Tom Fitton, the head of conservative group Judicial Watch, has made a career of suing the federal government over suspected bureaucratic corruption, irritating every president since Bill Clinton.
But in Donald Trump, Fitton has found an enthusiastic booster — a president who, rather than bristling at Judicial Watch’s frequent accusations of malfeasance throughout the government he oversees, welcomes the group’s efforts to hold the “deep state” accountable.
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The broadsides that have come to define Trump’s presidency — from his attacks on Hillary Clinton’s email habits to his assertion that the Mueller investigation is a “rigged witch hunt” controlled by a pack of angry Democrats — have been shaped at least in part by documents obtained by Judicial Watch and blasted into the conservative media sphere.
People close to the president say he’s come to see Fitton as one of the most effective critics of the Mueller probe. The president, who increasingly feels under attack from all sides, finds validation in Fitton’s attacks on the investigation and his insistence that the national security community is unfairly targeting Trump. One White House adviser called him a “hero.”
The two men met briefly on the sidelines of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last February, according to people close to Trump, though they don’t speak regularly. But Fitton doesn’t need to pal around with Trump to make sure his message is heard. His regular appearances on Fox News ensure he has an audience with Trump, who often perks up when he sees Fitton on TV and listens for tweet-worthy nuggets, one former administration official said.
“I know he has a high regard for Tom and I know that he listens to Tom,” said Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, whose wife Mercedes is a White House staffer. “The No. 1 issue that has animated the Trump administration has been the ridiculousness of 18 months of talking about potential collusion with Putin. Nobody is pushing the message on TV more than Tom Fitton.”
At nearly every stage, Trump — often indirectly, and sometimes very directly — amplifies Judicial Watch’s work. Trump gave full credit to Judicial Watch for forcing the Department of Justice to release documents related to the surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page — and neglected to mention that his favorite punching bag, The New York Times, and other outlets also sued for them under freedom of information laws. “Congratulations to @JudicialWatch and @TomFitton on being successful in getting the Carter Page FISA documents,” Trump wrote on Twitter last month.
During the presidential campaign, Trump benefited from Judicial Watch’s relentless pursuit of information about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, with the group’s lawsuits keeping the story alive and providing fodder for a ravenous press. Since Trump took office, Judicial Watch — with an annual budget of about $40 million and a 50-person strong staff packed with experienced FOIA experts — has increasingly focused on the Mueller investigation, forcing the government to fork over emails, text messages and other documents.
Fitton’s rhetoric is often indistinguishable from Trump’s. In an interview with POLITICO last week, he talked about the Justice Department and FBI’s “abuses” of power, said the Mueller investigation is “unconstitutional” and argued there was enough evidence to arrest and prosecute Hillary Clinton.
Fitton takes credit for being one of the first public figures to criticize the Mueller investigation as corrupt and unconstitutional, a line of attack that is now commonplace on Fox News and conservative talk radio. “We’ve been virtually alone in criticizing Mueller from the beginning,” he said. “Our view is he needs to be held accountable, the office itself is unconstitutional and it’s been run in an abusive way. It’s been compromised from the beginning and corruptly formed.”
Fitton declined to talk about his relationship with Trump and he wouldn’t confirm that he spoke with the president at CPAC. “He clearly follows our work, so that’s good,” Fitton said. But he acknowledged that he and his staff sometimes communicate with the White House and Congress. A White House spokeswoman declined to detail Trump’s interactions with Fitton.
Like other Trump allies, he’s made use of cable news as a one-way messaging service to the West Wing. Last winter, Fitton encouraged the president to make key documents related to the Mueller probe public and override the government’s slow-moving bureaucracy. “The president can take steps to make sure the American public knows what its Justice Department and FBI have been up to,” Fitton said on Fox News last December, urging the president to “intervene” and order the government to release documents.
In February, Trump declassified a memo from House Intelligence Committee Republicans that alleged anti-Trump bias among top law enforcement officials who helped launch the Mueller probe. As the Republican memo went public, Trump helped justify his decision using Fitton’s own words.
“‘You had Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party try to hide the fact that they gave money to GPS Fusion to create a Dossier which was used by their allies in the Obama Administration to convince a Court misleadingly, by all accounts, to spy on the Trump Team.’ Tom Fitton, JW,” Trump wrote on Twitter, quoting from a speech Fitton gave in January.
Trump has mentioned Fitton on Twitter at least five times, including promoting his upcoming appearance on Fox News. “Tom Fitton on @foxandfriends at 6:15 A.M. NOW! Judicial Watch,” Trump tweeted last month.
The president’s affection for Fitton is in stark contrast to the Judicial Watch leader’s relationship with previous presidents. He has tormented the Clintons for nearly 20 years, uncovering documents on their scandals du jour, from Whitewater to Travelgate to the suicide of Vince Foster — and lending credence, at least in the minds of Clinton allies, to their claims of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Barack Obama didn’t fare much better. Fitton’s group pounced on the Benghazi attack, the “Fast and Furious” scandal and allegations that the IRS was targeting conservative groups. Even George W. Bush faced Judicial Watch’s ire when the group pushed for information about then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force.
Former Obama ethics czar Norm Eisen, now the board chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said he has long respected Judicial Watch, adding they’ve done “important work” on many issues over the years. But he said he’s noticed a shift when it comes to the Mueller investigation.
“The thing that has been disappointing about Judicial Watch has been that they’re just so profoundly wrong about the Mueller investigation and they’ve bought into a myth of a deep state conspiracy targeting President Trump that is completely unfounded and, worse than that, represents a profound assault on the rule of law,” Eisen said.
Fitton, who describes himself as a “principled conservative,” said “there’s no one who has sued the Trump administration on transparency issues more than Judicial Watch.” He estimates that his group has filed 700 Freedom of Information Act requests and about 100 lawsuits since Trump took office — but that includes suits aimed at rooting out the supposed bureaucratic opposition to Trump that the president himself decries.
Still, Fitton argues he’s not sucking up to Trump. Instead, he says, he’s standing up for a president who he firmly contends is being “victimized” by the national security establishment, the media, Democrats, government bureaucrats — basically everybody. “The test for honest Americans or honest liberals is, are they going to defend a president they disagree with when he’s being victimized. And he’s being victimized,” Fitton said. “Today it’s Trump, and tomorrow it’s someone else.”