Attorney General Merrick Garland issued new restrictions Tuesday barring Justice Department appointees from attending partisan political events even in their personal capacities.
Garland’s directive, with the 2022 midterm elections looming, represents a break from long-standing department policy and a strict interpretation of the Hatch Act, which limits federal government employees’ political participation to guard against conflicts of interest.
The attorney general’s new prohibitions apply to the Justice Department’s non-career officials and not to other parts of the government.
“Although longstanding Department policy has permitted non-career appointees to attend partisan political events… in their personal capacities if they participated passively and obtained prior approval,” Garland wrote, “under the new policy, non-career appointees may not participate in any partisan political event in any capacity.”
The restriction, Garland said, applies to both public and non-public partisan political events.
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The new policy also bars appointees from attending events involving family members running for partisan offices and prohibits the officials from attending similar events on Election Day, even as “passive” participants in their personal capacities.
“I know you agree it is critical that we hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards to avoid even the appearance of political influence as we carry out the Department’s mission,” the attorney general wrote. “It is in that spirit that I have added these new restrictions on political activities by non-career employees.”
The move represents another attempt by the attorney general to distance the department from the kind of politics that shadowed the agency during the Trump administration.
Last year, Garland issued a directive restricting Justice Department contact with the White House as a firewall against potential political interference.
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The order, which reaffirmed some policies of previous administrations, marked a sharp pivot from the Trump era when the former president casually broke with institutional norms, repeatedly calling on the department to launch investigations of his political rivals, including President Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey.
Garland’s most recent move, however, comes against the backdrop of a federal investigation into former President Donald Trump’s handling of classified documents, which featured an unprecedented move to search the former president’s Florida estate.
Trump administration officials also are being questioned as part of the inquiry into the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol attack and the campaign to overturn the 2020 election.
Last month, federal prosecutors also secured a conviction against former White House strategist Steve Bannon on two counts of contempt of Congress for his defiance of a House committee’s demand for records and testimony in its investigation of the Capitol attack.
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