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Norms Watch: Tracking the Erosion of Democratic Traditions (May 12-19)

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TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

A memo allegedly written by former FBI Director James Comey suggests that President Trump pressured Comey to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, providing some of the strongest evidence yet that Trump improperly attempted to directly influence the investigation into his campaign’s alleged illicit contacts with Russia. Lawmakers across the political spectrum have begun seriously discussing impeachment as more undisclosed Trump campaign contacts with Russia are exposed.

 

In Private Meeting, Trump Told Comey: “I Hope” You Can End Flynn Investigation

On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, according to a memo allegedly written by Comey.  The Times’s Michael Schmidt called this the “clearest evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the Justice Department and F.B.I. investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia.” Although White House has denied the account, the Washington Post has independently corroborated the authenticity of the memo.

 

Republican Lawmakers Start Talk of Impeachment

On Wednesday morning, Texas Democratic Rep. Al Green formally called for Trump’s impeachment on the House floor. But more importantly, House Republicans are now fighting over who was first to begin talking seriously about removing the president from office. On Tuesday night, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) stated on CNN that Trump may have committed an “impeachable offense” if he did in fact try to stop an FBI investigation. On Wednesday, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) agreed that, if the details in the Comey memo are true, Trump’s conduct would be grounds for impeachment.

 

Sen. McCain: Watergate took months — This thing seems to be taking hours

 

Commenting on the rapidly unfolding scandal surrounding the Trump’s Russian ties, Sen. John McCain stated, “We’ve seen this movie before … I think it appears at a point where it’s of Watergate size and scale.” On Wednesday, McCain noted one major difference between the two scandals: Trump’s is spiraling downward much more rapidly.

 

Trump Campaign had At Least 18 Undisclosed Contacts with Russians

On Wednesday, Reuters revealed that the Michael Flynn and other campaign advisers were in contact with “Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties” through at least 18 previously undisclosed calls and emails during the final seven months of the campaign. To date, the White House and Trump advisers (who initially denied any contacts with Russia) have confirmed a total of four meetings with Sergei Kislyak –the Russian ambassador to the US and a “top spy” according to US intelligence officials– but they have never disclosed these 18 contacts. Richard Armitage, a Republican and former deputy secretary of state told Reuters, “It’s rare to have that many phone calls to foreign officials, especially to a country we consider an adversary or a hostile power. ”

 

House Majority Leader: “Putin Pays” Trump

On Wednesday, the Washington Post broke the story that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was caught on tape last June stating to other GOP leaders that he believes that Trump is being paid by Russian President Vladimir Putin. When originally asked for comment, McCarthy’s spokesperson stated that, “The idea that McCarthy would assert this is absurd and false.” But after the Post revealed that they had an audio recording, McCarthy changed his answer, characterizing his statement as a joke. A transcript of the recording suggests that, in response to laughter at his original accusation, he doubled down on his assertion.

 

Trump: The Special Prosecutor Appointment is Part of a “Witch Hunt”

Reacting to the appointment of a special prosecutor for the Trump-Russia investigation, Trump took to Twitter to denounce the investigation as, “The single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” On Thursday, Trump elaborated that he “respects” the appointment, but still considers it to be part of a “witch hunt.”

 

Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein Knew Trump was Going to Fire Comey All Along, Threatened to Resign After White House Blamed Him

In a meeting with the full Senate on Thursday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein confirmed that Trump has already decided to fire Comey before he wrote a memo providing a rationale for the firing. Rosenstein’s statement contradicts the White House’s previous assertion that the Trump’s decision was prompted by the memo, but confirms Trump’s later statements that he knew he was going to fire Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s memo. According to the Washington Post,  Rosenstein “threatened to resign from the Justice Department because of the explanation that White House officials were giving reporters about the firing,” which attributed the decision to his recommendation.

 

FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY

A new report suggests that the Trump administration knew Flynn was under investigation for secretly working as a lobbyist for Turkey when he was hired for the White House’s top national security post. In one of his first major decisions as National Security Adviser, Flynn delivered a major victory to the Turkish government. Trump spontaneously reveals top secret info to Russia, compromising our “most valuable source” of information of ISIS Terror Plots.

 

Trump Administration Knew Flynn Was Under Investigation and Hired Him Anyway

In another major revelation on Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Flynn notified the Trump transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was being investigated by the FBI for “secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign.” This has caused some to question Trump’s judgment in entrusting Flynn with “nearly every secret held by American intelligence agencies.” The revelation has also raised questions about whether Vice-President Pence was lying when he stated that he was unaware of Flynn’s lobbying for Turkey, given that Pence was the head of the transition team.

 

After Receiving $500,000 to Lobby for Turkey – Flynn Halted US-Kurdish Military Cooperation that Turkey Opposed  

In what some members of Congress have called an act of “treason,” Flynn, in one of his first major decisions as National Security Adviser, halted a long-planned joint US-Kurdish military operation that was directly contrary to the policy of the Turkish government, whose interests Flynn was paid over $500,000 to represent. The news, reported by McClatchy on Wednesday, seemingly confirms fears of conflicts of interests posed by the many former lobbyists working in the administration on issues that directly affect their recent clients.

 

Trump Still Communicating With Flynn Amid Investigation, Wants to Rehire Him

According to a Yahoo News report Thursday, Trump has remained in touch with Flynn “despite the potential that their communication could be portrayed as White House interference in a federal investigation.” National security attorney Mark Zaid told The Daily Beast that communication with Flynn could perceived as witness tampering, given Flynn’s central role in the broader investigation of Trump administration contacts with Russia. Multiple sources “close to Flynn and to the administration” also told The Daily Beast that Trump hopes Flynn can rejoin the White House after the investigation is resolved.

 

Trump Spontaneously Reveals Top Secret Info to Russians

In yet another blockbuster scoop this week, the Washington Post revealed on Monday that Trump disclosed highly classified information to the Russian government in a meeting at the White House last week. While Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defended Trump’s disclosure as “wholly appropriate” and consistent with “routine sharing of information,” national security experts outside the administration have challenged that understanding. At Just Security, we have published multiple accounts from former governmental officials noting that an impromptu disclosure of this nature is “highly aberrational” and inconsistent with what would normally be a rigorous weeks-long vetting process involving interagency deliberations at the highest levels of the government.

 

Trump Compromised the “Most Valuable Source” on ISIS Terror Plots

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that “the classified information that President Donald Trump shared with Russian officials last week came from an Israeli source described by multiple U.S. officials as the most valuable source of information on external plotting by Islamic State.” In response, a former Israeli intelligence chief argued that Israel should limit its intelligence sharing with the U.S. to prevent reckless disclosures like this in the future. According to some legal experts, including Just Security’s Steve Vladeck and Marty Lederman, Trump’s disclosure wasn’t just reckless, it might have also been illegal.

 

Trump’s Disclosure to Russia Placed Sources and Methods at Risk

On Tuesday, ABC News reported that “the life of a spy placed by Israel inside ISIS is at risk” as a result of Trump’s spontaneous decision to divulge sensitive national security information to the Russians. According to CNN, the information Trump shared was so sensitive that US intelligence officials spent hours on conference calls working with the network to specifically tailor the details that would be publically broadcasted.

 

NATO “Prepares to Deal with a Child”: Donald Trump

On May 25, NATO will host a meeting where the heads of state of all 28 member countries will convene to discuss major issues affecting the alliance, which Trump consistently criticized as “obsolete” during his campaign. One source with inside knowledge of the meeting’s preparation told Foreign Policy that the planners are  “freaking out.”  “It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child — someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing,” the source stated. On Thursday, Reuters reported that National Security Council officials are similarly struggling to accommodate Trump’s short attention span, employing strategies like constantly mentioning Trump’s name in briefings to keep his interest.

 

Trump “Honored” to Have Turkey’s Autocratic Ruler in the White House

Less than a month after Trump called Turkish President Erdogan to congratulate his victory in a hotly contested referendum that helped “cement his autocratic rule over the country,” Trump hosted him at the White House and stated that it was “a great honor” to have him there. However, in spite of Trump’s “great honor,” it seems that he did not take the trouble to learn how to pronounce Erdogan’s name, which he mispronounced at least three times in his public statement.

 

Erdogan May Have Ordered His Bodyguards to Attack Peaceful Protesters in DC

Just hours after Erdogan’s meeting with Trump on Tuesday, his bodyguards brawled with protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in DC. The clash left many injured, including one protester who was choked and allegedly threatened with death. Some reporters, including the Washington Post’s Philip Bump have suggested that it appears from the video that Erdogan himself may have ordered the attack. The State Department has “communicated concern” to the Turkish government “in the strongest possible terms,” and the DC police said that they intend to hold the assailants accountable.

 

WHITE HOUSE

Before the inauguration, the Trump transition broke security protocols for handling classified information. Today, Trump’s second home at Mar-a-Lago remains extremely vulnerable to hacking. White House officials are reluctant to make public statements, fearing Trump will contradict them in an impromptu tweet.

 

Trump Transition Team’s Broke Security Protocols for Handling Classified Info

In another incident that evidences the Trump team’s poor handling of sensitive information, the Associated Press revealed that the Trump transition team “did not follow protocol” for handling classified information. According to two former U.S. officials, Trump’s aides were caught “taking classified information out of the secure room at transition headquarters without approval.”

 

Trump to Coast Guard Grads: “No politician in history… has been treated worse”

On Wednesday, Trump used a commencement address to the Coast Guard Academy to make a series of defensive and self-promotional political statements, raising concerns once again about the politicization of the military. Presidents often use speeches to the nation’s service academies “to lay out important foreign policy principles.” But his commencement speech was focused much more on his personal political brand, stating that “No politician in history … has been treated worse or more unfairly” and that he won the election because he didn’t “let the critics and the naysayers get in the way.”

 

Mar-a-Lago is Extremely Vulnerable to Hacking

On Wednesday, ProPublica and Gizmodo revealed on that Mar-a-Lago and Trump’s other favorite vacation spots are extremely vulnerable to hacking, jeopardizing our national security. The investigators wrote that “sophisticated attackers could take advantage of vulnerabilities in the Wi-Fi networks to take over devices like computers or smartphones and use them to record conversations involving anyone on the premises.” At the military-run Camp David, where President Obama and President Bush more commonly vacationed, the computers and networks are run by the Defense Information Systems Agency which spends millions of dollars each year on cybersecurity for the facility. In contrast, in 2016, Mar-a-Lago budgeted a total of $442,931 for security, with only a portion of that going to digital security.

 

White House Officials Reluctant to Make Public Statements, Fearing Trump will Contradict Them

According to POLITICO, White House officials are becoming “increasingly leery of putting their names on statements in the immediate aftermath of stories — because Trump often contradicts them publicly or on Twitter.” One official stated, “we are hoping the president doesn’t tweet,” with regard to the Comey situation. To no one’s surprise, he tweeted.

 

Jared Kushner Personally Called the Head of Lockheed to Get a Better Arms Deal for Saudi Arabia

Trump adviser/son-in-law Jared Kushner was in the middle of a meeting with a high-level delegation of Saudis when he picked up the phone and personally called the chief executive of Lockheed Martin to negotiate the price of a new arms sale to Saudi Arabia. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that the Saudi guests watched “slack-jawed” at the May 1 meeting, as the CEO told him would she look into reducing the price. According to current and former officials interviewed by the Times, the call was “unorthodox,” but not illegal.

 

CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

A developer who offered President-elect Trump a $2 billion deal promotes his relationship with Donald Trump Jr. A Trump family Caribbean mansion is listed for sale, with the asking price vastly above market value.

 

Donald Trump Jr. Dines with “Business Partner” Who Offered Trump $2 Billion Deal After the Election

 

On Tuesday, Hussain Sajwani, “mega-developer of the Beverly Hills of Dubai” took to Instagram to broadcast his relationship with his “dear friend and business partner,” Donald Trump Jr. But in January, President-Elect Trump stated that he declined a $2 billion deal from Sajwani –offered after Trump’s election victory– demonstrating his “commitment to avoiding conflicts of interest.”

 

Trump’s Caribbean Estate Listed for Sale

“If someone does pay anything close to the asking price, it will be because they are paying a premium to say they own a property that was once owned by President Trump,” a real estate agent familiar with the property told the Washington Post. Four St. Martin real estate agents told the Post that the $28 million price tag “far outstrips the amount that sellers are getting for the most exclusive properties on the island.” Don Fox, a former general counsel and acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, said that Trump ought to take the estate off the market to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.

 

TRANSPARENCY AND PRESS FREEDOM

Trump encourages the FBI to jail reporters who publish leaks. DHS Secretary Kelly jokes that Trump should take a sword to journalists. For the second time in two weeks, a reporter is manhandled for asking a question.

 

Trump Asked FBI to Put Reporters in Prison for Publishing Classified Info

According to one of former FBI Director Comey’s associates, President Trump encouraged Comey to “consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information.” According to the Brennan Center’s Elizabeth Goitein “no one has ever been prosecuted for publishing classified information obtained through a leak” and giving the FBI wide latitude to do so could “spell the end of independent, objective national security reporting.”

 

DHS Secretary Kelly Jokes that Trump Should Use a Sword on the Press

During the Coast Guard Academy graduation ceremony on Wednesday, Department of Homeland Security chief John Kelly was caught on a hot mic joking that Trump should use a ceremonial saber on the press, following Trump’s speech blasting the media.  

 

Tom Price Applauds His Police Detail That Arrested a Journalist

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price says police did “stellar job” in escorting him around the West Virginia state capitol last week even though they arrested a reporter in what the ACLU of West Virginia called “a blatant attempt to chill an independent, free press.”

 

FCC Security “Manhandled” and Threatened a Reporter for Asking Questions

According to a release from the National Press Club, security guards at the Federal Communications Commission “manhandled a well-regarded reporter at a public hearing today and forced him to leave the premises after he had tried to politely ask questions of FCC commissioners.” Allegedly, the award-winning journalist John M. Donnelly of CQ Roll Call  was pinned against the wall forced leave the building “entirely under implied threat of force.”

 

State Department Demands CNN Reporter to Name Her Sources

 

On Wednesday, CNN Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Michelle Kosinski relayed an extremely disturbing conversation she had with the communications adviser to Secretary of State, where he allegedly demanded that she name her sources in the State Department, threatened to cut off her access to the agency entirely, and demeaned her, stating, “We don’t think you’re smart enough to handle our information.” The hostile exchange is simply the latest example of the State Department’s aversion to transparency under Rex Tillerson.

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About the Author

is an associate editor and Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellow at Just Security. You can follow him on Twitter (@JayShooster).