From the “Nothing New Under the Sun” files, I bring you a former president whose concern over leaks to the press eventually blew his entire administration straight to hell.
“President Nixon’s staffers formed the ‘White House Plumbers,’” explains Time, “a secret unit tasked with digging up dirt on Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. The Plumbers went on to commit crimes for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, including the Watergate burglaries. Although Nixon denied knowledge of the Plumbers activities, 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 the office.’”
Nothing so dramatic as that is in the offing today; Donald Trump — whose own surveillance program against journalists, Democratic politicians and their families, and even his own lawyer, is roiling Washington, D.C., once again — is already out of office. He has been quacking about getting “reinstated” as president from his funnel hole in New Jersey. Sure, put him back in, and then impeach him a third time. Maybe this one will stick.
The first reports of Trump’s administration running its own ham-fisted Plumbers operation landed late last week with a rolling boom. “As the Justice Department investigated who was behind leaks of classified information early in the Trump administration, it took a highly unusual step: Prosecutors subpoenaed Apple for data from the accounts of at least two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, aides and family members,” reported The New York Times. “One was a minor.”
The roll call of people affected is a perfect match to another Nixonian throwback, the enemies list. Atop Trump’s effective corollary to Nixon’s list was House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who was a regular target of Trump’s tirades. All told, Apple received subpoenas that covered 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses. A number 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 which barred Apple from informing its customers that the Justice Department was digging into their data. “The nondisclosure order was extended three times,” reports CNN, “each time for a year, Apple said. When it was not extended for a fourth time, Apple said it informed the affected customers on May 5, 2021.”
Concurrently, the Trump administration also seized communications data from CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post. This revelation landed more than a week ago, tangling the Biden administration up in the mess, because his Justice Department apparently continued this surveillance after Trump left office. The Biden White House has disavowed these activities, and the policy regarding leak investigations over at Justice has been changed.
The wildest revelation came this weekend, when it was revealed that one of Trump’s targets was his own White House counsel, Doug McGahn. “Apple told Mr. McGahn about the subpoena last month, said one of the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter. Mr. McGahn’s wife also received a similar notice from Apple,” reports the Times.
The time frame for this is easy enough to recall. Not long after Trump took office, his administration sprang more leaks than a badly wrapped diaper. Nobody in the administration’s lower echelons had the courage to resign in protest over the terrifying things they were seeing — “Anonymous,” your table is ready — but they were more than happy to spray that cheese into the wind for the news media to collect, and collect it they did.
There were weeks when one could not walk around the block without tripping over 10 heavily sourced news reports about White House shenanigans regarding the southern border, the ceaseless infighting within the administration that was usually inspired by Trump himself, and the administration’s dealings with Russia both before and after the election. The Russia questions, it appears, hit a tender spot with Trump, initially prompting the broad and surreptitious data harvest.
Fallout from these revelations is just beginning. House Democrats intend to hold hearings on the matter and will subpoena any witnesses who don’t come voluntarily. This includes former Attorney General William Barr, who was running Justice when all of this went down. Barr is trying to put as much daylight as he can between himself and these subpoenas, but that will be challenging.
In May of 2019, then-Sen. Kamala Harris asked Barr directly if “the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested you open an investigation into anyone?” Barr’s reply was a tap-dancing clinic, but if and when he appears at a hearing on this matter, he will not have many places to hide besides an invocation of his Fifth Amendment rights.
The House will not be the only entity involved in this investigation. “The Justice Department’s internal watchdog announced Friday that he 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 was revealed the department years ago had secretly obtained the data of two congressmen well known for their criticism of President Donald Trump.”
For their part, congressional Republicans are putting on their best “What, me worry?” faces as these revelations continue to roll in, and why not? Few of them have paid a price for loyalty to Trump, even now that he is out of office. As far as the public stance of the GOP goes, it’s all blue skies.
… but I do wonder. At present, the Republican Party has tasked itself to defeat several wildly popular pieces of Democratic legislation, bury the sacking of the Capitol by Trump supporters under a compost pile of “They were just tourists” excuses even as they block an investigation into the incident, and now this, a scandal straight out of central casting with an eerily familiar historical hook to boot. There are only so many running chainsaws a person can juggle before limbs start getting lopped off.
“The reason this latest issue is so important is that it appears to show the executive branch of the government wielding presidential power to target the legislative branch,” report’s CNN’s Stephen Collinson, “and the President’s personal political enemies. It would be hard to find a more clear and flagrant abuse of presidential power. This behavior would not only be a perversion of the DOJ’s critical role in ensuring the neutral and apolitical application of justice — a key requirement for a democratic society. It would also mirror the actions of autocrats across the world, many of whom Trump openly admired.”
The GOP’s worst enemy in this? Trump himself, of course. Does anyone think he will sit quietly while this investigation unfolds daily on the television he watches relentlessly? I would be not at all surprised if at some point he winds up pulling a Colonel Jessup from A Few Good Men: Did you order the Code Red? YOU’RE GOD DAMNED RIGHT I DID!
One of these days — not today or tomorrow, but someday — I have to believe the GOP will be forced to wise up and toss this hot potato back into the pot. They are whistling past the political graveyard now because Trump’s base still has the back of the loyal, but there are not enough voters in that base to make a winning national coalition. As these treacherous stories about the former president continue to pile up, that loyalty may come only to be worth the price of a bus ticket home.