WASHINGTON — Career Justice Department prosecutors pushed back this week against a memo by Attorney General William P. Barr that opened the door to politically charged election fraud investigations, saying in a pair of messages that Mr. Barr thrust the department into politics and falsely overstated the threat of voter fraud.
The protests were the latest rebuke of Mr. Barr by his own employees, who have in recent months begun criticizing his leadership both privately and publicly. They argued that Mr. Barr has worked to advance President Trump’s interests by wielding the power of the department to shield his allies and attack his enemies.
On Friday, 16 federal prosecutors across the country who were assigned to monitor elections for signs of fraud wrote to Mr. Barr that they had found no evidence of “substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities.” They also asked him to rescind the memo, saying it thrust the department into partisan politics and was unnecessary because no one has identified any legitimate suspicions of mass voter fraud.
The memo “is not based in fact,” the monitors wrote.
Issued Monday amid the president’s efforts to falsely claim widespread voter fraud, the memo allows prosecutors to investigate “substantial allegations” of fraud before the results of the presidential race are certified, disregarding longstanding department policies intended to keep law enforcement investigations from affecting the outcome of an election.
“It was developed and announced without consulting nonpartisan career professionals in the field and at the department,” the prosecutors wrote of the memo. “The timing of the memorandum’s release thrusts career prosecutors into partisan politics.” The Washington Post earlier reported their letter.
On Thursday, a top career prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington said in an email sent to Mr. Barr via Richard P. Donoghue, an official in the deputy attorney general’s office, that the memo should be rescinded because it went against longstanding practices, according to two people with knowledge of the email.
The prosecutor, J.P. Cooney, also said that the fact that Richard Pilger, a longtime department employee who oversees election fraud crimes, chose to step down from that position over the memo was deeply concerning, the people said.
In response, Mr. Donoghue told Mr. Cooney that he would pass on his complaint but that if it leaked to reporters, he would note that as well. Given that the email was born out of a concern for integrity, Mr. Donoghue said in his reply that he would assure officials “that I have a high degree of confidence that it will not be improperly leaked to the media.”
A department spokeswoman declined to comment about Mr. Cooney’s message. Asked about the prosecutors’ letter to Mr. Barr, she said that his memo directed prosecutors to “exercise appropriate caution and maintain the department’s absolute commitment to fairness, neutrality and nonpartisanship.”
Others inside the department pointed out that Mr. Barr’s memo was carefully worded and contained caveats that made it unlikely that a prosecutor could meet the threshold to open a case and begin investigating.
“Specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims should not be a basis for initiating federal inquiries,” Mr. Barr wrote in his memo. “Nothing here should be taken as any indication that the department has concluded that voting irregularities have impacted the outcome of any election.”
Department lawyers often engage in heated debates over policies, investigations and prosecutions, but they rarely put their criticisms in writing and then send them to top officials.
But Mr. Barr’s memo churned up rancor among prosecutors who work on election fraud, in large part because Mr. Trump himself was making false claims about widespread voter fraud. Even the specter of such an investigation into votes for the presidential race could shade the integrity of the election.
Mr. Pilger, the prosecutor who oversees election fraud at the department’s headquarters in Washington, stepped down from his supervisory role in protest a few hours after it was issued; and other lawyers affected by the memo began to devise plans for how to push back on Mr. Barr’s authorization and what to do should a U.S. attorney announce an election-related investigation, according to three people with knowledge of these discussions.
Even as the department’s officials and career prosecutors argued about the memo, Mr. Trump’s legal cases related to the election began to unravel on Friday. A state judge in Michigan rejected an attempt by Republicans to halt the certification of the vote in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, pending an audit. And lawyers for Mr. Trump withdrew election-related lawsuits in Pennsylvania and Arizona.