A few days ago Jon Schwarz of The Intercept noted if
Trump Tower was wiretapped during the 2016 presidential campaign, as President Trump claimed in several tweets Saturday morning, he can do much more than say so on twitter: Presidents have the power to declassify anything at any time, so Trump could immediately make public any government records of such surveillance.
Schwarz reminds us that in at least one instance, a President has "used wiretaps to track the actions of their political adversaries," which may be the first time in recorded history Barack Obama has been compared to the man who complained "Making a speech on economics is a lot like pissing down your leg." Forty-eight years ealier, there was
significant government surveillance involving a presidential campaign in the past, although it’s unlikely Trump will want to remind America of it.
During the 1968 contest between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, President Lyndon Johnson was attempting to negotiate a peace deal to end the Vietnam War.
Nixon was worried that if this happened just before the election it would help Humphrey, who was Johnson’s vice president. Recently discovered notes by one of Nixon’s top campaign aides show that Nixon asked him to “monkey wrench” the peace talks. Via Anna Chennault, a top Republican fundraiser, the Nixon campaign sent messages to the government of South Vietnam not to go along with Johnson’s plans.
Johnson knew that this was happening at the time, and believed that it constituted “treason.” He ordered the FBI to wiretap the embassy of South Vietnam in Washington, which picked up Ambassador Bui Diem communicating with Chennault. (Presidents could and did directly order wiretaps prior to the establishment of the FISA court in 1978 to prevent executive branch abuses of its surveillance power.) The FBI also began conducting general surveillance of Chennault.
Johnson and several top officials, including Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, struggled with what to do in a fascinating phone call on November 4, 1968, the day before the election.
Johnson speaks of not wanting to be “a McCarthy” and worries about the certainty that “we’ll be charged with trying to interfere with the election.”
Rusk also equivocates, telling Johnson that “I do not believe that any president can make any use of interceptions or telephone taps in any way that would involve politics. The moment we cross over that divide we are in a different kind of society. … We get a lot of information through these special channels that we don’t make public. For example, some of the malfeasances of senators and congressmen and other people. … I think that we must continue to respect the classification of that kind of material.”
Clifford chimes in with another concern: that Americans just couldn’t endure learning how the world actually works. “I think,” Clifford frets, “that some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story, and then possibly to have a certain individual elected. It could cast his whole administration under such doubts that I would think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”
In the end, Johnson decided not to reveal what he knew about Nixon’s shocking subterfuge.
"The fact that Nixon did ally with a foreign government for advantage in a presidential election," Schwarz observes, "certainly doesn't mean that Trump did the same.
Fair enough, but there is a parallel between the actions of Johnson and those of President Obama, now the second time in recorded history the two have been compared.
"By mid-September of last year," The Washington Post reported in January, "White House officials had decided it was time" to employ a "naming and shaming" approach after being informed by the intelligence community that the Russians had breached cybersecurity in an effort to influence the upcoming elections. (On October 7- the day the Access Hollywood/Trump sex tape was released- the DNI issued a formal statement accusing the Kremlin.) However
they worried that doing so unilaterally and without bipartisan congressional backing just weeks before the election would make Obama vulnerable to charges that he was using intelligence for political purposes.
Instead, officials devised a plan to seek bipartisan support from top lawmakers and set up a secret meeting with the Gang of 12 — a group that includes House and Senate leaders, as well as the chairmen and ranking members of both chambers’ committees on intelligence and homeland security.
Obama dispatched Monaco, FBI Director James B. Comey and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to make the pitch for a “show of solidarity and bipartisan unity” against Russian interference in the election, according to a senior administration official.
Specifically, the White House wanted congressional leaders to sign off on a bipartisan statement urging state and local officials to take federal help in protecting their voting-registration and balloting machines from Russian cyber-intrusions.
Though U.S. intelligence agencies were skeptical that hackers would be able to manipulate the election results in a systematic way, the White House feared that Russia would attempt to do so, sowing doubt about the fundamental mechanisms of democracy and potentially forcing a more dangerous confrontation between Washington and Moscow.
In a secure room in the Capitol used for briefings involving classified information, administration officials broadly laid out the evidence U.S. spy agencies had collected, showing Russia’s role in cyber-intrusions in at least two states and in hacking the emails of the Democratic organizations and individuals.
And they made a case for a united, bipartisan front in response to what one official described as “the threat posed by unprecedented meddling by a foreign power in our election process.”
he Democratic leaders in the room unanimously agreed on the need to take the threat seriously. Republicans, however, were divided, with at least two GOP lawmakers reluctant to accede to the White House requests.
According to several officials, McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.
Democratic President learns from wiretap that GOP presidential candidate is consorting with the enemy to fix an election, and does nothing. Democratic President learns from wiretap that a foreign power is intervening in an election, probably to get GOP presidential candidate elected, and ultimately does nothing. Both Republicans win.
There is no pattern without a third, which might not be the worst scenario, however. Recalling the 1980s when Francis Fukuyama optimistically forecast that liberal western democracy would be the "final form of human government," historian of Eastern Europe Timothy Snyder states (emphasis his)
What had happened was one story, the story of communism, the teleology of communism had turned out not to be true. The conclusion we should have drawn was, Well, those kinds of grand narratives are not true. The conclusion that we drew instead was our grand narrative is true. It’s just true that capitalism or globalization leads to enlightenment and prosperity and democracy. Therefore, we can fold our hands.
I think we got it exactly wrong. I think that explains, to a great extent, why we are where we are now. It means that we’ve been complacent about watching authoritarianism return elsewhere, and it means we’ve been surprised that authoritarianism is possible here. Of course it is, and of course it always was.