Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@ruthbenghiat), a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, is professor of history at New York University and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” Read her newsletter “Lucid.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
“It’s a fragile time for our democracy,” said US Rep. Eric Swalwell, disclosing earlier this month that the Department of Justice had secretly seized his communications records in 2017, when he was on a congressional committee investigating then-president Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.
Rep. Adam Schiff, also on the committee, received the same treatment. So did White House lawyer Don McGahn, and at least eight journalists who cover national security, including CNN’s Barbara Starr. “The politicization of the Department and the attacks on the rule of law are among the most dangerous assaults on our democracy carried by the former President,” Schiff stated.
Swalwell and Schiff, both California Democrats, are right. The context and apparent motive for this clandestine action line up more with autocratic than with democratic history.
Authoritarian leaders organize governance around self-preservation. They need to cover up their corruption and crime, so they politicize the justice system, surround themselves with loyalists and target people who can expose their wrongdoing. The targeting of journalists, prosecutors and opposition politicians by the Trump administration is consistent with the behind-the-scenes actions of foreign autocrats, as is the clandestine digging into the personal lives of individuals in their inner circle who won’t break the law for them.
That McGahn’s wife’s communications records were also seized is typical – and striking, in an American context – anti-democratic behavior.
“Find the leakers within the FBI itself….FIND NOW,” Trump ordered (presumably) his subordinates via a tweet in 2017. As we now know, the White House was in war mode to foil investigations into communications between Trump’s campaign and Russia, and cover up other misdeeds as well.
A week before this tweet, for example, Gen. Michael Flynn had resigned as national security adviser when it came to light that he had worked for the Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016 without registering as a foreign agent, and after it became public that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about whether he had discussed US sanctions during pre-inauguration phone calls with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak.
Given the air of panic that pervades Trump’s many public comments on leaks and leakers, it’s not surprising to learn that the Justice Department seized phone records of The New York Times and The Washington Post reporters (as well as Starr’s) covering this very period.
It also makes sense that the Department justified the seizure as related to a “criminal investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.” Using the law as a weapon to harass journalists and turn them into criminals in the public eye is a common autocratic move.
So is investigating them behind the scenes to track their networks and sources. “The secrecy was the thing I found most unsettling,” wrote one of the Times reporters, Eric Lichtblau, who had written about contacts between Russia’s Alfa Bank and Trump Tower computer servers during the 2016 campaign.
Even though Trump is now out of office, knowing that the government tracked normally confidential communications can have a “chilling effect” on reporters and make people more wary of speaking to them, Lichtblau wrote.
This is yet another legacy, he concludes, of Trump’s “relentless four-year assault on the free press.”
Just ask Russian journalists where the demonization of journalists can lead. Two decades of Vladimir Putin’s leadership has created a state in which repression enables kleptocracy and you can lose your life by writing about either.
In Russia, where the state’s arm reaches into the private lives of media professionals, surveillance of journalists and their families is a given. Everyone knows the fate of investigative journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya, whose coverage of human rights abuses in Chechnya during Putin’s “dirty war” there ended with her 2006 killing. Four Chechens and a former Russian police official – were convicted of her murder.
She is one of many reporters who perished after uncovering information Putin wanted buried (though the Kremlin denies any connection with the killing).
Opposition politicians involved in investigating Putin’s thievery fare no better – like Boris Nemtsov of the People’s Freedom Party. In 2011, Nemtsov published the report “Putin. Corruption.” A few years later, he wrote that the government siphoned off of up to $30 billion in funds approved for the Sochi Olympics. In 2015, he was assassinated near the Kremlin, on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky bridge, its cameras and patrols conveniently deactivated as he crossed.
Putin condemned the killing, and assumed “personal control” of the investigation into it, said his spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Five Chechen men were convicted in the murder.
Putin’s press conference at the recent summit with President Biden in Geneva showed the stark contrast between democratic and authoritarian attitudes toward the press. ABC News journalist Rachel Scott asked Putin a pointed question: “What are you so afraid of?” mentioning the “long list” of his jailed or killed political opponents. No Russian journalist could have asked Putin a similar question, even on foreign soil, without fearing for their lives.
Trump’s America was no Putin’s Russia, obviously. Yet every autocrat starts somewhere, and extinguishing democracy happens bit by bit. A culture supportive of the right to hold politicians accountable gives way to a climate of secrecy and threat.
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Then an independent judiciary can transform into a weapon the leader uses to try and neutralize anyone who looks into matters that could compromise him. That includes journalists, whose jobs often entail “uncovering what the government doesn’t want us to know to find out essential truth,” as Starr notes.
This conception of the judiciary is one the GOP seems to offer practical support for by continuing to protect Trump. This week, Sen. Mitch McConnell termed Democrats’ requests that Trump-era Attorney Generals Jeff Sessions and William Barr testify before a committee about the records seizures a “witch hunt in the making.”
It is rare for parties to stake their reputation on a defeated leader – especially one who incited a riot that made their own leaders fear for their safety – unless they think he will return to office. If Trump returns to the White House in 2024, such clandestine actions by the Department of Justice could become the norm.