House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan on Friday subpoenaed the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Department of Education for documents as part of its investigation into whether a Justice Department strategy to address threats against teachers and school officials was abused to target conservative parents.
The flurry of subpoenas are the first from the Judiciary’s subcommittee dedicated to investigating the alleged weaponization of the federal government and are an early indication that the newly minted chairman intends to aggressively pursue its probe into the Biden administration’s response to rising tensions and threats of violence surrounding school board meetings.
The subpoenas set a document deadline of March 1. The panel sent the subpoenas after initially sending letters to the agencies for voluntary cooperation on January 17.
Violence at school boards
The allegations being investigated date to 2021, when protests and some violence erupted at school board meetings across the country. Most of the anger came from conservative parents who wanted to repeal mask mandates, opposed anti-racism courses and had concerns about LGBTQ policies.
With that backdrop, the National School Boards Association wrote to President Joe Biden asking for federal help to address the violence and threats against school administrators. The group said that “these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism” and encouraged the Justice Department to explore which laws, possibly including the Patriot Act, could be applied.
The group soon apologized for “some of the language” in its letter. But it quickly drew backlash, particularly among conservatives.
Attorney General Merrick Garland had issued a memo in response – which didn’t cite the letter, compare parents to “terrorists” nor invoke the Patriot Act. It merely told the FBI and federal prosecutors to step up collaboration with state and local law enforcement on the issue.
According to a report Jordan released last year, emails show that the Biden White House consulted with the NSBA on the letter before the group made its letter public. An independent review by NSBA concluded, however, that there was no “direct or indirect evidence suggesting the Administration requested the Letter” or reviewed the contents before the letter was sent.
Other emails also show that the Justice Department sent an advance copy of Garland’s memo to the NSBA.
The FBI later established a “threat tag” to internally track cases about school board threats under the same categorization. Republicans have seized on the “threat tag” to accuse the FBI of carrying out Biden’s desire to stomp out conservative speech at school boards. But the creation of an internal database does not mean the FBI initiated any sort of crackdown against parents.
GOP demands documents
Judiciary Republicans are requesting Garland provide a paper trail of the DOJ’s communications with the White House, intelligence agencies and members of the National School Boards Association about alleged violence at school board meetings.
The subpoena also calls for a number of documents relating to Garland’s directive for FBI and US attorneys’ offices to meet with federal, state and local law enforcement partners to discuss strategies for addressing the issue, focusing specifically on what meetings took place and what recommendations were made.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment. Three days after Jordan’s voluntary request to DOJ, a department official responded to the Ohio Republican that “we share your belief that congressional oversight is vital to our functioning democracy” and encouraged the committee to prioritize its document requests to elicit efficient responses, according to a letter obtained by CNN.
The FBI subpoena specifically demands that Director Chris Wray produce a variety of documents, including communications related to meeting with US attorneys’ offices and “establishment of the Department of Justice’s task force.”
Wray is also told to hand over all documents related to formal and informal recommendations created or relied upon by FBI employees in accordance with Garland’s October 2021 memo.
The FBI said in a statement that the bureau “has never been in the business of investigating speech or policing speech at school board meetings or anywhere else, and we never will be,” adding that “attempts to further any political narrative will not change those facts.”
“The FBI recognizes the importance of congressional oversight and remains fully committed to cooperating with Congress’s oversight requests consistent with its constitutional and statutory responsibilities. The FBI is actively working to respond to congressional requests for information – including voluntary production of documents,” the FBI statement read.
Jordan’s subpoena to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called on the Education Department to hand over any documents or communications related to a letter the National School Boards Association sent in September 2021.
Jordan’s subpoena also called for any files related to Viola Garcia’s appointment to the National Assessment Government Board. Garcia was the president of the National School Boards Association and was one of two individuals who signed the September 2021 letter to Biden.
An Education Department spokesperson told CNN that “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.”
CNN has reached out to Garcia for comment.
On Thursday, a day before the subpoena, the Education Department told Jordan’s team that the department played no role in crafting the letter from the National School Boards Association.
“I would also like to reiterate – as the Department has repeatedly made clear – that the Secretary did not request, direct any action, or play any role in the development of the September 29, 2021, letter from the NSBA to President Biden,” Gwen Graham, assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs at the Education Department wrote in a letter obtained by CNN. Graham added that an independent review for counsel retained by the NSBA did not find any connection between the letter and Garcia’s appointment.
Republicans gave Democrats on the committee a heads up that these subpoenas were coming, a source familiar told CNN. Democratic Del. Stacey Plaskett of the US Virgin Islands, the highest-ranking Democrat on the subcommittee on the weaponization of the federal government, said the subpoenas were underpinned by “conspiracy theories” and said she is confident that what the Republicans have asked for “will once again disprove this tired right-wing theory.”
White House spokesperson for Congressional Oversight Ian Sams said in a statement to CNN, “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. 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.”
A false narrative takes hold
Since the uproar at school boards became a major political issue in late 2021, Republicans have pushed the baseless narrative that Biden, Garland and Wray have weaponized federal law enforcement to attack innocent parents who care about education.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy falsely claimed that “Biden used the FBI to target parents as domestic terrorists.” Jordan has said Garland tried “to use federal law enforcement tools to silence parents.” This claim even came up in the GOP response to last year’s State of the Union. These claims have been repeatedly debunked by fact-checkers from CNN and other outlets.
For his part, Garland has aggressively pushed back against Republicans’ accusations. He previously testified to Congress that the Justice Department isn’t using counterterrorism resources against parents and said it was ridiculous to equate “angry” parents to “terrorists.”
When GOP senators grilled Wray about the “threat tag” matter at an August hearing, he defended the FBI.
“The FBI is not going to be in the business of investigating speech or policing speech at school board meetings,” Wray said. “We’re not about to start now. Threats of violence, that’s a different matter altogether. And there, we will work with our state local partners, as we always have.”