Early on in Donald Trump's presidency, there was considerable reporting about the contacts between the president's team and their Russian benefactors who helped elect the Republican in 2016. For the administration, the principal problem was not with the interactions, but rather, with the leaks that brought the scandal to the public's attention.
With that in mind, the Justice Department began an unusually aggressive leak investigation, which ultimately led federal officials to obtain reporters' records in the hopes of identifying their confidential sources. These efforts remained hidden until very recently.
But as the New York Times reported overnight, these extraordinary steps were part of a larger and more serious abuse.
As the Justice Department investigated who was behind leaks of classified information early in the Trump administration, it took a highly unusual step: Prosecutors subpoenaed Apple for data from the accounts of at least two Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, aides and family members. One was a minor.
It's one thing for a president to urge the Justice Department to target his perceived political foes. It's something else for the Justice Department to actually do it.
According to the Times' reporting, Trump's DOJ seized the records of at least a dozen people tied to the House Intelligence Committee, including California Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both of whom were in the congressional minority at the time.
The prosecutorial probe did not pan out, and federal law enforcement under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not find any evidence of leaks from the committee. But then Bill Barr took office, brought in an allied prosecutor with little relevant experience, and "revived languishing leak investigations."
All of this was kept secret, with the Justice Department securing a gag order on Apple, so that the targeted lawmakers, staffs, and their families wouldn't know that they'd been targeted.
Even within Trump's Justice Department at the time, officials saw Barr's efforts as "politically motivated."
It's every bit as extraordinary as it seems: the Republican Justice Department secretly seized communications records from members of Congress. There is no precedent in the American tradition of federal law enforcement being abused and politicized in such brazen ways.
The question then becomes what happens now.
In a press statement, Adam Schiff, now the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said, "President Trump repeatedly and flagrantly demanded that the Department of Justice carry out his political will, and tried to use the Department as a cudgel against his political opponents and members of the media. It is increasingly apparent that those demands did not fall on deaf ears. The politicization of the Department and the attacks on the rule of law are among the most dangerous assaults on our democracy carried out by the former President."
The Democratic lawmaker added, "Though we were informed by the Department in May that this investigation is closed, I believe more answers are needed, which is why I believe the Inspector General should investigate this and other cases that suggest the weaponization of law enforcement by a corrupt president."
On the show last night, Schiff went on to note the extent to which the Trump administration took steps to turn the Justice Department into "a fully owned subsidiary of the president's personal legal interests," which cannot stand.
"It's hard to express just how shocking an abuse of power this really is," Schiff concluded.