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DOJ's Top Election Crimes Prosecutor Resigns To Protest Allegations Of Election Fraud

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Four years ago today, President Obama invited President-elect Donald Trump to the White House to talk about the transfer of power. In their 90-minute meeting at the Oval Office, Obama said that he would support Trump in a smooth transition. That is not how President Trump has approached his upcoming departure from the White House. He has refused to admit defeat, and his allies are joining him in casting doubt on the election results even though President-elect Joe Biden has secured enough electoral votes to win the presidency and there is no evidence of widespread fraud or vote tampering.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Trump team filed a number of legal challenges, many of which have already been thrown out for lack of evidence. Despite that lack of evidence, Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed support for the president. And today Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went further, falsely implying in a press conference that Trump succeeded in the election.

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MIKE POMPEO: There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration, all right? We're ready. The world is watching what's taking place. We're going to count all the votes. When the process is complete, there'll be electors selected. There's a process. The Constitution lays it out pretty clearly.

CORNISH: President-elect Joe Biden was asked today about Pompeo's remark. He was also asked about the Trump administration's refusal to concede or embrace the transition process. Biden replied he's not worried.

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JOE BIDEN: We are already beginning the transition. We're well underway. And the ability for the administration in any way by failure to recognize this administration - our win does not change the dynamic at all of what we're able to do.

SHAPIRO: Attorney General Bill Barr is another of Trump's strong supporters in the Cabinet. Yesterday, Barr authorized federal prosecutors to pursue, quote, "substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities." He said that shouldn't be taken as an indication that prosecutors have found any voting irregularities that would impact the outcome of the election. In response to the memo, the department's top election crimes prosecutor, Richard Pilger, resigned from that position. We're joined now by Pilger's former colleague, Justin Levitt, who helped lead the Justice Department's civil rights division during the Obama administration, focusing in part on voting rights.

Welcome.

JUSTIN LEVITT: Thank you very much. Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: You tweeted about Richard Pilger, I had the privilege to work with Richard at DOJ. There isn't any higher level of integrity. This is his way of saying he doesn't want any part of frivolous, unfounded, partisan investigations into nonsense. Will you explain what you mean when you describe this as frivolous, unfounded, partisan investigations into nonsense?

LEVITT: So I don't know that we've seen them yet. I think it's his way of warning us that they're coming. The Justice Department does not announce investigations. It has long been particularly sensitive not to announce open investigations without all of the facts coming to light in the context of an election and particularly not before elections have been certified and done.

Unfortunately, Bill Barr's memo indicates that there will be announcements of investigations - hasty, sort of predetermined announcements of opening investigations before any information about the investigations has been concluded. And I think the concern is - the concern that I imagine Richard had is that the announcement of the fact of the investigation itself will be used for partisan political purposes, which is exactly why DOJ does not do that.

SHAPIRO: But the Barr memo also says - and I'm quoting here - "specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims should not be a basis for initiating federal inquiries." Why isn't that a safeguard against the kind of investigations you're worried about?

LEVITT: It is if people take it seriously. But it also didn't need a memo to say that. That is - the change in policy is a lifting a hand off of the care and caution the DOJ has always had to not become the story. A criminal investigation should not be itself the reason for individuals having any different take on the outcome of an election until that investigation is done, until we know whether misconduct actually happens.

SHAPIRO: There isn't evidence of widespread fraud. The Justice Department doesn't have the power to change votes. So practically speaking, what's the real-world impact of this memo?

LEVITT: Noise, bluster and, unfortunately, feeding the narrative that this election was somehow improperly conducted when all of the evidence suggests to the contrary. It doesn't - I want to be really clear. This memo does not have any tangible consequences for the count at all. But there is a lot of noise and bluster coming from lawsuits, coming from the president's consistent tweeting and fundraising emails casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election. That affects how the American people think about it. And unfortunately, I think this latest from DOJ is another step in that direction - not to undo the results but to make us all think that reality is something other than what it is.

SHAPIRO: We've been clear that there is no evidence of widespread fraud. There is no evidence of illegal ballots. And yet the Justice Department has a section focusing on voting rights, and the leader of that section has just left. So what kinds of election crimes typically get investigated and prosecuted if not, you know, fraud or illegal ballots?

LEVITT: There may well be individual cases of wrongdoing. A handful of cases is not unusual in any particular election. That office also investigates campaign finance crimes and the like. It's a section focused on public integrity around the election process. And there are, unfortunately, individuals who choose to break the law from time to time. That's entirely different from perpetuating a narrative that there was something widespread that was wrong with the election we just had by all accounts, and this includes Democratic, Republican, and neither. Election officials from all sides of the aisle have said that the election that we just had was remarkably smooth by the low standards we set for ourselves.

There were people who had some difficulty and people who were excluded but no indications of widespread fraud. And that may be why the longtime career head of the division, whose job is to follow the facts and the law where they lead in prosecuting election crimes, said, I don't want any part of this partisan, politicized press release nonsense.

SHAPIRO: That is Loyola Marymount University Law School professor Justin Levitt. He's former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's civil rights division during the Obama administration.

Thanks a lot.

LEVITT: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.