Editor’s Note: Welcome to the latest installment of Norms Watch, our series tracking both the flouting of democratic norms by the Trump administration and the erosion of those norms in reactions and responses by others. This is our collection of the most significant breaks with democratic traditions that occurred from June 16-June 23, 2017.
Trump admits he didn’t tape his conversations with former FBI Director James Comey while intelligence officials say he asked them to deny his campaign colluded with Russia. Trump suggests he may not believe Russia interfered in the 2016 election, despite evidence it targeted election systems in 21 states.
Trump Admits he Doesn’t Have Tapes of Comey Conversations
A day before the June 23 deadline imposed by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, for the White House to turn over any recordings of Trump’s meetings with fired FBI Director James Comey or face a subpoena,Trump tweeted that he did not have recordings of his meetings with fired FBI Director James Comey, despite earlier suggesting that he might have secret tapes.
Schiff: "If the President had no tapes, why did he suggest otherwise? Did he seek to mislead the public?" pic.twitter.com/MWnE4bzECx
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) June 22, 2017
On May 12, Trump famously tweeted that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Some legal experts have suggested the threat of tapes could be used in an obstruction of justice case against him, if it is interpreted as pressuring Comey not to describe their conversations.
BREAKING: The President of the United States lied for the purpose of misleading the public, intimidating FBI Director he improperly fired. https://t.co/RI6cArPk2r
— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) June 22, 2017
Senate Judiciary Committee Will Likely Investigate Obstruction
The Senate Judiciary Committee is likely to investigate Trump’s possible obstruction of justice arising from the firing of FBI Director James Comey, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told CNN on Wednesday. The interview came after members of the Judiciary Committee met with special counsel Robert Mueller to de-conflict their respective investigations.
‘Odd and Uncomfortable.’ Intel Officials Tell Mueller That Trump Asked Them to Publicly Deny Collusion Between Campaign and Russia
Trump asked two top intelligence officials to say publicly that there was his campaign did not collude with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, they reportedly told special counsel Robert Mueller. After providing scant detail in public hearings on June 7, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers made the claims in separate interviews with Mueller’s investigators last week. They described their interactions with Trump as odd and uncomfortable, but did not believe he gave them orders to interfere, CNN reports.
Trump Suggests he may not Believe Russia Interfered in the Election
By the way, if Russia was working so hard on the 2016 Election, it all took place during the Obama Admin. Why didn't they stop them?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 22, 2017
In a tweet hinting that he may not accept Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, Trump also blamed Barack Obama for failing to defend against any such attack. In a separate tweet on Thursday morning, Trump referred to the testimony of former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, saying Johnson was the “latest top intelligence official to state that there was no grand scheme between Trump and Russia.” AP Fact Check says “[Johnson] did not state that conclusion.” Johnson had simply told a House committee the day before that he had not seen any evidence of collusion “beyond what has been out there open-source, and not beyond anything that I’m sure this committee has already seen and heard before, directly from the intelligence community.” Johnson also testified that Russia had interfered in the election to assist Trump.
Russia Targeted Election Systems in 21 States, According to the Department of Homeland Security
The Department of Homeland Security has evidence that Russia targeted election-related systems in 21 states, a department cybersecurity official told the Senate Intelligence Committee this week in a new revelation. However, the official and other witnesses said there is no evidence that any votes were changed.
Hackers Reportedly Altered Voter Information and Stole Private Data
TIME reports that hackers stole thousands of voter records containing private information and manipulated voter data in at least one county database. The manipulation was discovered and rectified. The private information taken included partial Social Security numbers, and drivers license numbers. Congressional investigators are looking into whether the Trump campaign came into possession of any of this information.
THE PRESS AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE
White House press briefings move away from transparency.
White House Press Briefings Become Less Open and Less Frequent
On Monday, press secretary Sean Spicer did not permit press to record audio or video at his briefing. On Thursday, deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave an audio-only briefing. The developments are part of a trend of paring back the traditional daily briefing as it becomes shorter, less frequent, and often off-camera.
Call me old fashioned but I think the White House of the United States of America should have the backbone to answer questions on camera.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) June 19, 2017
On Wednesday, reporters were even told that they could not report the fact that Thursday’s briefing would be audio-only. The only explanation proffered by the White House for the changes has been a text from chief strategist Steve Bannon to an Atlantic reporter that “Sean got fatter”.
WH just announced that Thursday's briefing will be off camera, and no recordings allowed. AKA WH avoiding any real questions about AHCA.
— Christina Wilkie (@christinawilkie) June 22, 2017
The changes play into a broader concern about the administration’s transparency: Trump himself has not given a full press conference since February.
This is an unacceptably authoritarian tactic aimed at undercutting democratic transparency. https://t.co/TCIV2n8HCl
— Brian Klaas (@brianklaas) June 22, 2017
White House Fails to Answer Questions
Press secretary Sean Spicer and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have repeatedly told reporters they will get back to them with answers to their questions, but have apparently failed to do so. ABC News has identified over 25 questions the pair has promised to answer later in press briefings since May 1, including whether Trump believes human activity contributes to climate change and whether Trump believes Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Past White House press offices have included follow-up answers as addenda to the official briefing transcript.
Kellyanne Conway Revels in Democrats’ Loss in Georgia Special Election
Following the defeat of Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff in this week’s runoff election in Georgia, tweeting that she was “laughing [her] #Ossoff”. The tweet was criticized as inappropriate for a White House staffer.
It's as if she can't accept that she's not an aggrieved outsider on the sidelines but actually a powerful person steps from the Oval Office. pic.twitter.com/ASnRmMnEiC
— Jon Lovett (@jonlovett) June 21, 2017
FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY
The administration sends confusing messages on North Korea and Qatar, China and Canada adopt divergent strategies on dealing with Trump, and Kushner begins push for peace in the Middle East.
Flynn Included in CIA Briefings Despite Blackmail Concerns
Although senior career officials at the FBI, CIA, Justice Department, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence believed since January that then-incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail, Flynn sat in on CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s Oval Office briefings nearly every day for three weeks, becoming privy to the country’s most sensitive intelligence. Pompeo has not said whether he was aware of his own agency’s concerns, and he reportedly did not share any concerns about Flynn with Trump.
Trump Concedes Failure to Curb North Korea
“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “At least I know China tried!” The cryptic tweet seemed to suggest a significant change in thinking about U.S. policy towards curbing North Korea’s nuclear program or towards China.
Incredible statement, considering Trump's whole North Korea policy during the campaign was: a strong POTUS could make China fix it fast https://t.co/nL46I3IsnD
— Alex Burns (@alexburnsNYT) June 20, 2017
The unusual tweet admitting that China had not deterred North Korea from developing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs came the day after the death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student detained by North Korea last year, and the day before a high-level meeting of Chinese and American officials in Washington. At a briefing on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, “I have to say that the crux of the Korean Peninsula problem and the focal point of the conflict is not China.”
Seeming to diverge from Trump’s position, defense secretary James Mattis and secretary of state Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday that China still had a significant role to play in pressuring North Korea.
Tillerson and Trump Seem to Disagree on Qatar Embargo
The State Department criticized Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries leading an embargo of Qatar on Tuesday, saying the states had not given Qatar specific ways to resolve the crisis and questioning whether the actions were about Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism or about “the long simmering grievances” in the Gulf. The critique again suggested that secretary of state Rex Tillerson and Trump disagree on where blame for the dispute should be placed, as Trump has praised Saudi Arabia and accused Qatar of being a “funder of terrorism at a very high level”.
State spox: "The more time goes by, the more that doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia & the UAE" https://t.co/1rf5zH3hAW
— Laura Rozen (@lrozen) June 20, 2017
United Nations Secretary-General Urges United States not to Cede Leadership Role
The U.N. Secretary-General has warned that a U.S. retreat from global issues and international relations bears significant risks, and that other states would take advantage of the gap. “When someone leaves space, that space is always occupied by others…it will be unavoidable that other actors occupy that space” António Guterres told reporters on Tuesday. Guterres will visit Washington next week to meet with lawmakers and encourage them to remain active in international relations. Unusually, Guterres is yet to have a substantive meeting with Trump.
Kushner Sent to Middle East to Push for Peace in Israel-Palestine Conflict
Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this week to begin a push for peace in the region. Kushner is a 36-year-old real estate developer with no prior experience in diplomacy or peace negotiations.
Canada Seeks to Contain Trump Risks by Going Around Him
The New York Times reports that Canada is trying to contain the risks posed to it by Trump’s nationalist and protectionist impulses by cultivating influence throughout the American system. This strategy, unique among the U.S.’s allies, has seen the Canadian government organize a grassroots network of American officials and lawmakers at every level of government, along with businesses, forming what the Times’ Max Fisher calls a “doughnut around a White House-shaped hole.” As part of this approach, the provincial government of Ontario persuaded New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to abandon a “buy American” budget provision in significant state contracts by threatening to reciprocate.
China Courts Trump’s Daughter and Son-in-Law
Beijing has invited Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner to visit China later this year, suggesting the couple will play a significant role in managing the relationship with China, one of several important policy areas Trump has delegated to family members despite their lack of government experience. Both Kushner and Ivanka have ties to companies with dealings in China, raising possible conflict of interest of concerns.
Trump apparently hasn’t spoken to his press secretary about Russian election interference. In a rally, he said “poor” people should not handle economy and proposes legislation that already exists.
Spicer Says he Hasn’t Talked to Trump About Russian Election Interference
White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Tuesday that he has not spoken with Trump about whether he accepts that Russia tried to interfere in last year’s presidential election. Although Trump has publicly acknowledged that Russia is believed to be behind last year’s cyberattacks on Democratic Party and Clinton campaign officials, he has also raised doubts about the Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russia attempted to interfere with the election. “I have not sat down and asked him about the specific reaction,” Spicer said when asked about the intelligence community’s belief. “I’d be glad to touch base with him and get back to you.”
House Oversight Committee Democrats ask why Kushner Still has Security Clearance
Democrats on the House Oversight Committee have asked the White House to explain why Jared Kushner still has a security clearance, even though he reportedly failed to disclose meetings with Russian officials and businessmen and sought to establish a secret communications backchannel between the transition team and Russia. The letter sent by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and signed by all Democrats on the committee claims that a government employee’s security clearance is usually suspended where there are credible allegations that a government employee is unfit to handle classified information.
Trump Does Not Want a “Poor Person” in Charge of Economy
Trump told a rally on Wednesday that he does not want to put “a poor person” in an economic role in his administration, defending his appointment of wealthy people to the cabinet. “Somebody said why did you appoint a rich person to be in charge of the economy?” Trump said, referring to commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and economic adviser Gary Cohn. “I said: ‘Because that’s the kind of thinking we want. … And I love all people, rich or poor, but in those particular positions I just don’t want a poor person.”
Trump Proposes Immigration Legislation Which Already Exists
At the same Wednesday night rally, Trump said his administration would shortly be introducing legislation that prevented immigrants from accessing welfare benefits for five years. A law to that effect has been in place since 1996.
Former Trump Advisor Gorka was Fired by the FBI for Islamophobic Rhetoric
Sebastian Gorka, who would later become a White House senior adviser, was fired by the FBI due to his Islamophobic rhetoric in September of last year. While he was a paid consultant to the Trump campaign, Gorka also lectured FBI employees on counterterrorism issues. In an August 2016 lecture on the fundamentals of counterterrorism, Gorka reportedly told members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force that there was no such thing as mainstream Muslims – only those radicalized and those soon to be radicalized. The following month, a senior FBI official told his colleagues Gorka would no longer be giving lectures. Gorka was later appointed as a White House official, but left the role last month.
White House Slow to Nominate New FBI Director
It's been 2 weeks since POTUS tweeted he “will be nominating Christopher Wray” for FBI director. So far, no nomination https://t.co/CAkNgnSeL1
— Dafna Linzer (@DafnaLinzer) June 22, 2017
Trump revealed his pick to replace James Comey as FBI Director in a June 7 tweet, but over two weeks later he still hasn’t actually nominated Christopher Wray to the job. The Daily Beast describes the delay as “unusual, though not completely unheard-of” and report that experts suggest that he may have been named early in the process, without being fully vetted.
CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Trump’s Hotel in Washington is set to host a Trump campaign re-election fundraiser. Meanwhile, an anti-Sharia lobbying group selling tours of the building.
Trump Plans to Host Re-Election Fundraiser at Trump Hotel
Next week, over three years before the election, President Trump will launch his 2020 Trump re-election fundraising campaign at the new Trump International Hotel. Trump can see the hotel from the White House lawn, and it is that proximity that his campaign director Michael Glassner says makes it such a convenient location for the June 28 event. However, the choice raises ethics questions as Trump still has a financial interest in the hotel. A former ethics lawyer told AP that the move was not illegal, but was “another example of him trying to get a twofer, promoting his brand through his campaign or his government work.” Barack Obama’s lead ethics attorney Norm Eisen said that Trump is “becoming more and more brazen in his efforts to monetize the presidency.”
Trump’s Budget Would Cut Housing Aid, Except to a Program Which Benefits Him
Trump’s proposed budget includes significant cuts to programs that assist the poor and homeless, but leaves intact a federal housing subsidy for private landlords that Trump personally benefits from, the Washington Post reported. Trump has a 4-percent stake in Brooklyn’s Starrett City, the nation’s largest subsidized housing complex, which earns him millions of dollars every year. The federal government has paid the partnership that owes the complex over $490 million since May 2013. Although there is no indication Trump was personally involved in the decision, the episode illustrates the intersection of his exercise of public power and own financial interests.
Trump Appointee is Registered Saudi Lobbyist
Trump appointed Republican lobbyist Richard Hohlt, who has received about $430,000 since January from the Saudi Arabian foreign ministry for “advice on legislative and public affairs strategies,” to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. The commission is a part-time advisory body which makes recommendations of candidates for prestigious fellowships. “Trump’s decision to appoint a registered foreign agent to the [commission] clashes with the president’s vow to clean up Washington and limit the influence of special interests,” writes The Center for Public Integrity.
Anti-Sharia Group Touts Chance to Access President’s Business at Trump Hotel
An anti-sharia group, ACT for America, is offering sponsors “pre-conference cocktails” and a “private tour of the historic Trump Hotel” for $10,000 ahead of its upcoming Washington conference. The tour will take place before participants lobby lawmakers on national security issues. “The promotion represents a new twist in the story line of Trump’s luxury hotel,” reports the Washington Post. “Groups typically pay to book meeting space and food service at the Trump hotel like they would at any event venue, but ACT is touting the chance to enjoy access to a signature business owned by the president.”
Trump faces another lawsuit, this time over confidential messaging apps and deleted tweets.
Watchdog Groups Sue Trump Over Messaging Apps and Deleted Tweets
Two government watchdog groups have filed a lawsuit against Trump, arguing the president has violated federal law and the Constitution by destroying presidential records. The lawsuit cites White House use of confidential email messaging applications, which destroy messages’ content as soon as they are read, the use of encrypted messaging apps like Signal, and the deletion of Tweets sent from Trump’s personal account.
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) June 22, 2017
Senate Republicans finally release their healthcare bill after a secretive drafting process, and former president Barack Obama criticizes it as fundamentally “mean”.
Republican Health Bill Kept Under Wraps
Senate Republicans revealed their planned healthcare bill this Thursday after an unusual period of secrecy. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he wants to bring it to a vote next week. On Tuesday, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) complained in a Facebook video that he had not yet seen the bill, and that he did not think a week was long enough to scrutinize it. Asked whether he had seen the bill, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) quipped “No, nor have I met any American that has. I’m sure the Russians have been able to hack in and gotten most of it.” The bill was put together over several weeks behind closed doors by a 13-person working group that included the most conservative senators but excluded key moderates.
Obama Weighs in on Healthcare
Former president Barack Obama has voiced his thoughts on the proposed healthcare bill, writing on Facebook that the bill was not a healthcare bill, but instead a “massive transfer of wealth from middle-class and poor families to the richest people in America.” He derided the “fundamental meanness” of the bill, which would overhaul large parts of his biggest legislative achievement.
Image: Mark Wilson/Getty