The same Democrats who denounce Trump as a lawless, treasonous authoritarian just voted to give him vast warrantless spying powers
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 who 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 Chairman 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 Snowden revelations, worked in close partnership with liberal Democratic Congressman 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 it was permitted to search and read through the communications of Americans collected by the NSA.
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 or not 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.