Norms Watch: Tracking the Erosion of Democratic Traditions (Feb. 24 – Mar. 3)

WHITE HOUSE

As the White House continues to deny there is anything of concern between the Trump team and Russia, Spicer tried to quash stories, and republicans in Congress denied the evidence.  In a wildfire Thursday afternoon, new reporting revealed Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in July and in September, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner met with Kislyak in December, and two other Trump campaign officials met with Kislyak in July.   

Sessions Recuses Himself from Russian Investigation

According to the Washington Post, Sessions spoke with the Russian ambassador to the US twice last year, in July and September, while serving as a U.S. Senator with a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and as a close adviser to Trump. Sessions denied he had any contacts with Russia during his confirmation hearing in January. This week, he denied the claim, but added a caveat, stating, “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about.” On Thursday, GOP leaders broke party ranks to join Democrats in demanding Sessions recuse himself from the ongoing investigations. Some Democrats went even further and demanded Sessions resign from the Justice Department.

Facing enormous political pressure, Sessions announced by Thursday afternoon that he would recuse himself from any investigation of Russian interference in the American election, or any other inquiry related to the presidential campaign.

Richard Painter, former ethics adviser to President George W. Bush, said while not as far as perjury, Sessions’ conduct could pose some legal challenges as “there is a lesser charge of failing to provide accurate information to Congress.” CBS News’ chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford, however, said there was “no way” Sessions would be prosecuted, because “to be convicted of lying to Congress, you have to give testimony that you know is false.”

On Thursday night, Trump defended Sessions in a series of four Tweets, saying he was an “honest man” and again attempting to divert attention to the “real story” of illegal leaks. 

 

Kushner and Flynn Met with Russian Ambassador in December

In December, then-incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Trump’s son-in-law, and now senior adviser, Jared Kushner met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, just when the Obama administration was about to impose sanctions on Russia and go public with reports of Russian interference with the election, reports The New York Times. White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks said Kushner’s meeting was intended to “establish a line of communication” between the US and Russia, not unlike other introductory meetings with other foreign leaders and representatives.

While “not improper for transition officials to meet with foreign officials,” all such meetings carry new importance as the FBI continues to investigate Russian interference in the presidential election. Moreover, the picture is now emerging “that the incoming Trump administration was simultaneously striking a conciliatory pose toward Moscow in a series of meetings and phone calls involving Mr. Kislyak.”

Evidence of Two Other Trump Campaign Officials Meeting with Russian Ambassador

On Thursday, USA Today reported that two other Trump campaign officials, J.D. Gordon and Carter Page, also spoke with Kislyak during the Republican National Convention held in July in Cleveland. While those participating in the convention “said it was not unusual for presidential campaign teams to interact with diplomats,” it is yet another piece of evidence contradicting White House denials of any contacts between Russian officials and members of the Trump campaign team.

In an interview on Thursday with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Page did not deny the meeting, but added, “I never met him anywhere outside of Cleveland, let’s just say that much.” Page, a junior member of the campaign’s foreign policy group, previously denied meeting with Russian officials while speaking with PBS’s Judy Woodruff on Feb. 15, even rebuffing the reports of contacts between the campaign team and Russian officials as “fake news.”

Spicer Arranges for CIA Director and Senate Intel Committee Chair to Discredit Reports of Trump Campaign Contacts with Russia

Building off reports that Priebus directly contacted the FBI to knock down media stories about communications between members of the Trump campaign and Russia, Axios reported that on Feb. 15 Spicer personally connected CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) with reporters from the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal to dispute the front page New York Times story about repeated contacts with Russian officials. Former Obama officials told Axios “it’s rare for the CIA director to talk directly to a single journalist – that in the past, the director usually was held in reserve to talk to a publisher or executive editor in a case where a news organization was contemplating publishing something that could harm national security.”

Congress Isn’t Checking the President

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) denied there was any evidence of communications between the Trump team and Russia, saying, “As of right now, I don’t have any evidence of any phone calls. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist … What I’ve been told by many folks is that there’s nothing there.” Nunes was part of Trump’s presidential transition team, reports Reuters.  Burr has also come under fire as some Democrats question whether he is “too close to Trump to lead an impartial investigation” given his past experience serving as national adviser to Trump’s campaign.

Congress’ refusal to further investigate demonstrates more support for Mickey Edwards’ opinion that “Congress has willingly abandoned both its constitutional responsibilities and its ability to effectively serve as a check on the executive even when it wishes to do so,” as he wrote for an editorial in POLITICO magazine.

 

MEDIA

As if press relations couldn’t get any worse, over the last several days, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer blocked certain media outlets from attending a press gaggle last Friday, Trump continued his Twitter attacks against The New York Times and decided not to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, and the fury around media leaks drove Spicer to take matters into his own hands.

 

Spicer Excludes Outlets from Press Gaggle

On Friday, Feb. 24, Spicer barred reporters from The New York Times, BuzzFeed News, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, POLITICO, BBC, and the Huffington Post from attending an off-camera press gaggle, which substituted that day for the daily briefing. This move was viewed as “a highly unusual breach of relations between the White House and its press corps,” writes The New York Times.

Spicer told the reporters who were invited, “We’re going to aggressively push back. We’re just not going to sit back and let, you know, false narratives, false stories, inaccurate facts get out there.” Conservative outlets like Breitbart News, the One America News Network and The Washington Times all attended the briefing, along with ABC, CBS, the Wall Street Journal, Blomberg and Fox News. In protest, The Associated Press, USA Today, and Time boycotted the meeting in support of fellow journalists. Carlos Lauria, program director for the Americas at the Committee to Protect Journalists said the administration’s “framework is familiar in authoritarian countries where the media is undermined, marginalized and attacked.” Several news outlets, including Bloomberg, McClatchy and the Wall Street Journal, said that if closed briefings continue, they will not be attending. Just Security’s Ryan Goodman asked nine First Amendment experts about the constitutionality of the press ban.

The “notable break from protocol” came the morning after stories from CNN reported that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus had asked the FBI to knock down articles about contacts between Russian officials and the Trump campaign, diverting attention from those issues. Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, issued a statement: “Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties.” Priebus’ actions raise serious ethical questions about the White House’s meddling in an ongoing criminal investigation that’s examining members of the Trump administration and campaign staff.

Meanwhile, Trump launched his regular attacks on CNN and The New York Times on Friday evening, bolstering Spicer’s actions.

 

Spicer Checks the Cellphones of his own Staff

Reported by POLITICO,  Spicer decided to take the problem of leaks into his own hands over the weekend. Spicer, accompanied by White House lawyers, held an “emergency meeting” to check all electronic devices—including the personal and government-issued phones—of his own communications staffers. He warned staffers that using encryption apps violated the Presidential Records Act.

While CNN reported on Monday that Trump signed off on Spicer’s check of staff cell phones and approved of Spicer’s blocking of sources to the Friday gaggle, Spicer said the president did not know or approve of either of his decisions.

Trump Will Not Attend White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner

Trump announced on Saturday over Twitter that he would not be attending the annual White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) Dinner, the first president to miss the event in 36 years. The last president not to attend was Ronald Reagan, who still delivered remarks by phone while recovering from an assassination attempt in 1981, reports CNN. Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the tension between the media and Trump was driving his decision, saying, I think it’s kind of naive of us to think that we can all walk into a room for a couple of hours and pretend that some of that tension isn’t there.”

The WHCA issued a statement following Trump’s announcement, stating the WHCA took note of his absence, and that the dinner “has been and will continue to be a celebration of the First Amendment and the important role played by an independent news media in a healthy republic.”

 

Trump Ditches Press Pool, this Time in Office

On Saturday, Trump made an unplanned stop at the restaurant of his own D.C. hotel, ditching his press pooler, and leaving him outside. As POLITICO noted, “the symbolism [was] hard to miss,” coming hours after his announcement of boycotting the WHCA dinner.  

 

Trump Mocks the First Amendment

While speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, Feb. 24, Trump said of journalists, “They say we can’t criticize their false stories because of the First Amendment. They always bring up the First Amendment.” He added, “I love the First Amendment, who uses it more than I do?”

Trump’s radical attack on the First Amendment threatens “a cornerstone of democratic self-governance,” which in combination with other White House actions the last few days must be seen as “the strong-arm tactics of an authoritarian,” writes Lawrence Douglas for the Guardian.

 

AGENCIES

Trump’s government continues to have hundreds of unfilled positions, a situation that’s causing particular angst at the State Department. Meanwhile, Trump reveals he doesn’t intend to fill many of the empty jobs. He also began, directly criticizing the FBI this week.

 

What’s Happening at the State Department?

It’s not yet clear whether the State Department is being left out in the cold under the Trump administration or whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is taking his time to get staffed up and come into his new role. Michael Fuchs, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of State during the Obama administration, writes for Just Security that “there are signs — budgetary and otherwise — that suggest the State Department is under threat of being sidelined by the Trump White House.” Julia Ioffe, writing for The Atlantic, offers a bleak picture of the work environment at Foggy Bottom, quoting a mid-level officer, who says, “America is over. And being part of that, when it’s happening for no reason, is traumatic.”

Trump Doesn’t Intend to Fill Many Government Positions

Speaking on Tuesday on “Fox & Friends,” Trump said, “When I see a story about ‘Donald Trump didn’t fill hundreds and hundreds of jobs, it’s because, in many cases, we don’t want to fill those jobs.” Trump explained that he didn’t want to appoint many of those jobs “because they’re unnecessary to have.” While the effort to trim bureaucratic bloat may not be unusual, the conspicuously large gaps in federal government staffing, especially within top leadership, is signals Trump is interested in more radical change.

Trump Attacks the FBI

Through a series of Tweets posted at 4:31 a.m. and 4:36 a.m. on Feb. 24, Trump “assailed the F.B.I. as a dangerously porous agency, condemning unauthorized revelations of classified information from within its ranks and calling for an immediate hunt for leakers,” reported The New York Times. According to Vice, “the direct criticism of the FBI by a sitting president is still highly abnormal.”

Adding to the debate, Spicer said there was nothing wrong with Priebus’s earlier actions to request the FBI knock down allegations of Trump campaign contacts with Russia, because the stories were frankly wrong. “What sane person would not want to set the record straight?” Spicer asked. He said there were “no connections to find out about” emphasizing that Trump has not had any contacts with Russia, adding “I find a lot of this offensive, when you talk about us pushing back on something that doesn’t exist.” Meanwhile, Trump took his Russia denials to a new level, saying on Monday, “I haven’t called Russia in 10 years.” Trump traveled to Moscow in 2013 for the Miss Universe pageant.

 

Another One Bites the Dust

On Sunday, Trump’s candidate for Secretary of the Navy, Philip Bilden, withdrew his nomination, deciding it was too difficult for him to sever his business ties. Defense Secretary James Mattis said, “This was a personal decision driven by privacy concerns and significant challenges he faced in separating himself from his business interests.” This comes after Trump’s nominee for Army Secretary, Vincent Viola, resigned citing similar concerns. Trump does not have to abide by the same conflict of interest laws that his political appointees do.

 

CORRUPTION and CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Trump’s own actions this week fly in the face of his own business plan to resolve conflicts of interest, and run against advice from the government’s independent ethics agency.

 

Kuwaiti Government Could Pay up to $60,000 for Party at Trump D.C. Hotel

Reported by Reuters on Monday, the Kuwaiti government could be fronting a $60,000 bill to Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel for a party held by Kuwait’s embassy there Feb. 22 in celebration of their national day. The event is traditionally held at the Four Seasons Hotel. According to NPR, neither the White House nor the Trump Organization have responded to questions about whether the profits from the event will be donated to the U.S. Treasury, as part of Trump’s announced ethics plan.

White House Rejects Disciplinary Action Against Conway

In response to Office of Government Ethics (OGE) Director Walter Schaub Jr.’s request for the White House to investigate and review Trump aide Kellyanne Conway’s endorsement of Ivanka Trump products on television on Feb. 9, Trump’s deputy counsel, Stefan Passantino, wrote in a letter that Conway “acted inadvertently and is highly unlikely to do so,” adding that she made her statement “in a light, off-hand manner while attempting to stand up for a person she believed had been unfairly treated and did so without nefarious motive or intent to benefit personally.” The OGE said on Wednesday it was reviewing Passantino’s letter.

Trump Axes Leadership and Ethics Training Program for Senior Staffers

According to POLITICO, Trump axed the traditional training course on leadership, ethics and management provided for senior White House staff, Cabinet nominees, and other political appointees. Both the Obama and Bush transition teams carried out the $1 million contract-based training program for their staffers, but the Trump team announced it had shifted its priorities and goals in regards to employee training.

In response to the story, a White House spokeswoman said the White House had run a number of ethics sessions as a prerequisite for employment. Norm Eisen, former ethics adviser to Obama, said the training “might have spared them the numerous ethics and other messes they have encountered.”

Trump’s First Dinner Out: His Own Restaurant

On Saturday night, Trump dined out at his own restaurant in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. The federal government owns the building and leases the property to Trump, with the rental agreement stipulating that no U.S. elected official “shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.” Time writes that “[d]ining at his own hotel is likely open Trump up to further accusations of conflicts of interest.”

Trump Vancouver Opens Amid Protests

Trump’s sons Eric and Don Jr. attended the opening of Trump International Tower and Hotel in Vancouver, Canada this week. CBS News reports, “The Trump Organization is licensing the name to the building and managing the hotel, but does not own it.” The father of the tower’s Malaysian developer, Joo Kim Tiah, is one of Malaysia’s wealthiest businessmen.

Image: Getty/ Mark Wallheiser

 

About the Author(s)

Katerina Wright

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