How can the rhetoric about Trump from Democratic leaders be reconciled with their actions to protect his unchecked power to spy on Americans?
Leading congressional Democrats have spent the last year relentlessly accusing Donald Trump of being controlled by or treasonously loyal to a hostile foreign power. Over the last several months, they have added to those disloyalty charges a new set of alleged crimes: abusing the powers of the executive branch — including the Justice Department and FBI — to vindictively punish political opponents while corruptly protecting the serious crimes of his allies, including his own family members and possibly himself.
The inescapable conclusion from all of this, they have relentlessly insisted, is that Trump is a lawless authoritarian of the type the U.S. has not seen in the Oval Office for decades, if ever: a leader who has no regard for constitutional values or legal limits and thus, poses a grave, unique, and existential threat to the institutions of American democracy. Reflecting the severity of these fears, the anti-Trump opposition movement that has coalesced within Democratic Party politics has appropriated a slogan — expressed in the hashtag form of contemporary online activism — that was historically used by those who unite, at all costs, to defeat domestic tyranny: #Resistance.
One would hope, and expect, that those who genuinely view Trump as a menace of this magnitude and view themselves as #Resistance fighters would do everything within their ability to impose as many limits and safeguards as possible on the powers he is able to wield. If “resistance” means anything, at a minimum it should entail a refusal to trust a dangerous authoritarian to wield vast power with little checks or oversight.
Yesterday in Washington, congressional Democrats were presented with a critical opportunity to do exactly that. A proposed new amendment was scheduled to be voted on in the House of Representatives that would have imposed meaningful limits and new safeguards on Trump’s ability to exercise one of the most dangerous, invasive, and historically abused presidential powers: spying on the communications of American citizens without warrants. Yesterday’s amendment was designed to limit the powers first enacted during the Bush years to legalize the Bush/Cheney domestic warrantless eavesdropping program. The Intercept’s Alex Emmons on Wednesday detailed the history and substance of the various bills pending in the House.
Although the Trump White House and a majority of House Republicans (including House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes) favored extension (and even an expansion) of the current law’s spying powers and opposed any real reforms, a substantial minority of GOP lawmakers have long opposed warrantless surveillance of Americans and thus, announced their intention to support new safeguards. Indeed, the primary sponsor and advocate of the amendment to provide new domestic spying safeguards was the conservative Republican from Michigan, Justin Amash, who, in the wake of the 2013 Edward Snowden revelations, worked in close partnership with liberal Democratic Rep. John Conyers to try to rein in some of these domestic spying powers.
Despite opposition from GOP House leadership and the Trump White House, Amash was able to secure the commitment of dozens of House Republicans to support his amendments to limit the ability of Trump’s FBI to spy on Americans without warrants. The key provision of his amendment would have required that the FBI first obtain a warrant before being permitted to search and read through the communications of Americans collected by the National Security Agency.
To secure enactment of these safeguards, Amash needed support from a majority of House Democrats. That meant that House Democrats held the power in their hands to decide whether Trump — the president they have been vocally vilifying as a lawless tyrant threatening American democracy — would be subjected to serious limits and safeguards on how his FBI could spy on the conversations of American citizens.
Debate on the bill and the amendments began on the House floor yesterday afternoon, and it became quickly apparent that leading Democrats intended to side with Trump and against those within their own party who favored imposing safeguards on the Trump administration’s ability to engage in domestic surveillance. The most bizarre aspect of this spectacle was that the Democrats who most aggressively defended Trump’s version of the surveillance bill — the Democrats most eager to preserve Trump’s spying powers as virtually limitless — were the very same Democratic House members who have become media stars this year by flamboyantly denouncing Trump as a treasonous, lawless despot in front of every television camera they could find.
Leading the charge against reforms of the FBI’s domestic spying powers was Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee who, in countless TV appearances, has strongly insinuated, if not outright stated, that Trump is controlled by and loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Indeed, just this weekend, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Schiff accused Trump of corruptly abusing the powers of the DOJ and FBI in order to vindictively punish Hilary Clinton and other political enemies. Referring to Trump’s various corrupt acts, Schiff pronounced: “We ought to be thinking in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, beyond these three years what damage may be done to the institutions of our democracy. ”
Yet just two days later, there was the very same Adam Schiff, on the House floor, dismissing the need for real safeguards on the ability of Trump’s FBI to spy on Americans. In demanding rejection of the warrant requirement safeguard, Schiff channeled Dick Cheney — and the Trump White House — in warning that any warrant requirements would constitute “a crippling requirement in national security and terrorism cases.”
Standing with Schiff in opposing these safeguards was his fellow California Democrat Eric Swalwell, who has devoted his entire congressional term almost exclusively to accusing Trump of being a puppet of the Kremlin, in the process becoming a media darling among the MSNBC set and online #Resistance movement. Yet after spending a full year warning that Trump’s real loyalty was to Moscow rather than America, Swalwell echoed Schiff in demanding that no warrant safeguards were needed on the spying power of Trump’s FBI.
If one were to invoke the standard mentality and tactics of Schiff and Swalwell — namely, impugning the patriotism and loyalty of anyone questioning their Trump/Russia accusations — one could seriously question their own patriotism in handing these vast, virtually unlimited spying powers to a president whom they say they believe is a corrupt agent of a foreign power.
Joining the pro-surveillance coalition led by Trump, Paul Ryan, Devin Nunes, Schiff, and Swalwell was the House’s liberal icon and senior Democrat, Nancy Pelosi. The San Francisco Democrat also stood on the House floor and offered a vigorous defense of the Trump-endorsed bill that would extend to Trump’s FBI the power to spy on Americans without warrants, in the process denouncing the minimal warrant safeguards favored by many in her own party. Pelosi’s speech earned praise from GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan: “I want to thank [Pelosi] for coming up and speaking against the Amash amendment, and in favor of the underlying bipartisan [bill].”
In one sense, Pelosi’s pro-surveillance stance is not surprising. Back in the summer of 2013, as the Snowden revelations of mass domestic surveillance sparked a global debate about privacy and abuse of spying powers, an extraordinary bipartisan alliance formed in Congress to impose serious limits on the NSA’s power to spy on Americans without warrants. Back then, a bill that would have imposed real limits and safeguards on the NSA, one jointly sponsored by Conyers and Amash, unexpectedly picked up large numbers of supporters from both parties — despite opposition from both parties’ congressional leadership — to the point where it looked like it was unstoppably headed for passage.
Official Washington and its national security community began to panic over what looked to be the first rollback of government national security power since the 9/11 attack. Fortunately for the NSA, CIA, and FBI, they found a crucial ally to kill the bill: Nancy Pelosi. Behind the scenes, she had pressured and coerced enough House Democrats to oppose the reform bill, ensuring its narrow defeat. The Conyers/Amash bill — which would have severely limited domestic mass surveillance — was defeated by the razor-thin margin of 217-205. Foreign Policy magazine correctly identified the key author of its defeat, the person who singlehandedly saved NSA mass surveillance in the U.S.:
For anyone who believes in the basic value of individual privacy and the dangers of mass surveillance, Pelosi deserved all the criticism she received back then for singlehandedly saving the NSA’s mass surveillance powers from reform. But at least then, her partisan defenders had a justification they could invoke: At the time, the NSA was under the command of Barack Obama, a president they believed could be trusted to administer these powers responsibly and lawfully.
Now, four years later, Pelosi has reprised her role as key protecter of domestic warrantless eavesdropping — but this time with the benevolent, magnanimous, noble Democratic president long gone, and with those agencies instead under the leadership of a president who Pelosi and her supporters have long been maligning as an enemy of democracy, a criminal, a despot, and a racist cretin. For anyone (including Pelosi, Schiff, and Swalwell) who genuinely believes anything they’ve been saying about Trump over the last year, what conceivable justification can be offered now for Pelosi and her key allies blocking reasonable safeguards and limits on Trump’s warrantless domestic spying powers?
That leading House Democrats (their minority leader and top Intelligence Committee member) united with Trump to support this bill and oppose reform amendments, was sufficient to cause enough Democrats to side with Trump and ensure passage of the bill. The Trump-favored bill ended up passing by a vote of 256-164.
As the American Civil Liberties Union put it bluntly about the bill supported by Pelosi and Schiff: “The House just passed a bill to give the Trump administration greater authority to spy on Americans, immigrants, journalists, dissidents, and everyone else.” The privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation echoed that sentiment: “The House just approved the disastrous NSA surveillance extension bill that will allow for continued, unconstitutional surveillance that hurts the American people and violates our Fourth Amendment rights.”
While Trump, as president, is the head of the executive branch, the official with the greatest control over the FBI they just empowered is his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. In other words, Pelosi, Schiff, and their allies just voted to vest great, unchecked power in an official the Democrats have (with good reason) long denounced as corrupt and deeply racist. As Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (who has vowed with Rand Paul to filibuster the bill when it reaches the Senate) put it yesterday: “This Section 702 bill would give AG Jeff Sessions unchecked power to use this information against Americans. This bill prevents his decisions from EVER being challenged in court.”
But more significantly, the Amash amendment containing the proposed reforms (including a warrant requirement) was defeated by a much smaller margin: 233-183. While 125 Democratic House members were joined by 58 GOP members in voting for these reforms, 55 Democrats — led by Pelosi and Schiff — joined with the GOP majority to reject them, ensuring defeat of Amash’s amendment by a mere 26 votes.
This means that Trump’s bill to ensure his FBI’s ongoing power to spy on the communications of Americans without warrants was saved by Pelosi, Schiff, and Swalwell abandoning the large majority of their own Democratic caucus, and instead joining with Ryan and the GOP majority to ensure defeat of all meaningful reforms. Here are the 55 Democrats who not only voted in favor of the Trump-endorsed spying bill, but who also voted against the reform amendment to require a warrant. Beyond Pelosi, Schiff, and Swalwell, it includes the second most-senior Democrat Steny Hoyer and former Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz
One can, of course, reasonably debate the proper balance between privacy, civil liberties, and national security. Questions of how much power to vest law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the name of terrorism are not always simple ones. But if there is any principle that ought to command support across party and ideological lines, it’s the one long embedded in the Constitution: We do not want our government spying on us unless it can first obtain a warrant to do so — the principle that was trampled on yesterday by the unholy alliance of Trump, the GOP congressional leadership, Nancy Pelosi, and Adam Schiff.
Indeed, several of Pelosi’s own caucus members made all of these points with usually explicit rhetoric. Here, for instance, was Rep. Ted Lieu of California who — like Schiff and Swalwell — has become a media and #Resistance star this year for his unflinching denunciations of Trump as a corrupt Kremlin tool but who, unlike his California colleagues, cast the only vote rationally reconcilable with his yearlong crusade to impose limits on Trump’s spying powers.
In America, if a program is unconstitutional, government cannot execute it. Full stop.— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) January 11, 2018
I urge my colleagues to reject the unconstitutional Nunes FISA ACT reauthorization, unless it is amended by #USARIGHTSAct to require a warrant before spying on Americans. https://t.co/NpC5VKWNPE
The increasingly impressive Democratic freshman member of Congress from California, Ro Khanna, was even more scathing about his fellow Democrats who joined with Trump to pass this bill.
When @justinamash & @VoteMeadows, chair of the freedom caucus, vote against surveillance, but scores of Democrats vote for it, then its fair to ask what does our party stand for? If we can’t be unified around the principle of civil liberties, then what is the soul of our party?— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) January 11, 2018
But the most important point here is what this says about how Democrats really view Donald Trump. How can anyone rational possibly take seriously all the righteous denunciations from people like Pelosi, Schiff, and Swalwell about how Trump is a lawless, authoritarian tyrant existentially threatening American democracy when those very same people just yesterday voted in favor of vesting him the virtually limitless power to spy on Americans with no warrants or safeguards? If someone really believed those accusations about Trump — as opposed to just pretending to believe them for cynical political manipulation of their followers — how could they possibly have done what they did yesterday?
Cliches are boring to hear, yet often contain truth. That actions speak louder than words is one of those. The next time you see Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, or Eric Swalwell waxing indignantly on cable TV about how Trump is a grave menace to the rule of law and American democracy, focus less on their scripted talking points and more on their actions, beginning with their vote yesterday to vest in him these awesome powers while blocking safeguards and checks. That will tell you all you need to know about who they really are and what they really believe.