(CNN)New revelations suggesting that the Trump administration abused Justice Department powers to target his political enemies underscore just how far the ex-President went to destroy cherished principles of American republican government.
They show that the true extent of assaults on democracy by Donald Trump are still coming to light and are probably even now not fully known.
But this is not just a drama about the alleged misbehavior of a former President. Taken together with the Republican Party’s refusal to hold Trump — who remains the GOP’s dominant figure — to account for the Capitol insurrection and its nationwide efforts to restrict voting, the new allegations also indicate that the freedoms and core values that have underpinned American life for two-and-a-half centuries remain in almost unprecedented peril.
In some of the most chilling exposés yet of Trump’s autocratic tendencies, The New York Times late Thursday unveiled a secret scheme by prosecutors against members of Congress conducting presidential oversight.
In pursuit of leaks of classified information about contacts between Trump associates and Russia, the Justice Department subpoenaed Apple for data from the accounts of Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, their staff and even their families, including a minor. In a sinister twist to the story, prosecutors also secured a gag order against Apple, preventing it from informing customers their metadata had been seized.
The story sent shockwaves through Washington and lawmakers are now scrambling to understand the scope of what looks like one of the gravest scandals of an former administration steeped in political corruption. If the new drama is at it seems, it would validate fears of those who argued that Trump — or his staff — used the Justice Department as a personal political enforcement mechanism rather than the guarantor of the rule of law. It would also add fuel to arguments of those who warned that a second term for Trump would have further endangered the survival of American democracy,
In this case, prosecutors were not probing the disastrous exposure of a secret weapons system or some secret war plans. According to the Times reports, they were investigating members of Congress, including California Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, also from California.
“You had the President calling on his opponents to be investigated,” Schiff said on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time” on Thursday. “One guardrail after another just smashed by this unethical former President.”
Swalwell, who told CNN Thursday night he had been notified that his data had been seized, told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Friday morning that he had never leaked classified information and laid out why citizens should care.
“This is about everyday Americans who don’t want to see their government weaponize law enforcement against them because of their political beliefs,” Swalwell said.
Why it matters so much
The reason this latest issue is so important is that it appears to show the executive branch of the government wielding presidential power to target the legislative branch, and the President’s personal political enemies. It would be hard to find a more clear and flagrant abuse of presidential power. This behavior would not only be a perversion of the DOJ’s critical role in ensuring the neutral and apolitical application of justice — a key requirement for a democratic society. It would also mirror the actions of autocrats across the world, many of whom Trump openly admired.
Furthermore, all of this was taking place at a time when Trump was railing against a “Deep State” of intelligence professionals and officials and as he was repeatedly lying. And the only reason why the revelations are emerging now is that gag orders on this and other investigations started by the former administration are expiring and are not being renewed by the Biden Justice Department.
In the Biden administration’s first on-camera reaction Friday, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield called the reports “appalling.”
During an appearance on MSNBC from Cornwall, England, Bedingfield suggested President Joe Biden has a “very different relationship” with the Justice Department than his predecessor, calling out the Trump administration’s “abuse of power” with the department, and adding that the Biden administration’s Justice Department is “run very, very differently.”
The newest revelations raise the question of whether there are even more alarming abuses of power by Trump that are yet to be uncovered — an issue that is going to hike pressure on new Attorney General Merrick Garland to provide an accounting. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco has asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate the department’s handling of the investigation, a Justice Department official briefed on the matter told CNN Friday.
At first sight, the new scandal appears to deserve a place in the pantheon of the most out-of-bounds uses of government power for political purposes in modern US history, including the Watergate scandal that felled President Richard Nixon and Trump’s own long list of transgressions.
The latter category includes one impeachment for trying to get a foreign power, Ukraine, to interfere in a US election and another for inciting a mob insurrection at the US Capitol that shattered the tradition of peaceful transfers of power. Trump tried to bully GOP officials in Georgia into overturning a fair election in 2020 — part of a campaign of lies about fraud that has soured millions of his supporters on the American political system. And he fired FBI Director James Comey and said he did it because of the Russia investigation.
The new reports are not just fresh examples of assaults on the guardrails of American democracy by the Trump White House. They come as the same goal is being pursued by GOP state lawmakers making it harder to vote and easier to steal elections and by the ex-President’s insurrection deniers in the Capitol.
More revelations about Trump’s autocratic instincts
In another insight into the depth of the assault on democratic values in the US, it emerged this week that the Trump Justice Department obtained a gag order to prevent CNN disclosing another secret leak investigation that swept up its Pentagon reporter Barbara Starr. Journalists working for the Washington Post and New York Times have also recently been informed that the Trump Justice Department pursued their email records and metadata without informing them.
Governments have the right to investigate leaks of national security. And leakers, whose whistleblowing may be needed for accountability in a democratic society, know they face potential prosecution for breaking the law.
But it is not clear that was the case here, and the predicate for a Justice Department investigation is opaque.
That fact alone will renew scrutiny on former Attorney General William Barr, whose initial appointment was greeted with relief in Washington given Trump’s previous lawlessness, but who often appeared to act mostly as a personal lawyer for Trump. In the most famous example of this, he publicly misrepresented Robert Mueller’s report into Trump campaign ties with Russia and the Kremlin’s 2016 election meddling effort. The current leak storm is yet another Trump abuse of power that appears to have been motivated by a desire to cover up what remain mysterious links between the former President’s orbit and Moscow, which meddled in the election five years ago in an attempt to help Trump win.
The key to understanding the new case is whether it was justified by any provable evidence of leaking by top Democrats, or was instead a vindictive effort by a President who constantly pressured the Justice Department to investigate his enemies.
The notion that the investigation was justified seems to be undermined by the staggering scope of the subpoenas — even extending to family members of Congress. It also appears to have turned up no wrongdoing.
The most concrete outcome of yet another Trump abuse of power scandal may be to underline the truism about American democracy revealed again and again by one of the most corrupt administrations in history. The structures of US government are fragile and the guardrails that separate a President from wielding absolute, almost monarchial power are often only as strong as a commander-in-chief’s respect for democracy itself. When an aberrant president is in office, those restraints become far less effective.
The new reports of abuses of power will provide yet another test of the Republican Party’s consistent choice to defend the outlandish behavior of its former President instead of standing up for the traditional principles of US democracy.
If recent history is any guide, there is only one way most members of a party comprehensively bought into Trump’s personality cult will react.