The group, Judicial Watch, caused rolling problems for Hillary Clinton’s campaign because it was—in the view of Clinton allies—simultaneously incredibly fringy and incredibly effective. But they don’t think Clinton’s loss is necessarily a win for good governance.
“When it comes to public policy, the Justice Department is a locus of evil,” said Tom Fitton, who heads Judicial Watch.
He said he hopes the agency will follow his group’s advice and put it through a cultural overhaul.
“It’s just an aggressively ideological and ‘what is it we can get away with’ Justice Department,” Fitton said. “Sessions has a big fight ahead of him.”
Fitton hopes the senator will “stop the war on police”—meaning, roll back the agency’s intervention when police departments face steep public criticism, like in Chicago and Baltimore.
And if the department doesn’t root out what Fitton believes is intractable internal corruption, his group will keep pushing.
And Judicial Watch isn’t coy about its targets, or its conservative ideology. These are the people who accused the Justice Department of covering up for the New Black Panthers, and who charge that Obama might have lost the 2012 election if only foreigners hadn’t illegally voted. Business Insider pointed out in 2013 that the group’s founder, Larry Klayman, once sued to get Obama’s name removed from Florida ballots, charging he wasn’t born in the U.S. (Klayman left the group in 2003, long before he started his birther investigations.) And Judicial Watch has hosted meetings for conspiratorially minded conservative activists (including Breitbart reporters and Allen West) to strategize about how to win “a 30-front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation,” according to Mother Jones.
But activists on the left now know they can’t afford to roll their eyes at Judicial Watch. Because in November, Judicial Watch won.
The group helped drive the drip-drip-drip of email news that dogged Clinton through the final weeks of the campaign, playing a role in ensuring that Americans did in fact care about her goddamn emails. While they weren’t the only organization that went to court for Clinton’s records, they nabbed a significant win in May when a federal judge ruled they could depose top Clinton aides. And on Aug. 10, the group released 296 pages of her emails, some of which it said she hadn’t previously given to the State Department. The content of those emails drove another round of stories about questionable ties between the Clinton Foundation, the foundation’s donors, and the State Department.
“What makes them especially effective is they are one of the only partisan FOIA litigants,” said Matthew Miller, a former spokesperson for the Justice Department under Obama. “Judicial Watch primarily is used as a partisan weapon, only against Democrats.”
It’s a view the group adamantly rejects.
“Our work wasn’t designed to impact any campaign,” Fitton said. “All we were seeking were documents.
“The consequences of our work were historic, admittedly,” he added, “but these were all consequences of the Clinton and Obama administration’s own making.”
Judicial Watch describes itself as conservative but non-partisan, and points to work it did investigating the Bush administration—particularly Dick Cheney and Halliburton—as evidence. But the tenacity with which its lawyers targeted Hillary Clinton was unparalleled. And they aren’t done. Fitton said his group still has lawsuits underway to get more information about her email scandal and the Justice Department’s response to it.
He’s convinced the department is rotten to the core—and that Sessions, if confirmed by the Senate, may be able to turn it around.
“He’s going to have a tough job,” Fitton said of Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee to head the department. “The left is thoroughly ensconced in the Justice Department. These so-called civil servants are leftist activists who’ve been hired by the Obama administration, and they’re not going to stop their activism. They don’t believe they work for the people.”
So Judicial Watch tries to stay in the mix. And though they’re best known for their skirmishes with Clinton, Fitton said he suspects the Trump DOJ may provide ample fodder for lawsuits. And he said Trump should fire FBI director James Comey, who won scorching criticism from the left and the right for how he handled the re-opening and subsequent closing of its investigation of Clinton’s email.
“I think we need new FBI leadership,” Fitton said.
Judicial Watch has won the influence other organizations crave thanks to its focus on going to court. The key to this isn’t credibility or communications or strategery—it’s funding and focus. Even though the group pushes stories that most mainstream media outlets see as completely bogus—think New Black Panthers conspiracies, or wild allegations of massive voter fraud—their wins in court have often been newsmaking.
So, as Politico detailed last week, many progressive leaders have organization envy. And, according to Miller, who was a spokesman at the Justice Department from the start of Obama’s presidency until 2011, a lefty counterpart wouldn’t necessarily need a ton of money to make an impact. Judicial Watch’s annual budget is reportedly about $35 million, but he estimated that a lefty group could do some legal damage for just $5 million to $10 million per year. And it’s all about focus, he added. Other organizations also go to court to get documents from executive branch agencies, he noted, but tend to focus on one particular issue or policy area. The ACLU, for instance, has effectively litigated fights for Bush torture memos, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation tenaciously targets the National Security Agency.
Judicial Watch’s focuses were more politically impactful.
“They had an enormous impact,” said Miller. “You could argue it was decisive.”
Democratic insiders share that lament.
“They were an ever-present gnat biting at the ankles of the campaign,” said a Democratic strategist familiar with Clinton’s campaign.
“When you consider that one of the things that damaged the campaign the most was the steady drip-drip-drip of news related to emails, some of that is her responsibility,” he said. “But others of it are the responsibility of three actors: Jason Chaffetz, Judicial Watch, and Vladimir Putin.”
And while progressives may envy Judicial Watch, that doesn’t mean they like them. Jim Manley, formerly a top aide to Harry Reid and now the head of QGA Public Affairs, said he always pushed back against the group’s criticism of his then-boss as a Hill staffer.
“I usually put out a tartly worded statement giving them the middle finger,” he said.