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.

DID YOU GET THE MEMO?

You’ve probably seen the buzz around #ReleaseTheMemo on social and other media. But perhaps you found it hard to follow from a privacy advocate’s point of view.

The House Intelligence Committee in Congress agreed to share a document that allegedly described abuses of FISA surveillance, pending the president’s approval. 

Now that it’s finally been released, let’s take a look if it lived up to the hype…

The predictions:

  • It would describe political surveillance, conducted with the knowledge of President Obama, of people involved in the Trump campaign
  • It would show the bias inherent in the Mueller investigation of President Trump
  • It would vastly misrepresent the underlying intelligence reports
  • It would be unprecedented to release to the public reports of such a highly classified nature, potentially compromising national security
  • It would provide substantial evidence for the need of greater oversight of FISA surveillance

The precedents:

The realities:

  • Its main point is that the FBI failed to disclose bias by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele against Trump as part of its application for a FISA warrant; But it was already well-known that Steele’s firm received payment from Democrats, that he was vehemently opposed to Trump’s election, and that his dossier constituted opposition research
  • It doesn’t lessen any suspicion of collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, because that has been shown from other sources than the Steele dossier
  • Perhaps the FBI should have caveated better on the FISA application as to Steele’s motivations.
  • However, the memo doesn’t seem to substantively reveal improper political surveillance by the FBI motivated by political animus against Trump
  • From our standpoint, the memo seems to have been released as a parry in the knife fight of partisan struggles; it doesn’t reveal material relevant to Restore the Fourth’s mission
  • Suggestions of the memo compromising national security seem to be overblown; the memo could easily have been part of a public discussion prior to this, and the fact that it wasn’t suggests that our system vastly overclassifies information, and is reluctant to let the public know about things we’re in fact fully capable of understanding.