Grading Donald Trump

Grade: F

Our predictions about a Trump presidency have been largely, though not entirely, borne out. With respect to surveillance and privacy issues, President Trump’s consistent position has been to express opposition to surveillance when conducted on him, his family, his campaign workers or his political allies; but to support and expand surveillance at the level of policy, when conducted on protesters, immigrants or foreign nationals.

Trump has opposed himself to the “deep state,” and has publicly voiced distrust of the FBI and CIA, to an extent unusual for presidents. In turn, officials deeply implicated in illegal mass surveillance, such as Jim Clapper, have vocally opposed the President for his lack of trust in the intelligence community. This climate of distrust created political space in Congress for Republicans, such as Devin Nunes and Matt Gaetz, to advocate for reforms to FISA to prevent surveillance of political campaigns without the approval of the Attorney-General. The report on “Crossfire Hurricane” revealed substantial mishandling of applications to surveil US citizens under FISA. That scandal, in part, led to the expiration of controversial PATRIOT Act statutory authorities during 2020; these authorities had been used unlawfully to enable mass surveillance. It is unclear, however, whether surveillance practices have actually changed. There are indications that the same surveillance may be being conducted anyway, under executive rather than statutory authority. And the most recently released FISA court opinions show a continued willingness on the part of the court to sign off on continuing surveillance despite documented and massive illegality.  

Despite his verbal suspicions, Trump’s overall effect on governmental surveillance powers has been to broaden them. FBI and DHS surveillance of domestic dissent has expanded. DHS, under his presidency, has become a federal security force that routinely violates the rights of protesters. Trump has been eager to reify a new, public enemy in the form of “antifa,” to replace the fading public enemy of “the terrorists.” He has tried hard to divert resources and attention from surveillance of white supremacist groups, and has partnered with surveillance-oriented firms like Palantir to ramp up surveillance and mistreatment of immigrants, both internally and at the border.

Under his administration, the police state has tightened its grip. Trump ardently and consistently opposes police accountability for racist killings, terming it a “left-wing war on cops.” He has spoken up in favor of police brutality, and has tried to deny federal funds to cities that dare to reduce police funding, describing them as “anarchist jurisdictions.” He has continued prior administrations’ efforts to undermine encryption, and pursued the exact kind of Espionage Act prosecution against Julian Assange that the Obama administration had rejected because it would criminalize journalistic reporting. He has consistently showered contempt on whistleblowers and undermined the anti-corruption work of inspectors-general.

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