Norms Watch: Tracking the Erosion of Democratic Traditions (Apr. 29-May 5)

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FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY

Trump gets friendly with authoritarian strongmen Rodrigo Duterte and Kim Jong Un. Tillerson deliberately avoids staffing the State Department. Trump uses the military service members as partisan props.

 

Trump Invites Duterte to the White House

President Trump shocked the State Department and National Security Council when he invited President Rodrigo Duterte, the brutal leader of the Philippines, to the White House last Saturday, continuing a pattern of embracing authoritarian strongmen. Strangely, Duterte suggested that he may be too “tied up” to meet with Trump.

Tillerson Deliberately Avoids Filling 200 Top State Department Posts

Given Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s failure to suggest potential nominees for White House consideration, the State Department will remain “largely leaderless until well into 2018.” R. C. Hammond, Tillerson’s spokesman, suggested that this was a deliberate part of a broader plan involving significant cuts to the department, noting that there is “no sense nominating people for jobs that might be eliminated,” Gardiner Harris wrote in The New York Times.

Trump Wrongly States the US Won’t Pay for Missile System for South Korea

On Sunday, White House national security adviser spoke with his South Korean counterpart to “clarify” that, in contradiction to Trump’s remarks days earlier, the U.S. would foot the bill for a billion dollar Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system. As with Trump’s numerous other “hollow threats” to our foreign partners, the move seemed to create tensions with no apparent benefit.  

Trump’s Praise for Kim Jong Un Disturbs South Korea

In a CBS interview that aired Sunday, Trump said that he would be “honored” to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong UN, referring to him as a “smart cookie.” According to The Associated Press, the move left South Koreans feeling “bewildered” by his erratic behavior.  

Trump Campaign Runs Ad With Uniformed Officer

On Monday, the Trump campaign, (yes, the campaign) ran an advertisement that featured National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster in uniform, raising concerns about the politicization of the military. Although the campaign removed the ad in response to the criticism, the next day, Trump gave a highly partisan political speech using uniformed U.S. servicemembers behind him “as props.” In January, following Trump’s distinctly partisan speech at the CIA, former chief White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter described this kind of politicization of the military as a “familiar first step in a country’s transition from a representative democracy to a dictatorship.”

Trump Deletes Tweet that Said it Was an “Honor” to Meet Abbas

On Thursday, Trump deleted a Tweet from the day before stating that it was “an honor” to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House. While it is unclear exactly why the Tweet was deleted, the incident appears to be a reflection of the impromptu and unstrategic nature of Trump’s “Twitter diplomacy.”

At his meeting with Abbas on Wednesday, Trump described achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians as “something that I think is frankly, maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”

 

WHITE HOUSE

Trump characterizes refugees as snakes. The health-care bill passes the House without Congressional deliberation. On Twitter, Trump calls for a government shutdown and suggests Hillary Clinton should have been prosecuted.

 

Trump Again Characterizes Refugees as “Vicious Snakes”

At his campaign rally in Pennsylvania last Saturday, Trump recited a parable about a “vicious snake” who bites and kills a woman who tried to help him, which Trump has regularly performed as a “cautionary tale against allowing Syrian refugees to take advantage of American generosity.” Former Reagan Adviser David Gergen characterized the speech as the “most divisive” he has ever heard from an American president.

Trump Health-Care Bill Passes with “No Hearings, No Studies, No CBO Analysis”

On Thursday, Trump’s new health-care bill narrowly passed in the House of Representatives with “no hearings, no studies, no Congressional Budget Office analysis; not even the text of a bill circulated the day before” the vote, writes Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine. In contrast, “Obamacare had 79 House committee hearings/markups” according to Josh Greenman of New York Daily News. While we don’t know exactly how many Americans are at risk of losing insurance coverage under the new bill–which creates a $600 billion tax cut for the wealthy– the CBO found that the previous version would result in 24 million fewer people with insurance by 2026.

…And Trump Declares Victory Before it is Even Debated in the Senate

On Thursday, Trump promised a fancy press conference at the White House if the House passed the controversial healthcare bill. NBC’s Chuck Todd noted how premature this victory lap was on Twitter Thursday. It is not normal for the White House to declare victory on a bill before it even makes its way to the Senate for debate, showing again how, under Trump, substantive policy outcomes take a backseat to fanfare and theatrics.

Trump Calls for a Government Shutdown

On Tuesday, President Trump called for “a good [government] shutdown in September,” in a frustrated response to Congressional Democrats’ refusal to agree to a spending package that accomplishes several of Trump’s priorities–such as funding the border wall and defunding planned parenthood. The statement, which The New York Times referred to as “an extraordinary move for a sitting president,” was rejected by several top Republicans, including Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who stated, “I do wish somebody would take his iPhone away from him.”

Trump was “Directly Involved” in Inauguration Crowd-Size Witchhunt

Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that one of Trump’s first priorities as president was tracking down the person who used the National Park Service account to Tweet side-by-side comparisons of the crowds at Trump’s inauguration and former President Barack Obama’s 2009 ceremony. On Tuesday, CBS revealed that they confirmed Trump’s direct involvement in the search.  The revelation is another example of how Trump’s obsession with his personal image takes precedence over the substance of governing the country.

Trump Condemns FBI Director Comey, Suggests Clinton Should Have Been Prosecuted

On Tuesday, Trump took to Twitter to suggest that his own FBI Director, James Comey, acted with improper leniency towards Hillary Clinton, stating that Comey was the “best thing that ever happened” to her.


CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

The State Department promotes private Trump family enterprises for the second time in less than two weeks. Trump continues to profit from his re-election campaign and visits to Mar-a-Lago. The White House resists cooperating with chief government agency that addresses conflicts of interest.

 

Office of Government Ethics (OGE) Asks Trump Administration About Secret Ethics Waivers for Ex-Lobbyists

CBS reported on Saturday that the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) sent a letter to the White House and all executive branch agencies seeking a full accounting of any ethics waivers that the administration has issued to appointees. OGE director Walter Shaub explained that, under Obama, waivers were given only “under a narrow set of circumstances” and were posted publicly on the OGE’s website. Previously, the Trump White House has resisted cooperating with OGE, the agency chiefly responsible for addressing executive branch conflicts of interest,  arguing that the office lacks jurisdiction over the White House.

Phone Calls to OGE Have Increased 5,000-percent Under Trump

In spite of Trump’s claim that only journalists care about his potential ethics violations, an NPR analysis found that phone calls from the public, not media agencies, to OGE are up 5,000-percent. Additionally, the office has received almost six times the usual number of information requests from Congress.

OGE Says It Wasn’t Consulted about Ivanka’s White House Role

In a letter made public on Monday, it was revealed that the OGE was not consulted about the president’s decision to hire his daughter. A second letter released on Monday, showed that the White House has not accepted OGE’s offers to help with ethics consultation and training on other matters.

The State Department Promotes Ivanka’s Book

For the second time in less than two weeks, the State Department has been caught promoting the Trump family’s private enterprises. On Wednesday, the State Department Office of Global Women’s Issues retweeted Ivanka’s promotional post about her new book on working and motherhood. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the U.S. government media outlet Voice of America also promoted her book on its website and Twitter feed. All of this comes after Ivanka backtracked on her suggestion that she wouldn’t promote her book in order to avoid the appearance of unethical behavior.

Trump’s use of Mar-a-Lago Continues to Draw Criticism

Trump’s repeated visits to Mar-a-Lago are “another example of his consistent efforts to exploit public office for private gain,” George Washington Law School ethics expert Steve Schooner told NBC News.  

“This is a privately owned club that for all intents and purposes was just another golf property in Florida before, that almost now is something that Americans immediately recognize. Imagine what you would have to pay to get that kind of brand recognition. That’s extraordinary.”

Kushner Failed to Disclose Major Investments

Trump adviser-cum-son-in-law Jared Kushner didn’t disclose “that he is currently a part-owner of a real-estate finance startup and has a number of loans from banks on properties he co-owns” on his financial disclosure forms, The Wall Street Journal revealed on Wednesday. According to people familiar with his finances, Kushner is “in business with The Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and billionaires George Soros and Peter Thiel.” These new revelations come just a week after The New York Times uncovered major financial ties between Kushner and one of Israel’s wealthiest families, raising potential conflicts of interest. As we noted last week, these revelations underscore how troubling it is that Kushner refuses to reveal the identities of his business partners.

Trump Reelection Campaign Paid $274K in Rent to Trump Tower

Trump continues to act like his campaign never ended, and is profiting “bigly” from it, according to a new analysis of Federal Election Commission filings by The Huffington Post. The report found that the campaign paid Trump Tower $274,000 in rent over the first three months on the year–an average of $91,000 per month–more than half of what the campaign was paying at the height of the campaign. This is in spite of the fact that the campaign now has less than an eighth of the New York-based employees that it used to, raising concerns that the rent money is being spent frivolously…to Trump’s financial benefit.

 

TRUMP’S CABINET

Attorneys in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division fear for their jobs under Sessions. Session’s DOJ prosecutes a citizen for laughing at him during his confirmation hearing.

 

The DOJ Civil Rights Division is “Totally Freaking Out” Under Jeff Sessions

According to The Daily Beast, a former high-ranking DOJ official stated that attorneys in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division are “totally freaking out” about working under Jeff Sessions, whose nomination was universally opposed by civil rights organizations. A second source said that he had “never seen senior officials so afraid” and that attorneys in the division “talk about careers being ruined and being spied on by Sessions and his mafia.”

A US Citizen Could Face Six Months in Prison for Laughing at the Attorney General

On Wednesday, activist Desiree Fairooz was convicted of creating a disturbance during Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s confirmation hearing, exposing her to a fine of up to $500 and up to six months’ imprisonment. In court, the DOJ tried to emphasize that Fairooz’s laugh was so disruptive, that it warranted her removal and prosecution. After the trial, jurors stated that she should not have been removed for the laughing, (recognizing that only the only criminal conduct occurred after she was wrongly asked to leave) raising questions about the legitimacy of the conviction.

 

MEDIA

The Trump Campaign airs 1.5 million dollar re-election ad less than four months into the presidency. Far-right conspiracy theorist and alt-right mastermind Mike Cernovich gets a White House press pass. Trump cuts off interview after a probing question, and praises Fox for favorable coverage.

 

“Far-Right Conspiracy Theorist” Cernovich Gets a Press Pass

On Saturday, freelance journalist Mike Cernovich drew criticism for supposedly making a white supremacist hand gesture at the White House. But the bigger story here is that this “top PizzaGate conspiracy theorist” received a White House press pass in the first place, given that he has been aptly described as a far-right conspiracy theorist by The New York Times, a “right-wing troll” by CNN, and as the “meme mastermind of the alt-right, by The New Yorker.

Trump Abruptly Ends CBS Interview When Asked About Obama Wiretapping Claim

On Saturday, during an interview with CBS News’s John Dickerson, Trump abruptly “veered from sales mode to sullen defiance.” In a video clip that must be seen to be believed, the president angrily waves Dickerson away in the middle of the interview, as soon as he is pressed (politely) on his statements about Obama’s supposed wiretapping of Trump tower–a question that he doesn’t want to answer.   

Trump Campaign Airs 1.5 Million Dollar Re-Election Ad

As The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman notes, it is extremely abnormal for a president to air an ad of this nature so early into their term. When CNN refused to air the 1.5 million dollar ad, which portrayed several leading media outlets, including CNN, as “fake news,” the Trump campaign accused CNN of censorship and sent out a promotional campaign email stating, “FAKE NEWS STATION REFUSES TO RUN AD HIGHLIGHTING THE PRESIDENT’S FIRST 100 DAYS.” On Thursday, he Tweeted out another extreme condemnation of the “fake media.”

Trump Congratulates Fox and Friends on Its “Unbelievable Ratings Hike”

On Thursday, continuing a “pattern of delegitimizing critical news coverage and praising favorable outlets,” Trump promoted Fox and Friends for their positive coverage of his executive order on religious liberty. Trump’s frequent praise for the show is consistently linked to segments that promote viewpoints that benefit him.  

About the Author(s)

Jay Shooster

Former Associate Editor and Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellow at Just Security Follow him on Twitter (@JayShooster).