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Norms Watch: Tracking the Erosion of Democratic Traditions (Mar. 10-17)

WHITE HOUSE

The White House can’t seem to make up its mind about Trump’s wiretapping claims: first, Trump wasn’t meant to be taken literally, by Wednesday, the White House was expressing confidence in the evidence, and on Thursday, Trump was again standing by the claims. Meanwhile, disclosures this week reveal that the Trump transition team knew that Flynn might have had to register as a foreign agent, calling into question the administration’s selection choices and its vetting process.

 

White House Walks Back Wiretapping Claim

On Monday, Mar. 13, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump’s allegation that Obama had wiretapped his phones during the campaign was not meant to be taken literally, saying that Trump “doesn’t really think that President Obama went up and tapped his phone personally.” Spicer clarified that Trump was referring to general surveillance activities during the presidential election, not a specific telephone wiretap.

On Wednesday, however, “in the latest verbal acrobatics” from the White House, Spicer stated Trump was “extremely confident” that the Justice Department would submit evidence to back up Trump’s claim. Spicer said Trump was confident the forthcoming information would “vindicate him.” In an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson aired on Wednesday night, Trump said wiretap “covers a lot of different things” and said there would be “some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.”

 

On Thursday, despite statements from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and from Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate Intelligence Committee that they found no such evidence, Spicer stated that Trump “stands by” his wiretapping claims. Over the course of the next ten minutes, Spicer then continued to read a list of new stories discussing inquiries into Trump’s campaign aides and Russian officials, though apparently none seemed to confirm that Trump Tower or the president’s telephones had been tapped. For a full timeline of the White House’s rollercoaster of responses, see here.

 

How Do We Know When Trump is Joking? 

On Friday, Mar. 10, the Labor Department released the February unemployment date, reporting a drop in the unemployment rate of 4.7%, down from 4.8% in January. While Trump has a long history of declaring the unemployment rate as fake, as recently as December referring to the report as “totally fiction,” Spicer said on Friday that the data “may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” On Monday, Mar. 13, NBC’s Peter Alexander asked Spicer, “Can you say affirmatively that whenever the president says something, we can trust it to be real?” Spicer’s illuminating response: “If he’s not joking, of course.”

With Trump’s wiretapping claims and the release of the unemployment rate this week as only two examples, there seems to be a pattern developing whereby Trump, or an adviser, makes a statement and then later decides whether the claim was a joke or serious, making “diplomacy nearly impossible,” writes David Graham for The Atlantic. As Graham asks, “If Obama’s failed ‘red line’ was deleterious to American interests, how much worse is it when every statement is potentially subject to ex post facto relegation to joke status?”

Jobs Tweets Break a Rule

On Friday, Mar. 10 at 8:30 a.m., the Labor Department posted a gain of 235,000 new jobs in February. Trump responded by retweeting a Drudge Report tweet just 11 minutes later, and Spicer posted on Twitter just 22 minutes later. The messages apparently violate a federal rule that bars executive branch employees from publicly responding to economic indicators for at least 60 minutes after the official release, writes The New York Times. The rule, announced in 1985, was adopted “to preserve the distinction between the policy-neutral release of data by statistical agencies and their interpretation by policy officials” and to minimize impacts to financial markets.

Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during Obama’s second term, said the Obama administration, as well as the Clinton and Bush governments, refrained at times from commenting in order to adhere to the timing restriction.  On Friday afternoon, Spicer said he understood the rule but felt his comments did not impact the market, adding, “I apologize if we were a little excited, and we’re so excited to see so many Americans back to work.”

 

How on Earth Did the White House Hire Flynn?

Reported last week, former national security adviser Michael Flynn filed paperwork on Tuesday, Mar. 7, with the Justice Department, formally registering as a foreign agent and detailing he was paid over half a million dollars to lobby on behalf of the Turkish government, still working during the campaign but stopping once he assumed his role in the White House. The administration initially denied knowledge of Flynn’s work as a foreign agent, and Spicer said on Thursday, Mar. 9 that he didn’t “believe that was known” when Flynn was appointed. On Friday, Mar. 10, the Associated Press reported that the White House did know before Trump assumed office that Flynn might register with the government as a foreign agent. By Saturday, Mar. 11, the White House acknowledged that an attorney for Flynn had spoken with the Trump transition team before the inauguration indicating that Flynn might register, and again after the inauguration, making it clear that he would formally identify himself with the Justice Department.

These revelations are raising important questions, such as why did Spicer deny the White House knew, and was Trump personally aware of Flynn’s activities? Increasingly, “the central question about Michael Flynn’s tenure as national security adviser is not how it ended so soon but how it ever began in the first place,” writes David Graham for The Atlantic. The disclosures indicate that lawyers on the Trump transition team didn’t see Flynn’s lobbying work as a liability, and call into question whether the Trump team fully vetted Flynn before his appointment, according to the Associated Press.

The Paranoia of White House Staff

“A culture of paranoia is consuming the Trump administration, with staffers increasingly preoccupied with perceived enemies—inside their own government,” writes POLITICO. White House aides are leaving their personal cell phones at home for fear of being checked by Spicer again, and burying work-issued smart phones in drawers at home out of fear of eavesdropping.  One senior administration official told POLITICO that frankly “[p]eople are scared” to work in the White House, it’s “a pretty hostile environment to work in.”

 

MEDIA

This week the State Department has selected one reporter from a right-leaning outlet to cover Tillerson’s first trip to Asia, while Trump lambasts the reporter who released information about his 2005 taxes and tells the media to be nicer to senior aide Kellyanne Conway.

 

State Department Invites One Right-Wing Outlet to Cover Tillerson’s First Asia Trip

First reported by Buzzfeed on Tuesday, the State Department will be bringing only one journalist onboard for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first trip to Asia: Erin McPike, the White House correspondent for the Independent Journal Review, a conservative outlet.  Typically, when the State Department invites a particular reporter to travel with the Secretary, the reporter provides a pool report to keep other journalists informed and aware of events. According to POLITICO, however, McPike will not be serving as a pool reporter, meaning she will not be sharing information.

On Wednesday, the diplomatic press corps blasted the move, with some veteran reporters privately describing it as insulting. The decision “broke with decades of tradition and may impede news coverage of American foreign policy moves,” wrote CNN. MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, following Tillerson’s trip and planning to broadcast from Tokyo, said the message “now to China in particular when he gets to Beijing is that press freedom doesn’t matter.” Michael Finnegan of the LA Times cautioned that the “absence of any seasoned diplomatic correspondents from nonpartisan news outlets means that Tillerson, a former CEO of Exxon, will be less likely to face questions of substance about Trump’s foreign policy.”

Acting State Department Spokesman Mark Toner responded in a statement, “It was decided to take a journalist from an outlet that doesn’t normally travel with the Secretary of State, as part of an effort to include a broader representation of U.S. media.”

Trump Slams MSNBC for Releasing His Tax Report

On Tuesday night, MSBC’s Rachel Maddow released two pages of Trump’s federal taxes from 2005. Trump’s “refusal to make his tax returns public during the campaign broke with decades of tradition in presidential contests and emerged as a central issue,” writes the New York Times. According to NBC News, Trump is the “first major-party nominee since Richard Nixon to refuse to release his tax returns.” The forms indicate that Trump paid $38 million in federal taxes on $150 million in income, and that he wrote off more than $100 million in business losses. By reporting the business losses, Trump saved “millions of dollars in taxes that he would have otherwise owed.”

Moments before Maddow’s on-air report, the White House pre-emptively assailed the story. A statement from a senior administration official said, “You know you are desperate for ratings when you are willing to violate the law to push a story about two pages of tax returns from over a decade ago.” The statement continued that it is “totally illegal to steal and publish tax returns.” Taking to Twitter on Wednesday morning, Trump personally attacked the methods of the reporter who released the return, David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former New York Times reporter.

Edward Kleinbard, the Johnson Professor of Law and Business at USC Gould School of Law and a former chief of staff at the Joint Committee on Taxation, told CNN that the “release of the top pages of Trump’s 2005 tax return is a useful start, but is a drop in the disclosure bucket of what Trump owes the American people” and did not resolve any of “the questions swirling around his alleged financial obligations and sources of income, such as Russian oligarchs or other sovereign countries.” Zac Petkanas, a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee, pushed back on the incompleteness of the return, stating, “The only reason not to release his returns is to hide what’s in them, such as financial connections with Russian oligarchs and the Kremlin.”

Trump Tells the Media to be Nicer to Kellyanne

After reporters questioned senior aide Kellyanne Conway over the course of four separate interviews on Monday morning, Trump defended Conway and said the media was treating her unfairly.

 

CHECKS AND BALANCES

As federal courts block Trump’s revised travel ban, Trump has so far refrained from responding on Twitter, but his own words may still be hurting his agenda.

 

Trump’s Own Words Undermine the Travel Ban

On Wednesday night, a federal judge in Hawaii issued a sweeping, nationwide temporary restraining order barring implementation of Trump’s revised travel ban, and on early Thursday, a federal judge in Maryland issued a narrower injunction against the ban, suspending only the part of the ban that prevents visa from being issued to citizens of six Muslim-majority countries.

Speaking at a campaign rally on Wednesday night in Nashville, Trump slammed the “terrible” decision by the Hawaii court as “an unprecedented judicial overreach.” Interestingly, Trump has not yet responded on Twitter, telling the crowd in Nashville, “I have to be nice otherwise I’ll be criticized for speaking poorly about our courts,” adding, “Among the most dishonest people in the world, I will be criticized.”

Rarely do a presidential candidate’s own words so definitively haunt his presidency,” wrote Michael Shear for The New York Times. The Maryland decision stated that Trump’s campaign promises and statements indicated Trump’s “animus towards Muslims and intention to impose a ban on Muslims,” and said that just “because a decisionmaker made the statements during a campaign does not wipe them from the ‘reasonable memory’ of a ‘reasonable observer.’” Providing “verbal ammunition to support the critiques of the travel ban,” Trump said at the Nashville rally that his revised ban was a “watered-down version” of the first order.  It seems his own words could again undercut his own agenda.

 

CORRUPTION and CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

While the Kushner family curries favor with their Chinese business partners, Trump is expanding his brand recognition in Mexico, and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has offered a stay at Trump’s D.C. hotel as a prize to party donors.  

 

The Kushner Family’s $400 Million Deal with Chinese Partners

First reported on Monday by Bloomberg, the New York real estate company owned by the family of Trump’s son-in-law and now senior adviser Jared Kushner could receive more than $400 million in a deal with the Chinese insurance company Anbang, “whose murky links to the Chinese power structure have raised national security concerns over its U.S. investments.” The terms of the proposed agreement are considered by some real estate experts as “unusually favorable for the Kushners,” raising questions as to whether this is a sweetheart deal. The Kushners are negotiating to sell a $400 million stake in its New York City office tower to Anbang, who will in turn renovate the skyscraper into a modern condominium with retail space.

If the agreement goes through, the conflicts of interest will be glaring. The Kushners would reap a financial windfall courtesy of a Chinese company, even as Kushner  helps oversee American foreign policy, writes the New York Times. On Tuesday, Spicer said Kushner “went through extraordinary lengths” to adhere to conflict-of-interest rules. Interestingly, Obama declined to even stay at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, owned by Anbang, citing fears of espionage because Anbang’s ties to the Chinese government are so opaque.

Mexico Grants Trump Brand-Name Trademarks

On Sunday, Mar. 12, the Associated Press reported that Mexico approved a renewal of three Trump-branded trademarks on Feb. 21. The Mexican trademarks, which expired in 2015, are now valid again through 2026 and include a broad range of business operations from construction, hotels, real estate, financial services, and insurance.

Trump Organization General Counsel Alan Garten said the trademarks were nothing new, since the original patents were granted years before his presidency was announced. Moreover, Garten continued that while the trademarks originally served to bolster new deals, Trump has agreed not to conduct any new foreign deals as president. Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer to George W. Bush, said the trademarks are in an ethical “gray” zone, possibly laying the groundwork for Trump to profit upon leaving office. Painter said he didn’t know how appropriate this conduct was, saying Obama was never “running around the world locking up his name, or Bush.”

 

CREW Files New Suit Against White House Official

On Tuesday, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the White House Counsel alleging that Christopher Liddell, a senior White House official, attended meetings with corporate executives while holding millions of dollars of stock in their companies, reports CNN.

CREW alleges that Liddell, a former executive with General Motors and Microsoft, participated in three meetings in late January and early February between Trump and executives from as many as 18 businesses in which Liddell had a financial interest, including Ford and General Motors, before he had divested of those assets. The complaint states that Liddell may have broken federal law, which bars federal employees from personally participating in matters in which they have a “financial interest.”

NRCC Fundraising Prize: Dinner and a Stay at the Trump Hotel

In a new contest run by the NRCC, donors have the chance to win a dinner with the president and an overnight stay at the Trump hotel in Washington, D.C.

 

Trump’s Nominee for USDA Brings Along His Friends and a History of Ethics Concerns

According to a POLITICO report, Trump’s nominee for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue appointed more than a dozen of his business associates and campaign donors to government positions while serving as governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011. Perdue seems to be up to his old habits even before his confirmation, as he has already lined up Heidi Green, a partner in his shipping business, for an appointment as senior adviser at USDA and possibly as his chief of staff.

Largely because his ethics paperwork is still under review, Perdue’s confirmation hearings have been delayed. Perdue could nonetheless face a tough confirmation road ahead, given he “has a long history of ethics controversies, notably when he signed a law giving himself a tax break, and when he was found to have violated Georgia law by funding his campaign accounts with contributions from his private enterprises.”

Trump Will Host Chinese President at Mar-a-Lago

Reported on Monday, Mar. 13 by Axios, Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping next month at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort for their first meeting. An official told CNN the plan was still “tentative.” Yet for a “White House that views China as threat #1, Trump’s willingness to meet with Xi — and give him the Mar-a-Lago treatment, no less,” could be seen as smoothing relations between the two countries.

American officials told The New York Times that their Chinese counterparts had pushed for an invitation to the Florida resort, because it would be more informal and relaxed. It remains unclear whether Trump will pay for the visit as a “personal gift,” as he did for Japanese President Shinzo Abe.

Trump Has Spent 25% of his Presidency at Mar-a-Lago

This weekend, Trump was back to Mar-a-Lago for his fifth visit since assuming office. According to a Palm Beach Post report, as of Mar. 6, Trump had already spent the first four of seven weekends in Florida, amounting to 242 hours out of 1,060 hours, or 25%, of his time in office.

Image: Mark Wilson/Getty

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About the Author

is the NYU Law Center for Human Rights and Global Justice Student Human Rights Scholar with Just Security.