Garland imposes new restrictions on political appointees at Justice Department

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Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday tightened restrictions on high-level employees at the Justice Department by prohibiting them from engaging in “partisan political activities.”

The policy change, announced in a memo a little more than two months before the midterm elections, reversed a longstanding department policy that allowed political appointees, also known as non-career employees, to attend fundraisers and campaign events as passive bystanders.

The new rules come on the heels of accusations of political bias from congressional Republicans and Trump supporters after the FBI searched former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate on Aug. 8.

“As Department employees, we have been entrusted with the authority and responsibility to enforce the laws of the United States in a neutral and impartial manner,” Garland wrote. “In fulfilling this responsibility, we must do all we can to maintain public trust and ensure that politics — both in fact and appearance — does not compromise or affect the integrity of our work.”

Garland’s directive followed memos from Acting Assistant Attorney General for Administration Jolene Lauria reminding political appointees of existing policies on restrictions stemming from the Hatch Act, which is aimed at establishing a politically neutral workplace for government workers.

The 1939 law prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while on duty, in a federal facility or using federal property. The Justice Department’s previous policy allowed appointees to passively attend political events if they had obtained approval from a supervisor.

Under the new policy, Garland said, non-career appointees “may not participate in any partisan political event in any capacity.”

The restriction also extends to presidential election years, removing an exception for appointees whose close family members are running for partisan offices. Appointees are now prohibited from attending political campaign events, even on Election Day.

“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,” Garland wrote. “It is in that spirit that I have added these new restrictions on political activities by non-career employees.”

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have warned of a spike in threats to federal law enforcement officials in the weeks since the Mar-a-Lago search and subsequent GOP claims of the Biden administration weaponizing the Justice Department against Trump.

In a separate memo to Justice Department employees on Tuesday, Garland highlighted Justice Department rules regarding communications with Congress. “Like the policies regarding communications with the White House, these policies ‘are designed to protect our criminal and civil law enforcement decisions, and our legal judgments, from partisan or other inappropriate influences, whether real or perceived, direct or indirect,’” Garland wrote.

Ryan J. Reilly and Ken Dilanian contributed.

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