William Barr, the US attorney-general appointed by Donald Trump, on Monday authorised prosecutors to investigate possible instances of electoral fraud in this year’s presidential poll, a break from past practice that delayed such probes until after an election was settled.
The move, made in a memo issued to US attorneys across the country, came as Mr Trump continued to make unevidenced claims of fraud to dispute the victory of his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.
Mr Trump has refused to concede to Mr Biden, instead filing lawsuits that have generally been received sceptically by the courts. The Trump campaign on Monday filed a new case in Pennsylvania.
Mr Barr authorised prosecutors to investigate “clear and apparently-credible allegations of irregularities that, if true, could potentially impact the outcome of a federal election in an individual state”.
He added: “Nothing here should be taken as any indication that the department has concluded that voting irregularities have impacted the outcome of any election.”
Justice department practice in the past has been to wait until election results have been certified and the election settled before pushing forward with such investigations.
Mr Barr has been among Mr Trump’s most stalwart allies. In recent months, he has echoed the president’s messaging about the risks of voting by mail, claiming without evidence that it could open the door to a flood of ballots sent from overseas.
Those fears proved to be unfounded. There has been little evidence of significant voter fraud in this year’s election or of allegations Mr Trump has made of a vast conspiracy to steal the election from him.
“It is deeply unfortunate that the attorney-general Barr chose to issue a memorandum that will only fuel the ‘specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims’ he professes to guard against,” said Bob Bauer, a senior legal adviser to Mr Biden’s campaign.
“But, in the end, American democracy is stronger than any clumsy and cynical partisan political scheme. Joe Biden, who won the presidency with more votes than any president-elect in American history, will take the oath of office on January 20 2021.”
Mr Trump on Monday evening shared with his almost 89m Twitter followers a report about the attorney-general’s action, adding no comment to his post.
Mr Barr’s memo followed a meeting earlier on Monday between him and Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader.
Mr McConnell, like Mr Trump, has refused to acknowledge Mr Biden’s election victory. He said on the Senate floor that the president was “100 per cent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options”.
Mr Biden was projected the winner on Saturday by big US media organisations, including Fox News.
Though the vote counting is ongoing, Mr Biden has a significant lead in several key states that would ensure his victory, including in Pennsylvania, where he leads by a little over 45,000 votes, more than Mr Trump’s margin of victory in the state in 2016.
So far, most of Mr Trump’s legal challenges have been rejected by the courts for lack of evidence to support his campaign’s claims of election irregularities.
Mr Trump has had legal success on relatively minor issues, such as how close Republican election observers could stand to poll workers counting ballots.
The ongoing litigation has forestalled the transition process, a formal exercise in which an incoming administration sends teams into government agencies to ensure a smooth handover process in January.
The General Services Administration, an agency that oversees transitions and is run by a Trump appointee, has so far declined to allow the process to begin.
The Biden transition team has called on the GSA to “promptly” ascertain Mr Biden as the winner of the election, now that the race had been “independently called for Joe Biden”.