From the “Nothing New Under the Sun” files, I bring to you a former president whose concerns about leaks to the press ended up blowing his entire administration straight to hell.
“President Nixon’s Staff Members Formed the ‘White House Plumbers'” explains Time, “a secretive unit tasked with digging up dirt on Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. The plumbers then committed crimes before the Presidential Re-election Committee, including the Watergate burglaries. Although Nixon denied knowledge of the plumber’s activities, the tapes subpoenaed during the Watergate investigation revealed years of political espionage and illegal surveillance. The ‘Smoking Gun’ tape revealed that Nixon was involved in the cover-up. On August 8, 1974, Nixon became the only American president to resign from office.”
Nothing so dramatic as that lies ahead today; Donald Trump — whose own surveillance program against journalists, Democratic politicians and their families, and even his own attorney, Washington, DC, is again ravaging — is already out of office. He has lamented being “recovered” from his funnel hole in New Jersey as president. Sure, put him back in and then blame him for the third time. Maybe this one will stick.
The first reports of the Trump administration running its own plumbing company came in late last week with a rolling boom. “While the Justice Department investigated early in the Trump administration who was behind the classified information leak, it took a highly unusual step: Prosecutors sued Apple for data from the accounts of at least two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, aides and relatives,” reported The New York Times. “One was a minor.”
The appeal of the afflicted people perfectly matches another Nixonian legacy, the list of enemies. On top of Trump’s effective outgrowth on Nixon’s list was House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, who was a frequent target of Trump’s diatribes. In all, Apple received subpoenas related to 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses. Several of the people swept up in this metadata search were not in government, including the aforementioned minor.
Along with the subpoena came a nondisclosure order that prevented Apple from informing its customers that the Justice Department was digging into their records. “The nondisclosure warrant was extended three times,” reports CNNApple said, “every time for a year. When it didn’t renew for a fourth time, Apple said it notified affected customers on May 5, 2021.”
At the same time, the Trump administration also seized communication data from CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post. This revelation came more than a week ago, confusing the Biden administration as its Justice Department Justice apparently continued this surveillance after Trump left office. The Biden White House has rejected these activities and its policy regarding leak investigations at the Justice Department has been changed.
The wildest revelation came this weekend, when it was revealed that one of Trump’s targets was his own White House attorney, Doug McGahn. “Apple told Mr. McGahn about the subpoena last month, said one of the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter. Mr. McGahn’s wife also received a similar message from Apple,” reports the turn.
The time frame for this is easy enough to remember. Not long after Trump took office, his administration caused more leaks than a poorly wrapped diaper. No one in the lower echelons of government had the courage to resign in protest at the terrifying things they saw – “Anonymous‘, your table is ready – but they were more than happy to spray that cheese in the wind for the news media to collect, and they collected it.
There were weeks when you couldn’t walk around the corner without stumbling upon 10 well-resourced news stories about the White House’s shenanigans regarding the southern border, the incessant infighting within the administration that was mostly inspired by Trump himself, and the dealings of government with Russia both before and after the election. It seems that the Russian questions struck a chord with Trump, initially leading to the broad and covert data collection.
The consequences of these revelations have only just begun. House Democrats plan to hold hearings about the case and will subpoena witnesses who do not voluntarily come. This includes former Attorney General William Barr, who led justice when all this happened. Barr tries put as much daylight as he can between him and these subpoenas, but that will be a challenge.
In May 2019, when sen. Kamala Harris asked Barr directly as “has ever asked or suggested that the president or anyone in the White House open an investigation into anyone?” Barr’s answer was a tap dance clinic, but if and when he shows up at a hearing on the matter, he won’t have many other places to hide than invoke his Fifth Amendment rights.
Not only the House of Representatives is involved in this investigation. The Justice Department’s internal watchdog announced Friday that it would review how officials sought the data of reporters, lawmakers and others as part of an aggressive crackdown on leaks during the Trump administration. reports the Post“a day after it became known that years ago the department had secretly obtained the data of two congressmen known for their criticism of President Donald Trump.”
For their part, Congressional Republicans put their best foot forward: “What, am I worried?” faces as these revelations keep pouring in, and why not? Few of them have paid a price for loyalty to Trump, even while he is out of office. As for the GOP’s public stance, it’s all blue sky.
… but I wonder. Right now, the Republican Party has committed itself to defeat several wildly popular pieces of Democratic legislation, the looting of the Capitol by burying Trump supporters under a compost pile of “They were just tourists” excuses, even as they investigate the blocking incident, and now this, a scandal straight from the central casting with an eerily familiar historical hook to boot. There are only so many running chainsaws that a person can juggle before limbs are chopped off.
“The reason this last issue is so important is that it seems to show that the executive branch of the government is exercising presidential power to attack the legislature,” reports CNNs Stephen Collinson, “and the President’s personal political enemies. A clearer and more blatant abuse of presidential power would be hard to find. This behavior would not only pervert the crucial role of the DOJ in ensuring the neutral and apolitical application of justice – an essential requirement for a democratic society. It would also reflect the actions of autocrats around the world, many of whom openly admired Trump.”
The GOP’s worst enemy in this? Trump himself, of course. Does anyone think they will sit still while this investigation plays out daily on the television they watch relentlessly? I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he shows up at some point pulling a Colonel Jessup from Some good men: Did you order the Code Red? YOU ARE GOD DAMN RIGHT I DID!
One of these days – not today or tomorrow, but someday – I have to believe that the GOP will be forced to get wise and throw this hot potato back in the pot. They are now whistling through the political graveyard because Trump’s base still has the backs of the loyalists, but there aren’t enough voters in that base to form a winning national coalition. As these insidious stories about the former president continue to pile up, that loyalty may only be worth the price of a bus ticket home.