It looks like former President Donald Trump was ready to go even further than we knew in his war on leaks. According to the New York Times, Department of Justice prosecutors obtained, via a subpoena from Apple, information about the accounts of at least two members of the House Intelligence Committee – Representatives Adam Schiff of California and Eric Swalwell of California – and also examined the metadata of their assistants and family members (including at least one minor).
The administration was engrossed in discovering the sources of leaks reported in the media about contacts between Trump’s associates and Russia. This story is in addition to recent revelations that this spring, the Justice Department informed reporters from CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times that files had been seized in various investigations.
Trump’s Justice Department had conducted what appears to be a national security leak investigation that aimed to sweep tens of thousands of a CNN reporterâs email logs, as well as phone records, from 2017.
These new reports are another reminder of the extreme exercise of presidential power that took place under Trump. While it’s easy to dismiss his four-year tenure defined by much Twitter noise and vicious political invective, this period has also seen the aggressive deployment of presidential authority, sometimes conducted in secret, and a way that threatened our fragile balance of power and the rights of American citizens.
The unfolding story of the Department of Justice follows many other well-documented cases of abuse of power between 2017 and 2021.
During Donald Trump’s first impeachment, the world witnessed the former president’s willingness to use foreign aid as leverage to get âdirtâ out of a political opponent. Trump has repeatedly used his chair of bullying on Twitter to lash out at institutions – such as the media – and specific political opponents who were causing him trouble, even ultimately inciting a mob that attacked Congress and attempted to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power, based on fraudulent statements of a stolen election.
His invocation of national emergency powers to obtain funding for a border wall, despite bipartisan opposition from Congress to spend money on this project, showed that little would get in its way. And in a more familiar way, Trump turned to the executive branch to roll back initiatives meant to stop climate change, as well as workplace regulations and more that had been put in place by Democratic administrations.
How did it all happen? The former president was the product of two long-term trends that converged during his administration. The first has been the continued expansion of presidential power. During the twentieth century, the power, personnel, and regulatory authority vested in the president have expanded considerably.
During the Cold War, and then in the “War on Terror,” the growth of the national security apparatus gave the Oval Office dweller unprecedented resources to act without congressional control. Even the elevation of the pulpit of tyrants in the 20th century meant that the president, through his words, could dramatically affect public opinion.
The second trend was the triumph of shattering partisanship within the GOP, creating a mentality at the highest levels of leadership that it was now allowed to do whatever was necessary to maintain power. It’s a style that began to take hold with Congressman Newt Gingrich in the 1980s, gained momentum with the Tea Party in the 2010s, and culminated with the Trump presidency. He placed partisanship above the needs of governance or the health of political institutions. There was no longer any need for elected officials to balance the three responsibilities, according to this logic: every process and procedure could be militarized if necessary.
If a president wanted his branch of government to investigate members of another branch, for example, so be it. As dramatic as this new story of seizing reports from journalists and members of Congress may be, it stems from a grassroots dynamic well established under the Trump presidency.
So far, it appears that President Joe Biden, at least from what we know, is trying to step back from his presidential form of power. He wants to be less Richard Nixon and more Jimmy Carter, someone who understands and respects the need to operate within limits, even if it comes with some political costs.
But the greatest forces at work in this story all remain in play. Presidential power has reached levels that are not healthy for the nation. It is too easy to abuse this power. In an age of intense political polarization, control of Congress is unlikely. Former President Trump’s unguarded partisanship remains the guiding force of the GOP, as was evident when Senator Mitch McConnell decided to kill off the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurgency on Capitol Hill the United States.
And if Trump decides to run for re-election in 2024, voters should understand that this is the kind of power they would legitimize for another four years. He can be anti-establishment and he can be the politician who says what he thinks, but he can also be a president who can be terribly Nixonian.
Too much presidential power is a dangerous thing. We have learned this so many times over the decades. As in previous cases, the question remains: will American voters do something about it, insisting their representatives that the Commander-in-Chief be held accountable, or will they simply wait for the abuse of power to happen again? ?