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Why Trump’s Abuse Of Power Is Truly Worse Than Watergate

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.

How Bill Barr Is Trying To Clean Up His Declining Reputation

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

Former Attorney General Bill Barr's record leading the Justice Department is coming into clearer light as Merrick Garland takes the reins of the agency, and new revelations are bringing the much-maligned Trump acolyte under new scrutiny. It's now clear that under his watch, DOJ obtained the communication records of multiple journalists, a disturbing use of government power that is supposed to face stringent restrictions. Some argue it should never happen at all. The news was revealed when the new administration contacted the journalists to inform them of what had happened.

And the public has also learned that Barr's DOJ sought to force Twitter to unmask an anonymous account critical of California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, a close Trump ally. Shortly after Garland was sworn in as attorney general, DOJ dropped the subpoena against Twitter.

So how is the former attorney general reacting to the new administration airing his dirty laundry? From all appearances, it looks like he's trying to launder his reputation by anonymously giving Trump administration scoops to reporters.

There've previously been signs that Barr has a tendency to plant stories in the press when it serves his interest, but a recent piece in Politico may be one of the most blatant and transparent efforts from the former AG to manage and rehabilitate his reputation.

The piece is titled "Inside Trump's push to oust his own FBI chief," and it's sold as delivering an "explosive" story about scandal in the White House, a genre that's become quite common in the past four years. But read just a little bit between the lines, and what's happening is clear: Barr is personally pushing this story to sell a narrative about himself as principled and independent from Trump. It's not clear if it's coming in direct response to the other revelations about Barr mentioned above, or if he's just more broadly concerned about differentiating himself from Trump; perhaps both motivations are playing a role.

The story, like so many tales of White House intrigue, is sourced anonymously, so how am I able to confidently say it came from Bill Barr? Because without saying so directly, the story as written makes it unambiguously clear.

Consider this passage:

It all came to a head in late April, when Barr went over to the White House for a routine meeting in then-chief of staff Mark Meadows' office.
Instead, a staffer from his office intercepted Barr and told him he was actually going to meet in the Roosevelt Room, where such meetings were not usually held.
Barr found it strange to be put in that room, especially given that no one else was there when they entered it. Soon afterward, John McEntee, the powerful head of the presidential personnel office and a hard-core Trump loyalist, entered. Then [William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, also came into the room.
Barr asked McEntee, "What's this all about?" recounted one of the former Trump officials.
McEntee demurred and checked his phone. They were waiting on others, he told Barr.
Fuming, Barr walked out of the room and barged into Meadows' office. "What the f--- is going on?" he asked.

The story is clearly told from Bill Barr's point of view. We're told Barr "found it strange" to be in a room — who would know his feelings but Barr himself? Then when others enter the room, it's Barr who is active. His remarks come in direct quotes, and we're told they were recounted by "one of the former Trump officials." That leaves only three possibilities for the source of the information, and Barr is the only plausible candidate.

McEntee is described having "demurred and checked his phone." That's not how someone tends to talk about their own actions. And then when McEntee speaks, the words are not in quotation marks. This makes sense if Barr is telling the reporter the story — Barr can be directly quoted for his own past remarks that he recounts, but his recounting of any responses from others is more likely to be paraphrased, so these words don't merit quotation marks.

And here's the clincher: As the setting of the story changes, the narrative follows Bill Barr leaving the room and going to another room, where he talks to Mark Meadows. This is Barr's story, he's the protagonist, and it's being told from his point of view. He's the primary source for the narrative.

The story continued:

Then, in a meeting later that day with both Meadows and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, Barr demanded to know what was happening. When told that Trump wanted to replace Wray with Evanina and make Patel the deputy director of the FBI, Barr calmly told them he couldn't stay in his job if Trump's preferred picks were installed at the FBI over his objection, two of the former officials familiar with the encounter said.
Cipollone, who also said he was completely unaware of what was going on until that day, sided with Barr: He told his two colleagues that the attorney general should be involved in the decision process about who should be FBI director, and that Wray should stay.
And that was it: The White House ultimately backed off on the plan once they realized Barr would quit, according to two of the former Trump officials.

Now we have two sources for the story. We know Barr is one of them. The other is Cipollone, Barr's ally in the story. He, like Barr, comes off looking like one of the "heroes" of the narrative after they take a stand together.

Further corroboration of these inferences comes near the end of the story, which noted:

A spokesperson for Trump didn't respond to a request for comment. Patel and Meadows also didn't respond to requests for comment. Evanina and McEntee declined to comment.

Politico doesn't say Barr or Cippolone declined to comment, because they did comment, anonymously. If they hadn't, the outlet would've felt compelled to reach out to them for comment on the story and note if they had declined to comment.

The opening of the story says it had three sources "familiar with the episode" in total — though the key passages only indicate two sources present for the events. This suggests there is a third source, perhaps a Barr aide, who was told contemporaneously about the events but didn't witness them directly.

In the end, it's not that revelatory a story. We know that Trump and many of his allies would've liked to see Wray gone, but many obstacles stood in his way. It's not clear this episode is really as dramatic as it was framed — it might have been more of a casual discussion than it seems in this recollection.

What we already know about Barr and Trump's relationship is frankly more interesting. Barr did indeed stand up to Trump in the end of his term in office, declaring that the DOJ hadn't found evidence of substantial fraud in the 2020 election. And Barr was sharply critical of Trump after the January 6 insurrection, pinning blame for the mob's actions on the then-president. Those public events don't erase Barr's complicity in many of Trump's worst actions in the prior two years — perhaps most notably, his eagerness to sow doubt in the 2020 election before it was carried out — but they're more significant than the episode recounted by Politico.

But the fact that he is trying to spread the story now does tell us something interesting about Bill Bar. He's tried to give the impression that he doesn't care what people think of him. When asked about the damage working for Trump had done to his reputation, Barr gave a memorable answer.

"I am at the end of my career," he told CBS in 2019 ."Everyone dies, and I am not, you know, I don't believe in the Homeric idea that, you know, immortality comes by, you know, having odes sung about you over the centuries, you know?"

As I've long argued, though, that isn't true. He cares deeply about his reputation. Barr was clearly obsessed with the media coverage of the Trump administration He saw it as his job to, in part, protect Trump from his critics in the press and sometimes bent or broke Justice Department rules to do it.

Now he's out of office, and perhaps he's abandoned the project of helping Trump. But he's still obsessed with what the media is saying.

Smearing An Eminently Qualified Black Woman Is Business As Usual

Reprinted with permission from Roll Call

She has been endorsed by many law enforcement groups, including the National Association of Police Organizations, yet she was accused of being anti-police. Baseless innuendo thrown her way has been refuted by support from the National Council of Jewish Women, the Anti-Defamation League, and dozens of other local, state, and national Jewish organizations. She's been tagged as "extreme," which only makes sense if being an advocate for an equitable society qualifies.

The nomination of Kristen Clarke, President Joe Biden's choice to serve as assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, barely made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Panelists split 11-11 along party lines, and then on Tuesday, the full Senate voted 50-48 to discharge the nomination from the committee, setting up a final floor vote.

Is anyone surprised at the roadblocks this nomination has faced?

Clarke, a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, is a Black woman and president and executive director (now on leave) of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — and that may be the problem. The fight for "civil rights" for all, or even truthfully teaching about the struggle that made the fight necessary, has become controversial in some quarters, especially the Republican congressional caucuses.

Women of color have had a particularly tough time before the Senate Judiciary Committee with those who won't let the facts get in the way of partisan pushback. Vanita Gupta, despite her experience and endorsements, was attacked at her hearing before her eventual confirmation as associate attorney general. And then it was Clarke's turn.

The Usual Suspects

Some of it was comical, as when Sen. John Cornyn, took Clarke's satirical college writings criticizing the racism of The Bell Curve as literal. Some of it was just bullying, the well-trod territory of Cornyn's Texas partner, Sen. Ted Cruz, who insisted that a Newsweek column, in which Clarke agreed with Biden's call for more police funding, said the opposite.

Usually, presidents get the benefit of the doubt when choosing their teams. President Donald Trump certainly did, despite questionable qualifications for a host of them. His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, not only had no education experience, she also barely hid her contempt for the public schools neither she nor any of her children attended. But the majority of Republicans approved of her, and her prioritizing of Christian and charter schools.

Fellow Texan and former governor of the state Rick Perry got Cruz's vote for secretary of energy, the department he forgot he wanted to eliminate during his infamous "oops" moment at a presidential debate in 2011. Perry also admitted he had to play catch-up on what the department actually did.

You can't make this stuff up.

Hypocrisy is not exactly new to Washington. Recently, Republican lawmakers were falling all over themselves to speechify the honoring of law enforcement during National Police Week. North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, in a floor speech, recognized officers "willing to risk their own lives to protect others" and warned that "demonization of law enforcement will have lasting consequences, and it will ultimately make all of us less safe." This, as members of his GOP are resisting calls to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol and downplaying injuries suffered by officers protecting those lawmakers' hides.

A Familiar Refrain

Most every Black person gets a certain bit of oft-repeated parental advice: "You have to work twice as hard to get half as far." It's resulted in a lot of overworking achievers (too close for comfort right here), and a lot of stuffed résumés. But even if you follow it to the letter, as Clarke did when she earned a scholarship to an elite prep school that took her far from her Brooklyn home and on to positions in both Republican and Democratic administrations, you might get smeared when you dare to be excellent while Black, and use that excellence to make life better for all Americans.

Many Black female leaders, allies and organizations have supported Clarke, who would be the first Black woman to hold the post, and she would certainly be a needed change from the previous administration. Business leaders, perhaps less timid after finding their voice on other issues, have signaled their approval. The Biden Justice Department, under new leadership, has tried to rebuild its mission after the Trump team seemed bound and determined to make a mockery of its name.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, who did pass muster this time at his Senate confirmation after then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider his Supreme Court nomination by President Barack Obama, is settling in with a full agenda. Garland has announced that the DOJ is reinstating consent decrees to reign in rogue police departments and going after white supremacists that Trump's own FBI director deemed the No. 1 domestic terror threat.

It's a big job that the likes of Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, not only ignored but subverted. In Clarke, the department would get a professional who has seen unequal treatment in her work and up close.

As Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and another Black woman who is about the country's unfinished business, told theGrio: "Those who oppose her confirmation are actually opposed to the confirmation of a real civil rights advocate to run the Civil Right Division. They don't really oppose Kristen — they oppose robust civil rights enforcement."

In her own remarks before the Judiciary Committee, Clarke made her mission clear by quoting the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, under whose leadership the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund was founded: "'Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.' I've tried to do just that at every step of my career."

If only her opponents could say the same.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

Biden, Garland Taking Quiet But Firm Steps Against White Nationalist Violence

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos

Quietly and with little fanfare, the Biden administration has been taking all the right steps early in its tenure in confronting the threat of right-wing extremist violence and its spread—a mandate handed to Biden by the insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Rather than take a high-profile approach that might backfire, Biden's Justice Department and FBI, and to a lesser extent the Department of Homeland Security, have wisely taken a low-key route that emphasizes competence and effectiveness, as a New York Times piece explored last weekend.

But make no mistake, the Biden administration is taking the problem seriously. Indictments from the insurrection now number more than 300, prosecutors are establishing evidence of a clear chain of conspiracy leading to the attack focusing on Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, and arrests for criminal behavior by far-right extremists unrelated to the attack are occurring as well. It's a welcome change from the malign neglect of the matter by Donald Trump and his administration.

As we have argued consistently since the insurrection, an effective approach to right-wing domestic terrorism necessarily will eschew the trappings of the post-9/11 "war on terror"—that is, instead of creating new laws and giving law enforcement unneeded new powers, the phenomenon can most effectively be attacked by smartly deploying law enforcement to enforce the many laws already on the books.

According to Shaun Courtney at Bloomberg, that is in fact how the Biden administration has tackled the issue so far. It also appears to be the thinking of key lawmakers in Congress.

"There's no shortage of laws on the books to deal with violent extremist groups and the actions that they take. My sense is right now it's primarily resource allocation and prioritization," said Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"The whole idea of having more robust oversight of the Department of Homeland Security and their intelligence operations, I think is a critical first step," Peters said.

Claiming that law enforcement lacks the legal authority necessary to counter domestic terrorism "gives cover to the idea that somehow, 'Oh if you only had the tools, we would have actually been targeting this threat,' " Becky Monroe, a policy director in the Justice Department's civil rights division under President Barack Obama, told Courtney.

The Times story noted that several concrete steps have already taken place. DHS has opened up a review of how it handles domestic extremism—needed, in no small part, because of the department's well-documented evisceration of its intelligence-gathering capacity for domestic right-wing terrorism. For the first time in its history, DHS has designated domestic extremism as a "national priority area," which requires that 7.5 percent of the billions in grant funds be devoted to combating it.

Biden also has bolstered a National Security Council team devoted to domestic extremism, one that had been depleted under Trump. Meanwhile, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, has said the Justice Department would also make domestic extremism a priority.

A mid-March intelligence assessment commissioned by Biden concluded that far-right extremists—particularly those animated by racial and ethnic grievances—pose the most lethal domestic-terrorism threat to Americans for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, militia-like organizations pose an ongoing threat primarily to government and law-enforcement personnel.

The report noted that the militia-extremist-group threat increased last year and is expected to continue to heighten throughout 2021. That's due to "sociopolitical factors" motivating such groups, "such as narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the US Capitol, conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and conspiracy theories promoting violence."

Former DHS counterterrorism chief Elizabeth Neumann told NPR's Terry Gross that such groups "basically declared war on the government and stated that their aim was to overthrow the U.S. government, to establish a white nation."

This, she said, is why the Capitol insurrection has actually had the effect of inflaming and encouraging longtime far-right radicals, many of whom had grown discouraged over the years at the prospect of effectively attacking the American government to overthrow it successfully. All of them have, after all, long clung to the fantasy of having a "race war" or "civil war" to overthrow the government. January 6 had the look of their fantasy becoming reality.

As Neumann explained:

So it's not like they destroyed the Capitol. It's not like they disrupted the transition of power. But it was seen as kind of almost the starting point, perhaps, of the civil war that they have believed in their mythology was going to come at some point, a race war. And so you see on online chat rooms that you have groups using this as a recruitment tactic, that it's finally happening, if—you know, there's going to be this race war, that we're finally going to be able to achieve our aim of ridding the country of all of these people we don't think should be here, establishing our own country. And any time you have, for an extremist group or a terrorist group, something that symbolic, it affects and helps them with their recruitment, with their morale. So these—certainly, on the white supremacist side, we see an emboldening effect for those groups.

More than emboldening extremists, the post-January 6 environment has become ripe for shifting boundaries among them and the formations of new alliances and configurations. The resulting reconfiguration will affect the nature of the far-right insurgency that declared war on American democracy on January 6.

"There is a concern then on the other side of January 6, you have groups interconnected in a way that they weren't before," Neumann told Gross. "We heard in the news on Wednesday that prosecutors have found interconnections between Oath Keepers and Proud Boys and Three Percenters. I think we're going to see more of this to come as the investigation unfurls. But the knowledge that they had been coordinating in the weeks up to January 6 is rather significant. These are not groups that necessarily share the same ideology."