Trump abused power for revenge and personal gain. This can't be our new normal: Swalwell

Almost 50 years ago, John Dean warned of “a cancer on the presidency.” For the past four years, the cancer was the president. Donald Trump had no regard for our laws, our system of justice or our democracy itself, and he was fine with destroying all of them if it served his personal purposes.

The revelation that Trump’s Justice Department secretly seized phone and email data from his critics, his perceived political enemies and people whose loyalty he doubted – including me – fits a bigger pattern of abusing the rule of law for personal gain. Trump systematically eroded nonpartisan safeguards designed to prevent abuses of power.

Remember, he pardoned or commuted sentences of his felonious cronies Roger Stone, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn; in Flynn’s instance, his Justice Department earlier had moved to abandon the case, even after Flynn had twice pleaded guilty. Attorney General William Barr deliberately misled the public as to the contents of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia. And Trump pressured Barr and others to find nonexistent fraud in the election that ousted him.

All the wrong lessons from Nixon

Trump always treated the idea of justice with contempt and his attorneys general as his personal fixers. Just like his almost impeached predecessor and mentor, Richard Nixon, Trump sicced the power of government on his enemies with no regard for the rule of law. It appears he took away all the wrong lessons from Nixon’s time in office.

President Richard Nixon and President Donald Trump
President Richard Nixon and President Donald Trump

USA TODAY's opinion newsletter: Get the best insights and analysis to your inbox.

Presidents help set the tone for America; Trump set a tone of bullying and phony machismo that lingers even after his ouster, as we see public health officials threatened, bottles thrown at NBA players and decency disappearing from campaigns – and even the House floor.

This can’t be America’s new normal. And even Trump supporters should agree our nation can’t have a “Big Brother” who sees all and wields government against anyone who disagrees.

Political views notwithstanding, if there’s one common ground in our country, it’s that this is a line that must not be crossed. We reject dictatorship; we reject permanent one-party rule. We wouldn’t accept this kind of corrupt, abusive behavior from a mayor or governor, and we mustn’t accept it from a president.

Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., left, and  Eric Swalwell, Democrats of California, on May 28, 2019, in Washington.
Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., left, and Eric Swalwell, Democrats of California, on May 28, 2019, in Washington.

I’m not suggesting that I – or anyone else – is off-limits for lawful surveillance if there’s probable cause to pursue it. Nobody is above the law, but that rule applies to those who enforce the law as well.

I’ve served as an Intelligence Committee member for almost seven years, and when classified information was leaked before Trump rose to power, Chairman Adam Schiff and I were never targeted because there was no good reason to do so. The difference is that once Trump took power, Chairman Schiff and I helped lead the investigations into his undeniably worrisome political, personal and financial ties to Russia. We stood up to him, so we became targets.

Finish Mueller's work: Garland and DOJ must investigate Trump for obstruction

His weaponization of law enforcement was straight out of the playbooks of the dictators and despots he idolized, and it remains particularly concerning because he and his supporters believe he could become president again. Next time, Trump (or some other equally corrupt but more competent president) might not wait for a Justice Department investigation to yield evidence; he might just order that people be locked up, per his “lock her up” campaign mantra.

Storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

And using the Justice Department to probe his political opponents is just one more abuse among many Trump perpetrated upon our nation. He leveraged foreign aid to coerce another country into producing dirt with which to smear an electoral opponent. He refused to concede an election his own appointees had deemed free and fair, and he incited a resurrection against our democracy.

Next time democracy could crumble

In Trump’s mind, there’s nothing worse than being a loser. But he’s the biggest loser who ever sat in the Oval Office, not because he lost the election in a landslide, but because he tried so hard to undermine our democracy and rule of law. Luckily, our democracy and system of laws were too strong for him – this time.

Corruption heights: Resolve after the appalling Roger Stone commutation, don't let Donald Trump break us or America

There must not be a next time, so what we do next is critically important. The Justice Department properly has launched an inspector general’s investigation into this abuse of subpoenas targeting Trump’s political enemies, but that won’t be enough. The inspector general can only compel cooperation from current Justice Department employees, not former Trump administration officials such as William Barr, Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein. Getting those people on the record will require congressional action.

Despite its obvious and serious imperfections, our democracy has thrived since the day President George Washington left office and gave our country its first peaceful transfer of power. This nation will be a very different place if we all don’t stand together now and demand answers and solutions for what happened – and unite in strengthening our institutions so that these abuses can never happen again.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., is a member of the House Intelligence, Judiciary and Homeland Security committees. Follow him on Twitter at @RepSwalwell

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump weaponized his power and targeted enemies. Restore rule of law.