Norms Watch: Democracy, the Trump Administration, and Reactions to It (May 19-26)

THE PRESS

This week saw an alarming uptick in hostility toward the press, something Donald Trump has encouraged first as a candidate and now as the president.

Greg Gianforte, a Republican candidate in a special House election in Montana, was charged with assaulting a journalist.  The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs tried asking Gianforte a question about the recent CBO score on the House’s health care bill, when, according to members of a Fox News team who witnessed the event, Gianforte “grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him… Gianforte then began punching the reporter.”  On the eve of the election, local law enforcement charged Gianforte with misdemeanor assault.

Despite there being audio of the incident, plus the Fox News witnesses, the Gianforte campaign released a statement in which it lied about what happened and tried to paint Jacobs as the aggressor. Gianforte went on to win the election.

Some members of the GOP and conservative press defended Gianforte. Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. (R-Calif.) said, “It’s not appropriate behavior. Unless the reporter deserved it.” Asked on Capitol Hill, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said, “The left has precipitated this tense, confrontational approach throughout the country in recent months,” but he then said he rejected the use of physical violence in a situation like that.

Tampa mayor jokes about pointing a machine gun at reporters. Bob Buckhorn, speaking at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, said, “I’ve never seen grown men cry like little girls, for when that gun goes off those media folks just hit the deck like no one’s business. It’s great payback. I love it.”

Some reporters, including those who’ve risked their lives to cover war, were appalled. “As someone who had been under fire once or twice, and lost two colleagues to a car bomb in Iraq that nearly killed me, I didn’t appreciate the remarks,” said The Daily Beast’s Kim Dozier.

The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone wrote that these are not isolated incidents but part of a worrying trend. “In the past three weeks, political reporters have described being arrested, pinned against a wall, slapped, and now body slammed ― all this in a nation where freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution,” he wrote.

Barbara Starr, who covers the Pentagon for CNN, wrote Sunday that “recent incidents suggest violence against journalists — and claims that it’s just a joke — is gaining ground as a ‘new normal’ for reporters.” 

Meanwhile, on Trump’s trip overseas, the U.S. press had trouble getting access. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a news conference in Riyadh but the U.S. press was not told about it. Later, the State Department provided U.S. journalists a transcript of the Q&A.

Back home, Fox News’ Sean Hannity continued to push a conspiracy theory, causing advertisers to pull out of his show. Hannity persisted in spreading conspiracy theories about the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich, even though they have been repeatedly debunked. Disputing the findings of the U.S. intelligence community, Hannity insists Rich was the source of the emails released by Wikileaks, a story that if true, would exonerate Russia’s role in the 2016 election.  

On Tuesday, Rich’s parents wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post titled, “We’re Seth Rich’s parents. Stop politicizing our son’s murder.” They described the conspiracy theories being pushed by Hannity and others in the far right media as, “baseless” and “unspeakably cruel.”

Now, several companies have pulled their advertising from Hannity’s show.

But “fake news dies hard,” writes the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg. “No matter what the media ecosystem does to stop uncorroborated conspiracies and false information, they will continue to live on as long as there are people eager to spread it and viewers and readers eager to believe it.”

CNN’s Anderson Cooper apologizes for crude remark. Speaking with Trump supporter and CNN contributor Jeffrey Lord, Cooper asked him about the revelation that Trump reportedly told senior Russian officials in the Oval Office that former FBI Director James Comey was a “nutjob.” Lord defended the president’s remark, to which Cooper responded, “If he took a dump on his desk, you would defend it. I don’t know what he would do that you would not defend.”

Later on Twitter, Cooper apologized: “I regret the crude sentence i spoke earlier tonight and followed it up by apologizing on air. It was unprofessional. I am genuinely sorry.” 

 

FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY

Intelligence leaks from the U.S. government continue to unnerve foreign allies, while Trump’s whirlwind trip abroad is full of eyebrow-raising moments.

U.S. leaks from the Manchester investigation infuriated the United Kingdom. Following the terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert on Monday night in Manchester, England, U.S. law enforcement sources shared details about the investigation with the media before British officials released them. The UK police chiefs issued a statement condemning the U.S. leaks, and ultimately decided to stop sharing information with their U.S. counterparts.

“The decision to stop sharing police information with U.S. agencies was an extraordinary step for Britain, which is usually at pains to emphasize its ‘special relationship’ with the United States,” Reuters reported. After 24 hours and after receiving “fresh assurances,” the UK police resumed sharing information with U.S. law enforcement officials.

Meanwhile, Trump said he found the leaks “deeply troubling,” and the U.S. Justice Department announced its intent to investigate them.

Trump told the world he never told the Russians it was Israel who provided key intelligence on ISIS, and in doing so, confirmed: It was Israel. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing beside him, Trump told reporters traveling with him this week, “Folks, folks, just so you understand, just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name Israel during that conversation.” He was referring to a conversation he had with senior Russian officials in the Oval Office in which he reportedly revealed highly sensitive information that had been provided to the U.S. by a foreign partner. The reporting on the meeting never suggested Trump told the Russians the source of the information, but that he’d provided enough details that the Russians might be able to determine its origin on their own.

Israel “changed its intelligence-sharing protocols,” following Trump’s disclosure. In an interview Wednesday, Israeli defense chief Avigdor Liberman said, “I can confirm that we did a spot repair and that there’s unprecedented intelligence cooperation with the United States.”

Trump appears to have revealed more sensitive information, this time to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. In reference to the U.S. strategy for North Korea, Trump said,  “We have two submarines — the best in the world. We have two nuclear submarines — not that we want to use them at all. I’ve never seen anything like they are but we don’t have to use this, but [Kim] could be crazy, so we will see what happens.” The quote comes from a transcript of the call from the Philippine government.

Toby Harshaw pointed out on Twitter that this information was already public, but Trump’s casual disclosure still surprised defense officials who told Buzzfeed, “We never talk about subs!”

“What a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.” That was Trump’s main message to Duterte, according to the leaked transcript of the phone call between the two men. Trump was talking about Duterte’s murderous crackdown on illegal drug users in his country, an effort that’s killed between 7,000 and 9,000 suspected dealers and addicts.

Duterte wasn’t the only leader this week to whom Trump gave a greenlight for human rights abuses. Government forces in Bahrain launched a raid against opposition activists this week, during which at least five people were killed. Many saw a connection between the timing of the raid and the assurances Trump gave to Bahrain’s king over the weekend that the “strain” that had existed between the U.S. and Bahrain would be lifted. The Obama administration had put on hold a multibillion-dollar weapons sale to Bahrain because of human rights concerns.

Was Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia “bizarre, unseemly, unethical and un-American”? The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum described the six reasons she thought it was.

One of those bizarre moments came when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross commented on the lack of protests in Saudi Arabia and how he interpreted that as support for Trump. The CNBC anchor interviewing him pointed out that it was likely because protesting is not allowed in the country.

Trump’s family played a prominent role on the trip. Ivanka Trump replaced the president at an event in Saudi Arabia after the president decided to skip it, and her husband Jared Kushner, issued a rare on-the-record statement about how the trip was going.

Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the historian at the National First Ladies’ Library, told the New York Times, “It is extremely rare that a president would bring family members, other than a spouse, and ask them to assume a public role on a foreign trip.”

Lasting “Peach.” The Trump administration makes more typos than most. An official White House document given to reporters in Israel, said one of the goals for the trip was to “promote the possibility of lasting peach.”

Thousands protest Trump in Brussels (where it is legal). Protesters took to the streets on Wednesday as the U.S. president arrived in the city for a NATO meeting.

In a speech, Trump didn’t back NATO’s common defense provision, known as Article 5. His omission rattled European diplomats. Trump also scolded NATO members for not paying their fair share.

Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said Trump was right to raise the funding issue but this wasn’t the time or the place. “Today there was a solemn ceremony in opening the new NATO headquarters to mark 9/11, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and of course, the Manchester terrorist attack,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg. “And the president only glancingly said that he believed in NATO, but spent almost all the time, frankly, lecturing the allies on their deficiencies in terms of their defense budgets. It just wasn’t the right place to do it.”

Trump  also appeared to push aside the Montenegrin prime minister to get to the front of the pack of leaders as they lined up for a photo, unusual decorum for a U.S. president.

 

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

While Trump traveled abroad, news about the congressional and FBI investigations into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election dogged the president back home.

Trump told the Russians Comey was a “nutjob.” As Trump left for his trip on May 19, two new bombshell stories broke in the U.S. First, the New York Times reported that Trump told  Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, that firing Comey “had relieved ‘great pressure’ on him. An “American official” read a document summarizing the meeting to a Times reporter. The document said Trump told the Russians, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

The same day, the Washington Post reported that the FBI investigation “has identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest, showing that the probe is reaching into the highest levels of government.”

Trump pressures Intel bosses to pushback on collusion. On Monday, the Post then reported that Trump “made separate appeals to the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and to Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, urging them to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election.”

At a hearing the next day, Coats declined to comment on any conversations he’d had with the president, but did “say that politicizing intelligence was inappropriate — and that he’d made that position clear to the Trump administration,” CNN reported. Lawmakers did not ask Rogers about his conversations with the president at a separate hearing later that day.

The House and Senate are subpoenaing Flynn’s documents. Trouble is escalating for former national security adviser and Trump campaign aide, Michael Flynn. The House Intelligence Committee plans to subpoena his documents. And after Flynn invoked the Fifth Amendment, a standard move to refuse a subpoena, the Senate Intelligence Committee is directing its new subpoenas at his businesses.

The FBI is also focusing on meetings Kushner had with Russian officials. A series of reports (NBC, CNN and the Washington Post) on Thursday night noted that Trump’s son-in-law had come under scrutiny as the FBI investigates links between members of Trump’s team and Russian government officials. Each report was quick to add: There is no indication that Kushner was a target of the probe or suspected of wrongdoing.

White House gearing up for a fight. The president has hired a private lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, to help him navigate the various investigations into his campaign and his associates.

“We’re getting street fighters ready to go,” a Trump ally told Axios about the White House’s preparations to deal with “a years-long war with investigators and the bureaucracy.”

Sessions once again failed to disclose meetings with the Russian ambassador. Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not disclose his meetings last year with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on his SF-86 security clearance application. The omission was apparently on the recommendation of Sessions’ advisors and the FBI. As the Washington Post notes, the “security clearance form requires anyone applying for a security clearance to list “any contact” that he or his family had with a foreign government or its representatives over the past seven years.”

 

WHITE HOUSE

It was a quieter week inside the White House while the president traveled, but still plenty of unusual goings-on.

White House aides reportedly staged a Twitter intervention with the president. Advisers told Trump that his tweets could “paint him into a corner,” politically and legally, according to the Wall Street Journal.

CNN reported that White House lawyers are researching impeachment procedures out of an abundance of caution. While they believe Trump has the support of congressional Republicans, “lawyers in the White House counsel’s office have consulted experts in impeachment during the past week and have begun collecting information on how such proceedings would work.” The White House told CNN the story is not true.

A Mar-a-Lago staffer is doing White House advance work. Buzzfeed reported Thursday that “Heather Rinkus, the guest reception manager at Trump’s ‘Winter White House,’ is working with the president’s advance and logistics team, while Trump’s exclusive club, Mar-a-Lago, closes for the summer. She has an official White House email and government-issued phone, two sources familiar with Rinkus’s trip told BuzzFeed News.”

POLITICO created a Twitter account to keep track of visitors to the White House. The White House has refused to release its visitor logs, as administrations have typically done in the past. To make up for the lack of transparency, POLITICO created this Twitter account.  

Trump’s budget proposal included a giant math error, drawing sharp criticism. The mistake centers around an extra $2 trillion in forecasted revenue growth, which the White House double-counted, saying it would cover Trump’s giant tax cuts, but would also be used to pay for deficit reduction.

Writing in POLITICO, Michael Grunwald said, “this proposal is unusually brazen in its defiance of basic math, and in its accounting discrepancies amounting to trillions-with-a-t rather than mere millions or billions.” Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers was the first to spot the mistake.

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, said the White House stands by the numbers.

The Courts Said No to Trump’s travel ban again. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals “affirmed the freeze” on Trump’s revised travel ban. Writing for Bloomberg, Noah Feldman said, “The court said that national security ‘is not the true reason’ for the order, despite Trump’s insistence to the contrary. It’s extraordinary for a federal court to tell the president directly that he’s lying; I certainly can’t think of any other examples in my lifetime.”

Notre Dame students walk out of the vice president’s commencement speech. As Vice President Mike Pence delivered his speech Sunday at Notre Dame, several students quietly walked out in a gesture of protest against the Trump administration. Their exit was met with boos and applause, the Times reported.

 

CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Trump and his family members continue to run afoul of ethical norms as they mix business with governance.  

Trump is not tracking all government cash being spent at his hotels. To get around the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which is meant to restrict U.S. government officials, including the president, from accepting foreign bribes or gifts, Trump said he’d donate any profits his businesses earned from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury.

This week NBC News reported the Trump Organization is not actually tracking all foreign payments. According to a new pamphlet, the company does not “attempt to identify individual travelers who have not specifically identified themselves as being a representative of a foreign government entity.”

Asking guests to identify themselves as working for a foreign government “would impede upon personal privacy and diminish the guest experience of our brand,” said another company document, reported on by the Guardian.

Donald Trump Jr. gave a commencement speech at American University in Dubai. The Trump Organization would not say how much Trump Jr. was paid for the speech but past speakers have made over $50,000.

“While the university is private, sources tell CBS News that Dubai helped found and holds a continuing stake in the school. In his remarks, Trump Jr. thanked and conferred degrees alongside Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the son of Dubai’s ruler.”

While in Dubai, Trump Jr. discussed future projects, reported the Associated Press. Trump Jr. “met a billionaire business partner in the city-state, discussing ‘new ideas’ as the Emirati’s real estate firm still lists possible plans for future joint projects while Trump’s father is in the White House. The Trump Organization has said it won’t make new foreign deals while Donald Trump serves as America’s 45th president,” writes the AP’s Jon Gambrell.

A Chinese company is boasting it can guarantee American green cards thanks to its connections to Kushner. “A Beijing immigration company called Qiaowai tells visa applicants of a secret weapon: It is working on behalf of a real estate firm owned by the family of President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner,” the Times reported May 19.

Ivanka and Jared failed to report their art collection on their required financial disclosure forms. The couple’s’ collection is estimated to be worth millions, according to artnet News who broke the story. Members of Trump’s cabinet, like Ross and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, disclosed their multimillion art assets on their forms. A lawyer said the couple will now report their art collection.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia made a $100 million donation to Ivanka’s new women entrepreneur fund. Critics of Hillary Clinton, including Trump, railed on her for her involvement in the Clinton Foundation, accusing her of pay-to-play. Ivanka is now raising money from foreign donors for her fund, leading some legal and ethics scholars to question whether she is breaking important norms that are meant to safeguard against bribery and other ethical violations.

“The worst thing of all is that the goal is a very noble one that the Trumps have made it impossible to honestly pursue because of the kleptocratic baggage they’ve brought to government,” Norm Eisen, President Barack Obama’s “ethics czar,” told the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin.

Trump’s attorneys didn’t want him to sign his financial disclosure forms, but the Office of Government Ethics pushed back. According to letters obtained by AP, the lawyers “initially wanted him to submit an updated financial disclosure without certifying the information as true.”

“His attorney’s effort to sidestep certification of his personal financial disclosure marks another departure from the norm,” the AP reported.

The White House doesn’t want to say which ex-lobbyists it hired. From the New York Times: “The White House, in a highly unusual move, sent a letter to Walter M. Shaub Jr., the head of the Office of Government Ethics, asking him to withdraw a request he had sent to every federal agency for copies of the waivers. In the letter, the administration challenged his legal authority to demand the information.”

Image: Getty 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).