As his campaign’s connections to Russia dominated much of the news cycle in the first half of his presidency, Donald Trump’s Department of Justice attempted to mitigate the damage by subpoenaing phone records to find out who was leaking to whom in the press. Thanks to gag orders expiring on those subpoenas, we are now learning the extent to which Trump’s attorneys general undermined the independence of the DOJ. Over the past month, disclosures have revealed that prosecutors seized the records of reporters at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN in an effort to learn who was giving them information. On the other end of the leak pipeline, prosecutors also seized the metadata of lawmakers including Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, actions that required the approval of either Jeff Sessions or William Barr.
Though the efforts were reportedly unsuccessful, they are reminders of the deep distrust within the last administration — none more so than the reports on Sunday that the DOJ seized the records of White House counsel Don McGahn, the man responsible for overseeing the legal issues of the president. McGahn and his wife, Shannon, were reportedly informed by Apple last month that the FBI had subpoenaed their accounts.
The New York Times stated that “it is not clear what FBI agents were scrutinizing,” though the February 23 subpoena date came weeks after a report by the same paper, in which sources within the administration said that Trump ordered McGahn to tell the DOJ to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. (McGahn refused to do so, and threatened to quit.) In the wake of this development, Trump reportedly told aides that McGahn was a “liar” and a “leaker.” The suspicion in their working relationship was mutual: According to the Mueller report, the White House counsel took notes in meetings with the president so there would be a paper trail of his orders.
In response to yet another abuse of power within the Trump administration,
Democrats are requesting that former attorneys general Jeff Sessions and William Barr testify before Congress to explain the unprecedented subpoenas of sitting representatives and the top White House attorney. (Already, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco has requested that the DOJ’s inspector general investigate the matter.) On Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that the DOJ’s actions under Trump go “even beyond Richard Nixon” and called for Barr, Sessions, and former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein to testify before Congress, though she did not say if the House Intelligence or Judiciary committees would compel their testimony. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warned that if the former officials would not testify, they would be subpoenaed themselves. “This was nothing less than a gross abuse of power, an assault on the separation of powers,” he said.
The day after McGahn’s tap was revealed, John Demers — the head of the Justice Department’s national security division — emailed his staff to inform them he would step down at the end of the month. The message claimed that Demers intended to step down to spend time with his family this summer, but the longest lasting Trump appointee at Justice “would typically have been briefed on investigations like those involving the secret collection of journalists’ phone records,” as the New York Times notes.