Editor’s note: Virgin Islands Del. Stacey Plaskett is the top Democrat on a Judiciary subcommittee established by the GOP to examine the “weaponization” of the federal government. The information was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.
The House Judiciary Committee fired off its first subpoenas under the leadership of Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), targeting a trio of Biden administration officials including Attorney General Merrick Garland over a short-lived memo dealing with threats against school board members.
The subpoenas, sent also to FBI Director Christopher Wray and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, follow a series of more than 100 letters on the 2021 memo from Judiciary Republicans.
Garland signed the memo in October of last year, noting a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff” amid broader discussion over COVID-19 policies and how issues like race and gender are addressed at school.
Though little resulted from the memo, Republicans have remained laser-focused on it.
The subpoena, reviewed by The Hill, asks for all communications between the entities and the National School Boards Association, which first wrote to DOJ asking for help in dealing with rising threats.
Jordan has repeatedly claimed the memo is a way for the Biden administration to label parents as domestic terrorists, though the FBI never charged a single parent in connection with the directive — something the chair pointed out in a recent appearance on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
“The chilling impact on the First Amendment free speech is what we care about,” he said during the interview.
“School board writes a letter on Sept. 29th. Five days later, the Attorney General of the United States issues a memorandum to 101 U.S. attorneys offices around the country saying, ‘Set up this line that they can report on.’ … When have you ever seen the federal government move that fast?” he asked.
Democrats immediately pushed back on the effort, accusing Jordan of peddling conspiracy theories in attacking a short-lived DOJ effort designed to respond to violent threats.
“The conspiracy theories underpinning today’s subpoenas have been debunked with facts time and time again, but Republicans do not want to be bothered by this inconvenient truth. There is no amount of documents that will satisfy the MAGA obsession with conspiracies,” said Del. Stacey Plaskett (V.I.), the top Democrat on a Judiciary subcommittee established by the GOP to examine the “weaponization” of the federal government.
The Justice Department declined to comment Friday, but Garland and Wray have previously taken numerous questions on the matter during appearances before Congress — something the FBI pointed to in pushing back on claims it had been unresponsive to Jordan.
“As Director Wray and other FBI officials have stated clearly on numerous occasions before Congress and elsewhere, the FBI has never been in the business of investigating speech or policing speech at school board meetings or anywhere else, and we never will be. Our focus is and always will be on protecting people from violence and threats of violence,” the agency said in a statement.
“We are fully committed to preserving and protecting First Amendment rights including the right to free speech. Attempts to further any political narrative will not change those facts.”
The memo has been a headache for the Justice Department and the National School Boards Association since shortly after its release.
The group sent a letter to the White House the week before Garland’s memo was released, laying out a spate of incidents at recent school board meetings, noting that some threats “could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
The ensuing political storm caused the National School Boards Association to issue a statement saying its members “regret and apologize for the letter.”
“There was no justification for some of the language included in the letter. We should have had a better process in place to allow for consultation on a communication of this significance,” the group wrote later that month.
Jordan has suggested that the Biden administration coordinated with the National School Boards Association to craft the policy, accusing them without evidence during a prior Fox News appearance of encouraging a “pretext to go after parents.”
The initial letter from the National School Boards Association references a meeting with the White House and the Department of Education, and asks for the Justice Department to review whether the threats may violate a number of different federal laws.
The Justice Department memo fell far short of what the group was asking for, however, stressing “coordination and partnership” with local law enforcement over any legal review.
“While I am disappointed that Republicans have resorted to this type of aggressive arm-twisting and performative politics, I am confident that what they have asked for will once again disprove this tired right-wing theory,” Plaskett said in her statement.
Jordan’s numerous prior letters on the school board memo come after he pledged aggressive oversight of the matter, a posture he solidified by following though just days after the committee was formally constituted.
The Department of Education noted it responded to Jordan’s request for information just the day before being served with the subpoena.
“The Department responded to Chairman Jordan’s letter earlier this week. The Department remains committed to responding to the House Judiciary Committee’s requests in a manner consistent with longstanding Executive Branch policy,” it said in a statement.
The move was decried by Democrats, who noted that Jordan failed to respond to a subpoena he was issued by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.
“Chairman Jordan is rushing to fire off subpoenas only two days after the Judiciary Committee organized, even though agencies already responded in good faith seeking to accommodate requests he made,” Ian Sams, White House spokesperson for oversight, said in a statement.
“These subpoenas make crystal clear that extreme House Republicans have no interest in working together with the Biden Administration on behalf of the American people — and every interest in staging political stunts.”
—Updated at 5:51 p.m. Lexi Lonas contributed.