Seized House records show just how far Trump admin would go
WASHINGTON (AP) - Former President Donald Trump made no secret of his long list of political enemies. It just wasn't clear how far he would go to punish her.
Two House Democrats announced this week that their smartphone data was secretly obtained by the Trump Justice Department to uncover the source of leaks related to the investigation into Russia-related election interference.
It was an amazing revelation that one branch of government was using its power to gather private information about another, a move that sparked echoes of President Richard Nixon during Watergate.
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On Friday, the Justice Department's internal watchdog announced that it was investigating the seizure of the files. And Democratic leaders in Congress are calling for former senior judicial officials to testify before a Senate committee to explain why the iPhone records of Reps Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both Democrats and their family members, were clandestinely subpoenaed in 2018. At least 12 people's records were eventually shared by Apple.
The dispute showed that the vicious partisan battles that continued during the Trump presidency continue to play out in new and potentially damaging ways, even as the Biden administration has worked to put those turbulent four years in the past.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates said Trump's Justice Department behavior was a shocking abuse of authority.
"The attorneys-general's only loyalty should be the rule of law - never politics," he said.
The disclosure that the records were confiscated raises a number of worrying questions. Who else could have been targeted? What was the legal rationale for attacking members of Congress? Why did Apple, a company that prides itself on user privacy, hand over the records? And what was the Trump Justice Department's goal?
The revelations also force the Biden Justice Department and Attorney General Merrick Garland to quarrel with their predecessors again.
"The only question here is how Trump used his political power to persecute his enemies - how did he use the government to his political advantage," said Kathleen Clark, a legal ethics scholar at Washington University in St. Louis.
Efforts to get the data came when Trump was angry publicly and privately over investigations by Congress and then Special Adviser Robert Mueller into his 2016 campaign's links with Russia.
Trump cursed leaks throughout his tenure and accused a "deep state" of working to undermine it by sharing unflattering information. He repeatedly urged his Justice Department and attorneys general to "investigate the leaks," including the weeding out of former FBI director James Comey and Schiff, now chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
In May 2018, he tweeted that reports of leaks in his White House were exaggerated, but still said that "Leaks are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!"
Schiff and Swalwell were two of the most visible Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, which was led by the Republicans at the time during the Russia investigation. Both California lawmakers made frequent appearances on cable news broadcasts. Trump closely watched these channels and boiled over the coverage.
There is no evidence that the Justice Department used the records to prosecute anyone. After some of the leaked information was released and made public in the later years of the Trump administration, some prosecutors raised concerns that even if they could bring a case, it would be difficult to try and conviction unlikely. one person told the Associated Press. This person, a Commission official and a third person who was aware of the data seizures were given anonymity to discuss them.
Federal agents questioned at least one former committee employee in 2020, the person said, and prosecutors ultimately failed to substantiate a case.
For decades, the Justice Department had worked to maintain strict barriers with the White House to avoid being used as a political tool to address a president's personal complaint.
For some, the Trump administration's efforts are more worrying than Nixon's actions during Watergate, which forced his resignation. Nixons were conducted clandestinely outside the White House while the Trump administration's moves to take away Congressmen's records were approved by senior Justice Department officials and processed by prosecutors who obtained secret subpoenas from a federal judge and then received gag orders to order them to silence.
"The fate of Richard Nixon had an inhibiting effect on political corruption in America," said Timothy Naftali, a Nixon scholar and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. "It didn't take forever, but the Republican Party wanted to cleanse itself of Nixon's bad apples and bad actors."
The Republican Party is far too attuned to Trump to do that now, but that doesn't mean Biden should let it go, Naftali said.
"The reason for this is not vengeance," said Naftali. "It is meant to send a signal to future American lawyers that they will be held accountable."
While the Department of Justice routinely conducts investigations into leaked information, including classified intelligence, the initiation of such an investigation against members of Congress is extremely rare.
A less rare but still uncommon tool is the clandestine seizure of reporters' phone records, which the Trump Department of Justice has also done. After an outcry from press freedom organizations, Garland announced last week that it would end the practice of gathering information from journalists.
The subpoenas were issued in 2018 when Jeff Sessions was attorney general, despite backing out on the Russia investigations and holding deputy Rod Rosenstein responsible for Russia-related matters. The investigation later resumed under Attorney General William Barr.
Apple told the committee last month that the record had been shared and the investigation closed, but did not provide full details. The files of helpers, former helpers and family members, one of whom was a minor, were also confiscated, the committee official said.
The Justice Department received metadata - likely recordings of calls, texts, and locations - but no other content from the devices such as photos, messages, or emails, according to one of the people. Another said Apple complied with the subpoena, submitted the information to the Justice Department, and did not immediately notify members of Congress or the committee of the disclosure.
And the people whose records were confiscated could not challenge the Justice Department because the subpoenas went directly to Apple. The gag order was renewed three times before it expired, and the company notified its customers of the incident on May 5.
Apple said in a statement that it couldn't 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 information requested without digging through users' accounts."
Patrick Toomey, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, said the seizure of Congressional files was part of a series of Trump-era investigations that "raise deep concerns about civil liberties and include spying powers that have no place in our democracy ".
Associate press writers Jill Colvin, Mary Clare Jalonick, Nomaan Merchant and Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.
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