Last June before Donald Trump entered the presidential race, there was a major debate about renewal of the Patriot Act in the congress. Trump was asked about it on his favorite morning show, "Fox and Friends" and this is part of what he said:
I think security has to preside, you know, be pre-eminent. I'm looking at security. I think if anyone wants to listen to my phone calls it's fine. They're going to be very boring, it's going to be a very boring conversation... I just hope the government knows what they're doing a lot better than they did with the Obamacare website and the rest. You know in the old days you had a certain confidence in government, you don't have that confidence anymore.
Trump has said over and over again that he "errs on the side of security" which is his catch-all justification for banning immigration and profiling people on the basis of religion, "giving power back to the police because crime is rampant," allowing proliferation of guns everywhere in society, torture, summary execution and a variety of other "Putinesque" policies. He calls this attitude "anti-PC" and common sense. Others call it unAmerican.
But it's a mistake to think that Trump's authoritarian tendencies are in reaction to current events. They are his nature. Buzzfeed reported Thursday that staff members at Trump's upscale Florida resort, Mar-a-lago, said that Donald Trump had a personal "switchboard" in his lodgings which allowed him to eavesdrop on the staff and guests telephone calls. His campaign denies it but there are several people who confirm that he routinely listens in on phone calls. Others admit that he had the apparatus but only used it for convenience sake so he didn't have to go through the main switchboard to call his friends who were staying at the resort.
Needless to say, that explanation is absurd. One might chalk that up to either another of The Donald's quirks or some disgruntled staff saying things to get back at him. But it's not the first time we've heard that he has a penchant for spying. Recall this passing comment from the New York Times in an article about the disarray in the Trump campaign at the end of May:
A sense of paranoia is growing among his campaign staff members, including some who have told associates they believe that their Trump Tower offices in New York may be bugged, according to three people briefed on the conversations.
At the time both then campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and senior advisor Paul Manafort were asked about this by separate news organizations and both responded less than definitively. Manafort vamped to ABC News, "I don't know who said that. Certainly there are people probably would like to, because there's a lot of good work going on there and we've been able to develop a campaign that is cohesive, that's working together, and in a record time thanks to a great candidate who has got a vision and connected to the American people, put the campaign in a position to win the presidency." And Lewandowski danced on the head of a pin for Chris Wallace of Fox:
“I think that’s a lot of speculation. I don’t think that’s the case at all — I think we’re very happy with the way that our offices are set up.”
The New York Times report about campaign staffers being paranoid doesn't say specifically why they would think this, but the piece implies that they believed Trump (or someone) knew things he could only have known about by eavesdropping. Whether he spied on his guests at the resort is unknown but people who stay there in the future should probably exclusively use their cell phones just in case. And staff should hold their private discussions in the garage like Bob Woodward and Deep Throat.
This little revelation about Trump's nosy parker proclivities would not necessarily raise alarms since employers generally do have the right to spy on their employees, although the good ones don't do it. And spying on customers is part of the modern world if you consider the way companies track people' buying habits to be spying. But Trump bugging his campaign office, if true, would not be standard operating procedure. And the mere fact that his staffers suspect that he has done it is a sign of something very dark going on inside that campaign.
But this should not come as a surprise. This is a man whose mentor was notorious political henchman Roy Cohn and who seems to have gotten his political inspiration from Richard Nixon. There can be no doubt that putting the US Government's spying apparatus in his hands would lead to him using it to monitor and punish his political enemies.
And while it's doubtful that he would go as far as this with Paul Ryan or Chuck Schumer, Trump's attitude toward Edward Snowden makes it very clear to anyone who would blow the whistle on his bad behavior that it would not go well for them:
"I think Snowden is a terrible threat, I think he’s a terrible traitor, and you know what we used to do in the good old days when we were a strong country — you know what we used to do to traitors, right?” Trump said.
“Well, you killed them, Donald,” said fill-in host, Eric Bolling.
He's a big fan of summary execution for anyone he personally designates a traitor. And one could easily see a President Trump deciding, like President Nixon before him, that he needed to find all his traitors and deploy whatever government tools were at his disposal to do it. He makes it clear that his beef isn't with government power, per se. It's that this government uses its power ineffectually, which is not the same thing at all.
Trump does not recognize constitutional limitations or civil liberties. He's shown it repeatedly from national security issues like these, to domestic policing to his threats to "open up the libel laws" to stop the media from criticizing him. He said it most clearly in his infamous 1989 Central Park Five full page ad which said, "CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!” That's not actually how it works, but if Trump knows that, he almost certainly doesn't care.