Norms Watch: Tracking the Erosion of Democratic Traditions (Mar. 3-10)

WHITE HOUSE

This week the White House is whirling from Trump’s unfounded allegations that Obama ordered Trump’s phones to be wiretapped during the campaign, publicly unraveling relations between the former and sitting president, and placing more strain on relations between the White House and the FBI.

 

Trump’s Wiretapping Claim

On Saturday, Mar. 4, Trump claimed on Twitter, without any identified evidence, that Obama had wiretapped his phones during the campaign. On Monday, Mar. 6, House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) said he hadn’t seen any evidence to support Trump’s allegation, and Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) said on Tuesday, Mar. 7, that the Senate Intelligence Community would not be investigating the claim, adding there were no “intelligence or facts” to drive an investigation at this time.

Historian Robert Dallek said Trump’s attack on Obama breaks new grounds in relations between administrations, as the norm for most presidents is to publicly ignore their predecessors. As the New York Times reported, “[n]ever in recent generations has the natural friction between current and past presidents spilled over into such a public spectacle.”

 

Comey Rebukes Trump’s Wiretapping Claim

The day after Trump’s allegation, The New York Times reported that FBI Director James Comey asked the Justice Department to publicly reject the president’s claims. The paper continued that “Comey’s request is a remarkable rebuke of a sitting president, putting the nation’s top law enforcement official in the position of questioning Mr. Trump’s truthfulness.”

 

White House Counsel Requests Documents, Threatening FBI Independence

On Saturday, a White House official told the New York Times that Trump’s chief counsel Donald McGahn II was trying to obtain access to an authorization by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorizing surveillance of Trump and members of his inner circle. The paper concluded: 

The official offered no evidence to support the notion that such an order exists. It would be a highly unusual breach of the Justice Department’s traditional independence on law enforcement matters for the White House to order it to turn over such an investigative document. Any request for information from a top White House official about a continuing investigation would be a stunning departure from protocols intended to insulate the F.B.I. from political pressure. It would be even more surprising for the White House to seek information about a case directly involving the president or his advisers, as does the case involving the Russia contacts.”

By Sunday, House Democrats in the Judiciary Committee wrote to McGahn demanding an explanation of his activities over the weekend. Following such criticism that McGahn’s activities threatened Justice Department independence, a different White House official responded that the initial remarks were an overstatement, explaining the administration was trying to determine whether it was possible to find more information without interfering with an ongoing investigation, if such an investigation exists. 

 

White House Copy-Pastes Exxon Mobil Press Release

On Monday, Washington Post data reporter Christopher Ingraham discovered that a White House press release commending Exxon Mobil Corp. for its “job-creating investment program” in America had been copy-pasted from the company’s own release. The White House seems to be continuing close ties with the oil giant, already connected through Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who served as CEO of Exxon Mobil from 2006-2016.

 

MEDIA

This week, rather than fighting the media, the White House is strangely hiding off-camera.

 

Trump Signs New EO, Bans Press from Attending

On Monday, the Trump administration announced its new executive order on immigration, but the new order was “not signed in front of the press.” The White House did say it confirmed to a pool reporter that Trump did, in fact, sign the order. Unusual, however, that there was no photo opportunity or other fanfare typical of the President’s other recent EOs.

 

Spicer Was Off-Camera for a Week

For the seventh straight day in a row, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer declined to hold an on-camera press briefing on Monday, March 6, marking “an unusually long drought for someone whose role is traditionally to be the most visible face of a presidential administration,” writes The New York Times.

Certain absences can be explained; Tuesday, Feb. 28 was Trump’s address to Congress, and on Thursday, Mar. 2 was Trump’s aircraft carrier speech. Former press secretaries, however, said it was unusual to decline televised briefings for a full week. Moreover, the timing of the hiatus was certainly suggestive: Trump had just criticized Spicer during a Fox News interview, while Spicer’s friend White House chief of staff Reince Priebus was under criticism. The Washington Post noted that the last week only speaks to the bigger issue of press availability: “Through 46 days in office, spokesmen for President Trump have spent 242 fewer minutes in Q&A sessions with the press than did their predecessors under President Barack Obama, a 20 percent decline.”

 

AGENCIES

This week the Congressional Budget Office was the latest agency to come under critique from the White House, while meanwhile the State Department is keeping quiet and avoiding the camera.

 

New Healthcare Bill Doesn’t Have CBO Score, White House Challenges CBO Credibility

On Monday, Mar. 6, Republicans in the House released the highly-anticipated Obamacare replacement, but without a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score. While grumbling over a CBO score after released is a “long-standing and bipartisan tradition,” members of the Trump team have complained about the potential score before it is even released. One of Trump’s favorite spins, the White House launched a preemptive attack on the institution itself, challenging the agency’s credibility. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on Wednesday, “If you’re looking to the C.B.O. for accuracy, you’re looking in the wrong place.”

While Trump appointee Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said the score would “be very positive and helpful long-term to the deficit” by saving taxpayer dollars, CNN reported the score was not part of the initial reveal because it showed that more Americans would not be covered under the plan. An official told The Washington Post that congressional committees “regularly go through the markup process without a formal CBO score,” yet others familiar with the process said “doing so on bills as far-reaching as the health-care overhaul is rare.”

State Department Cancels Its First Planned Press Briefing

For the first time since Jan. 20, the State Department announced it would resume its formal press briefings this Monday, Mar. 6, though without the agency’s new head, Rex Tillerson. On Saturday, Bloomberg reported that one of Trump’s favorite journalists, Heather Nauert, news anchor on the morning show “Fox & Friends,” had been named as spokeswoman for the Department. The day of the scheduled briefing, however, the Department cancelled its meeting on the grounds of Trump’s new executive order on immigration. The Washington Post reported the cancellation to be unusual, as normally “the State Department briefing was only rarely affected by White House events.”

The cancellation is just another indication of the agency’s new role and image under the Trump administration. Its briefings have been on hiatus since January, and there has been nearly non-existent engagement with the press. While in the past the department held an on-camera briefing every day, from now on, briefings will be held Monday through Thursday, two of which conducted via telephone, writes POLITICO.

Tillerson Embarks on First Trip to Asia without Press Corps

Meanwhile, Tillerson will be traveling to Asia without the customary press pool. Mark Toner, acting State Department spokesman, said Tillerson would be traveling light for the visit, and the details were still being worked out. Toner added, “I think going forward, the State Department is doing everything it can to – and will do everything it can – to accommodate a contingent of traveling media on board the Secretary’s plane.”

 

CORRUPTION and CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

This week reports of Trump’s business ties in Azerbaijan to China shed new light on the scope and scale of Trump Organization entanglements. Closer to home, Trump and his family have their hands full as new conflict of interests concerns emerge surrounding the Washington D.C. hotel, restaurant, and Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s new home in the city. Meanwhile, Mar-a-Lago remains a photo frenzy, and Trump’s sons play up their campaign connections to expand their nationwide hotel brand.

 

Trump Granted Preliminary Approval for 38 More Valuable Trademarks in China

This week, China granted preliminary approval of 38 additional Trump brand trademarks, which Trump applied for in April 2016 in the midst of his presidential campaign. This comes after China’s Feb. 14 grant of a patent to Trump name-branded construction services, now expanding the Trump trademark to branded bodyguard and escort services, spas, hotels, restaurants, bars, insurance, and others.

If Trump received any special treatment in securing the valuable rights, this would violate the Constitution’s ban against public servants “accepting anything of value from foreign governments unless approved by Congress,” writes The Associated Press. Richard Painter, former ethics adviser to George Bush, said the volume and pace of trademarks granted raises the question as to whether there were any special favors behind some of them. While Dan Plane, a director at Hong-Kong based Simone IP Services, said it was “weird” and unlike anything he had ever seen before in terms of how quickly the applications sailed through, the Beijing law firm representing the Trump Organization said there has been no special treatment toward any of their clients.

Trump Organization Helped Develop a Baku Hotel with Ties to Iranian Revolutionary Guard

As Adam Davidson writes for The New Yorker, the Trump Organization had some dubious business partners in a hotel deal in Baku, Azerbaijan. While the deal has been underway since 2012, the luxury hotel remains unopened, and oddly sits in an underdeveloped area of the city far from the tourist district. While the Trump Organization says it conducted extensive background checks on its business partners for the hotel, the Azerbaijani business developers are relatives of the Mammadov family, linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. According to Jessica Tillipman, an assistant dean at George Washington University Law School, who specializes in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, “The entire Baku deal is a giant red flag—the direct involvement of foreign government officials and their relatives in Azerbaijan with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Corruption warning signs are rarely more obvious.”

 

OGE Director Rejects White House Claim that Ethics Regulations Do Not Apply to Trump and His Staff

Walter Schaub Jr., director of the U.S. ethics watch-dog agency, the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), slammed the White House’s choice to not discipline Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway after endorsing Ivanka Trump’s products on a televised interview. Schaub expressed concern about Conway’s “misuse of position,” but emphasized that he was even “more concerned about the extraordinary assertion that ‘many’ of OGE’s regulations are inapplicable to employees of the Executive Office of the President.”

 

Top Official at GSA Leaves, Opening the Door For Trump to Renegotiate D.C. Hotel Lease

In the midst of mounting conflicts of interest concerns posed by the Trump Organization’s Washington D.C. hotel, Norman Dong, head of the General Services Administration (GSA), announced he will be stepping down within the next few weeks. The Trump Organization currently leases the property, which is owned by the GSA, a federal agency. Democrats in Congress are concerned that Trump could now appoint a replacement with his own interests in mind, as the agency director would have authority to modify and renegotiate the lease terms at any time. The government would be making any such arrangements with Trump’s owns sons, who now head the business. As a letter from Reps. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) to agency’s inspector general Carol Ochoa stated, “Left unchecked, this arrangement is fraught with the possibility that President Trump and his children will enrich themselves at taxpayers’ expense.”

 

Trump’s Sons Use Campaign Connections to Make New Deals

Trump’s sons Eric and Don Jr. are planning a nationwide expansion of the family business, expanding from their core market of large metropolises to a broader range of cities the brothers visited during the course of their father’s campaign. Don Jr. said they would be leveraging relationships from the campaign, explaining, “I met people along the way that would be awesome partners.” The expansion strategy “illustrates how President Trump’s political rise has the potential to affect his business even as he and his sons promise to adhere to a strict ethical boundary between the company’s moves and the Trump administration,” writes The Washington Post.

Mar-A-Lago Guests Get More Special Access to Trump Administration

Over the past weekend, Mar-A-Lago’s lax security again captured headlines. While the club posted new regulations forbidding photos or videos of the President while he is on the resort premises, it didn’t stop The Palm Beach Post or others on social media from publishing photos of Trump mingling with guests.

 

Democrats Call on Kushner to Resolve Outstanding Conflicts of Interest

Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), along with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) wrote a letter to White House deputy counsel Stefan Passantino, demanding the Office of the White House Counsel explain how they are ensuring that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and now senior adviser, is acting in compliance with federal conflict of interest laws. The letter states, “Neither the White House nor Mr. Kushner’s attorneys … has confirmed which financial assets Mr. Kusher still controls—rendering oversight of Mr. Kushner’s recusals and compliance with conflict-of-interest law impossible.” Kushner’s family has said it does not plan to sell the 17 apartment complexes it owns in Maryland, a number of which receive vouchers from federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds.

 

D.C. Restaurant Sues Trump for Unfair Competition

The owners of a Washington, D.C. restaurant filed a lawsuit on Thursday against Trump and his Washington, D.C. hotel and dining facilities, basing their claims “on the unfair advantage that the Trump International Hotel and its dining establishments, in a building owned by the United States and operated by the Defendants, has gained from Defendant Donald J. Trump being the President of the United States.” The restaurant owners are not seeking monetary damages, but asking Trump to suspend all operations of the Hotel and restaurant, and for Trump and his relatives to “promptly and fully divest” from their interest in the hotel.

 

Ivanka and Jared’s D.C. Home

Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner are renting their new Washington, D.C. home from a Chilean billionaire Andrónico Luksic, whose family’s mining company is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the U.S. government, reports The Wall Street Journal. The company, Antofagasta PLC, is fighting against environmental groups and the government to begin a mining project on land protected by the federal government, estimated to hold over $40 billion of in-ground mineral value.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

 

About the Author(s)

Katerina Wright

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