President Joe Biden has said he will ban secret seizures of reporters’ records, telling CNN’s Kaitlan Collins: “It’s simply, simply wrong. I will not let that happen.” And a Justice Department spokesman said after the latest disclosure that “members of the news media have now been notified in every instance” of such records seizures.
”Seizing the phone records of journalists profoundly undermines press freedom,” Times Executive Editor Dean Bacquet said in a statement. “It threatens to silence the sources we depend on to provide the public with essential information about what the government is doing.” He called on the Justice Department “to explain why this action was taken and what steps are being taken to make certain it does not happen again in the future.”
The problem is that while Biden may ban the practice during his time in office, a future Republican administration is likely to pick it back up, along with the other ways the Justice Department abused power under Trump. Like intervening in a lawsuit on behalf of Rep. Devin Nunes, or trying to seize the profits of a tell-all book about Melania Trump, or trying to step in as Trump’s personal lawyer in E. Jean Carroll’s defamation suit against him. Time after time, the Justice Department treated Donald Trump’s personal interests as government matters while also, we’ve now learned, secretly targeting reporters’ communications in leak investigations.
Donald Trump’s abuses show the importance of installing formal guardrails. The United States cannot rely on informal norms. As Trump demonstrated, they are easily shattered, and doing the right thing should not and cannot be left up to individual presidents to decide. The imperative to fix this, though, is yet another thing that Republicans could very spin as partisan since we all know that Republicans—especially after they watched Trump’s example—are far more likely to spy on reporters or treat the Justice Department as a personal lawyer. But this is another way Trump has chipped away at U.S. democracy, and if there’s no permanent fix to the damage he’s done, the stage is set for more and worse.