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Seized House Records Show Trump Reach  06/12 09:22

   

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former President Donald Trump has made no secret of his 
long list of political enemies. It just wasn't clear until now how far he would 
go to try to punish them.

   Two House Democrats disclosed this week that their smartphone data was 
secretly obtained by the Trump Justice Department as part of an effort to 
uncover the source of leaks related to the investigation of Russian-related 
election interference.

   It was a stunning revelation that one branch of government was using its 
power to gather private information on another, a move that carried echoes of 
President Richard Nixon during Watergate.

   On Friday, the Justice Department's internal watchdog announced 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 
records of at least 12 people were eventually shared by Apple.

   The dispute showed that the rancorous partisan fights that coursed through 
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 the conduct of Trump's Justice 
Department was a shocking misuse of authority.

   "Attorneys general's only loyalty should be to the rule of law -- never to 
politics," he said.

   The disclosure that the records had been seized raised a number of troubling 
questions. Who else may have been targeted? What was the legal justification to 
target members of Congress? Why did Apple, a company that prides itself on user 
privacy, hand over the records? And what end was the Trump Justice Department 
pursuing?

   The revelations also are forcing the Biden Justice Department and Attorney 
General Merrick Garland to wade back into a fight with their predecessors.

   "The question here is just how did Trump use his political power to go after 
his enemies -- how did he use the government for his political benefit," said 
Kathleen Clark, legal ethics scholar at Washington University in St. Louis.

   The effort to obtain the data came as Trump was publicly and privately 
fuming over investigations by Congress and then-special counsel Robert Mueller 
into his 2016 campaign's ties to Russia.

   Trump inveighed against leaks throughout his time in office, accusing a 
"deep state" of working to undermine him by sharing unflattering information. 
He repeatedly called on his Justice Department and attorneys general to "go 
after the leakers," including singling out former FBI Director James Comey and 
Schiff, now chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

   In May of 2018, he tweeted that reports of leaks in his White House were 
exaggerated, but said that nonetheless, "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 House 
Intelligence Committee, then led by Republicans, during the Russia inquiry. 
Both California lawmakers made frequent appearances on cable news shows. Trump 
watched those channels closely and seethed over the coverage.

   There's 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, there was 
concern among some of the prosecutors 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. That person, a committee official and a third 
person with knowledge of the data seizures were granted anonymity to discuss 
them.

   Federal agents questioned at least one former committee staff member in 
2020, the person said, and ultimately, prosecutors weren't able 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 grievance.

   For some, the Trump administration's effort is more disturbing than Nixon's 
actions during Watergate that forced his resignation. Nixon's were done in 
secret out of the White House, while the Trump administration moves to take 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 orders to keep them quiet.

   "The fate of Richard Nixon had a restraining 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 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 that now, but it 
doesn't mean Biden should let it go, Naftali said.

   "The reason to do this is not revenge," Naftali said. "It's to send a signal 
to future American lawyers they will be held accountable."

   While the Justice Department routinely conducts investigations of leaked 
information, including classified intelligence, opening such an investigation 
into members of Congress is extraordinarily rare.

   A less rare but still uncommon tool is to secretly seize reporters' phone 
records, something the Trump Justice Department also did. Following an outcry 
from press freedom organizations, Garland announced last week that it would 
cease the practice of going after journalists' sourcing information.

   The subpoenas were issued in 2018, when Jeff Sessions was attorney general, 
though he had recused himself in the Russia investigation, putting his deputy, 
Rod Rosenstein, in charge of Russia-related matters. The investigation later 
picked up momentum again under Attorney General William Barr.

   Apple informed the committee last month that the records had been shared and 
that the investigation had been closed, but did not give extensive detail. Also 
seized were the records of aides, former aides and family members, one of them 
a minor, according to the committee official.

   The Justice Department obtained metadata -- probably records 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 that Apple complied 
with the subpoena, providing the information to the Justice Department, and did 
not immediately notify the members of Congress or the committee about the 
disclosure.

   And the people whose records were seized were unable to challenge the 
Justice Department because the subpoenas went to Apple directly. The gag order 
was renewed three times before it lapsed and the company informed its customers 
May 5 what had happened.

   Apple said in a statement that it couldn't even challenge the warrants 
because it had so little information available and "it would have been 
virtually impossible for Apple to understand the intent of the desired 
information without digging through users' accounts."

   Patrick Toomey, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said 
the seizure of congressional records was 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."

 
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