Norms Watch: Tracking the Erosion of Democratic Traditions (Mar.20-24)

WHITE HOUSE

It was a tough week for the Trump administration, as the FBI Director confirmed an ongoing investigation into both Russian election inference and the possible collusion between Trump campaign aides and Russian intelligence. The ability of Congress to independently tackle the investigation, however, is now under question.

 

FBI Confirms Investigation into Russian Interference, and Possible Trump Campaign Collusion

Just hours before FBI Director James Comey was set to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday, Mar. 19, Trump took to Twitter to preemptively attack forthcoming information and diverting attention again to leakers. The “prebuttal” is a newly emerging Trump tactic, seen last week with a preemptive response to the release of his tax returns on MSNBC.

By the afternoon, however, Comey “had systematically demolished his arguments in a remarkable public takedown of a sitting president,” writes The New York Times. Comey stated that the FBI was looking into possible collusion between members of the Trump campaign and suspected Russian operatives, driven by “a credible allegation of wrongdoing or reasonable basis to believe an American may be acting as an agent of a foreign power.” It was “a hearing the likes of which Washington hasn’t seen in many a day—if, indeed, there has ever been anything like it,” wrote John Cassidy for The New Yorker.

 

Nunes Bypasses His Own Panel to Report “Incidental” Surveillance Collection

Just two days later on Wednesday, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) “set off a stunning new political controversy.” Nunes told members of the public and the President before Democratic members of his own committee that conversations between Trump and associates may have been picked up by members of the Intelligence Community conducting surveillance on foreign targets. Nunes said the communications by Trump’s associates were “incidentally” collected as part of surveillance of broader efforts to gather intelligence on other targets, implying that Trump was not the focus of the particular surveillance efforts, which were likely authorized by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants. According to CNN, one member on the House Intelligence Committee said the conversations appeared to be senior-level people talking about Trump, and not of Trump himself.

As Nunes was a member of Trump’s transition team executive committee, Democrats have questioned his ability to conduct an independent investigation, some even demanding his resignation. Nunes’ Democratic counterpart in the Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) questioned whether Nunes is acting as a “surrogate of the White House,” stating “the actions of today throw great doubt into the ability of both the chairman and the committee to conduct the investigation the way it ought to be conducted.” Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) said the Congress no longer had “credibility” to independently investigate.

 

 

 

On Thursday, while Nunes apologized to Committee members for speaking with the President before consulting them, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) called for an investigation into his conduct. Meanwhile, Trump said he felt “somewhat” vindicated by what Nunes had “found.”

 

Officials say FBI has Information Suggesting Trump Associates Coordinated with Russians

As if the week couldn’t fit any more action, on Wednesday night, CNN reported that US officials said that the FBI has information that suggests Trump’s associates had conversations with Russians to coordinate the release of information potentially damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. While officials emphasized the investigation was ongoing and findings were not conclusive, CNN’s report builds on Comey’s bombshell announcement on Monday and Rep. Adam Schiff’s announcement on Wednesday that there is “more than circumstantial evidence now” to indicate collusion between Trump and the Russians to interfere in the election.

 

 

White House Distances Itself from Manafort

On Monday, the FBI confirmed it was conducting an investigation into communications between Russian operatives and Trump campaign associates, including Paul Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign manager for five months. Following the FBI’s confirmation, Manafort denied any involvement with the Russians and interference in the presidential election, and the White House made an effort to distance itself from Manafort. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer emphasized that he had played “a limited role for a very limited amount of time.”

Reported by the Associated Press on Tuesday, Mar. 22, documents show that Manafort secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to “benefit the Putin government.” The White House may have more questions to answer.

 

Priebus Contacts with FBI During Investigation Violate White House Protocol

According to POLITICO, senior adviser Reince Priebus’s request that the FBI knock down stories of Trump campaign contact’s with Russian intelligence violated the White House Policy requiring that staffers seek approval from a lawyer before discussing a pending FBI investigation. The official policy, obtained by POLTICO writes that, “As a general matter, only the President, Vice President, Counsel to the President, and designees of the Counsel to the President” may discuss pending investigations, and all other contacts or communications must be approved by the White House counsel. The policy stipulates that “to ensure that DOJ exercises its investigatory and prosecutorial functions free from the fact or appearance of improper political influence, these rules must be strictly followed.”

According to Norm Eisen, former ethics adviser to Obama, while Trump’s policy restricting contacts with the Justice Department resembles Obama’s policy and largely follows a 40-year tradition of independence between the agency and the White House, the problem is enforcement, as the Trump administration does not “actually follow” the policy.

Bharara’s Mysterious Firing

While it is a “common practice in transitioning administrations” for the Attorney General to ask U.S. attorneys under the previous administration to resign, Trump himself told Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY), his job would be safe last year, writes Axios. What changed?

 

One potential explanation could be Bharara’s work overseeing an investigation of stock trading by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, according to reports from ProPublica this week.

 

CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

This week Trump installed his daughter Ivanka in the White House, while the Secret Service put a price tag on the cost to taxpayers of the Trump family’s complex and costly lifestyle.  

 

Ivanka Assumes Position in the White House

While Ivanka Trump originally said she would play no formal role in her father’s administration, she is “settling in as what appears to be a full-time staffer in her father’s administration, with a broad and growing portfolio — except she is not being sworn in, will hold no official position and is not pocketing a salary.” A full time staffer in “everything but name,” Ivanka has obtained an office on the second floor of the West Wing, is in the process of receiving a security clearance, and will be receiving government-issued communications devices, reports POLITICO. Interestingly, Trump said in November it was “fake news” that he was trying to get “top level secret clearance” for his children.

The White House had been holding Ivanka’s office empty, prime real estate where space is notoriously tight, for over two months, according to The Washington Post. “Like everything else Donald does, it’s unconventional,” remarked Ronald Kessler, a presidential historian. Kessler said an administration had never held a West Wing room for anyone, family or otherwise, after assuming office.

On Monday, Mar. 20, Ivanka’s attorney Jamie Gorelick emphasized that Ivanka would voluntarily comply with all ethics rules, even though she would not be an official government employee. Ivanka’s appointment, without the formal process of swearing in, runs against guidance from the Justice Department, which held in January—following the appointment of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner—that should a relative receive the status and responsibilities of a formal White House position, then the President should “appoint his relative to the White House under title 3 and subject him to substantial restrictions against conflicts of interest.”

Confirmed on Tuesday, Mar. 21, Ivanka prohibited her fashion label from using her image or any likeness in any campaigns or social media, Huffington Post reported. According to ethics experts, however, her position in the White House, while still retaining ownership and control of her brand, “exacerbates the potential for conflicts of interest and intensifies questions about whether the White House is serving as a platform for her 10-year-old label,” writes The Washington Post.

Ivanka Sued for Unfair Business Competition

Meanwhile, just as Ivanka assumes her new role in the White House, a San Francisco clothing retailer, Modern Appeal Clothing, filed a class action suit against Ivanka’s brand claiming her company has an unfair business advantage, reports The Washington Post. The suit alleges that the brand’s sales have “surged since the election,” because Ivanka and her associates have been “exploiting the power and prestige of the White House for personal gain, including, but not limited to, piggy-backing promotion of defendant Ivanka Trump products on appearances at executive branch and other governmental events.”

Secret Service Requests an Additional $60 Million to Protect Trump Next Year

Internal documents reviewed by the Washington Post reveal that the Secret Service has requested $60 million in additional funding for the travel and protection of President Trump and his family. While comparative figures on past administrations are not released due to security concerns, the additional request has been prompted by the “unusually complicated lifestyle of the Trump family.”

Nearly half of the funding would be dedicated to protecting Trump’s family and home in Trump Tower in New York City, in addition to the costs of travel for Trump, the Vice President and other heads of states. The Trump family appears “to have placed few limits on their personal travel and living arrangements.” More troubling, some of the public funding could ultimately become a source of revenue for the Trump Organization, as both the Defense Department and Secret service have sought to rent property in Trump Tower owned by the company.

 

More Photos this Weekend at Mar-a-Lago

As usual, it seems the public has circumvented Mar-a-Lago’s ban on photography of the president during his time on the property. This week, Trump attended a charity event for his fifth visit to Palm Beach while serving as president. Each trip is estimated to cost about $3.3 million.

 

AGENCIES

Trump has installed aides at every single Cabinet agency to serve as his “eyes and ears” in monitoring employee loyalty, while at State Department, Secretary Tillerson continues to brush aside agency traditions.

 

Trump Quietly Installs Political Aides to Monitor Agency Employees’ Loyalty

According to records first obtained by ProPublica, the White House has deployed aides to every single Cabinet agency, with at least 16 advisers at Energy, Health and Human Services, and some smaller agencies. These influential teams are “charged — above all — with monitoring the secretaries’ loyalty, according to eight officials in and outside the administration,” reports The Washington Post.

The “unusual” arrangement was not used by the last three administrations, and is “different from the traditional liaisons who shepherd the White House’s political appointees to the various agencies.” The appointees act as middlemen between the agencies and the White House, but also serve another mission “to monitor Cabinet leaders and their top staffs to make sure they carry out the president’s agenda and don’t stray too far from the White House’s talking points.”

Tillerson’s “Disdain for Tradition” at State Department

In his welcome remarks to agency employees, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “we cannot sustain ineffective traditions over optimal outcomes.” After just two months in office, his critics are questioning if there is “any tradition Tillerson thinks is worth keeping,” writes Nahal Toosi for POLITICO. Tillerson has been in the spotlight this week after traveling to Asia without the traditional press cohort, scheduling a meeting with Russia before his first meeting with NATO ministers, and “ditching other protocols.”

Tillerson especially ruffled feathers when he said, “I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it.” His remarks seemed to imply that he didn’t think that the media needed to have access to his travels, and downplayed the value of daily briefings in keeping the public informed about the activities of a U.S. government agency. If so, such an effort to conduct diplomacy with limited or no direct press coverage breaks sharply with past practice.

 

FOREIGN POLICY and NATIONAL SECURITY

Over the last week, the White House strained relations with the U.K. by refusing to apologize for its own citation of a Fox News story claiming British intelligence helped Obama spy on Trump.

 

Trump Accuses Britain of Helping Obama Spy on Him, which NSA Denies

On Tuesday, Fox News analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano accused the British equivalent of the NSA, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), of helping Obama spy on Trump during the campaign. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer quoted Napolitano, and on Friday, Trump made clear that the White House would be making no retraction or apology, stating “[a[ll we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television.” Trump’s defense provokeda rare public dispute with America’s closest ally.”

Deputy head of the NSA, Rick Ledgett, told the BBC in an interview on Saturday, Mar. 18, that the claim was “arrant nonsense.” Such “false statements from the White House are part of a disturbing pattern of behavior that poses real and potentially profound dangers to U.S. national security,” wrote Susan Rice, former national security adviser, in an editorial for the Washington Post. Rice continued, “when a White House deliberately dissembles and serially contorts the facts, its actions pose a serious risk to America’s global leadership, among friends and adversaries alike.”

Responsive Norm: British Intelligence Comment Breaks with Protocol

A GCHQ (the Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the CIA) spokesperson told CNN the allegations from Judge Napolitano were “nonsense” and should be ignored. According to The Independent, the GCHQ’s reaction “might be unprecedented in the history of intelligence agencies,” as the statement comes “in contrast with years of protocol that has meant GCHQ has commented on any stories, let alone criticising its closest ally.”

Image: Alex Wong/Getty  

About the Author(s)

Katerina Wright

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