While serious allegations should be handled with great care, specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims should not be a basis for initiating federal inquiries,” Barr wrote.
States have until December 8 to resolve election disputes, including recounts and court contests over the results, and members of the Electoral College meet on December 14 to finalise the outcome.
Hours after Barr’s memo, Richard Pilger, who for years has served as director of the Election Crimes Branch, announced in an internal email that he was resigning from that post after he read “the new policy and its ramifications”.
The New York Times said Pilger was moving to a non-supervisory role working on corruption prosecutions.
Democrats and the Biden campaign also said Barr was fuelling the very far-fetched claims he claimed he was guarding against.
“Those are the very kind of claims that the president and his lawyers are making unsuccessfully every day, as their lawsuits are laughed out of one court after another,” said Bob Bauer, a senior adviser to Biden.
Earlier on Monday, Trump’s campaign filed a lawsuit to block Pennsylvania officials from certifying Biden’s victory in the state. They alleged that Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting system violated the US Constitution by creating “an illegal two-tiered voting system” where voting in person was subject to more oversight than voting by mail.
The Trump campaign has filed several lawsuits since claiming the election results were flawed. Judges have thrown out lawsuits in Michigan and Georgia, and experts say the legal efforts have little chance of changing the outcome of the election.
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told Reuters news agency that the latest lawsuit was unlikely to succeed and “reads like a rehash of many of the arguments the Trump legal team has made in and outside the courtroom”.
Also on Monday, some Republican state legislators in Pennsylvania said they would “call for a legislative-led audit of the 2020 election and demand election results not be certified, nor electors be seated, until the audit is complete”.
The Pennsylvania case was assigned to US District Judge Matthew Brann, an appointee of former Democratic President Barack Obama.
A senior Trump campaign official said the campaign had collected “hundreds” of affidavits from Pennsylvania voters alleging election violations. The campaign is gathering evidence to help make the case that the state’s election was fatally flawed, the official said.
Barr, a loyal ally of Trump, helped broadcast the president’s claims of voter fraud before the election, attacking mail-in voting as prone to undue influence and coercion, despite multiple studies debunking the notion of pervasive voter fraud in general and in the vote-by-mail process.
The attorney general’s memo on Monday came several hours after he met Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. A DoJ official declined to comment on what Barr and McConnell discussed but told reporters that no one at the White House or on Capitol Hill asked him to write the note.
McConnell, opening the Senate earlier on Monday, backed the Trump campaign’s legal efforts.
“Our institutions are actually built for this,” McConnell said. “We have the system in place to consider concerns and President Trump is 100 percent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.”
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer countered that the Republicans’ refusal to accept the election results was “extremely dangerous, extremely poisonous to our democracy”.
“Joe Biden won the election fair and square,” Schumer said.