Norms Watch: Tracking the Erosion of Democratic Traditions (May 5-12)

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TRUMP FIRES COMEY

On Tuesday, in what was arguably his “most significant action” as president, Trump fired FBI director James Comey. Since FBI directors almost always serve 10-year terms, the abrupt termination raised concerns that it was motivated by Trump’s desire to obstruct the investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia to interfere with the 2016 election. Recent statements from Trump, his deputy press secretary, and multiple anonymous sources suggest that the firing was at least partly motivated by a desire to end the Trump-Russia probe.

 

Experts say Comey’s “Extremely Unusual”  Firing was Trump’s “Most Significant” Action as President

The New York Times asked 10 experts across the political spectrum to rate (graph) the importance and normality of the 49 of the most publicized events of the Trump administration. The consensus of the group was that Comey’s firing was the “most significant action so far in this presidency,” and one of the most abnormal.  

 

Trump Said He was Going to Fire Comey Regardless of DOJ Recommendations, Russia was On His Mind

 

President Trump told NBC News on Thursday that he was going to fire Comey regardless of the recommendations made by the the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General. He added that the Russia investigation was at the top of his mind when he made the decision: “[W]hen I decided to just do it, I said to myself, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.’” This directly contradicts previous White House statements that the firing was specifically “based” on these recommendations.

Additionally, earlier on Thursday, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested that Comey’s firing was at least partly motivated by a desire to end the investigation of collusions with Russia:

“We want this to come to its conclusion, we want it to come to its conclusion with integrity… And we think that we’ve actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.”

 

Numerous Media Reports Suggest the Reasons for the Firing Were Pretextual, Possible Obstruction of Justice

According to the Washington Post, accounts of more than 30 individuals–including officials from the White House, DOJ, FBI and Congress, as well as Trump confidants and other senior Republicans– “paint a conflicting narrative” that undercuts the official justification for the firing. The Post and Politico suggested that Trump’s anger with Comey’s continued involvement with the Russia investigation played a role in the decision to terminate him, which could amount to obstruction of justice. The revelation that Comey asked for more resources for the Russia investigation just days before his termination has fueled these suspicions. On Thursday, Congresswoman Maxine Waters stated that it might be appropriate to charge Trump with obstruction of justice.

 

Trump this Morning Tried to Intimidate Comey in an Effort to Keep Him from Speaking With the Press

At 8:26 this morning, Trump tweeted out the following threat, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

 

Even Some Top Republicans are “Troubled”

Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr stated that he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning” of Comey’s firing. Specifically, Burr raised concerns about how the termination would impact the investigation into the campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, noting that “[Comey’s] dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the committee.” Additionally, Senator John McCain said he was was “disappointed” by the firing, and argued that it “only confirms the need and urgency” for a special committee to investigate potential collusion with Russia.  

 

The “Bizarre” and Tumultuous Firing Process

Another Republican, Congressman Justin Amash, described Trump’s letter to Comey as ”bizarre,” and added that he was considering legislation to create an independent commission on Russia.

https://twitter.com/JeffreyGoldberg/status/862420162670100480

The fact that the termination letter was delivered by Trump’s long-time personal bodyguard (now a White House aide) has led some commentators, including the The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, to draw comparisons to undemocratic governments.

Multiple journalists have noted that the White House communications strategy around the firing was poorly executed. Maggie Haberman of The New York Times wrote, “The White House fired Comey with no replacement set, with no clear messaging and no legal experts or surrogates lined up.”

Comey himself was totally caught off guard, and believed it was a “fairly funny” prank when the story broke on TV in the background of an address he was giving in Los Angeles.

 

Trump Might Not Have Known That He Was Violating a Norm by Firing Comey

On Wednesday, the Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez explained that Trump might not have realized that firing Comey would raise such significant concerns:

“Much has been made of Trump’s willingness to flout longstanding political norms, but what’s less often observed is that this appears to be as much a function of ignorance as brazenness.  That is, it’s not just that he’s decided he can get away with breaking the rules—which thus far he has—but that he routinely seems to do so unwittingly, unaware of what the rules are.”

 

Trump Tweets that Democrats “Pretend” to be Outraged About Comey

On Wednesday, Trump took to Twitter to delegitimize the opposition to Comey’s firing, claiming that Democrats are merely pretending to be aggrieved. Earlier that day, in response to Senator Richard Blumenthal’s criticisms of the Comey firing, Trump tweeted that “Richie”… “cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness” when his misstatements about his service in Vietnam were exposed, and noted that “[Blumenthal] should be the one who is investigated for his acts.”

 

House Republican Leaders Stay Quiet Well into Wednesday on the Firing

 

Responsive Norm: FBI may “Declare War” on Trump
One intelligence official told the Washington Post that, by firing Comey, Trump had “essentially declared war on a lot of people at the FBI,” and added that he thinks “there will be a concerted effort to respond over time in kind.”  Julian Sanchez warned of just such an outcome on Just Security, where he describes a conflict between two civil libertarian “nightmares”: the “autocratic executive” versus the rogue intelligence agency. Recent reports that FBI agents are changing the Facebook profile photos to James Comey shows that this war may already be underway.

 

Responsive Norm: Nixon Library Trolls Trump

On Tuesday the Nixon Presidential Library mocked Trump on twitter over his firing of James Comey. The next day, the National Archives and Records Administration, which maintains the Presidential Library System condemned the tweet as inappropriately partisan and a violation of official policy.

 

FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY

 

With suspicions about Trump-Russia relations more heightened than ever, the administration met with senior Russian officials at the White House, and ceded the media narrative around the event to the Russian government. White House officials may have enlisted Justin Trudeau to convince Trump to see reason on NAFTA.

 

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov May Have Mocked Reporter’s Question About Whether Comey Firing Would “Cast a Shadow” Over Diplomatic Talks

 

State Dept. Did Not Hold Press Conference On U.S.-Russia Meetings on Wednesday, But Russia Did

By failing to hold a press conference on these meetings, the U.S. government effectively ceded the ground to Russia to create the media narrative around the event. This may also reflect what many have perceived as a decline in media access and transparency at the State Department under Trump.

 

Kremlin Live Tweets Photos During “Closed” Oval Office Meeting

According to CNN’s Jim Acosta, the White House was tricked and lied to by the Russians, who brought a photojournalist into what was supposed to be a closed Oval Office meeting. “We were not informed by the Russians that their official photographer was dual-hatted and would be releasing the photographs on the state news agency,” an administration official told the Washington Post. Former U.S. intelligence officials, including former deputy CIA director David S. Cohen, viewed the incident as a potential security breach, citing the danger that a listening device or other surveillance equipment could have been smuggled inside of cameras or other electronics that the Russians brought into the office.

 

White House Officials May Have Enlisted Justin Trudeau to Convince Trump on NAFTA

Multiple Canadian government sources say that White House officials urged Justin Trudeau to convince Trump not to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In the view of the National Post, the “unconventional” diplomatic maneuver “highlights the difficulties faced by governments all over the world when it comes to dealing with a president as volatile as Trump.” The White House has offered a different account of events, claiming that the conversation between Trudeau and Trump was actually initiated by the Canadian government.

 

Responsive Norm: Ambassador to Qatar Subtweets Trump

 

According to CNN, Ambassador Smith’s tweet was “widely interpreted as criticizing President Donald Trump for dismissing Comey.” While the ambassador subsequently attempted to characterize her qualms as referring to “partisan acrimony” rather than Trump’s actions, questions remain about whether the tweet inappropriately undermined the president’s foreign policy.

 

Responsive Norm: Former UK diplomat Questions US Rule of Law

 

 

WHITE HOUSE

 

The administration’s “thinly veiled voter suppression task force” comes to fruition. Trump “threatens” Sally Yates in a possibly criminal act, and tells journalists to watch her “choke like a dog.”

 

Trump Creates Voter Fraud Commission

On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order to create a commission to investigate voter fraud, a “nearly non-existent” problem, according to Mother Jones. The NAACP LDF, one of the Nation’s most respected civil rights organizations, described the new Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity as a “thinly veiled voter suppression task force…designed to impugn the integrity of African American and Latino participation in the political process.”

 

Trump Misconstrues Clapper’s Statements on Russian Collusion, Makes it his Twitter Banner

 

On Monday, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that he was “not aware of” any evidence demonstrating collusion with Russia, which Trump then used as proof that “no evidence” of collusion exists. But what Trump declined to mention is that Clapper specifically noted that he had been unaware of the FBI investigation into the matter, leaving open the possibility that the FBI has substantial evidence of collusion.

 

Trump Threatens Sally Yates, Possibly Criminal Witness Tampering

 

According to CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, Trump’s “threatening” Tweet about Yates’s Senate testimony “crossed a line” of normal behavior:

The idea of the President of the United States essentially threatening a witness, he’s basically accusing her of leaking, we have never had that before. We’ve never had presidents who did this kind of thing. The idea that the president — the guy who’s in charge of the Justice Department — is threatening a witness is really kind of disturbing.”

Other attorneys suggested that this “intimidation” could amount to criminal witness tampering, but Just Security’s Andy Wright stated that Trump’s conduct was “probably not a provable criminal wrong.”

 

Trump: “Watch Them Start to Choke Like Dogs”

While watching a video replay of Yates and Clapper’s Senate testimony, Trump told journalists from Time, to “watch them start to choke like dogs,” employing exceptionally “mean” rhetoric for a sitting president.   

 

CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

The Kushner family was taking advantage of a law hours before it was renewed by Trump, in one of the “most explicit examples to date of the peril of the Trump and Kushner families maintaining close ties to their business interests.”

 

Kushner Family Immediately Benefits Hours After Visa Law Renewed

Just hours after Trump signed into law a renewal of a major benefit for real estate developers like Jared Kushner’s family, Kushner’s sister–and the company he ran until January–was taking advantage of it. The provision, which offers permanent residence in the United States to foreigners investing money in American real estate, was being used to entice investors to fund Kushner family projects. “Invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States,” a event brochure reads. One Washington Post researcher claimed they were threatened, harassed and forced to delete recordings and photos of the Kushner family at the event.

According to the Times, “The sequence of events offers one of the most explicit examples to date of the peril of the Trump and Kushner families maintaining close ties to their business interests and creates an impression they stand to profit off Mr. Trump’s presence in the White House.”


TRANSPARENCY AND PRESS FREEDOM

 

Trump threatens the end of White House press briefings. A journalist is arrested after asking a question, and Kellyanne Conway says it’s “inappropriate” to question timing of Comey’s firing.

 

Journalist Arrested After Trying to Ask Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price a Question

“He was doing what any journalist would normally do, calling out a question and trying to get an answer,” stated Lark Corbeil, chief executive and founder of Public News Service in an interview with The Washington Post.  The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia called the arrest “a blatant attempt to chill an independent, free press.”

Eric Trump Attacks the Media

 

Trump Threatens to “Cancel All Future Press Briefings”

After slamming the “fake media,” Trump threatened to end all White House press briefings, and replace them with written releases from the White House, purportedly to prevent the press secretary’s sometimes “inaccurate” statements from being reported on by the media. The end of press briefings would signify the administration’s continued unprecedented hostility to transparency. As the New York Times reported, “every president in modern times has been frustrated with the news media at points, but they all preserved the tradition of the daily briefing.”

Bannon Camp Turns to the Media to Attack McMaster

As Just Security’s Kate Brannen reports, Steve Bannon is trying to turn the president against his national security advisor, in what one source described as the the White House’s “Game of Thrones for morons.”

Kellyanne Conway Says it’s “Inappropriate” to Question Timing of Comey’s Firing

In an interview Wednesday morning, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, told CNN anchor Chris Cuomo that it was “inappropriate” to even question the timing of Comey’s firing.

  

About the Author(s)

Jay Shooster

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