Norms Watch: Tracking the Erosion of Democratic Traditions (Apr. 7-14)

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FOREIGN POLICY and NATIONAL SECURITY

The Trump administration’s foreign policy machinery is running in high-gear this week, but mixed messages from the White House, the State Department, and the Defense Department are generating confusion. As tensions escalate with North Korea, Trump has taken to Twitter, while the administration also struggles to deliver a coherent policy on Syria.

 

Trump, the Syrian Strike, and that Beautiful Chocolate Cake

Trump’s “thoroughly confusing” interview with Fox Business Network has puzzled commentators. For one thing, Trump mentioned “dessert” or “cake” five times while recounting his discussion of his use of military force in Syria with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump’s rather strange account of the conversation, sounding like the discovery of the great power at his fingertips, is “likely to cause great alarm to people who have long suspected he was secretly a foreign policy hawk at heart — that the same volatility they saw in other facets of his politics could make him an unpredictable player on the world stage,” writes Aaron Blake at The Washington Post.

It was also a perfect opportunity for Trump to market the Mar-a-Lago dining room, where there was “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen, and President Xi was enjoying it.”

 

Pentagon Drops “Mother of All Bombs” on ISIS Cave in Afghanistan

On Thursday, the Pentagon announced it dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat on an ISIS complex in eastern Afghanistan. As of Thursday evening, it remained unclear whether Trump was personally involved in the decision. Gen. John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, had officially signed off, according to CNN. It was also “unclear what the GBU-43 strike accomplished, as the bomb is not designed to penetrate hardened targets such as bunkers or cave complexes,” reports The Washington Post

What is clear is that unpredictability is the touchstone of how Trump measures success, evolving into a foreign policy of “Keep them guessing,” writes CNN’s Chris Cillizza. Since the announcement, Trump has been eager to associate himself with the assertive use of power.  

 

Spicer Says even Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons”

During Tuesday’s press briefing, Spicer brought up Hitler unprompted, stating, “We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had a, you know, someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Spicer seems to have forgotten the first rule of politics: “Never compare anyone or anything to Adolf Hitler,” writes CNN’s Chris Cillizza. The comparison may have its origins in a comment—later misconstrued by Spicer—from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who had said “the intent was to stop the cycle of violence into an area that even in World War II chemical weapons were not used on battlefields.”

While perhaps in a vacuum Spicer’s statement could have been forgiven as a clumsy mistake, the statement was “unhelpful for a White House that the press previously has scrutinized for being slow to address bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers and for failing to mention Jews, specifically, in a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day,” writes Callum Borchers for The Washington Post. Spicer met the wrong end of Godwin’s law, “compounding the sense that the Administration lacks discipline after a wild first 100 days,” and serving to “underscore lingering questions about the White House’s commitment to combatting anti-Semitism, at a time when it is on the rise,” writes Zeke Miller for Time.

The Danger of Trump’s Nuclear Diplomacy via Twitter

After North Korea’s latest missile test last week, the Pentagon deployed a US Navy carrier strike group to the region, prompting North Korea to issue a response stating it would counter “reckless acts of aggression” with “whatever methods the US wants to take.” Following North Korea’s reaction, Trump took to Twitter:

Before Trump assumed office, Greg Sargent warned of the dangers of nuclear tweets from the White House:

“Arms control experts I spoke with suggested that Trump’s willingness to Tweet about nuclear weapons raises the possibility of Trump doing the same as president — and more to the point, the possibility of him doing so amid some species of international crisis or escalation.”

Jeffrey Lewis, nuclear non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, posed to Sargent: “Imagine we’re in a crisis — if he recklessly Tweets, people could read these things in the worst possible light.” Trump may not appreciate the weight and consequences of his words, especially in the nuclear domain.

Steve Benen wrote that while reacting to every Trump tweet may be pointless, it’s not unreasonable to argue that international nuclear diplomacy shouldn’t be conducted by confused amateur presidents, 140 characters at a time.”

 

The Trump Administration Policy on Syria, or Lack Thereof

This week, while multiple voices emerged from the White House on the US policy on Syria, there remains one voice that has “not been heard from: that of Mr. Trump himself,” writes The New York Times.

As Trump has been “uncharacteristically quiet” on his new engagement with Syria, the myriad of voices from the administration has prompted confusion, and also indicates how key officials under the Trump White House have strayed from their more traditional foreign policy roles.  While normally the secretary of state would serve as a prominent voice, “Tillerson has been strangely sidelined throughout his short tenure in Foggy Bottom, and he has hardly offered more clarity or reassurance on Syria,” writes David Graham for The Atlantic.

Compounding confusion, the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley seems to have staked out a position contrary to that of Tillerson, who is presumably her boss. And, as if a policy line could not be even more blurry, the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer seems to have inadvertently delivered policy from the podium, outside the normal bounds of the position.

On Wednesday, providing little clarification, Trump sought to explain his reasoning behind the strike, but he used the opportunity to again criticize Obama’s prior policy. In his first major interview since the missile strike, Trump said, “What I did should have been done by the Obama administration a long time before I did it, and you would have had a much better — I think Syria would be a lot better off right now than it has been.”

Trump’s sharp criticism of Obama on Wednesday was just one of many similar remarks made by the president throughout his nearly three-month tenure in office, a pattern that “breaks a tradition of presidents taking a forward-looking approach to their presidencies,” writes Abby Phillip and Jenna Johnson for The Washington Post. Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution said, “In terms of the etiquette of the presidency, it’s very poor form,” adding, “Presidents by and large don’t do this.”

 

WHITE HOUSE

The White House can’t seem to shake its problems with the Russia investigation. Reports this week reveal that the FBI and Justice Department obtained a warrant to investigate Trump’s former campaign aide Carter Page, while lawmakers found that the intelligence material used by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif) to support Trump’s allegation that he was wiretapped by Obama actually contradicted the White House’s claims.

 

Nunes’ Alternative Facts

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have reviewed the intelligence reports that Nunes presented on Mar. 22, purporting to prove Trump’s claim that he had been wiretapped by Obama, but they have not yet found any evidence of unusual or illegal activity, sources told CNN. Their review of the intelligence material also “contradicts” allegations that former national security adviser Susan Rice engaged in unlawful conduct by requesting to “unmask” the identities of Trump campaign officials swept up by the incidental collection.  


Carter Page “May” Have Discussed Sanctions with Russia

On Tuesday, officials told The Washington Post that the FBI and Justice Department had obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant on the grounds of probable cause that Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide, was acting as a foreign agent for Russia.

On Wednesday, when pressed by ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America” if Page discussed a possible lifting of American sanctions against Russia, Page responded that he wasn’t sure. He said, “Someone may have brought it up. And if it was, it was not something I was offering or that someone was asking for.”

 

Questions Behind Former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort’s Shell Companies

The day after former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort stepped down from the campaign this summer, he created a shell company that would receive $13 million in loans from two businesses with ties to Trump, reports The New York Times.  Manafort’s transactions with the two businesses, one led by a Trump economic adviser, and one that works with a Ukrainian-born billionaire, raise questions as to whether Manafort deliberately chose Trump-tied lenders in relation to his role in the campaign. The documentation also sheds new light on Manafort’s extensive real estate portfolio and habit of using shell companies, likely to pose more trouble for Manafort as his ties to Ukraine and Russia come under scrutiny in the investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.

Trump Walks Back Bannon’s Role in the Campaign

This week, the White House has pushed out some false–or at the very least, misleading–statements about Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist. On Tuesday, when the New York Post’s Michael Goodwin asked if Trump still had confidence in Bannon, Trump replied, “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary.”

The statement somewhat mischaracterized Bannon’s role on the campaign: he joined in August as campaign CEO for the bulk of the general election, when he was deemed one of “the titular heads of the campaign.” Perhaps foreshadowing some trouble, “the Trump White House also has a demonstrated history of distancing itself from and downplaying the roles of aides who turn out to be liabilities,” writes Aaron Blake for the Washington Post. Time will tell.

 

Trump’s “Medieval Court” for Nominating Officials

Why do so many positions remain unfilled in the Trump Administration? Because Trump personally oversees the hiring process for all appointees by individually reviewing a binder of names each week, a top-heavy decision making process that has slowed down transition, POLITICO reports. One official said the process was “like a medieval court,” where Trump and leaders of warring factions weigh in on the nominees.

This structure places “unusual pressure on the White House Office of Presidential Personnel” to put forward candidates to the president’s liking, and has slowed the nomination process. The Trump administration has formally nominated 24 and confirmed 22 of the 553 key posts requiring confirmation, compared to 54 confirmed by Obama, 32 from Bush, and 44 from Bill Clinton at this time during their presidencies. A Trump White House official said, “We’re being more deliberative and selective to make sure our hires are in line with the president’s objectives. I would not say we are slow. We are making progress.”

 

CORRUPTION and CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

The Trump Organization continues to expand its global empire, with 157 foreign trademark applications pending in 36 countries. This week Eric Trump said that nepotism “is a beautiful thing,” while Bannon’s track record on ethics comes under fire.

 

The Tally on Trump’s Foreign Trademark Applications: 157 in 36 Countries

A peek into the global reach of the Trump Organization reveals that the president’s enterprise has 157 trademark applications pending in 36 countries, according to The New York Times after a review of 10 trademark databases.

Prior to January, many trademarks were bogged down in legal bureaucracy for months or years, yet once Trump assumed office, it was suddenly smooth sailing for a number of formerly stalled applications. Peter Riebling, a trademark lawyer in Washington, said that the preliminary approval of trademarks in China was a “gift,” remarking, “Getting the exclusive right to use that brand in China against everyone else in the world? It’s like waving a magic wand.”

The foreign trademarks raise the legal issue as to whether the new registrations violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, prohibiting federal officials from “accepting “any present, emolument, office or title of any kind whatever from any king, prince or foreign state.” No court however, has ever interpreted the clause, and more striking, not a single president in modern history has ever quite put it to the test.

 

Nepotism is a “Beautiful Thing”

Donald Trump’s political career is all about rewriting the political rule book — taking long-standing norms that the establishment says he can’t violate, thumbing his nose at them, and then waiting for his base to rally to his side,” writes Aaron Blake for The Washington Post. The latest of these norms, continues Blake, is nepotism.

While last week Eric Trump told Forbes that nepotism was a “fact of life,” on Monday, Apr. 10, he said it was a “beautiful thing.”

Bannon May Have Violated Ethics Pledge by Communicating with Breitbart Employees

Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon may have violated a White House ethics pledge by speaking with two employees of his former media company, Breitbart News, writes Lachlan Markay.

The White House confirmed that every Trump appointee, including Bannon, has signed an ethics agreement barring “participation in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients.” Since assuming his position, Bannon has spoken with Breitbart political editor Matthew Boyle and editor in chief Alex Marlow, including conversations about Breitbart’s reporting on the White House.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) has sent a request to White House Counsel Donald McGahn for investigation into Bannon’s contacts. Noah Bookbinder, executive director of CREW stated, “If Bannon discussed White House matters with Breitbart, tried to drive favorable coverage of the White House with his former employer, and gave Breitbart favored access, that would be a serious problem and may have violated the Ethics Pledge he took when he joined the administration.”

Bannon’s Compensation During the Campaign May Have Violated Election Rules

According to the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance watchdog group, Make America Number 1, a pro-Trump super PAC, may have illegally subsidized Bannon’s salary while he was working for the campaign. In a letter sent to the Federal Election Commission, the watchdog group argues that based on Bannon’s financial disclosures released by the White House on Mar. 31, there is “reason to believe” that Make America Number 1 and the Trump campaign may have violated federal election rules.

The group writes that while Bannon was working “unpaid” by the Trump administration, the PAC indirectly made payments to Bannon, via two firms Glittering Steel LLC and Cambridge Analytica, as compensation for his work on the campaign. While Bannon said he resigned from the two companies, the recent financial disclosures indicate “reasons to suspect these assertions.”

 

Trump’s First Ten Weeks Cost Taxpayers as Much as Obama’s First Two Years

While Obama’s monthly travel bill averaged about $12.1 million a year, Trump nearly matched this amount in his first month, reports Niamh McIntyre for the Independent. Moreover, if Trump continues traveling at his current pace, he will have outspent the entire Obama presidency bill of $97 million, in only ten months.

Ivanka’s Chinese-Made Products

Last week, NBC News tracked 53 of 56 shipments of Ivanka Trump products from China and Singapore since election day, reporting that despite Trump’s calls for “America first” in jobs and production, Ivanka’s brand seems content to continue importing products made in China.

 

Who’s Visiting the White House?

A coalition of government watchdog groups, including the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) is planning to sue the Trump administration compelling the release of White House visitor logs. Under the Obama administration, logs of lobbyists and other visitors were released to the public, yet since Trump assumed office, the website where records had formerly been available has gone dark, writes The Washington Post.

The practice of releasing visitor logs remains somewhat controversial; some current and former officials have argued that the White House should be permitted to conduct some meetings without public disclosure. The logs, however, serve as vital sources of information for news organizations, and as CREW’s Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said, “It is crucial to understand who is potentially influencing the decision-making of the president, particularly when you have a White House that tends to lean toward secret decision-making.”

 

Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty 

About the Author(s)

Katerina Wright

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