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Story highlights

The Justice Department civil rights division is looking for lawyers, according to an internal memo obtained by The New York Times

The DOJ was referring to a 2015 complaint filed against Harvard for discriminating against Asian-Americans in the admissions process

(CNN) —  

The Department of Justice is pushing back against a report that said the Trump administration was readying resources in the department’s civil rights division to potentially investigate and litigate the affirmative action policies at universities.

The New York Times reported on an internal document that said the Justice Department’s civil rights division was looking for lawyers to work on “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”

CNN has not independently obtained the document.

The New York Times suggested that the phrase “intentional race-based discrimination” could mean the undertaking is aimed at affirmative action-based policies, specifically ones that prioritize minority students over white students.

DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores called that characterization “inaccurate,” and said the posting was from an ongoing case that rolled over from Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration.

“The posting sought volunteers to investigate one administrative complaint filed by a coalition of 64 Asian-American associations in May 2015 that the prior administration left unresolved,” Flores said in a statement. “The complaint alleges racial discrimination against Asian Americans in a university’s admissions policy and practices. This Department of Justice has not received or issued any directive, memorandum, initiative, or policy related to university admissions in general. The Department of Justice is committed to protecting all Americans from all forms of illegal race-based discrimination.”

A former Justice Department official familiar with the civil rights division investigation told CNN that the DOJ was referring in its statement Wednesday to a 2015 complaint filed against Harvard for discriminating against Asian-Americans in the admissions process.

In a statement to CNN, a NYT spokesperson said: “We stand by our reporting.”

Affirmative action, as it exists in US colleges and universities, aims to eliminate discrimination in the higher education admissions process by recruiting and incentivizing traditionally excluded groups like minority students or women.

The White House on Wednesday declined to confirm reporting that the administration would investigate affirmative action in college admissions. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said instead that the White House will continue to investigate allegations of racial discrimination against any race.

“The New York Times article is based on uncorroborated sources,” she said during Wednesday’s press briefing. “The Department of Justice will always review credible allegations of discrimination on the basis of any race.”

The memo indicates the undertaking would be headed by political appointees in DOJ’s civil rights division, rather than the Educational Opportunities Section, the Times reported, which would normally handle matters related to schools.

Melodie Jackson, a Harvard spokeswoman, told CNN that “Harvard remains committed to enrolling diverse classes of students. Harvard’s admissions process considers each applicant as a whole person, and we review many factors, consistent with the legal standards established by the US Supreme Court.”

The case is still in the discovery process, according to a Harvard website.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Mary Kay Mallonee, Jessica Schneider, Brian Stelter and Sarah Jorgensen contributed to this report.