It’s no exaggeration to say that every United States President has had an adversarial relationship with the press.
Richard Nixon’s notorious “enemies list” included a number of prominent newscasters. He used the IRS and other arms of the federal government to harass political opponents, which was one of the factors contributing to his being forced to resign. Impeachment Article 2 reads in part, “Using the powers of the office of President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States ... has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavoured to ... cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.”
At the time I believed, as did many others, that the consequences of Nixon’s inappropriate and vindictive use of presidential power would deter future presidents from similar abuses. Oh, how wrong we were!
Last week, news broke that former president Donald Trump went well past Nixon’s level of corruption. Department of Justice prosecutors subpoenaed data from Apple regarding the activities of several news reporters and at least two congressmen, their families and at least one of their minor-age children.
Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, went after only Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee. He tried to tie Adam Schiff, and Eric Swalwell to leaks connecting Trump associates to Putin. Those investigations turned up absolutely nothing criminal relating to those congressmen, which should have been the end of things. But it wasn’t.
After Sessions was fired, Trump’s wing man Bill Barr revived those inquiries, this time because Schiff ‘s committee was investigating whistle-blower accusations of Trump pressuring Ukraine for dirt on the Bidens. Rather than trusting Department of Justice, Barr dragged in an inexperienced prosecutor from New Jersey to go after Schiff.
Barr’s hand-picked hitman also came up empty. The DOJ also slapped a gag order on Apple to make sure that the Trump Administration’s criminal conduct remained hidden. That gag order expired in May. It was only then that Apple notified the congressmen and the press learned of these abuses of power.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, which can only happen when the government is open and honest with the American public.
President Biden recognized that foundational principle. Earlier this month, the White House declared that it “will not seek compulsory legal process in leak investigations to obtain source information from members of the news media doing their jobs.” But the DOJ regulation that allows such seizures remains in place. Attorney General Garland has the authority to change that regulation, but the real solution to this form of excess will only come from congressional action.
This is a vastly complex area of law. In the internet age, it’s not at all clear what consists of a reporter’s records, or even who are members of the news media; and what would happen if a reporter were also engaged in criminal conduct associated with a story they’re investigating?
If that seems far-fetched, just think back to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. AG Barr issued an indictment against Assange that accused him of criminal activity; Assange says he was engaged in journalism.
It’s in everyone’s interest for Congress to balance our need to know with government’s need for security. Freedom of the press must not continue to come under the same sort of partisan attacks as voting rights have.
Mitch Edelman, vice chairperson of the Carroll County Democratic Central Committee, writes from Finksburg. His column appears every other Tuesday. Email him at email@example.com.