Analysis by Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large
Within the last week, we’ve learned that the Trump Department of Justice sought data from Apple in 2018 on a) several House Intelligence Committee Democrats as well as their families and staff members and b) Trump’s own White House counsel Don McGahn and his wife.
The use of the Justice Department to seek private information from then-President Donald Trump’s political rivals — as well as the top lawyer in the White House(!) — are simply the latest evidence that the 45th president used the DOJ repeatedly for his own personal and political purposes, often aided and abetted by AGs Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr.
“Trump has turned out to be the ideal vessel for Barr’s decades-long pursuit of a potent ‘unitary executive’ with few checks on his power and broad authority to swat away congressional demands. Theirs is a political marriage of perfect symmetry: a President who wants to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants — and believes he can; an attorney general dedicated to endowing Oval Office occupants with expansive power. In Barr’s thinking, the president is not the head of the executive branch of government, which is a collection of dozens of agencies and sub-departments. Instead, as Barr sees it, the president and the president alone is the executive branch.”
The other reality made plain by these latest revelations is that it is very, very likely that we haven’t heard the end of the Trump White House requesting information about elected officials and other government officials from private companies.
Ask yourself this: If the President — or his inner circle — was willing to ask Apple for data on his own White House counsel, who would be out of bounds? Especially when you consider that Trump never demonstrated any understanding of the commitment to the long-held independence of the Justice Department.
“A Rigged System – They don’t want to turn over Documents to Congress,” Trump wrote on Twitter in May 2018, wading into a fight over documents tied to the Russia investigation. “What are they afraid of? Why so much redacting? Why such unequal ‘justice?’ At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!”
Again: “At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!” So, yeah.
Trump also repeatedly harangued Sessions, his first attorney general, for his decision to recuse himself in the Russia probe; “I don’t have an attorney general,” he said in September 2018. “It’s very sad.” And even in the final days of his first term, Trump was openly threatening Barr’s job. “I have no comment. Can’t comment on that. It’s too early,” Trump told the conservative Newsmax website in an October 2020 interview regarding whether Barr would return in his job in a second Trump term. “I’m not happy with all of the evidence I have, I can tell you that. I’m not happy.”
This is a President who — again and again, in ways big and small — showed that he thought the Department of Justice was, effectively, his own personal law enforcement and legal team. He pressured his attorneys general to do his bidding on his timeline — which often dovetailed almost exactly with own political fortunes. And as we now know, he used the DOJ to obtain data from private companies in an attempt to suss out who might have been leaking negative information about him and his White House.
Add it all up and you get this: A chief executive entirely unbidden by the norms and practices of the men who came before him when it comes to the use of the country’s main legal and law enforcement organ. And when you have someone like Trump in a position as powerful as the President of the United States, the lines that can be (and are) crossed are considerable.
In short: There’s almost certainly more where the McGahn news came from. Maybe a lot more.