What we’re learning, increasingly though, is that we might not know the half of it.
The New York Times revealed Thursday night — and The Washington Post confirmed — that the Justice Department under Trump secretly subpoenaed the data of two prominent Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee: the panel’s top Democrat Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.). Their committee was, at the time, probing Trump’s relationship with Russia, and the ostensible purpose of the requests was to find out if they or those around them were leaking information about the matter.
In each case, we are only learning these things now because the Justice Department under now-President Biden has notified those involved. In the cases involving CNN and the Times, the Trump Justice Department actively fought to avoid the disclosures even to people within those organizations. Ditto Schiff and Swalwell.
This comes on top of myriad other ways in which Trump politicized the DOJ. It’s honestly difficult to recount all of them, because there were so many, but here are some of the biggest and most applicable ones:
- He fired the man leading the Russia investigation involving himself, then-FBI Director James B. Comey.
- He tried to remove Comey’s effective replacement, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, according to the testimony of former White House counsel Donald McGahn.
- He repeatedly pressured then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to fire then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. Sessions ultimately fired McCabe hours before McCabe was able to retire with full benefits.
- He toyed with firing various other figures involved in or adjacent to the Russia probe, including Sessions (who ultimately resigned in the face of the pressure) and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
- He intermittently suggested the DOJ should investigate Hillary Clinton again, not just for her private email server as secretary of state but also her campaign’s role in the Steele dossier and allegedly rigging the 2016 Democratic primary.
- He also suggested he could ask for a DOJ investigation into his 2020 opponent, Biden.
- He repeatedly applied pressure on the DOJ to take it easy on his allies facing legal pressure, apparently ultimately succeeding in the cases of Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. (These were the instances in which Barr claimed Trump’s public exhortations “make it impossible for me to do my job.” Yet despite Trump declining to stop, Barr backed down.)
We even learned just last week — on top of all the other recent developments — that Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows sent emails to the Justice Department in Trump’s final weeks in office trying to get it to look into baseless election fraud theories.
When the latest news dropped Thursday night, plenty of people pointed to Barr’s testimony in May 2019. Then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) asked Barr whether Trump “or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested you open an investigation of anyone?” It was an extremely fair question given all of the above. Barr hemmed and hawed, saying he wasn’t sure what to make of the word “suggest.” He ultimately indicated nobody had directly asked him but that he didn’t know whether “suggest” might have applied in some way.
But the efforts described in the latest report actually predate Barr’s tenure, with the data requests occurring on Sessions’s watch. Barr’s DOJ continued the probe but in a way that, according to The Post’s sources, didn’t regard Schiff and Swalwell personally as targets.
And in a way, that’s all kind of beside the point. Regardless of how explicit such requests might have been behind the scenes, Trump made his desires clear rather publicly, over and over again. It started very early on with Sessions, with both Sessions and Barr occasionally bucking this pressure (or at least presenting themselves as doing so).
Even just this week, we got the latest evidence of Trump’s ploys. While discussing Trump’s efforts to get him to help in removing Mueller, McGahn talked about how frequently Trump wanted to have the “same conversation” over and over again. This despite McGahn not having heeded Trump’s desires to apply pressure on the Justice Department and believing he had informed Trump that he wasn’t going to do it. McGahn makes no secret that it left him exasperated and “perturbed.”
We didn’t learn much new from McGahn’s testimony as far as the facts in the Mueller probe. But he painted a picture of a dogged president repeatedly suggesting a specific and very politically convenient course of justice for himself, and he seemed to leave it up to McGahn to decide whether to follow through. Trump seemed to recognize he couldn’t totally force McGahn to do this, but he could pummel him with pressure in hopes of wearing him down.
Which, at best, seems to be what happened in at least some of these cases: Trump says what he wants to happen over and over again and ultimately people give in, whether they realize they’re succumbing to pressure to do something unholy.
When it comes to something such as a leak investigation, the question isn’t really whether it was a specific demand made directly to the DOJ; it’s something Trump signaled repeatedly that he wanted. Legally speaking, the distinction between a direct ask and publicly conveyed pressure might matter. Practically speaking, it would sure be a massive coincidence for the Justice Department to repeatedly go to such extraordinary lengths on matters that pertained to the president himself if that had no bearing.
What’s perhaps most notable in all of this is where it didn’t ultimately lead. These leak investigations have led to no accusations of wrongdoing by Schiff, Swalwell, those around them, or the journalists involved. That suggests as strongly as anything that the evidence underlying the subpoenas wasn’t terribly compelling and that this was something amounting to a fishing expedition for dirt on Trump’s antagonists.
Trump is out of office now, which makes these kinds of stories less compelling. But given he’s signaled a potential 2024 campaign, it’s surely worth continuing to find out how much his Justice Department went to extraordinary lengths in ways that just so happened to line up with his political interests. And the growing onslaught of new details suggests we’re only scratching the surface.
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