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Norms Watch: Democracy, the Trump Administration, and Reactions to It (July 21-July 28)

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THE PRESS AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE

Trump gets political while speaking to the Boy Scouts, in-fighting in the White House team spills into the public in an obscenity-laden phone call and some tweets, and members of Congress threaten duels and ass-knot-snatching in a climate of anxiety over security.

 

Trump’s Boy Scouts Speech Gets Partisan

 

Speaking at the National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia Monday, Trump threatened to fire Health and Human Secretary Tom Price if health care reforms didn’t pass, attacked former president Barack Obama, cautioned the boy scouts about “fake media”, said Hillary Clinton’s didn’t “work hard” in Michigan and other midwestern states, and said more people would be greeting each other with “Merry Christmas” under his presidency.

 

Trump’s speech caused anger from scouts’ parents and former scouts. On Thursday, the head of the Boy Scouts apologized for the “political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree,” saying “that was never our intent.”

 

White House Communications Director Debuts With In-Fighting, Obscenity and Death Threats

New White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci has been in the job one week and has already made headlines for his surreal clash with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. “The clash between Mr. Scaramucci and Mr. Priebus offers a case study in how the Trump White House operates, a conflict divorced from facts, untethered from the basics of how government works, enabled by the lack of any organizational structure and driven by ambition, fear, animosity and envy,” write Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times.

The affair began when Scaramucci appeared to accuse Priebus of illegal leaking in a tweet Wednesday. After a news report appeared based on Scaramucci’s financial disclosures, he tweeted: “In light of the leak of my financial disclosure info which is a felony. I will be contacting @FBI and the @TheJusticeDept #swamp @Reince45.” The New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza confirmed on Twitter shortly afterwards that Scaramucci was indeed hoping the FBI would investigate Priebus, whom he has likened to a brother. This suggestion seemed to impugn the strict division between the White House and the Justice Department (more on that below).

 

That would be an unusual and very public division in the White House administration’s most senior staff. Scaramucci deleted the tweet after the reporter of the story confirmed that the documents were not leaked; rather, she had requested them as they were public documents. In a further tweet, Scaramucci denied his earlier effort was an accusation that Priebus had leaked, writing, “Wrong! Tweet was public notice to leakers that all Sr Adm officials are helping to end illegal leaks. @Reince45.”

 

That was not the only controversy this week to involve Scaramucci and Lizza. On Thursday, Lizza reported that Scaramucci had called him the night before, telling him that he should reveal the identity of a source “as an American patriot,” and then suggested he would fire everyone, saying “They’ll all be fired by me. I fired on guy the other day. I have three to four people I’ll fire tomorrow.” He also said he wanted to “fucking kill all the leakers.” Suggesting Reince Priebus had leaked the information to Lizza, he described him as “a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac.” He also referred to Trump’s chief strategist in unfavourable terms, saying, “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock. I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking strength off the President.” Scaramucci’s language and on-the-record candor are unusual for a senior White House official. Scaramucci has probably been emboldened in his criticisms of Priebus by Trump’s own disfavor for his chief of staff. Trump has reportedly openly told people that he has lost faith in Priebus.

 

Increased Threats of Violence Against Lawmakers

The rate of threats against members of Congress has increased, and politicians are rattled by the the combative town hall meetings and violent encounters among activists, the Washington Post reports. While the growing concerns about safety preceded the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the event has amplified fears. Members of Congress are increasingly traveling with security details in Washington and their hometowns. As of late June, House members had received about 950 “threatening communication messages” since the start of 2017, according to House Sergeant at Arms Paul D. Irving. In 2016, the total number of messages received was 902.  “All of it brings unsettling implications for democracy and discourse, and has prompted a debate about how much security is necessary — and affordable,” writes Ed O’Keefe at the Post.

 

Congressman Urges Others to “Snatch A Knot In [a Senator’s] Ass”

An unusual phrase was introduced to the nation’s lexicon this week, thanks to criticisms Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) made of GOP Senators failing to pass healthcare reform, specifically, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska.). “Somebody needs to go over there to that Senate and snatch a knot in their ass,” Carter told MSNBC.

 

It is apparently a Georgia expression which implies violence, threats of which is on the rise in U.S. politics.

 

Members of Congress Challenge Each Other To Duels

Carter’s colorful language was not the only violent rhetoric directed from a male member of Congress to female colleagues in the past week. Last Friday, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) criticized some Republican “female senators from the Northeast” for their opposition to health care reform, saying “if it was a guy from south Texas I might ask him to step outside and settle this Aaron Burr-style.” The comment was a reference to the famous pistol duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in which Hamilton came off second best and perished. One of the senators to whom Farenthold was presumably referring was Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has not got on board with the current health care reform. Farenthold later said his remarks were “clearly tongue in cheek.”

 

Later, caught on hot mic, Collins was overheard talking about the mooted duel, and telling a congressional colleague that Farenthold was “huge” and “so unattractive it’s unbelievable.” She continued: “Did you see the picture of him in his pajamas next to this Playboy bunny?” Then the mic went dead.  

 

Poll Suggests Half Of Trump Voters Think Trump Won Popular Vote

A new poll has found that 49% of Trump voters believe that Trump won the popular vote despite the fact that Hillary Clinton won that vote by almost three million. The POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found that 59% of all voters believe Clinton won more votes than Trump, but 28% believe Trump beat her in the popular vote. The poll’s findings follow the president’s suggestions that the popular vote outcome is illegitimate due to electoral fraud. Last week, the Kansas Secretary of State and vice chair of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Electoral Integrity Kris Kobach said in a T.V. interview that “we may never know’ whether Clinton won the popular vote.

 

Trump Continues To Make Misleading Claims

Within 26 hours – from 6:31pm on July 24 to 8:09pm on July 25 – Trump made 29 false or misleading claims, according to a Washington Post count.

 

Stephen Bannon’s Pro-Bono Outside PR Agent May Be Illegal

The White House is referring media questions for Bannon, the White House’s chief strategist, to an outside consultant, Alexandra Preat, who is not employed or paid by the Trump administration. Her company says she’s working for Bannon for free. Christina Wilkie, a journalist with the Center for Public Integrity, reports “The unorthodox setup means Bannon…is potentially violating the Antideficiency Act, which provides that federal employees ‘may not accept voluntary services for [the] government or employ personal services exceeding that authorized by law.’”

 

White House Press Briefing Starts With President’s Fan Mail

The White House returned to the convention of allowing live video and audio broadcast of their press briefings this week, but adopted a new quirk. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday that every now and then she will read a sample letter sent to the White House from the “forgotten men, women and children” who the president claims to be fighting for.

The first choice was a letter from a nine-year-old named Dylan. In the letter, which Sanders read out in full, Dylan told Trump he was his “favorite president” and that he had a birthday cake “in the shape of your hat”, and asked how much money Trump had (Sanders: “Dylan, I’m not sure but I know it’s a lot.”) The recitation of praise for the president at the start of a press briefing was likened to propaganda by some. Others questioned whether the letter and its author were real.

 

 

THE TRUMP-RUSSIA CONNECTION

Another report of contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians emerges..

 

Contrary to Earlier Denials, Sessions Discussed Campaign Issues With Russian Ambassador

Attorney general Jeff Sessions appears to have discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues, with the Russian ambassador when he was a top foreign policy adviser on the Trump campaign, the Washington Post reports. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s descriptions of two conversations with Sessions from that period were intercepted by U.S. spy agencies. Sessions had originally failed to disclose his interactions with Kislyak, and then later said the meetings did not relate to the campaign.

 

 

FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY

Trump has former intelligence leaders angry and nervous.

 

Former Spooks Express Anger and Anxiety Over Trump

Former-CIA chief John Brennan and former-director of national intelligence James Clapper spoke at the Aspen Security Forum over the weekend, delivering an unusually critical evaluation of Trump’s presidency. Speaking about Trump’s criticisms of special prosecutor Robert Mueller, Brennan urged members of Congress to resist Trump if he fires Mueller, saying “I hope, I really hope, that our members of Congress, elected representatives, are going to stand up and say, ‘enough is enough,’ and stop making apologies and excuses for things that are happening that really flout, I think, our system of laws and government.” He also said he thought it was “the obligation of some executive-branch officials to refuse to carry out some of these orders that, again, are inconsistent with what this country is all about.”

Both men criticised Trump’s accusations that U.S. intelligence agencies leaked stories about him to the press and comparisons to Nazi Germany. They also expressed concern over Trump’s dinner conversation with Vladimir Putin at the G20, with only a Russian-government translator – which Clapper said was “very dangerous.” Brennan suggested Trump was not honest and that the presence of no other American officials made it possible for Trump to lie about the conversation. “Quite frankly, I think there are concerns that sometimes what Mr. Trump says happens is not exactly what happens,” said the ex-CIA director.

 

Trump Says Lebanon Is “On The Front Lines” Fighting Hezbollah

Standing next to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri during a joint news conference in the White House’s Rose Garden Tuesday, Trump said Lebanon was “on the front lines” in the fight against Hezbollah despite the fact that Hezbollah is a partner in the Lebanese government, working in a power-sharing relationship with Hariri. The U.S. considers the group a threat to Middle East stability and a terrorist group.

 

 

RULE OF LAW

The rule of law seemed under threat this week, as Trump attacked his attorney general and the strict line between the White House and the Justice Department appeared to be crossed.

 

Trump Wages War on Attorney General

After telling the New York Times in an interview last week that he would not have picked Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general if he knew he would recuse from the Russia investigation, Trump stepped up his attacks on his attorney general this week. On Tuesday, Trump told reporters in the Rose Garden that he was “very disappointed” in Sessions. He described him as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak” on Twitter, and criticized him for not investigating Hillary Clinton sufficiently.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal that day, Trump did not say that he would fire Sessions but said he was “very disappointed” in him. He has reportedly discussed firing Sessions with his advisers. In two tweets on Wednesday morning, Trump wrote: “Why didn’t A.G. Sessions replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation but got big dollars ($700,000) for his wife’s political run from Hillary Clinton and her representatives. Drain the Swamp!” (Trump has the authority to replace McCabe himself.)

The attacks are reportedly fueled by Trump’s anger at Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into him and his campaign, for which he blames Sessions and his recusal. They raise rule of law concerns, as any attempt to oust Sessions could be construed as an attempt to interfere with the special counsel’s investigation. Trump has discussed the possibility of using a recess appointment to replace Sessions should he resign.

The Sessions controversy has led congressional Republicans to make a rare effort at resisting Trump. “Unlike any other controversial move that Trump has pondered in his six months as president, Senate Republicans are sending preemptive signals that firing the attorney general or pressuring him to resign would be a terrible move,” writes Paul Kane at the Washington Post. On Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tweeted that the committee’ schedule is already “set” for the rest of the year with judicial and subcabinet nominees – and “no way” they will consider an attorney general nomination.

 

Justice Department Briefs at White House

A joint briefing from a top Department of Justice official and a Homeland Security official at the White House Thursday on the MS-13 gang has raised concerns about blurred lines between the politics and law enforcement. Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Rob Hur spoke alongside Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting director Thomas Homan in the press briefing room, as images of MS-13 members’ tattoos appeared on screens behind them. “The scene troubled several former Justice Department officials, including Hur’s predecessor in the Obama administration, Matthew Axelrod,” POLITICO reports. “He said the move was particularly unwise at a time when Justice’s independence seems to be under challenge by President Donald Trump’s extraordinary and sustained public criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.” While DOJ officials have discussed policy issues at the White House before, it is unusual for law enforcement to discuss individual cases from the White House briefing room, and threatens the traditional distance between the DOJ and the White House on investigative criminal matters.

 

Scaramucci Urges DOJ And FBI To Take Action On Leaks

New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci has let it be known from the start that he opposes leaks from the White House and will do his best to stop them. That best apparently includes speaking directly with attorney general Jeff Sessions and the FBI about investigating them. MSNBC’s Matthew Miller noted on Twitter that this was “a violation of DOJ rules on contacts with the WH that were established to prevent political interference with investigations” and particularly concerning given Jeff Session’s precarious job security.

 

 

 

 

Trump Tweets About His “Complete Power” To Pardon

“While all agree the U. S. President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us. FAKE NEWS,” Trump tweeted on Saturday morning. The tweets came after it was reported that Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family and himself in the wake of the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

 

WHITE HOUSE AND ADMINISTRATION

Trump makes a major military announcement on Twitter and without warning senior military leaders. The Interior Department threatens Alaska after senator’s health care vote.

 

Trump Twitter Announcement of Transgender Military Exclusion Surprises Military Leaders

On Wednesday morning, Trump announced a new policy excluding transgender people from serving in the military with a trio of tweets:

 

 

 

Although Trump referred to consultation with “my Generals and military experts,” military leaders were reportedly surprised by the policy move. “At the Pentagon, the first of the three tweets raised fears that the president was getting ready to announce strikes on North Korea or some other military action,” Nancy Youssef reports for BuzzFeed. “Many said they were left in suspense for nine minutes, the time between the first and second tweet. Only after the second tweet did military officials receive the news the president was announcing a personnel change on Twitter.”

 

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was on vacation, and it is unclear if he approved it. He was given only a day’s notice.  The Department of Defense referred all questions to the White House.

 

In a press conference that same day, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was unable to provide further details on the policy, including whether currently touring servicepeople would be called back from deployments.

The policy was criticised not only for discriminating against trans people, but also for the way in which it was formulated and announced. “To have a tweet reverse as DoD personnel policy is unprecedented,” former Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson told BuzzFeed. The forum also apparently frustrated Mattis. “People close to the defense secretary said he was appalled that Mr. Trump chose to unveil his decision in tweets, in part because of the message they sent to transgender active-duty service members, including those deployed overseas, that they were suddenly no longer welcome,” reports the New York Times. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff later told the military that there would be no transgender policy until they received a direction from the President.

 

 

Trump Asks USS Ford Sailors For Political Support

Speaking at the commissioning ceremony for the new aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford Saturday morning, Trump broke with longstanding norms against politicizing the military when he implored his audience of active-duty service-members to help pressure Congress into passing his budget. “I don’t mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it,” he said, to applause. “And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get health care.” Many in the crowd of about 6,500 were in uniform. “But Trump’s brief appeal created a potentially awkward tableau at a commissioning event intended to be ceremonial — a commander in chief offering political remarks, and what could even be construed as an order, to the naval officers he commands,” write Ashley Parker and David Nakamura at the Washington Post.

 

Interior Department Threatens Alaska In Wake of Senator’s Health Care Vote

On Tuesday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted against repealing Obamacare. On Wednesday, Trump expressed disapproval of that vote on Twitter (“Senator @lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!”). And by that afternoon, the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had called both Republican Alaska senators, letting them know the vote had put Alaska’s future with the administration in jeopardy, Alaska Dispatch News reports. It is not the first time Trump has threatened or pursued retribution against Republican members of Congress who cross his agenda. Last month, he OK’d an advertising campaign against Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) in response to Heller’s opposition to the health care bill.

 

 

Trump Doesn’t Accept Russia Intervened In Election, Scaramucci Says

In a TV interview over the weekend, White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci cited an anonymous expert as suggesting that if Russian hackers had interfered with the 2016 election, the U.S. would never know because of their skill. Asked who the expert was, Scaramucci confessed it was Trump. “I talked to him yesterday,” Scaramucci said. “He called me from Air Force One. And he basically said to me, hey, you know, this is — maybe they did it. Maybe they didn’t do it.” The president has consistently expressed such doubts despite the conclusion from the Intelligence Community that Russia was behind the hacking.

 

Energy Secretary Rick Perry Receives Call From Pranksters Posing As Ukrainian Prime Minister

Last week, Energy Secretary Rick Perry took a phone call he believed was with the prime minister of Ukraine. It wasn’t – it was two well-known Russian hoaxers. The event has raised questions about the functioning of the Energy Department. “When you have this kind of high-level, minister-to-minister call, with a country that is strategically important like Ukraine, especially given that Russia is on the front page of newspaper in the country—you would run this through the State Department, the NSC,” Jeff Navin, former acting chief of staff and deputy chief of staff at the Department of Energy from 2011 until 2013, told POLITICO. “These aren’t the kinds of things you cowboy into.” At this point, it is unclear how the call went forward, but some have speculated it might have arisen from distrust between career staffers at the department and political appointees, reported on by Vanity Fair.

 

CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Scaramucci maintains stake in investment firm and Kushner overlooked dozens of financial holdings, as White House chooses ethics chief with reputation for loosening rules.

 

Scaramucci Maintains Ownership Stake in SkyBridge

Scaramucci’s disclosure form, which, contrary to a claim by Scaramucci, was not obtained via a leak but was made available to a reporter at POLITICO after she requested it through official channels, shows that the new White House communications director still stands to profit from an ownership stake he has in his investment firm, SkyBridge Capital.

“Scaramucci’s financial filing values SkyBridge Capital at more than $50 million and states that he owns nearly 44 percent of the firm. When the sale of the company is completed, expected to be in the third quarter of this year, he will receive ‘the agreed-upon purchase price for his share of the sale proceeds,’ according to the filing.”

 

Trump Posts Video From Campaign Event on Government Website

On Wednesday, Trump tweeted, “IN AMERICA WE DON’T WORSHIP GOVERNMENT – WE WORSHIP GOD!” (a statement that could be viewed as violating the sacred U.S. principle of separating church and state) and linked to a video from his campaign rally, which had been posted to a .gov website. Posting the campaign video on a government website violates the spirit of the Hatch Act, which is meant to prevent employees in the executive branch from engaging in some forms of political activity, although the president, vice president and certain designated senior officials are exempt.

 

 

Jared Kushner’s Disclosure Omissions Keep Coming In

A revised disclosure form revealed this week that Kushner “failed to disclose dozens of financial holdings that he was required to declare when he joined the White House as an adviser to President Trump,” reported the Washington Post. “Kushner’s new disclosure, released by the White House, detailed more than 70 assets that his attorneys said he had inadvertently left out of earlier filings.”

Meanwhile, Ivanka Trump, has earned as much as $5 million from her outside businesses during the short time she’s served in the White House.

 

Trump’s New Ethics Chief Has a Reputation for Loosening Ethics Rules

Trump’s pick to the lead the Office of Government Ethics, David Apol, “has repeatedly clashed with colleagues over his career at the agency as he sought to roll back or loosen ethics requirements on federal employees, including those in the White House,” three former senior officials told the New York Times.

 

 

 

CONGRESS

With a majority in both houses, congressional Republicans again fail to repeal Obamacare. Some are worried about Trump.

 

Republicans Fail In Shambolic Attempts To Repeal Obamacare

Republicans have promised to repeal Obamacare for the last seven years, but this week they again failed in their attempts. After previous missteps, majority leader Mitch McConnell pursued a strategy of introducing a pared back “skinny” repeal bill as a vehicle to allow negotiations with the House, and not as a final solution. Skinny repeal would have left 15-million Americans uninsured. While Speaker Paul Ryan assured GOP Senators that it would not immediately become law, not all Republican Senators were convinced. “If the Senate failed to pass that conference agreement, the House could have still passed the Senate’s “skinny repeal” and sent it to President Trump for the signing ceremony he desperately wants,” reports the New York Times. “That was decisive” for Sen. John McCain’s late night vote against the bill. The failed bill came after McConnell’s first proposal, which was drafted in secret, fell seven votes shy of a majority earlier this week.

 

House Judiciary Committee to Look Into Clinton’s Campaign and Comey

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have voted to amend and replace a Democratic resolution designed to obtain documents about the firing of FBI Director James Comey, instead seeking documents about Comey’s conversations with Obama officials and journalists. In the markup on Wednesday, the committee members debated Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Hillary Clinton’s emails, and former attorney general Loretta Lynch’s instruction to Comey to refer to the FBI’s investigation into Clinton as a ‘matter’. One of the amendment’s sponsors, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said: “In my district, my constituents say, ‘Hey, what’s going on with investigation of the crimes of the previous administration?’ When I hear talk that this contains right-wing conspiracies — well, I’ll tell you, my constituents think what’s going on in the other bill are left-wing conspiracy theories.” Democrats were critical in response to the amendment. “This is the most astonishing moment I’ve ever experienced in the Judiciary Committee,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.). “To take a question about the firing of James B. Comey and turn it into a question about Hillary Clinton? … Common sense has left this room. A lot of stuff has left this room, and maybe never entered it.” The amendment passed and will be voted on by the House.

 

Caught On Hot Mic, Senators Say Trump Is “Crazy” and Confess To Being “Worried”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) were caught on a hot mic at the end of a Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday morning, discussing the federal budget and Trump’s experience in governing. Collins could be heard criticising the administration’s treatment of spending. “I swear, [the Office of Management and Budget] just went through and whenever there was ‘grant,’ they just X it out,” she said. “With no measurement, no thinking about it, no metrics, no nothing. It’s just incredibly irresponsible.” “Yes,” Reed replied. “I think — I think he’s crazy,” apparently referring to the president. “I mean, I don’t say that lightly and as a kind of a goofy guy.” Collins replied that she was “worried.” Collins later said she did not believe Trump knew there was a Budget Control Act, referring to the law that defines the budget process.

 

White House Attacks Congressional Budget Office On Twitter

The Congressional Budget Office was established in 1975 to provide independent analysis of legislation, and is now under attack for its estimates of the effect of GOP health care proposals. On Twitter this week, the White House posted a video claiming that the “Congressional Budget Office’s math does not add up,” saying it uses “faulty assumptions and bad numbers.” The criticism comes after GOP Senators have threatened to circumvent nonpartisan CBO analyses in favor of calculations from the Department of Health and Human Services, which are more beneficial to them. All eight previous CBO directors wrote a joint letter last week to congressional leadership, expressing their “strong objection to recent attacks on the integrity and professionalism of the agency and on the agency’s role in the legislative process.”

Image: Mark Wilson / Getty

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About the Author

is a Junior Research Scholar at Just Security. She graduated with a Master of Laws from Harvard Law School in 2017, where she was a Fulbright Scholar and Frank Knox Fellow. You can follow her on Twitter (@HannahD15).