Norms Watch: Tracking the Erosion of Democratic Traditions (Mar. 24-31)

WHITE HOUSE

It was yet another turbulent week in Washington, following revelations that two White House officials played a role in House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’ “secret” visit to the White House complex, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner agreed  to testify before Congress as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump deflected through a series of Tweets, calling for an investigation into Bill and Hillary Clinton’s connections to Russia, and returned to one of his favorite strategies: attacking the New York Times.

 

Nunes “Secretly” Went to the White House…

On Monday, Nunes (R-Calif.) acknowledged he made a secret visit to the White House to meet with a source to view intelligence documents that he later used as proof of Trump’s claim that former President Barack Obama had his “wires tapped.” The stunning acknowledgement led Democrats to call for his recusal from any further involvement in the Russia investigation. They also referenced Nunes’ personal role on the Trump transition team. Nunes’ visit to the White House underlines concerns that he “is too close to the administration or is even working at its behest,” writes David Graham.

Nunes told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he was “quite certain no one in the West Wing knew I was there,” adding, “The sun was out. If I really wanted to I could have snuck onto the grounds late at night, but I wasn’t trying to hide.” Nunes justified the visit as necessary to “have proximity to a secure location where he could view” the classified information, since the materials could not have been transported to the secure facility at the Capitol, which the House Intelligence Committee more frequently uses. Experts said that Nunes’ visit to the National Security Council office of the Eisenhower building, not the White House Situation Room which is the main area in the White House complex for accessing classified materials, is “deeply unusual.”

Meanwhile, the White House refused to answer any questions on Nunes. Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, “I’m not going to get into who he met with or why he met with them.” Political scientist Norm Ornstein said that while we have seen other contentious investigations break down on partisan lines before, “I have never seen anything like what Nunes is doing, especially when it involved national security intelligence. That is cascading out of control.”

 

… But His Visit Wasn’t So Secret

The situation reached a high point on Thursday, when it was revealed by the New York Times that two White House officials assisted Nunes in his disclosure of intelligence reports indicating incidental surveillance by the government, which may have picked up the communications of Trump and members of his campaign team. The revelations are “likely to fuel criticism that the intelligence chairman has been too eager to do the bidding of the Trump administration while his committee is supposed to be conducting an independent investigation of Russia’s meddling in the last presidential election,” the New York Times reported.

The same afternoon, Trump reacted on Twitter by posting a negative article about the paper, the second time he’d posted the article this week.


Senate Intelligence Committee Will Question Kushner Over Meetings with Russians

“When, in the past, has an FBI director ever announced that his agents were investigating allegations that the president and his closest associates — including his senior advisor-cum-son-in-law — were guilty of collusion with a hostile foreign power?” asks Max Boot for Foreign Policy. “Never.”

First reported by the New York Times, the Senate Intelligence Committee plans to question Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner over his contacts and arrangement of meetings with Russian officials. On Monday, Mar. 27, the White House confirmed that Kushner had volunteered to testify. While the White House had only acknowledged one meeting between Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Kushner, and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, this week the White House confirmed a second meeting between Kushner and Sergey Gorkovthe chief of Vnesheconombank, an entity placed on the U.S. sanctions list in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. Vnesheconombank has also been used as a non-official cover for an unregistered Russian intelligence agent, who while posing as a legitimate employee of the bank was recruiting intelligence sources and assets in New York City and in South Africa.

Though presidential transition team members often meet with foreign officials and “there is nothing inherently improper about sitting down with the Russian ambassador,” any meetings are now of increased interest as the FBI and various congressional committees investigate Russian interference in the presidential election, and contacts between the Trump transition team and Russian officials.

 

Trump Diverts Attention, Calling for Investigation into the Clintons

Just hours after the White House announced Kushner had agreed to testify before the Senate committee, Trump responded on Twitter by calling on the House Committee to investigate Bill and Hillary Clinton’s ties to Russia. He added that the “Trump Russia story is a hoax.”

Trump continued his attempts on Tuesday to draw attention away from the challenges of his own White House.

 

Trump Administration Tried to Block Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates from Testifying Before the House Intelligence Committee

According to letters investigated by the Washington Post, the Trump administration attempted to block former acting Attorney General Sally Yates from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee as part of its  investigation into Russian interference in the election and whether Trump’s associates played any role. The Justice Department told Yates that the White House considered “a great deal of her possible testimony to be barred from discussion in a congressional hearing because the topics are covered by the presidential communication privilege.” This aggressive approach to executive privilege, a doctrine that may allow the president to shield executive branch confidences from disclosure, however, may not prove successful in the long run, writes Just Security’s Andy Wright.

The White House’s attempt to block Yates’ testimony “will strike many as a ham-handed attempt to interfere with the investigation,” writes Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post. Moreover, because Nunes canceled the open hearing, it looks “once again like water-carrying for the White House.” Yates played a key role in the investigation of Flynn and his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the time the Obama administration placed sanctions on Russia in December, and she was later fired by Trump in January after she did not defend his first executive order on immigration. Yates had indicated that she would make statements that might contradict the White House, and on the same day she expressed she still wanted to testify, Nunes cancelled the hearing.

The White House said the claims were “entirely false” and denied preventing Yates from testifying. Spicer went so far as to say that he hoped she would testify.

 

MEDIA

The State Department is in the relative dark again after all on-air briefings were suspended for at least two weeks. Meanwhile, journalists are sidestepping the principle of neutrality following the turmoil surrounding the Russia investigation and Trump’s wiretapping allegation against Obama.

 

State Department Suspends On-Camera Briefings, Again

The State Department did not hold one single on-camera press briefing during the first six weeks of the Trump presidency. Now less than three weeks into resuming the briefings, officials said they will be cancelled again for at least another two weeks until the agency installs its permanent spokesperson, writes The Wall Street Journal. Mark Toner, who was the acting spokesperson for the agency will be assuming another role, and while Fox News anchor Heather Nauert is expected to take over, she has yet to be announced officially and is still obtaining her security clearance. Under the Obama White House and preceding administrations, the Department took on-camera questions nearly every day.

 

Responsive Norm: Abandoning Neutrality in the Media

In recent weeks, CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley has been generating attention for “doing what network evening-news anchors generally don’t do: abandoning careful neutrality in favor of pointed truth-telling,” writes The Washington Post. Among many examples, on Feb. 7, Pelley quipped “it was a busy day for presidential statements divorced from reality,” and last month he referred to Kellyanne Conway as a “fearless fabulist.”

As the Washington Post reports, in the time of Trump, there have been more and more instances of news organizations acting “outside their comfort zones.” Just last week, the watershed editorial from the Wall Street Journal suggested a “rare alignment with the desire of the Journal’s news reporters to aggressively hold Trump and his truth-starved claims to account,” writes Pete Vernon for The Columbia Journalism Review. While typically WSJ reporters do not share editorials on Twitter, several took to social media last week.

Conservative-leaning outlets are also grappling with the political climate in Washington by employing more pointed language. As Jim Rutenberg pointed out, last week Breitbart News “ran a blaring headline” of the new evidence that “vindicates” Trump’s wiretapping claims, while a Fox News contributor reported that Fox had “learned” that the British government had aided Obama in spying on Trump. By contrast, editor in chief of The Weekly Standard told Rutenberg that in this “weird time for journalists,” outlets must ensure arguments are based “on facts, logic and reason.”

 

CORRUPTION and CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Though Trump’s hotel operations in Washington, D.C. continue to present glaring conflicts of interest, the Trump Organization is now looking to open a second hotel in the nation’s capital. Trump’s golf courses have also received a presidential marketing boost this week, and Trump’s children are accumulating unprecedented power in the White House.

 

Trump Organization Plans Second Washington D.C. Hotel

The Trump Organization is looking into opening a second hotel in Washington, D.C., potentially creating another opportunity for President Trump “benefit financially from customers doing business in the nation’s capital,” reports The Washington Post.  Representatives of the company have been looking into converting one of several medium-sized hotels in Washington into a Scion-brand hotel. In contrast to the flagship luxury Trump hotel already in the city, the Scion-branded hotel would be more affordable, and would also be owned by another company paying the Trump organization for the licensing rights and management.  

Saudi Lobbyists Arguing Against a Law Allowing 9/11 Lawsuits Stay at Trump Hotel

A group of families of Sept. 11 victims have called upon the Justice Department to investigate the foreign influence of the Saudi Arabian government to lobby and weaken the new law that permits the Saudi government to be sued for complicity in the attacks. The families’ letter includes reference to the lobbyists’ “all-expenses paid” visits to the capital, including stays at Trump’s Washington hotel.

The Saudi lobbying memos and emails “could reopen a thorny legal issue for the Trump Organization and the White House: whether a foreign government and its U.S. agents are steering business to the Trump Hotel, still owned by President Trump.” If the Saudi government used funds to pay for stays at the Trump hotel, this would amount to a facial violation of the Emoluments clause, said Norm Eisen, former ethics adviser under Obama.

Michael Petruzzello, managing director for the lobbying firm representing the Saudi government and arranging these trips to the hotel, said there was nothing improper about the visits, explaining that “hundreds” of veterans stayed at Trump’s hotel because “they were getting a good rate.” He added, “The insinuation that this was going to influence the administration, by staying at the hotel, that’s just silly.” White House spokesperson Hope Hicks punted all inquiries back to the Trump Organization.

Trump’s Casino Trademark in Jordan, Where Gambling is Illegal

On Tuesday, Mar. 28, the Associated Press reported that Trump holds a trademark in Jordan for a Trump-branded casino, even though gambling is illegal in the country. The Trump Organization’s chief legal officer says the patent covers “casino-related activities,” emphasizing that the company has never pursued a casino per se. The construction trademark is one of four that Trump holds in Jordan, all of which will be set to expire in February 2019. Whether or not Trump chooses to renew the patents during his presidency, the patents nonetheless raise ethical concerns around Trump’s international entanglement with one of the US’s stalwart allies in the Middle East.

Richard Painter, a former Bush ethics advisor, said if the US looked to play a larger role in the Middle East peace process, “We’re going to have a lot of different things on the table and I guess this casino is going to be part of what’s on the table. … That’s just corruption.”

Trump’s Son-in-Law to Lead New White House Office of Innovation

While institutional innovation is by no means a norms violation, Trump’s latest announcement to unveil the White House Office of American Innovation, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner is. The move grants the office, under the reign of a relative of the president, “sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy,” according to The Washington Post. Moreover, the announcement comes at a time when Kushner is under heightened scrutiny surrounding the Russia investigation, but while he and Ivanka are nonetheless assuming greater power in the new administration. We are seeing a White House characterized by the “ever-growing spheres of influence” of first family members.

Ivanka’s Position is Now Official

On Wednesday, the White House announced that Trump’s daughter Ivanka would assume her role in the administration as an official government employee, serving as assistant to the president.  “While relying on family members for advice is hardly unusual for a president, giving them a formal role has few precedents,” writes The New York Times.

Last week, after it was announced she would be a federal employee in all but name, Eisen, the former ethics lawyer to Barack Obama, and Painter, former ethics lawyer to George W. Bush, wrote to White House Counsel Don McGahn, “This arrangement appears designed to allow Ms. Trump to avoid the ethics, conflict-of-interest and other rules that apply to White House employees.” Ivanka’s attorney Jamie Gorelick said that as an official employee, Ivanka will now “file the financial disclosure forms required of federal employees and be bound by the same ethics rules that she had planned to comply with voluntarily.”

 

Democrats Introduce “MAR-A-LAGO” Bill Demanding Visitor Logs at Trump’s Resort

On Friday, Mar. 24, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced the Make Access Records Available to Lead American Government Open Act (“MAR-A-LAGO Act”) requiring the Trump administration to publish and release visitor logs from the White House and any other location where the president conducts official business, notably Mar-a-Lago, which the Trump administration calls the “Winter White House.” Visitor logs help the public keep track of meetings between the president and lobbyists, corporations, and foreign representatives.

Painter, the former ethics adviser to Bush, said it would be “wishful thinking” that the White House would voluntarily comply with or be willing to disclose the information without such legislation, reported NBC. Painter said that Trump had effectively “moved the office of the presidency,” and therefore taxpayers, paying for government service and Trump’s Secret Service protection, are “entitled to know what private parties are moving in and out of there.”

Trump’s “Working Weekend” to Promote His Golf Course Brand

While guests at the annual Republican Party of Palm Beach County’s Lincoln Day Dinner at Mar-a-Lago were hoping to mingle with Trump last weekend in Florida, on Friday afternoon, Fox News sent out an alert that Trump would be “working at the White House.” As The Washington Post reported, “as it turned out, the announcement wasn’t entirely true.

Pool reporters were told that Trump had a series of “meetings” at the Trump National Golf Club in Potomac Falls, Virginia outside Washington, D.C. Trump arrived at the golf club at 11:00am on Saturday morning, and went to dinner around 9:00pm at the Trump Washington, D.C. hotel. On Sunday, Trump returned to the club around 11:00am again, but the White House had yet to say who Trump was meeting with during the weekend. Slate reported that as of Mar. 26, Trump has played golf nine times in 13 weeks.

While Robert Weissman, the president of the liberal nonprofit Public Citizen, said it is normal for presidents to be out and about, with President Trump, “he spends his down time as a walking advertisement for his businesses. It is a major departure from historic norm and degradation of the office.” With reporters and photographers flooding the site, Trump is “pushing the golf course into the spotlight,” writes The New York Times. The Trump golf course in Sterling, Virginia will host the PGA championship over Memorial Day Weekend. Eric Trump, promoting the event, said “I think our brand is the hottest it has ever been.”

Image: Win McNamee/ Getty 

About the Author(s)

Katerina Wright

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