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 July 7-July 14, 2017.
THE TRUMP-RUSSIA CONNECTION
A meeting between a Russian lawyer with Kremlin connections, a former Soviet counterintelligence official, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort is the first evidence the Trump campaign was aware of Russian efforts to aid it.
Donald Trump Jr. Met With a Russian Lawyer With Kremlin Connections and an Ex- Soviet Spy
Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer after being told she would provide him with dirt on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” emails released this week reveal. The documents, sourced from a Russian government official, would “incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” Trump Jr. was told. “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” he replied. The June 2016 meeting with the Kremlin-connected Natalia Veselnitskaya was also attended by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and then campaign chief Paul Manafort. On Friday morning, reports emerged that a Russian-American lobbyist, who was a former Soviet counterintelligence official suspected of current ties to Russian intelligence, was also in the meeting. Rinat Akhmetshin confirmed his participation, which was not previously disclosed, to the AP.
The meeting has raised the possibility that Trump Jr. and the other attendees violated the law. Some have argued that the meeting violated campaign finance law. Former Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter said the meeting “borders on treason.” At the very least, the meeting poses ethical concerns.
Also worrisome are the shifting explanations for the meeting and its apparent inconsistency with former statements by Trump Jr and Trump Sr that the campaign did not have contact with Russia. When first contacted by the New York Times about the meeting, Trump Jr did not acknowledge that the meeting related to Clinton or any connection to the Russian government. He said: “It was a short introductory meeting. … We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at the time and there was no follow-up.” In the 13 months since the meeting, Trump Sr and associates (including Trump Jr) denied at least 20 times that their campaign team had had any contact with Russians seeking to influence the presidential election.
“I Think Many People Would Have Taken That Meeting”: Trump Defends Son
President Trump has defended his son, saying “many people would have taken that meeting.” Although Trump says he learned about the meeting only recently, he does not fault his son for taking it. “It was a 20-minute meeting, I guess, from what I’m hearing,” he told Reuters. “Many people, and many political pros, said everybody would do that.” On Twitter, referring to Trump Jr’s television appearance following the email release, Trump Sr said: “My son Donald did a good job last night. He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!”
Trump Advisers Reportedly Assisted Drafting Son’s Statement
Trump’s advisers drafted a statement for Donald Trump Jr in the wake of reports that he had met with a Russian lawyer, the New York Times reports. A group on Air Force One communicated with advisers back in the U.S. on how to approach the statement, which the president then signed off on. The report has prompted criticism as Trump Jr is not a part of the government.
Why were WH staff writing Trump Jr's press statement on AF1? Coordinate w/ his staff sure, but he doesn't work for the government.
— David Solimini (@CommsDirector) July 12, 2017
This is an ethics violation: use of public money & time to benefit a private individual. See5 CFR §2635.702 (Tho poss. Don Jr crimes worse!) https://t.co/xKQPGehPkR
— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) July 12, 2017
DOJ Settled Russian Fraud Case Involving Trump Jr. Russian Lawyer
House Democrats have written to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, asking why the Department of Justice settled a significant money-laundering case involving the son of a Russian government official, whose lawyer met with Donald Trump Jr last year. The civil case, initiated by since-fired U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, was settled unexpectedly two days before trial for a small percentage of the fine initially sought by prosecutors. “Last summer, Donald Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-connected attorney in an attempt to obtain information ‘that would incriminate Hillary,'” the letter reads. “Earlier this year, on May 12, 2017, the Department of Justice made an abrupt decision to settle a money laundering case being handled by that same attorney in the Southern District of New York. We write with some concern that the two events may be connected — and that the Department may have settled the case at a loss for the United States in order to obscure the underlying facts.”
Trump’s Lawyer May Struggle to Receive Security Clearance
Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz – who is representing Trump in the Russia investigations – does not have a security clearance and does not expect to seek one, even though the investigations involve classified material, the lawyer told ProPublica. Bill Clinton’s former personal lawyer Robert Bennett, told the website, “No question in my mind — in order to represent President Trump in this matter you would have to get a very high level of clearance because of the allegations involving Russia.” ProPublica reports that a history of alcohol abuse may make it difficult for Kasowitz to obtain a security clearance.
FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY
Trump goes to the G20, where he meets with Putin and discusses Russian meddling in the 2016 election and a joint cybersecurity unit. Ivanka takes his seat at the table.
Putin Says Trump “Agreed” With Assurances He Didn’t Meddle in U.S. Election
Following the leaders’ bilateral meeting at the G20, Putin told reporters that Trump had accepted his assurances that Russia did not interfere in 2016’s presidential election. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia was behind the meddling, which represents a significant incursion to American sovereignty. However, Trump has previously wavered on his acceptance of that conclusion, at times blaming others and saying that “nobody really knows for sure.”
Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put forth a slightly different account of the meeting. Trump said he “strongly pressed” Putin twice, but it was time “time to move forward.” Tillerson that “President Putin denied such involvement” and that Trump decided to move on because Russia would not admit blame, without accepting Putin’s claims. Trump later told reporters aboard Air Force One he changed the subject after Putin’s denials because, “What do you do? End up in a fistfight?” Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle expressed disappointment with Trump’s response. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-Ny.Y.) calling the outcome “disgraceful,” and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called it “disastrous,” saying “You are hurting your ability to govern this nation by forgiving and forgetting and empowering.”
Ivanka Trump Takes Dad’s Chair at G20 Table
First daughter Ivanka Trump briefly sat in for her father at the G20 summit in Hamburg over the weekend, in a move critics saw as inappropriate. Trump doubled down in response to the criticism, describing his daughter’s substitution as “very standard” on Twitter.
When I left Conference Room for short meetings with Japan and other countries, I asked Ivanka to hold seat. Very standard. Angela M agrees!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2017
Indeed, German chancellor Angela Merkel said it was normal, as the Ivanka was part of the American delegation and it was well known that she worked at the White House. However, it is usually cabinet officials who step in for a president at high-level meetings. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary, World Bank official, and government economic adviser Lawrence Summers has said it is rare for government heads to leave during major summits. “There is no precedent for a head government’s adult child taking a seat,” he said. “There is no precedent for good reason. It was insulting to the others present and sent a signal of disempowerment regarding senior government officials.”
I still can't believe that the president's daughter sat in the president's seat at a G20 summit. Americans this is not normal!
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) July 8, 2017
Trump Proposes Collaborating With Russia Cybersecurity Unit, Then Backtracks
Following his first face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin, Trump promoted a plan to form an “impenetrable cybersecurity unit so that election hacking, and many other negative things, will be guarded and safe” on Twitter. The proposal received criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, who queried the wisdom of working with the state responsible for meddling in last year’s election. Hours later, Trump walked the proposal back, tweeting: “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a cybersecurity unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t.”
European Nations Are Increasingly Willing to Openly Disagree With U.S.
European leaders are increasingly less reluctant to make their disagreements with the U.S. and its leadership public, a trend which was on show at the G20 summit. “Traditionally respectful of American leadership and mindful of the country’s crucial role in European defense and global trade, European leaders normally repress or soften their criticism of United States presidents,” writes the New York Times’ Steven Erlanger. But at the G20, “public splits with Mr. Trump were the order of the day.” European leaders like France’s Emmanuel Macron argued for globalism and against “narrow-minded nationalism.”
The most striking example of the U.S.’ isolation at the multilateral meeting came when all leaders except Trump signed onto a statement describing the Paris agreement — which Trump abandoned — as “irreversible.” The other group members developed a detailed policy agreement explaining how each country could meet its goal.
Trump Has Unusual Interactions With French First Couple During Bastille Day Trip
Upon his arrival in France, Trump told the country’s first lady Brigitte Macron that she was looking good. “You’re in such good shape,” he told her, and then turned to her husband saying, “She’s in such good physical shape.” The comment was part of a trend of Trump commenting on women’s physical appearance. Bidding the president Emmanuel Macron farewell, the men shook hands for about 25 seconds. Handshakes between the two men appear to have become something of a power battle. Macron had previously described his first handshake with Trump as a “moment of truth”, saying it “wasn’t innocent.” A report in the Washington Post suggested the interaction contributed to Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord.
— CNN (@CNN) July 14, 2017
THE PRESS AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE
The White House continues to block video at its press briefings. Trump’s personal lawyer sends profane emails.
White House Press Briefings Continue to be Audio-Only Affairs
WH press briefing today at 3pm/ET by @SHSanders45. No TV cams. 3rd day in a row.
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) July 12, 2017
White House press briefings continue to be less transparent than the norm. Following a ten-day streak with no press briefings at all, this week deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered up three audio-only briefings.
Today is the first press briefing at the White House since June 30. Like that one, this will be off camera
— Ben Jacobs (@Bencjacobs) July 10, 2017
Trump Lawyer Tells Critic To “Watch Your Back , Bitch”
When he received an email from a stranger with the subject line “Resign Now”, Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz did not hold back. “I’m on you now. You are fucking with me now Let’s see who you are Watch your back , bitch,” read one in a series of angry, profanity and typo-laden emails Kasowitz sent Wednesday night. Kasowitz is representing Trump in the various Russia investigations. The man who received the emails told ProPublica he was so disturbed by them that he he forwarded them to the FBI, in case Kasowitz followed through on his threats.
Trump Calls on Foreign Journalist Over Americans in Macron Press Conference
Invited by French President Emmanuel Macron to pick an American journalist to ask a question at their joint press conference Thursday, Trump instead called on a Chinese journalist. “Joint press conferences that U.S. presidents hold with foreign leaders traditionally include two questions from journalists of the host nation (in this case, France) and two questions from journalists of the visiting nation (in this case, the United States),” Dylan Byers writes for CNN. Trump’s choice meant U.S. journalists were denied an opportunity to ask a question of their president.
Seems like a clear violation of protocol for this question not to go to an American journalist
— Jonathan Lemire (@JonLemire) July 13, 2017
Trump Releases “Make America Great Again” Promotional Video
MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! pic.twitter.com/NVDVRrWLs4
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2017
Over the weekend, Trump tweeted a video depicting his activities at the G20 summit in Hamburg, with a song based on his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan serving as the soundtrack. The song’s lyrics include: “Make America great again / Lift the torch of freedom all across the land / Step into the future, joining hand in hand.” Critics described the video as propaganda, likening it to the media products of authoritarian regimes like North Korea.
This video is so disturbing for its similarity to Chinese and North Korean propaganda videos of their leaders: https://t.co/oXIqNGH3ip
— Melissa Chan (@melissakchan) July 9, 2017
Kushner and Bannon file incomplete financial and security disclosures. Trump lays low.
Kushner Updates Security Clearance Form, Adding 100 Foreign Contacts
Presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner has updated his federal disclosure form three times, adding over 100 names to the list of foreign contacts he had to submit to the FBI in order to gain a security clearance, the New York Times reports. The meetings Kushner overlooked in his first try include the now-famous meeting between Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manafort, Kushner and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Intentional omission of foreign contacts from the “SF-86” form is a felony.
Bannon Misreports $2 Million In Mortgage Debt on Financial Disclosure
White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon did not properly disclose over $2 million in mortgage debt on his financial disclosure form, The Center for Public Integrity reports. Bannon was meant to disclose his creditors, but he simply listed “HOME LOAN” as the creditor for each of the four loans he reported. Despite this, the White House’s ethics officers certified that his form was complete and complied with federal law. Government officials disclose their creditors to ensure that those working in government pay market interest rates and do not receive preferential treatment from creditors. “What’s most significant to me … is that the chief ethics officers at the White House signed off on [Bannon’s forms],” Kathleen Clark, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on government ethics, told The Center for Public Integrity. “Individuals make mistakes. The real story is how shoddy the ethics process is in the White House.”
Trump Keeps Clear Schedule
— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) July 12, 2017
Trump had very few events on his public calendar this week, raising transparency concerns. So far this month, the Washington Post has calculated that Trump has had 5.6 days of unaccounted-for time. Before flying to France this Wednesday evening, Trump had just one meeting on his calendar for the week.
Save a Nat Sec mtg yesterday, WH has not provided any accounting of the president's activities since his return from Europe on Saturday — https://t.co/zHdOo5sjek
— Steven Portnoy (@stevenportnoy) July 12, 2017
Mexico Wall Bid Process Secretive and “Confusing”
Although the Department of Homeland Security announced in May that it had selected finalists in the competition to design the Mexico border wall, only two of the over 20 finalists are publicly identified. An anonymous finalist told Foreign Policy the process had “been a real mess”: “The lack of coordination, the lack of funding — they’re just not ready for prime time.” The secrecy around the identities of the finalists is unusual in government design-build competitions, where transparency is usually key. The finalists are also not guaranteed a fully funded contract at the end of the process, as Congress has yet to provide any of the billions of dollars necessary to build the wall.
CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Trump’s business entanglements continue to pose problems, as State Department spends thousands at Trump hotel and companies continue to list him as chief.
State Department Spends Thousands at New Trump Hotel
The State Department spent over $15,000 in accommodation at the new Trump hotel in Vancouver when members of the president’s family attended the grand opening in February, the Washington Post reports. The department booked 19 rooms for the occasion, which involved three of Trump children attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony. It is the first evidence of State Department directing taxpayer dollars to a Trump property since Trump took office. The department is responsible for providing assistance in security and logistics for international trips, but declined to provide details about the department’s presence at the hotel.
Trump Remains Head Of Companies He Promised To Step Down From
In a January 19 letter, Trump appeared to resign from over 400 businesses connected with the Trump Organization. The resignations were part of his plan to deal with conflicts of interest issues arising from his business career and presidency. However, six months after announcing his plan, New York state records continued to list him as CEO or president at four corporate entities he claimed to have resigned from, The Intercept reports. Former Bush administration ethics lawyer Richard Painter said the failure to update the paperwork “shows the sloppiness Trump’s organization has with respect to ethics requirements. They don’t even to want to do what they’ve said they’re going to do.”
Republicans continue to work towards health care bill, sidestepping the usual processes.
Senate Republicans Might Use Trump Administration Analysis Instead of CBO To Score Cruz Amendment
That sound you hear is another Washington norm going byebye https://t.co/w820gPOqaC
— Blake News (@blakehounshell) July 13, 2017
Senate Republicans may skip a visit to the Congressional Budget Office when scoring an amendment to their health care bill put forward by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.), preferring to use analysis from the Trump administration. Analysis from the Trump administration is likely to more favorable to the GOP than the nonpartisan CBO. “The unusual move would be highly controversial and a major departure from using the CBO, which has been the traditional scorekeeper for legislation,” writes Nathanial Weixel at The Hill.
Image: Win McNamee/Getty