(AP) — Former President Donald Trump
has made no secret of his long list of political adversaries; what was unclear until now was how far he would go to punish them.
This week, two House Democrats
revealed that the Trump Justice Department
secretly obtained their smartphone data as part of an effort to identify the source of leaks
related to the investigation into Russian-related election
It was a shocking revelation that one branch of government was using its power to gather private information on another, eerily similar to President Richard Nixon's actions during Watergate.
The Justice Department's internal watchdog announced on Friday that it was investigating the records seizure, and Democratic
leaders in Congress
are demanding that former top Justice officials 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 secretly subpoenaed in 2018.
The disagreement demonstrated that the partisan battles that raged throughout Trump's presidency continue to play out in new and potentially damaging ways, even as the Biden administration
works to put those turbulent four years behind them.
Trump's Justice Department's actions, according to White House
spokesman Andrew Bates, were a shocking abuse of power.
“The only loyalty of Attorneys General should be to the rule of law
— never to politics
,” he said.
that the records had been seized raised a number of troubling questions: who else could 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 goal was the Trump Justice Department pursuing?
The revelations are also forcing Biden's Justice Department and Attorney General Merrick Garland
to re-enter the fray with their predecessors.
“The question here is how Trump used his political power to go after his adversaries — how he used the government for his political benefit,” said Kathleen Clark, a legal ethics scholar at Washington University
in St. Louis
The effort to obtain the data came at a time when Trump was publicly and privately fuming over investigations into his 2016 campaign's ties to Russia by Congress and then-special counsel Robert Mueller
Throughout his presidency, Trump has railed against leaks, accusing a "deep state" of attempting to destabilize him by disseminating damaging information. He has repeatedly urged his Justice Department and attorneys general to "go after the leakers," singling out former FBI
Director James Comey and Schiff, now the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee
In May of this year, he tweeted that reports of leaks in his White House were exaggerated, but that "leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!"
During the Russia investigation
, Schiff and Swalwell were two of the most visible Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, which was then led by Republicans
. Both California
lawmakers made frequent appearances on cable news shows, which Trump closely monitored and despised.
There is no indication that the Justice Department used the records to prosecute anyone. After some of the leaked information was declassified and made public during the later years of the Trump administration
, some prosecutors were concerned that even if they could bring a leak case, it would be difficult to prosecute and a conviction would be unlikely, according to one source.
According to the source, federal agents interrogated at least one former committee staff member in 2020, but prosecutors were unable to establish a case.
For decades, the Justice Department worked hard to keep strict boundaries with the White House in order to avoid being used as a political tool to address a president's personal grievance.
For some, the Trump administration's effort is more disturbing than Nixon's actions during Watergate, which forced his resignation, because Nixon's were done in secret outside of the White House, whereas the Trump administration's moves to seize the congressmen's records were approved by top Justice Department officials and worked on by prosecutors, who obtained secret subpoenas from a federal judge
and then gag ordnances.
“The fate of Richard Nixon had a restraining effect on political corruption
in America,” Timothy Naftali, a Nixon scholar and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, said. “It didn’t last forever, but the Republican Party
wanted to cleanse itself of Nixon’s bad apples and bad actors
The Republican Party is far too aligned with Trump to do so right now, but Naftali believes Biden should not abandon it.
“The reason for doing this is not for retaliation,” Naftali explained, “but to send a message to future American lawyers that they will be held accountable.”
While the Justice Department routinely investigates leaked information, including classified intelligence, opening such an investigation into members of Congress is extremely rare.
A less common but still unusual tool is the secret seizure of reporters' phone records, which the Trump Justice Department also used. Following an outcry from press freedom
organizations, Garland announced last week that the practice of going after journalists
' sourcing information would be discontinued.
The subpoenas were issued in 2018, during Jeff Sessions
as attorney general, despite the fact that he had recused himself from the Russia investigation, putting his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, in charge of Russia-related matters; the investigation later regained momentum under Attorney General William Barr
According to the committee official, records of aides, former aides, and family members, one of whom was a minor, were also seized.
According to one of the people
, the Justice Department obtained metadata — most likely records of calls, texts, and locations — but not other content from the devices, such as photos
, messages, or emails. Another said Apple complied with the subpoena, providing the information to the Justice Department, but did not immediately notify members of Congress or the committee about the disclosure.
The people whose records were seized were unable to contest the Justice Department because the subpoenas were issued directly to Apple. The gag order was renewed three times before it expired, and the company informed its customers on May 5 of the situation.
In a statement, Apple stated that it couldn't even challenge the warrants because it had so little information and that "it would have been virtually impossible for Apple to understand the intent of the desired information without digging through users' accounts."
The seizure of congressional records, according to Patrick Toomey, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, is part of a series of Trump-era investigations that "raise profound civil liberties concerns and involve spying powers that have no place in our democracy
Jill Colvin, Mary Clare Jalonick, Nomaan Merchant, and Michael Balsamo of the Associated Press
contributed reporting to this article.