Norms Watch: Tracking the Erosion of Democratic Traditions (Jan. 27 to Feb. 3)

MEDIA

This week, the White House continued to seek favorable coverage from Trump-friendly outlets while blasting critics. In response, some media outlets challenged Trump policies, and other journalists considered the benefits or shortcomings of the increasing polarization of media coverage.

Skype Seats for White House Press Conferences

As announced in his first press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated he would be creating “Skype seats” for remote reporters to pose questions during briefings. The debut of the Skype seats on Wednesday proved to be an opportunity to include Trump-friendly media outlets. When Spicer called on Lars Larson, the syndicated conservative radio host of the Lars Larson show, Lars opened, “Commander Spicer, it’s a pleasure…” In March, Larson publicly endorsed Trump for president. Spicer also called on another vocal Trump-supporter Jeff Jobe, a publisher of six community newspapers in Kentucky, during the Skype questions. For a video, see here.

The New York Times and Washington Post: FAKE NEWS!

Continuing his war on the media, Trump this week targeted the New York Times and the Washington Post through a series of Tweets on Saturday. The New York Times refuted Trump’s claims that its business was “failing” through its own Tweets on subscriber stats. According to The Hill, while it was not “immediately apparent what prompted Trump to launch his attacks,” both papers provided coverage of the executive orders on immigration and the protests that followed.

While speaking to Fox News on Sunday, Kellyanne Conway, senior aide to Trump, asked “Who is cleaning house? Which one is going to be the first network to get rid of these people, the people who think things were just not true?”

Responsive Norm: Reuters Advises its Reporters to Cover Trump Like Authoritarian Regimes

In a Tuesday statement, Editor-in-Chief of Reuters Steve Adler instructed journalists to cover the Trump administration the same way they cover countries like Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, China, and Russia.  Given that “it’s not every day that a U.S. president calls journalists ‘among the most dishonest human beings on earth,’” it wasn’t surprising that journalists were uncertain as to how to cover the Trump administration, Adler wrote. He then advised reporters to continue reporting as they normally do in “nations in which we sometimes encounter some combination of censorship, legal prosecution, visa denials, and even physical threats to our journalists.” 

https://twitter.com/imillhiser/status/826771491714891777

 

Responsive Norm: Media Narratives

The New York Times reported Tuesday, “For those devouring news about the administration, the choice of narratives has become starker, with brighter lines drawn around the content. For the readers and viewers, it’s follow the narrative of your choice, and be wary of the great chasm between.” A Slate story this week, for example, explained that conservative media outlets were framing the decision by the former acting Attorney General Sally Yates as part of her desire to be a “political hero.”

In many ways expressing its own viewpoint on the immigration and refugee debate, CBS’s “60 Minutes” announced on Sunday night, amidst the nationwide protest to Trump’s immigration ban, that it was changing its scheduled line-up to replay an October story about Syrian refugees. On Monday, in a letter from James and Lachlan Murdoch, chiefs of 21st Century Fox and sons of Fox News Chairman Rupert Murdoch, the brothers wrote in an internal memo: “We deeply value diversity and believe immigration is an essential part of America’s strength.”

AGENCIES

The shock and confusion following Trump’s executive orders on immigration threw the government in disarray, as dissent within federal agencies grew, and nationwide protests erupted.

The State Department Dissent Memo

Reported first by ABC News on Monday morning, foreign service officers and other career diplomats began circulating a draft dissent memo, expressing concern that Trump’s immigration orders were un-American and would be detrimental to U.S. security. While the department normally receives around four or five dissent memos a year, “it is unusual for one to be received only two weeks into an administration,” a State Department official told ABC. As of Tuesday, the dissent memo had gathered 1,000 signatures. A diplomat told the New York Times that this was unlike anything most people in the State Department had ever seen.

Spicer responded to the memo: “I know the president appreciates the people who serve this nation and the public servants, but at some point, if they have a big problem with the policies that he’s instituting to keep the country safe, then that’s up to them to question whether or not they want to stay.” Essentially, Spicer told diplomats to “either get with the program or they can go.”

Looking at the federal government more broadly, when asked by the New York Times about the scale of dissent within the government in comparison to former White House transitions, Tom Malinowski—former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under Obama—sarcastically responded, “Is it unusual? . . . There’s nothing unusual about the entire national security bureaucracy of the United States feeling like their commander in chief is a threat to U.S. national security. That happens all the time. It’s totally usual. Nothing to worry about.”

Interagency Left in the Dark on Executive Orders

As confusion surrounding the implementation and enforcement of Trump’s immigration orders unfolded, there were few in the Trump administration who could provide more clarity. Trump’s team “did not follow the standard agency review process that’s typically overseen by the National Security Council.” Reports came out on Saturday that rather National Security Council lawyers were actively prevented from reviewing the orders.

According to CNN, the Department of Homeland Security did not perform legal analysis until after Trump had signed the order, and “officials were caught off guard by some of the specifics and raised questions about how to handle the new banned passengers on US-bound planes.” On Tuesday, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly denied that he had been left out of the process, telling reporters the agency was involved in the general drafting of the EO, and knew the order was coming.

Trump has been bypassing the standard channels of review for his orders, which accelerates the pace of action, but raises practical and legal questions in their enforcement, POLITICO reported. The White House, the article continued, did not seek guidance from the State Department to review Trump’s order on the Keystone XL pipeline. Trump did not consult members of Congress on the executive action repealing Obamacare either, and only a few officials in the Department of Health and Human Services were aware of the forthcoming action, officials told POLITICO. While the rest of the government remains removed from the process, Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior White House adviser for policy, and Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, seem to have been issued a free pass to write the orders virtually on their own.

Responsive Norm: Local Institutions Reject the EO

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck told the Los Angeles Times that his department will refuse to comply with Trump’s directives for police officers to aid federal authorities in detaining undocumented immigrants for deportation.

More High-Profile Firing in the early days of the Trump Administration

On Monday night, Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she refused to defend his executive order on immigration in court.  The statement from the White House said that Yates “has betrayed the Department of Justice.” This came after revelations last week that a number of senior officials at the State Department had been fired. After Yates’ firing, the DNC issued a statement, expressing that Donald Trump can try to silence heroic patriots like Sally Yates who dare to speak truth to power about his illegal anti-Muslim ban that emboldens terrorists around the globe. But he cannot silence the growing voices of an American people now wide awake to his tyrannical presidency.”

Journalist Steve Clemons reported that at least two Secret Service managers were forced to resign and escorted from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building late Thursday night.

https://twitter.com/SCClemons/status/827404672625319936

LAW AND ETHICS

This week, Trump’s executive orders and lingering lawsuits added to the growing list of legal challenges facing the administration.

Lawsuits Against the Immigration Orders Multiply

In response to Friday’s executive order on immigration, a number of new lawsuits have been launched against the Trump administration, challenging the constitutionality of the directive. On Saturday, the ACLU filed a suit on behalf of Hameed Khalid Darweesh and Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq, two Iraqi men who after landing at New York’s Kennedy International Airport on Friday were detained and threatened with deportation. While the Trump administration continues to insist the orders are not a Muslim ban, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani stated in an interview on Saturday night with Fox News that when Trump originally considered the idea, he had referred to it as a “Muslim ban.” Over the weekend, Legal Aid Justice Center and Mayer Brown LLP sued on behalf of two lawful permanent residents and a group of others detained at Dulles Airport. On Monday, Washington state, followed by Massachusetts on Tuesday, Virginia on Wednesday, and New York on Thursday, also sued the federal government on the order. Just Security’s Steve Vladeck provided a recap of the airport cases filed over the weekend.

On Tuesday, the city of San Francisco filed a lawsuit against Trump challenging his executive order to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities. Understood broadly, sanctuary cities do not fully comply with federal immigration authorities. In some cities, local police do not inquire about immigration status or notify authorities of suspected illegal immigration, and in others, local authorities deny detainer requests. Like the executive orders on immigration, Trump’s order on sanctuary cities has also raised constitutional concerns.

Bypassing the Judicial Branch

One element of Trump’s immigration orders “should chill everyone on both sides: the apparent attitude of the administration toward the nation’s courts and the assumption that it can ignore an important part of our system of political and governance checks and balances,” writes Erik Sherman at Forbes.

As reported in the Guardian, according to members of Congress and attorneys, federal Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers were ignoring the orders of federal judges. In New York, the ACLU received reports that federal customs agents were ignoring the orders from a federal judge in Brooklyn prohibiting the deportation of travelers affected by the ban. The Huffington Post reported that CBP agents were blocking attorneys from speaking to lawful permanent residents at Dulles International Airport, defying the order from a federal judge in Virginia to “permit lawyers access to all legal permanent residents being detained” at the airport.

Front Row Seats for Eric and Don Jr.

Many are asking questions as to why Trump’s sons Eric and Don Jr. were sitting in the front row of the audience for the big reveal of Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court. Former Senior Adviser to Obama Dan Pfeiffer raised questions about his family business and potential conflicts of interest, while commentary from those attending the event described the sons as schmoozing with Washington insiders. CNN reported that during the event, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) congratulated Trump’s sons on the “great pick” for the Court. Think Progress, the news blog run by the liberal group Center for American Progress, expressed that “President Trump’s conflicts of interest were on display” throughout the evening.

 

Trump Ordered to Pay Nearly $6M to Golf Club in Florida

On Wednesday, a federal judge ordered Trump National Jupiter Golf Club to refund former members of the club nearly $6 million. The court held that Jupiter had breached its contract with former members by refusing them access to the club, and failing to refund their deposits. In the decision, the court did not make any reference to Trump’s position as president, but inserted a footnote that stated: “At all times relevant to this lawsuit, Donald J. Trump was a private citizen. As a result, the Court will refer to him as such in this decision. In doing so, the Court means no disrespect to him or to the esteemed position he now holds.”

The Army Secretary’s Conflicts of Interest

Trump’s nominee to be Army Secretary, Vincent Viola, has been trying to sell off his majority interest in Eastern Air Lines, in an effort to relieve conflict of interests concerns by reducing his exposure to the heavily regulated airline industry. Viola, however, is negotiating to trade his stake in Eastern with a smaller stake in Swift Air, a charter company operating many federal government subcontracts. As the New York Times reported, Viola “may find himself in the precarious position of being a government official who benefits from federal contracts.”

Using the White House to Advertise the Trump Hotel Suites

In an email advertisement for its Washington, D.C. hotel this week, the Trump Organization displayed an image where it appeared you could see the White House outside the hotel’s window, even though the Old Post Office building is about a half-mile away. But it’s not the White House, but a lightened photo of the EPA building, which is across the street, the Washington Post reported. Why this particular image was picked raised questions about the message the ad was trying to send and renewed attention on Trump’s ongoing conflicts of interest.

 

THE WHITE HOUSE

Over the last few days, as Trump shakes up the National Security Council and Bannon’s role clarifies, Democrats and Republicans alike have become increasingly vocal on the administration’s policies and practices.

Doing Things Differently at the National Security Council

On Saturday, Trump announced two major structural shifts to the National Security Council. First, he would formally include Bannon on the NSC principals committee, an unprecedented move that guaranteed his political advisor a seat at the table on national security decisions. Under the Obama administration, David Axelrod or John Podesta would occasionally attend, but they were not part of the formal group. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) stated on CBS’s Face the Nation that the “appointment of Mr. Bannon is something which is a radical departure from any National Security Council in history.” On Sunday, Spicer defended that Bannon has “tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now.”

Second, Trump has jettisoned the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence to “as needed” status, allowing their participation on the principals committee “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” Reflecting “a departure from past practice, as the last two administrations made them permanent members,” writes David Rothkopf, “it is difficult to imagine any national security discussions that would not benefit from their perspectives and involvement.”

On Monday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford stated he would not lessen his involvement, and would “fully participate in the Interagency process to provide best military advice to the President and members of his National Security Council.”

No Paper Trails and No Dissent under Bannon’s NSC

It has become increasingly clear that Bannon is leading the national security decision-making process, an intelligence official told Just Security’s Kate Brannen. The official “described a work environment where there is little appetite for dissenting opinions, shockingly no paper trail of what’s being discussed and agreed upon at meetings, and no guidance or encouragement so far from above about how the National Security Council staff should be organized.”

Responsive Norm: Republicans Chastise a President in their Own Party

Trump is “finding uncharacteristic opposition from his party in the blush of his early days in office,” reported the New York Times. On Sunday, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) issued a statement against Trump’s immigration ban, stating concerns that the ban was not vetted by the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, and ultimately concluding that the “executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism.”

Over the course of the day, other Republican senators joined the critique, including Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that two dozen Republican officials opposed the ban, and almost 40 had reservations. Trump’s “uneasy alliance with his Republican majorities in Congress is beginning to teeter,” wrote Russell Berman at The Atlantic.

Trump’s Disparagement of Members of His Own Party

In response, and breaking with norms in party politics, Trump blasted McCain and Graham in return:

 

Responsive Norm: Obama Responds

On Monday, Obama issued his first statement since leaving the White House, speaking out against Trump’s executive order on immigration. Ken Lewis, spokesman for Obama, stated, “The President fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion.” According to CNN, Obama’s statement broke “with an unwritten rule that former presidents refrain from criticizing the current White House occupant.”

Responsive Norm: Reactions from Officials

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told ABC on Sunday that Trump’s changes to the National Security Council were a “big mistake.” Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice chose to respond with a sarcastic Tweet.

 

Responsive Norm: The Democratic Party Rallies

According to the New York Times, “[t]he swelling anger over Mr. Trump’s week-old administration is fueling a surge of spontaneous activism that some Democrats say they have not seen since the Vietnam War.” Led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House and Senate Democrats hosted a rally on Monday night in front of the steps of the Supreme Court to oppose Trump’s executive order on immigration. Longtime Democratic strategist Paul Begala told the New York Times that he had “never seen so much spontaneous grass-roots energy on the left.”

Responsive Norm: Industry is Afraid of Speaking Out

Given Trump’s habit of launching Twitter wars, many CEOs are fearful of speaking out against the ban, according to the Financial TimesGillian Tett and CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin. Sorkin stated that CEOs were “scared out of their minds about being attacked … and what that’s going to do for their business.” Tett said the CEOs she had interviewed were “especially worried about the risk of speaking out in the context of Trump’s potential backlash — and that of his supporters.”

Other companies have joined the national debate. Lyft announced it would be donating $1 million to the ACLU, and Starbucks has announced plans to hire thousands of refugees. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg also spoke against the order. Slate considered whether Google was making a subtle statement regarding the refugee policy by setting its Doodle to Fred Korematsu on Monday, honoring the late civil rights leader who had opposed the executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.  Korematsu would have been 98.

In response to the trending #DeleteUber hashtag on Twitter, Uber issued a strong statement against the ban this week. The boycott of Uber was sparked by the fact that Uber’s CEO is a member of a White House advisory group and the company suspended surge pricing during a taxi strike at JFK airport Saturday as part of the protests against the ban.

Talking about the Apprentice at the National Prayer Breakfast

As reported by CNBC, while every single president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast, Trump “was the only one to ask the bipartisan gathering to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger” and the falling rating of The Apprentice, which Schwarzenegger took over after Trump left. Trump asked the audience, “It’s been a total disaster … And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, OK?” Bucking breakfast tradition, according to USA Today, Trump’s speech was unlike most National Prayer Breakfasts ever before.

 

FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY

It was a busy week for foreign policy. Trump held heated phone conversations with world leaders, while other countries tried to navigate relations under the new unpredictable administration.

Flynn Puts Iran on Notice

Addressing reporters at the daily White House press briefing on Wednesday, National Security Advisor Mike Flynn stated, “President Trump has severely criticized the various agreements reached between Iran and the Obama Administration, as well as the United Nations, as being weak and ineffective. Instead of being thankful to the United States for these agreements, Iran is now feeling emboldened. As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.” Prompting Flynn’s statement, earlier in the week the Iranian government conducted a ballistic missile test violating U.N. Security Council resolutions, and Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi warship off the coast of Yemen. Houthi rebels are backed by Iran, though the link is somewhat attenuated.  While some senior administration officials supported the new administration’s approach, others expressed uncertainty around what “on notice” actually meant.

 

 

Trump Doesn’t Want a “Lecture” from Prince Charles

According to The Times, Trump is now “engaged in an extraordinary diplomatic row with the Prince of Wales over climate change that threatens to disrupt his state visit to the UK.” In an ongoing dispute stemming from differing views of climate change, aides close to Trump reportedly told government officials in the United Kingdom that Trump would “erupt” if Charles were to “lecture” Trump on the subject of climate change. Apparently, American officials also indicated they would prefer Princes William and Harry to meet the president instead.

Responsive Norm: Donald v. Donald

As Uri Friedman wrote for The Atlantic, Something has fundamentally changed in the world when one of the leaders of the European Union mentions the American president among the top threats to European unity, along with Russian aggression, radical Islamic terrorism, and civil wars in the Middle East.” European Council President Donald Tusk, in a letter to EU member states, classified the Trump presidency as one of four components to the external geopolitical threat facing the Europe, as “[p]articularly the change in Washington puts the European Union in a difficult situation; with the new administration seeming to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy.”

Responsive Norm: Indonesian President Tells Citizens to Keep Quiet on Trump

According to Johan Budi, spokesman for Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Widodo has “made sure that the policy of the American president does not have an impact on Indonesian citizens,” and Indonesians have been asked to remain silent on Trump and his policies. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has also remained silent on Trump’s immigration ban.

Trump’s Calls with Mexican and Australian Leaders

Journalist Dolia Estevez reported that Trump had a “very offensive conversation” with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, “humiliating” Nieto and threatening to use military force against the drug trade. According to the Washington Post, while some officials offered depictions of a tense and hostile conversation between the two leaders, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray acknowledged differences in opinion, but held that the “conversation was constructive.”

On Thursday, according to the Washington Post, Trump’s scheduled one-hour phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, ended suddenly after twenty-five minutes. According to senior U.S. officials briefed on the phone call, Trump bragged about his election win, blasted Turnbull over an Australian refugee agreement, and abruptly hung up the call. While Trump had similarly difficult conversations with other world leaders, Trump’s treatment of Turnbull was particularly striking because of the tight bond between the United States and Australia — countries that share intelligence, support one another diplomatically and have fought together in wars including in Iraq and Afghanistan.” U.S. officials told the Washington Post that Trump talked up the crowd size at his Inauguration during both calls with Mexico and Australia.

The characterizations of Trump’s conversations “are at odds with sanitized White House accounts,” according to the Washington Post.

What Went Wrong with the Yemen Raid?

Just Security’s Luke Harding did a deep dive on the Yemen raid, looking at what could possibly have led to its going so wrong (“a massive firefight involving Harrier jets, helicopter gunships and gun-wielding jihadi women that killed one Navy SEAL, 14 al Qaeda fighters and, allegedly, non-combatant women and children,” according to NBC News.) So far, the accounts raise, “major questions about the extent to which the President considered views from agencies other than DOD in approving the operation,” Harding writes. He says this first complex counterterrorism mission “should serve as a reminder of the importance of considered interagency review of operations.”

Image: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Katerina Wright

Former NYU Law Center for Human Rights and Global Justice Student Human Rights Scholar with Just Security