Rand Paul has finally found a use for Donald Trump.
During last year’s Republican primaries, Paul referred to Trump’s popularity as a “loss of sanity,” dubbing his rival “a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag.” “We’ve got an empty suit here,” he said, “full of bravado but not full of anything really meaningful for the country.” After Trump suggested the government should surveil mosques in America, the libertarian senator pushed back hard. “Yes, we should follow people who are a risk,” Paul said. “But should we target mosques and have a database of Muslims—absolutely not.” Paul, like most of the vanquished Republican primary candidates, backed Trump after he became the party’s nominee, but it was hardly a ringing endorsement. “You know, I’ve always said I will endorse the nominee,” he said. “I think it’s almost a patriotic duty of anyone in Kentucky to oppose the Clintons...”
Paul continued to criticize Trump, saying in January that president-elect was wrong for claiming torture works, but he has warmed considerably to Trump since inauguration. He defended the president from attacks by Senator John McCain, and said Trump’s cabinet picks “have exceeded my expectations.” “Not everyone is perfect,” he said, “but I think there’s a lot of good things—and we shouldn’t lose sight of the good things from a conservative point of view of what’s happening in Washington.” The two had a dustup over the American Health Care Act, the GOP’s Obamacare alternative, which Paul opposed—“I feel sure that my friend @RandPaul will come along with the new and great health care program because he knows Obamacare is a disaster!” Trump tweeted, to no avail—but as CNN’s Chris Cillizza put it on Wednesday, Paul has suddenly become “Trump’s best buddy.”
After the pair went golfing together, Cillizza wrote that Paul “has emerged as the chief defender of the President’s unproven claims of being wire-tapped by the Obama administration.” This is “a marriage of political convenience,” he noted. “He clearly sees a chance in this Trump-Russia controversy ... to score political points on the idea that the government is listening to everyone all the time and that it is a very bad thing indeed.” Not just political points, but legislative victories. As Reason observed, “Shifting away from this ‘deep state’ fight between the Trump administration and the intelligence community, Paul said he wanted to reform the surveillance authorities themselves, and wants more restrictions on unmasking names and information.”
“Shifting away” is the key phrase here. Paul, who is drafting new legislation to reform the nation’s expansive surveillance authorities, is attempting to shoehorn his anti-surveillance agenda into a non-controversy Trump invented out of whole cloth:
By cynically piggybacking on this story to push his own pet issue, Paul is not only feeding into, but legitimizing, Trump’s conspiracy-mongering. It’s also a naive and foolish strategy, for two reasons: Trump sees government surveillance as a valuable, or downright essential, tool for preventing terrorism in the U.S.; and he only cares about preserving privacy for himself and his allies, not for everyday Americans.
Trump’s disregard for other people’s privacy predates his career in politics. Sources told BuzzFeed he eavesdropped on guests’ phone calls at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach resort, in the mid-2000s: “Trump had a telephone console installed in his bedroom that acted like a switchboard, connecting to every phone extension on the estate, according to six former workers. Several of them said he used that console to eavesdrop on calls involving staff.” Speaking about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013, he said, “I think he’s a terrible traitor and ... you know what we used to do to traitors, right?”
As a presidential candidate last year, Trump continued to downplay privacy concerns. When it comes to NSA surveillance, he said, “I err on the side of security.” In particularly chilling remarks, he reacted to the Paris terror attack of 2015 by saying, “I think a lot of people would be willing to give up some privacy in order to have more safety.” And he clearly didn’t think Hillary Clinton deserved privacy when he urged Russia to hack her emails. “I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” the Republican nominee said at a news conference in Florida. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” Asked about the hack of Democratic National Committee emails, he said, “I wish I had that power, man, that would be power.”
As president, Trump now has plenty of power to attack privacy in America, and he began exercising it within a week of taking office. Buried in his executive order on “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” signed the same day as his order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations, was language modifying enforcement of the Privacy Act—a 1974 law passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal that, in the words of the Department of Justice, “attempts to regulate the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personal information by federal executive branch agencies.” Trump’s order declared:
Agencies shall, to the extent consistent with applicable law, ensure that their privacy policies exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents from the protections of the Privacy Act regarding personally identifiable information.
As the American Civil Liberties Union explained in February, this policy shift “could let the Trump administration release the names and private information of non-U.S. citizens—including refugees, college students, tourists, and people here on work visas. The new policy could also make it easier for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to obtain information from other agencies that can be used to detain or deport people.” Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the change “now exposes more people in the United States to investigation, prosecution, and deportation.” And Neema Singh Guliani, an ACLU legislative counsel, noted that it’s “not just a reversal of Obama-era policy, but Bush-era policy that was followed even before that.” Consistent with Trump’s habit of alarming the West, the move may also undermine the Privacy Shield, a transcontinental agreement that protects the privacy of personal data transferred between Europe and the U.S.
Privacy rights are also under siege at our borders and airports. There’s been an uptick in searches of electronic devices at the border, including some belonging to American citizens, which has prompted Paul and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden to push a bill requiring a warrant for such searches. In January, sources told CNN the White House was considering asking foreign visitors “to disclose all websites and social media sites they visit, and to share the contacts in their cell phones.” In February, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told Congress visitors to the United States from certain countries might be required to turn over their social media passwords.
But Trump’s most controversial anti-privacy act came this week, when he signed a Republican bill repealing Obama-era protections that prohibited internet providers from selling customers’ personal information without their consent. In doing so, Trump handed a victory to corporations like Verizon and Comcast. “This is an issue of private companies taking private information without your permission,” Tom Wheeler, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, told me. Wheeler said customers of these companies face a new reality: “Their information is not their own. What they’re doing on the internet is now something that can be packaged and sold.”
There may well be other ways Trump is undermining privacy—or that he could in the future. Given that national security officials routinely make decisions in secret that have serious privacy implications, “It won’t necessarily be readily apparent to the public if there’s a shift in these policies,” Guliani said. Americans will be reliant on congressional oversight—and perhaps even more whistleblowers—to keep the administration transparent.
The irony of Trump’s hostility to privacy protections is that he clearly prizes privacy for himself. He has refused to release his tax returns, which would provide the public with a much fuller picture of his finances. He has made a habit of ditching the White House press pool. And he’s clearly hungry to find and punish government leakers. “It’s a criminal act,” he said in February, referring to intelligence leaks about former national security adviser Michael Flynn. “I think it’s very, very unfair what’s happened to General Flynn, the way he was treated, and the documents and papers that were illegally—I stress that—illegally leaked.”
Nowhere is the irony greater than in his baseless claim that Obama had him wiretapped. Trump is casting himself as a victim of privacy violations by the U.S. government at the same time that he’s taking concrete action, as the new head of that government, to weaken the privacy rights not only of people in America, but those coming here from abroad.
“Instead of viewing privacy as a right that protects individuals and consumers, Trump views privacy as something that protects his own personal interests,” Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said. In other words, Trump has inverted a fundamental right afforded by the Constitution. “It’s the right of the people to protect themselves against unlawful search and seizures,” Rotenberg said. “It’s not the right of the king.”