Norms Watch: Tracking the Erosion of Democratic Traditions (Feb. 17-24)

FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY

This week, CNN reported that the White House directly asked the FBI to deny reports of contacts between the Trump team and Russia during the campaign, and without much thought or careful policy consideration, Trump upset relations with one of America’s steadfast allies: Sweden.

The White House asked the FBI to Deny Any Contacts between Trump Campaign and Russia

Officials told CNN on Thursday that the White House directly asked the FBI to go on background with journalists to knock down media reports by CNN and the New York Times about contacts between Russia and the Trump team during the campaign, requesting the agency deny the reports and say there had been no communications.  The direct communication from the White House, occurring one day after the stories broke on Feb. 14, was “unusual because of decade-old restrictions on such contacts,” writes CNN. The White House’s request violates Justice Department procedure memos issued in 2007 and 2009 which limit direct communications between the FBI and the White House on pending investigations.

Sources said FBI Director James Comey rejected the White House request because the contacts were the subject of a pending investigation. The FBI declined to comment on CNN’s story, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer rejected the story’s characterization of the account, saying, “We didn’t try to knock the story down. We asked them to tell the truth.”

On Friday morning, Trump himself went on the offense against the allegations using what’s becoming one of his signature defensive moves, taking to Twitter to blame the entire affair on leaks from within the FBI.

Trump Boasts of Immigration Raids as a “Military Operations”

Speaking on Thursday to a group of manufacturing executives, Trump said that his new immigration plan enforcing more aggressive deportation policies was “a military operation” that was “getting really bad dudes out of this country.” The use of military force to apprehend people living legally in the country “would be highly unusual — and possibly a violation of U.S. law,” writes The Hill

Just hours after Trump’s comment, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said the planned deportations would comply with U.S. laws and human rights requirements, stating there would be no mass deportations and “no use of military forces in immigration.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Thursday that Trump didn’t mean the term literally, but was using “that as an adjective.”

Trump References Terrorist Attack in Sweden

Speaking at a bizarre, campaign-style rally in Florida on Saturday, Feb. 18, Trump made comments about European refugee policies and recent terrorist attacks in Europe, suggesting in context that there had been a terrorist attack in Sweden on Friday night.

Later on Saturday, Trump clarified that he had been referring to a six-minute segment broadcast Friday night on Fox News during which host Tucker Carlson and a filmmaker discuss violence in Sweden following an uptick in Muslim migration. According to the New York Times, Trump did not consult white papers, intelligence reports, or other sources before adding the reference into his speech. Over the next few days, Trump proceeded to defend his comments on Twitter, ultimately leading to a critique of Swedish immigration policy.

 

Responsive Norm: Sweden Reacts

Social media was quick to respond to Trump’s statements on Sweden, prompting a Twitter firestorm. Of note, Carl Bildt, Former Prime Minister of Sweden found the claim so outlandish he tweeted, “What has he been smoking?”

Bildt told CNN on Monday, “That he [Trump] blames it on Fox News, well, we expect the president of the United States to have sources of information that goes beyond Fox News.” Meanwhile, the sitting Swedish government was not pleased.

 

AGENCIES

Into week five of the new administration, federal agencies remain understaffed and key posts remain unfilled, as the White House both rejects prospective candidates and dismisses current staffers with any history of criticizing Trump.

 

Trump is Dismissing Internal Critics…

Over the last week, the White House was busy firing or reassigning staffers expressing any critical views of Trump. According to POLITICO, on Saturday, Feb. 18, the White House dismissed Craig Deare, who was serving as senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs on the National Security Council. The administration received information that during a small, closed-door think tank meeting Deare had spoken critically of Trump, senior aides likes Steve Bannon, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump.  On Monday, Feb. 20, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders confirmed that Deare had been reassigned from his position at the NSC to his former post at the National Defense University. Sanders stated, while not a “blanket policy,” she said, “If you don’t support the President’s agenda then you shouldn’t have a job in the White House.”

Deare’s reassignment comes after a number of public dismissals in Washington. On Friday, Feb. 17, CNN reported that Shermichael Singleton, a political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was fired for writing an op-ed in The Hill before the election, in which he wrote “Trump has taken us to a new moral low.” Last week, POLITICO reported that the Trump administration dismissed six White House staffers, including White House Chief Digital Officer Gerrit Lansing, for failing FBI background checks.

… and is Only Hiring Supporters

According to the New York Times, the White House has been “one by one” rejecting candidates with any record of Trump criticism during the campaign. Richard Haass, former republican official and current president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told the paper that Trump had “ruled out much of an entire generation of Republican public policy types,” adding, the situation was “unprecedented, it’s untraditional, it’s outside the mainstream.”

Only three of fifteen deputy secretaries have been named, leaving agency heads like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson without a second-in-command, reports the New York Times. Trump has filled only 34 of 700 Senate-confirmed positions in his new administration. At this point in 2009, Obama had a dozen more Cabinet confirmations than Trump, though Trump only slightly lags behind Obama in terms of Cabinet selections, writes CNN.

POLITICO reported that Trump’s hiring approach has rubbing been top officials in federal agencies the wrong way, who had believed they would have latitude in picking their own staff, but are instead finding that “Trump’s powerful advisers are looking over their shoulders” and rejecting qualified applicants due to past criticism of the president. There have been a number of hiring clashes between the White House and federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. Another example is the Treasury, where Trump has not yet named a deputy, any undersecretaries or assistant secretaries to serve under head Steven Mnuchin. Sources said Mnuchin’s picks had been “too liberal or not supportive enough of Trump.” Elliott Abrams, hired to help the administration fill key posts, saidI would have hoped he [Trump] would have turned toward just hiring the most effective people to help him govern rather than looking back to what we said in that race.”

… And The State Department Gets Hit Hard

Reported by CBS News, “much of the seventh-floor staff” working for the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources and the Counselor offices were laid off last Friday, Feb. 17, a move that some officials fear “is a politically-minded purge that cuts out much-needed expertise from the policy-making, rather than simply reorganizing the bureaucracy.” In addition, sources told CBS that one of the last remaining senior officials, Ambassador Kristie Kenney, serving as the Counselor of the State Department, was being let go. Kenney served under Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton as a career foreign service officer. According to CNN, “the unusual move has left career employees on edge”, leaving “some two dozen career foreign and civil service officers scrambling for reassignments within the department.” Tillerson’s latest shake-up comes after the departure of top leadership at the Department last month.

Head of the EPA Was “Arm in Arm” with Fossil Fuel Industry

Over 7,000 pages of emails released to the public on Wednesday by the Center for Media and Democracy reveal that the recently-confirmed head of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt worked closely with major oil and gas producers, and other stakeholders in the fossil fuel industry. The exchanges expose that Pruitt coordinated directly with companies to weaken federal regulations, such as renewable fuel standards, the very rules he will now be overseeing as head of the agency, writes the New York Times.

Pruitt’s appointment seems to exemplify White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s standards for employment, who said on Thursday, “If you look at these Cabinet nominees, they were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction [of the administrative state].”

 

MEDIA

Amplifying rhetoric this week, Trump referred to the media as “the enemy of the American People,” and his top aides later bolstered the attacks. Aside from Trump’s comments, the White House appears to be making efforts to work on its media messaging this week, reportedly sidelining top aide Kellyanne Conway from television.

 

Trump Says the Media is “The Enemy of the American People.”

Trump has heightened his anti-media rhetoric, tweeting on Friday that the media is “the enemy of the American People!” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) remarked that these kinds of attacks on the media are “how dictators get started.” Defense Secretary Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis disagreed with Trump’s statement, and told reporters that while he had “contentious times with the press,” he doesn’t have any issues with the press.

While past presidents have expressed criticism of the press, Julian Zelizer, professor of history and and public affairs at Princeton University, said that Trump’s actions are “fundamentally different” because rather than opposing specific stories, Trump is “simply blasting the entire institution as illegitimate and irrelevant.” Zelizer also said past presidents avoided attacks on particular reporters or outlets, as this “kind of brutal and explicit intimidation, with the power that comes with the office of the presidency, can have a chilling effect.”

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump “has deep respect for the First Amendment … and he has a healthy respect for the press.”

White House Officials Bolster Trump’s War on the Media

Speaking to conservative activists on Thursday during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus buoyed Trump’s attacks on the media, reported the Washington Post. Bannon, in his first public speaking event since Trump assumed office, repeatedly referred to the media as “the opposition party” against Trump’s agenda, adding, “If you look at the opposition party and how they portrayed the campaign and how they portrayed the transition and how they portray the administration, it’s always wrong.” Priebus agreed, saying journalists were feeding “ridiculous stories” and the biggest misconception of the Trump White House is “everything that you’re reading.”

Moreover, Bannon seemed to issue a threat to journalists, stating, “It’s going to get worse every day for the media” as Trump pursues policies that journalism allegedly opposes. He added, “If you think they are giving you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken.” Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post described Bannon’s statements as “a remarkable declaration of all-out war on the media from one of the most powerful people in the Trump White House.” He added:

But what Bannon and, by extension, Trump are up to is something very different than simply an adversarial working relationship with the media. Bannon doesn’t want to change the media. He wants to totally dismantle the media.

Damage Control: Was Kellyanne Kicked off TV?

Sources told CNN that Trump senior aide Kellyanne Conway has been sidelined from making television appearances this week. A White House official said Conway was “off message,” and her television presence had been damaging for the administration. Conway denied the allegation, telling CNN that she had been invited to other shows that week, but was focusing on “other pieces” of her portfolio, adding that Trump did not need her constant appearances on TV. White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders echoed Conway’s refute, “Kellyanne has a number of media appearances this week and also has a large portfolio at the WH and is spending significant time focusing on it.” CNN also remarked that the level of controversy has been significantly lower this week, “suggesting that the press office may be getting a better grip on its messaging strategy.”

 

CORRUPTION

As Trump’s time in office continues, the price tag to taxpayers is becoming both increasingly visible and increasingly costly.

 

CMS Nominee gets Insider Information For Her Healthcare Business

Last weekend, Trump held a meeting at Mar-a-Lago to discuss plans to reform Obamacare with White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and Seema Verma, who is nominated to head the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS). Verma, however, has not yet been confirmed by the Senate, and is still serving as CEO of her national healthcare company SVC Inc. While nominees typically hold meetings with White House officials to plan for their confirmation hearings, it is “unprecedented” for a nominee to meet and discuss emerging policy, Richard Painter, former chief ethics lawyer to President George W. Bush, told Vice. Painter said the meeting was a “serious problem” because the policy decisions could impact her company’s financials, allowing her to use new information to her own business advantage.

Taxpayers Foot Trump’s Bill for Extravagant Lifestyle

Trump has spent the last three weekends in a row at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, not coming cheap. According to the Washington Post, the visits have cost taxpayers nearly $10 million. As Trump’s wife Melania and youngest son Barron reside in New York, Donald’s other sons Eric and Don Jr. travel the globe, and Donald himself travels between Florida and Washington, the costs and challenges of securing the Trump family’s global lifestyle are draining government resources. The paper summarized:

Barely a month into the Trump presidency, the unusually elaborate lifestyle of America’s new first family is straining the Secret Service and security officials, stirring financial and logistical concerns in several local communities, and costing far beyond what has been typical for past presidents – a price tag that, based on past assessments of presidential travel and security costs, could balloon into the hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of a four-year term.

According to police estimates, the city of New York is paying $500,000 a day, or up to $138 million a year, to guard Trump Tower. Overtime police payments in Palm Beach County, Florida, from Trump’s first 25 days visiting Mar-A-Lago, cost local taxpayers around $60,000.

According to reports by the conservative group Judicial Watch, Obama’s travel related expenses over eight years totaled almost $97 million. The Washington Post concluded that based on the first four weeks, the Trump presidency could cost hundreds of millions of dollars more. Moreover, as the Secret Service and Defense Department could be renting directly from the Trump Organization, some of that money, from taxpayers, would be going to straight back to Trump’s own pocket.

New Trump Real Estate Openings in Dubai and Vancouver

This week, the Trump Organization continued to push ahead foreign deals in Dubai and Vancouver, “highlight[ing] the complications created when the president of the United States also owns a global real estate company,” the New York Times reported. Trump’s Dubai business partner Hussain Sajwani, nicknamed by Forbes as “The Donald of Dubai,” has worked a number of projects with the U.S. military. Sajwani has indicated interest in entering the U.S. real estate market, “moves that could be easier with a friend in the White House.” According to the paper, the new Trump tower in Vancouver has some interesting residents such Sou Lam Fong, who founded a company that is majority-owned by a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

Senators Demand IG Investigate Mar-a-Lago Visits as Violation of the Emoluments Clause

On Friday, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General demanding an investigation as to whether Trump had violated the Emoluments Clause at Mar-a-Lago. Four other senators signed the letter, requesting a report within 90 days. The letter said that because it was unclear whether the club is charging Trump’s staff, members of the Secret Service, or military aides for rooms or other services at the resort, if they were, it “directly benefits the President’s business and allows him to profit off of every vacation he takes to one of his properties.” The letter stated that ultimately, even though the President “may have a residence at Mar-a-Lago, it remains a for-profit business and allows members access to the club while the President is there.”

Why isn’t Trump using Camp David, the historic Presidential retreat, with built-in security? Trump told a journalist before assuming office, “You know how long you’d like it? For about 30 minutes.”

Trump Uses Air Force One as a Political Prop

During Saturday’s campaign-style rally in Florida, “Trump pulled up in Air Force One, not his private plane.” Just two days before the rally, a White House official told the Washington Post that Air Force One would “not [be] used in the background as a prop.” Ethics experts told the paper that the use of the plane for political purposes fell into “a legal and ethical gray zone, as the president is not allowed to use government resources for political campaigns.”

 

China Patent Could Violate Emoluments Clause

Officially announced last week by China’s Trademark Office, the Chinese government has awarded Trump a 10-year trademark for construction services, a valuable foreign trademark raising concerns of Constitutional violations. On Friday, Feb. 17, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said, “China’s decision to award President Trump with a new trademark allowing him to profit from the use of his name is a clear conflict of interest and deeply troubling.” She added, “If this isn’t a violation of the Emoluments Clause, I don’t know what is.”

Deleting Tweets: The Presidential Records Act

This week, CNN asked legal experts if Trump’s habit of deleting his Twitter posts violates the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which governs the official records of the President and Vice President, and mandates the preservation of such records for later release to the public. The act allows “the incumbent President to dispose of records that no longer have administrative, historical, informational, or evidentiary value, once he has obtained the views of the Archivist of the United States on the proposed disposal.” White House spokeswoman Kelly Love told CNN on Saturday, “We have systems in place to capture all tweets and preserve them as presidential records; even if they have been deleted.” Shontavia Johnson, a law professor at Drake University Law School, suggested a more difficult question is whether Trump’s actions violate the spirit of the law, because its purpose is to give ownership of president records back to the public, to the American people.

Melania Wipes Business References from Defamation Lawsuit

First lady Melania Trump amended her complaint on Tuesday in a lawsuit alleging defamation, removing all references to her “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to market her products and garner “multi-million dollar business relationships.” The claims raised ethics concerns about Melania’s intentions to generate profit from her public position.

 

WHITE HOUSE

Odd behavior in the White House continues this week, as Trump dismisses protesters as “manufactured,” and aides cover-up Trump’s golf outings.

 

Trump Dismisses “So-Called” Protesters at GOP Town Halls

On Tuesday night, Trump dismissed the protests at recent Republican town halls across the country (such as those in California, Florida, and Utah) as “planned out by liberal activists.”

When asked about the protests during Wednesday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, “I think some people are clearly upset, but there is a bit of professional protestor, manufactured base in there.” Later on Wednesday night, Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) refuted the White House claim that protesters were “manufactured,” denying there was an “artificial crowd” and emphasizing that attendees were “real people with real concerns.”

Trump Invited Party Guests to Attend Interviews with Cabinet Nominees

In an audio-tape of a closed-press session between Trump and reporters obtained by POLITICO, Trump appears to invite party guests at a cocktail and dinner reception to stop by for interviews with potential Cabinet nominees. Trump told the audience, “We’re doing a lot of interviews tomorrow — generals, dictators, we have everything. You may wanna come around. It’ll be fun.” The morning after POLITICO’s story, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said the comments were taken out of context, and denied that Trump had invited party members to attend the meetings, insisting he was providing a description of events.   

Trump’s Shroud of Golf Secrecy

CNN reports that Trump has played six rounds of golf in Florida during his first month in office, while Obama did not play his first game until April 2009. Moreover, “the level of secrecy around golf is new for the presidency,” the article continues. Trump aides do not confirm every outing, and unlike the Obama administration, they do not inform reporters who Trump is playing with. POLITICO reported that aides have gone as far as covering basement windows with black plastic bags to hide views of golf courses.

 

The Secret To Getting Trump off Twitter?

According to POLITICO, six former campaign officials said the trick to getting Trump off Twitter is to supply a continuous flow of praise. The article reported that leaving Trump alone “for several hours can prove damaging, because he consumes too much television and gripes to people outside the White House.” Interesting, that in the days following Trump’s rally, he had some conspicuously quieter stretches online…

False Claims

According to analysis by the Washington Post, Trump has averaged four misleading or false statements each day since his Inauguration. After Trump’s first week in office, Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity and author of a book about presidential deception, remarked, “We’ve never seen anything this bizarre in our lifetimes, where up is down and down is up and everything is in question and nothing is real.”

Melania Gives the Lord’s Prayer at Trump’s Rally

Before introducing her husband, first lady Melania Trump opened Trump’s campaign rally in Florida on Saturday by reciting the Lord’s prayer. According to Fox News, liberals attacked the first lady, portraying the act as an offense to secularism, violating the separation of church and state.

Image: Joe Readle/Getty 

About the Author(s)

Katerina Wright

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