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Top Justice Department vote crimes prosecutor steps down in protest of Barr's directive

Richard Pilger, head of the Justice Department's Elections Crimes Branch, stepped down late Monday, telling colleagues in an email that he was "regretfully" resigning as after "having familiarized myself with the new policy" handed down by Attorney General William Barr "and its ramifications." He said Barr's carefully worded memo to U.S. attorneys Monday is "abrogating the 40-year-old non-interference policy for ballot fraud investigations in the period prior to elections becoming certified and uncontested."

"Barr had first broached a similar idea some weeks ago," but "political leadership in the Justice Department's Criminal Division, of which the Election Crimes Branch is a part, pushed back," The Washington Post reports. "Those officials were blindsided when Barr's memo was released on Monday." Pilger is stepping down as director of that unit but will stay on as a line prosecutor, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Post report.

Barr's memo may not have much practical influence, given the size of President-elect Joe Biden's lead in several important states and the evident lack of voting irregularities, rare in any case. "It's harmful and destructive, but there's no path from there to changing the outcome of the election," Justin Levitt, a former Justice Department official and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told the Journal, noting that federal prosecutors can investigate and charge people who commit voter fraud but can't decide if a ballot should be counted.

President Trump and his allies are claiming that there was widespread voter fraud, and although they haven't produced any evidence that has held up to scrutiny, "the president's clear strategy is to delegitimize the results of a proper election" and Barr's memo "is one of the more problematic acts of any attorney general in my lifetime," University of Texas law professor Steve Vladek told the Post.

"Barr has privately told department officials in the days since the election that any disputes should be resolved in court by the campaigns themselves," that "he did not see massive fraud, and that most of the allegations of voter fraud were related to individual instances that did not point to a larger systemic problem," the Times reports. Barr did not write the memo at the direction of Trump or GOP lawmakers, a Justice Department official insisted. But he did meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) earlier Monday, before McConnell publicly backed Trump's long-shot court-challenge strategy.