US Attorney General William Barr authorized the Department of Justice on Monday to investigate baseless claims of voting "irregularities" as many Republican leaders continued to refuse to acknowledge President-elect Joe Biden's victory.
Citing no credible evidence of voter fraud, President Trump and his team have refused to concede the election as his campaign threatened to file lawsuits in Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia to contest the results, claiming in legal challenges that Republican observers weren't allowed adequate access or that mail-in ballot rules were applied unfairly.
Barr's instructions to assistant attorneys general in the US comes just two days after Biden clinched enough votes to win the 2020 presidential election, and breaks the DOJ's own policy not to take "overt investigative steps" until after an election is certified.
In a memo sent across the DOJ ranks, as well as to FBI Director Christopher Wray, Barr said that "now that the voting has concluded, it is imperative that the American people can trust that our elections were conducted in such a way that the outcomes accurately reflect the will of the voters."
BuzzFeed News has journalists around the US bringing you trustworthy stories on the 2020 elections. To help keep this news free, become a member.
The memo also points out that investigations into voter fraud require consultation with the DOJ's Public Integrity Section's Election Crimes Branch, which usually does not take "overt investigative steps" until an election is certified.
But in his memo, Barr directed officials to move ahead with investigations, saying the "practice has never been a hard and fast rule."
"Such a passive and delayed enforcement approach can result in situations in which election misconduct cannot realistically be rectified," Barr wrote.
The memo comes as Biden's team has moved toward a transition of power with no assistance from the sitting administration, including announcing a COVID-19 task force.
The White House has instead focused on pushing unfounded claims of voter fraud, including in a press conference by White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who appeared alongside Trump campaign officials.
Despite the allegations from Trump, his administration, and campaign officials, judges have been rejecting their claims in court. But that hasn't stopped top Republicans and supporters of the president from echoing their claims, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who defended Trump's questioning of election results without evidence.
"In the United States of America, all legal ballots must be counted," McConnell said, using similar talking points as Trump's campaign. "The process should be transparent or observable by all sides and the courts are here to work through concerns."
McConnell also mocked news outlets for projecting that Biden won despite returns showing he had won the Electoral College, saying the Constitution gives the media no role in selecting the president.
As of Monday evening, the only Republican senators to publicly congratulate Biden on his victory were Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio from Florida said that while the "early results" seem to show Biden won, Trump has the right to pursue recounts and legal challenges.
But even in his memo, Barr pointed out that most instances of "election misconduct" are never at a scale that would change the impact of an election.
"Any concerns that overt actions taken by the Department could inadvertently impact an election are greatly minimized, if they exist at all, once voting has been concluded, even if election certification has not yet been completed," he wrote.
Still, the top law enforcement official in the country authorized officials to "pursue substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities prior to the certification of elections in your jurisdictions."
"Such inquiries and reviews may be conducted if there are clear and apparently-credible allegations of irregularities that, if true, could potentially impact the outcome of a federal election in an individual case," he added.
Barr also warned against spending time and resources on "specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims."
"Nothing here should be taken as any indication that the Department has concluded that voting irregularities have impacted the outcome of any election," he wrote. "Rather, I provide this authority and guidance to emphasize the need to timely and appropriately address allegations of voting irregularities so that all American people, regardless of their preferred candidate or party, can have full confidence in the results of our elections."
Paul McLeod contributed reporting to this story.