Photo: AP

Like at most federal agencies, the Justice Department’s social media accounts went dark two weeks ago when the partial government shutdown began. The employees who distribute news and work to keep the public informed of the department’s activities via Twitter and Facebook were sent home on furlough, none serving an essential law enforcement or national security function.

But that changed on Monday when DOJ’s Twitter account suddenly sprang to life to alert the public about the outcomes of two criminal cases; one in New York and the other in Georgia. Both involve sex trafficking. The statements and accompanying tweets are the first issued by the Justice Department since December 21. And while that may seem like an unremarkable event, it’s what these cases have in common that’s raising eyebrows: both involve Mexican nationals caught in the U.S. illegally and convicted of heinous sexual offenses. 

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DOJ follows what most users would consider very strict guidelines for the use of social media. A working group responsible for approving all social media usage is compromised of employees from no less than six DOJ offices. Most of these employees, if not all, are currently on furlough due to the lapse in appropriations. The DOJ’s website notes that visitors shouldn’t expect updates until the shutdown is over. The employees who’d normally write and issue press releases aren’t in the building right now.

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But someone is. And while negotiations between Democratic leaders and the White House continue over government funding, and whether President Trump will receive any money for his long-promised border wall, someone at Justice appears to be lending the president a hand—namely by trying to draw attention to the crimes of Mexican nationals who’ve entered the U.S. illegally.

Public affairs operations are considered an “ancillary support service,” according to the DOJ’s shutdown contingency plan. The job of public affairs officials, the plan notes, “may be conducted only to the extent the failure to perform those functions prevents or significantly damages the functioning of a funded component, the operations of other funded parts of the Government, or the performance of an excepted function” (emphasis ours).

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In other words, DOJ is allowed to field questions from journalists and issue statements to the public—but only if failing to do so would in some way inhibit the operations of a DOJ office whose work is unaffected by the shutdown. Otherwise, no one is getting paid to perform this job.

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Ensuring the public is aware of developments in these cases doesn’t appear to meet that standard. It’s not even close. Notably, these are crimes for which the defendants have already been convicted. The indictments are old news. And no DOJ component would be hobbled if the public weren’t immediately alerted to the sentences handed down in these cases.

Someone at DOJ simply wants this information to be more prominently shared online. And that raises questions about whether one or more senior officials there are ignoring protocol in an effort to stir up public support for the president’s ideas.

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“It’s pretty peculiar that DOJ decided to break its practice of not issuing press releases during the shutdown for what is a pretty run-of-the-mill sentencing,” said Matthew Miller, the former director of public affairs at DOJ under Attorney General Eric Holder. “The only conclusion you can draw is that they decided singling out a case involving a Mexican national for publicity helps the president’s political agenda, so it was worth abandoning the precedent they had set for other cases.”

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Added Miller: “It seems there is now one set of rules at DOJ for cases involving immigrants, and another set of rules for everyone else. Apparently crimes involving immigrants count more to them.”

DOJ’s tweets about the two cases were quickly picked up by the president’s supporters, many of whom cited the releases in tweets aimed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accompanied by messages like, “This is reason enough to BUILD THE WALL!” and “What’s immoral is allowing sex trafficking to continue.” (The latter is a reference to Pelosi labeling the wall “immoral” during a press conference last week.)

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The conspicuous tweets from DOJ follow news that Justice officials are refusing to retract or correct erroneous figures circulated by the DOJ concerning links between terrorism and immigration. In one example of these flawed numbers, DOJ claimed immigrants had been convicted of nearly 70,000 sex crimes between 2003 and 2009. But it turns out the offenses cited actually took place over a period of about 55 years instead.

No one from DOJ’s office of public affairs could be reached for comment. DOJ’s former top spokesperson, Sarah Isgur Flores, who now works in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s office, declined to answer any questions.

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