Regardless of his motives, knowledge of the subject, or consideration of the national security implications involved, President Trump on Wednesday elevated his position on Americans’ privacy rights above that of the Democratic Party—the most powerful members of which have dedicated several months now to undermining efforts at reform.
Although it’s really been something of a mass delusion for a while, the idea that Democrats are somehow better than Republicans on the Fourth Amendment is, as of this week, nothing short of a joke. Whereas Democrats have long complained about the “McConnell roadblock” being the reason they can’t get anything on their agenda accomplished, privacy advocates will now and for the foreseeable future blame Rep. Adam Schiff for ruining all efforts to curb surveillance abuse.
Tweeting in all caps to his 80 million followers, at around 2pm Wednesday, Trump, effectively aligning himself with the progressive wing of the Democratic party, declared that “WARRANTLESS SURVEILLANCE OF AMERICANS IS WRONG!” (His own Justice Department vehemently disagrees.) And while a tweet means precisely jack-shit in terms of policy or enforcement—and it’s also likely that the FBI has been warrantlessly spying on Americans’ internet activities for over three years now under Trump—his statement still goes further than anything Democratic leadership has uttered in months.
At roughly the same time that Trump was shouting about the wrongness-ness of surveilling U.S. citizens without a warrant, House Democrats were in the process of ensuring that the FBI could do just that. The House Rules Committee, chaired by Rep. Patrick McGovern (D-Mass.), officially declared a bill to reauthorize several key FBI surveillance powers would not be amended further. This, despite an amendment being offered up by bipartisan lawmakers yesterday that would have curtailed, in at least a limited way, the FBI’s nearly unfettered access to Americans’ internet search and browsing records.
The president’s Twitter account is not what you’d call a fount of wisdom. Most days, it doesn’t even resemble mildly acceptable behavior. Early this week, for instance, he cravenly re-traumatized a poor widower by using his dead wife like a baseball bat to pummel a chief critic. Today, he issued an explicit threat—on behalf of “Republicans”—to violate the First Amendment rights of tens of millions of internet users. And it’s only Wednesday.
But the president didn’t cancel a markup hearing this February so he could kill an effort to protect U.S. citizens from warrantless surveillance online: Democratic leaders did. He didn’t negotiate to allow Attorney General Bill Barr—who, incidentally, launched one of the biggest domestic surveillance programs in U.S. history—final authority over which political campaigns can be surveilled by the FBI in an election year: Democratic leaders did. And he didn’t insert a massive loophole into an amendment that, once again, aimed to protect Americans from having their online activities secretly spied on by the FBI.
That was Adam Schiff, whose duty to provide oversight of the Intelligence Community suspiciously resembles lobbying on its behalf.
The fact that the GOP-controlled Senate has managed to pass more progressive privacy reforms than the Democratic majority in the House, which has introduced precisely none, should not go unnoticed. But it may also be time to stop feigning surprise when things like this happen and accept that when it comes to privacy, the Schiff roadblock is now the biggest obstacle of them all.