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Reprinted with permission from Press Run
Stunning new abuse-of-power revelations remind us of the Trump administration's complete disregard for democratic principles. We now know that over a span of years it took extraordinary legal measures, including gag orders and secret tribunals, in pursuit of email records from reporters at CNN and the Washington Post. Team Trump also unleashed the courts on Democratic members of Congress and their families trying to obtain private phone records, as well as secretly targeting a key White House attorney, who possibly fell under suspicion for not being sufficiently loyal to Trump.
The disturbing portrait now in focus is one of a Republican White House that for four years worked in tandem with partisan prosecutors to systematically politicize the vast powers of the Justice Department, which often treated Trump's allies leniently, and used unprecedented tools to target his foes. It was Trump recklessly using the executive branch to gather private information on members of the legislative branch, as well as members of the media.
The emerging scandal already eclipses Richard Nixon's Watergate in terms of the benchmarks we use to gauge Washington, D.C. abuse of power. It's "Nixon on stilts and steroids," Nixon's former White House Counsel John Dean told CNN. "Nixon didn't have that kind of Department of Justice."
It's worse than Watergate because the White House abuse of power was purposely powered by the Justice Department. This would have been if U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell had helped plot the Watergate break-in, instead of a band of rogue Nixon sycophants. This is worse because it's institutional abuse conducted by political entities with boundless authority, such as the White House and the DOJ.
"Taken together with the Republican Party's refusal to hold Trump 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," stressed CNN's Stephen Collinson.
It's worse than Watergate because this is what it looks like when democracies begin to crumble. It happens regularly all over the world, usually in emerging democracies, as nations lose their grip on crucial liberties while under the leadership of autocratic rulers.
And it's worse because since the scandal first broke last week, the Republican Party, as usual, has refused to acknowledge Trump's radical ways and condemn the anti-democratic behavior. While Democrats now push for Congressional investigations into the scandal, it appears Senate Republicans wlll stand in the way of issuing subpoenas, which are crucial in terms of gather evidence and compelling cooperation.
There's little doubt that today's blindly loyal GOP would have tried to block Congressional subpoenas issued during the Watergate investigation. (As the break-in and cover-up revelations tumbled out, Nixon eventually lost the support of Congressional Republicans.)
Late last week, the Justice Department's independent inspector general opened an investigation into the decision in 2018 by federal prosecutors to secretly seize the iPhone data of House Democrats, including Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell and their family members. Trump's team, which subpoenaed Apple, was desperately trying to hunt down who had leaked classified information early in the Trump administration. Specifically, leaks with regards to Trump's collaboration with Russia during the 2016 election.
It's almost unheard for the DOJ to use the courts to secretly seize data from members of Congress if those members are not the target of a corruption investigation, which Schiff and Swalwell clearly were not. They became abuse-of-power targets because they were trying to hold Trump accountable for his criminality.
Democrats weren't the only Trump enemies targeted by his out-of-control DOJ. It also secretly obtained the phone records of multiple Washington Post reporters. Imagine if Nixon's DOJ had snagged Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's phone logs as they reported out the Watergate caper?
On another wild fishing expedition, the Justice Department tossed CNN into a prolonged, Kafka-esque legal battle. Demanding access to 30,000 emails from Pentagon reporter Barbara Starr, government lawyers refused to tell the network what the larger DOJ investigation was about, who the subjects of the investigation were, the subject matter of the reporting at the center of the matter, or when the investigation was opened. The Justice Department also forbade CNN's general counsel from talking to Starr about the extraordinary chain of events in play.
"I was informed that, other than conferring with counsel, the order prohibited me from acknowledging to anyone that it even existed unless I had express permission from the Department of Justice," CNN's top lawyer David Vigilante explained. "And I was further informed that if I violated the order, I was subject to charges of contempt and even criminal prosecution for obstruction of justice."
Last December, a district court heard CNN's appeal and was unimpressed with whatever secret evidence the DOJ had accumulated in its mysterious case that required taking possession of 30,000 Starr emails. The gag order was soon lifted.
The good news is that CNN, the Times, and the Post met with Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday. In alignment with President Joe Biden, Garland's DOJ has said that it will not seize reporters' records as part of leak investigations.
And you can be sure it won't target Biden's political foes with partisan and secretive subpoenas.
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