WASHINGTON (AP) – Former President Donald Trump has made no secret of his long list of political enemies. Until now, it was not clear how far he would go to try to punish them.
Two House Democrats this week revealed their smartphone data was secretly obtained by Trump’s Justice Department as part of an effort to uncover the source of the leaks related to the interference investigation election related to Russia.
It was a startling revelation that one branch of government was using its power to gather private information about another, a move that echoed President Richard Nixon during Watergate.
On Friday, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog announced it was investigating the seizure of documents. And Democratic Congressional leaders are demanding that former senior justice officials testify before a Senate committee to explain why the iPhone files of Democrats, Representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, and their family members have been secretly subpoenaed to. appear in 2018. The files of at least 12 people were eventually shared by Apple.
The dispute has shown that the partisan grudge struggles that have unfolded throughout the Trump presidency continue to unfold in new and potentially damaging ways, even as the Biden administration has struggled to put those turbulent four years into the past. .
White House spokesman Andrew Bates said the conduct of Trump’s Justice Department was a shocking abuse of power.
“The only loyalty of the attorneys general should be to the rule of law – never to politics,” he said.
The disclosure that the documents had been seized raised a number of troubling questions. Who else may have been targeted? What was the legal justification for targeting members of Congress? Why did Apple, a company that prides itself on user privacy, hand over the records? And what end was Trump’s Justice Department pursuing?
The revelations also force Biden’s Justice Department and Attorney General Merrick Garland to fight again with their predecessors.
“The question here is how Trump used his political power to pursue his enemies – how did he use the government to his political advantage,” said Kathleen Clark, legal ethics specialist at the University of Washington to St. Louis.
The effort to obtain the data came as Trump publicly and privately railed against investigations by Congress and then-Special Advocate Robert Mueller into his 2016 campaign’s ties to Russia.
Trump has denounced the leaks throughout his tenure, accusing a “deep state” of working to undermine it by sharing unflattering information. He has repeatedly called on his Department of Justice and attorneys general to “attack the leakers”, notably by appointing former FBI director James Comey and Schiff, now chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
In May 2018, he tweeted that the reports of leaks in his White House were exaggerated, but nonetheless said that “Leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!”
Schiff and Swalwell were two of the most visible Democrats on the then Republican-led House Intelligence Committee during the Russia inquiry. The two California lawmakers have made frequent appearances on cable news broadcasts. Trump watched these channels closely and was bubbling with coverage.
There is no indication that the Department of Justice used the files to prosecute anyone. After some of the leaked information was declassified and made public during the last few years of the Trump administration, some prosecutors feared that even if they could bring a leak case, trying it would be difficult and a conviction would be unlikely. one person told The Associated Press. This person, a committee official and a third party with knowledge of the data entries were granted anonymity to discuss them.
Federal agents interviewed at least one former committee staff member in 2020, the person said, and ultimately prosecutors were unable to substantiate a case.
For decades, the Justice Department has struggled to maintain strict barriers with the White House to avoid being used as a political tool to respond to a president’s personal grievances.
For some, the Trump administration’s efforts are more worrying than Nixon’s actions during Watergate that forced his resignation. Nixon’s was done in secret outside the White House, while the Trump administration decided to take the files of members of Congress approved by senior Justice Department officials and worked out by prosecutors, who obtained secret subpoenas from a federal judge, then gag orders to silence them. .
“Richard Nixon’s fate has had a restrictive effect on political corruption in America,” said Timothy Naftali, a Nixon scholar and former director of the Presidential Richard Nixon Library and Museum. “It didn’t last forever, but the Republican Party wanted to get rid of bad apples and bad Nixon actors.”
The Republican Party is far too aligned with Trump to do so now, but that doesn’t mean Biden should let him go, Naftali said.
“The reason for doing this is not revenge,” Naftali said. “This is to send a signal to future American lawyers that they will be held accountable.”
While the Department of Justice routinely investigates disclosed information, including classified information, the initiation of such an investigation into members of Congress is extraordinarily rare.
A less rare but still rare tool is to secretly seize journalists’ phone records, which Trump’s Justice Department has also done. Following an outcry from press freedom organizations, Garland announced last week that he would stop targeting journalists’ searches for information.
The subpoenas were issued in 2018, when Jeff Sessions was attorney general, though he recused himself from the Russia investigation, putting his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, in charge of Russia-related issues. The investigation later resumed under the direction of Attorney General William Barr.
Apple informed the committee last month that the cases had been shared and the investigation had been closed, but did not give detailed details. The files of helpers, former helpers and family members, including a minor, were also seized, according to the head of the committee.
The Justice Department obtained metadata – likely recordings of calls, texts and locations – but not other content from the devices, like photos, messages or emails, according to one of the people. . Another said Apple complied with the subpoena, providing the information to the Justice Department, and did not immediately notify members of Congress or the committee of the disclosure.
And the people whose files were seized were unable to challenge the Justice Department because the subpoenas went directly to Apple. The gag order was renewed three times before it lapsed, and the company informed its customers on May 5 of what had happened.
Apple said in a statement that it could not even challenge the warrants because it had so little information and “it would have been virtually impossible for Apple to understand the intent of the desired information without digging into user accounts.” .
Patrick Toomey, attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the seizure of Congressional files was part of a series of Trump-era investigations that “raise deep civil liberties concerns and involve powers espionage that has no place in our democracy “.
Associated Press editors Jill Colvin, Mary Clare Jalonick, Nomaan Merchant, and Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.