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 28-August 4, 2017.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation heats up, with a grand jury impaneled in Washington. Subpoenas are issued in relation to last year’s Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer, and Trump reportedly dictated son’s misleading statement on meeting.
Robert Mueller Convenes Grand Jury In Washington
Special counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in Washington to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, including possible collusion with the Trump campaign, the Wall Street Journal reports. “The grand jury, which began its work in recent weeks, is a sign that Mr. Mueller’s inquiry is ramping up and that it will likely continue for months,” write the WSJ’s Del Quentin Wilbur and Byron Tau. “This is yet a further sign that there is a long-term, large-scale series of prosecutions being contemplated and being pursued by the special counsel,” Stephen I. Vladeck, co-editor-in-chief of Just Security, told the Journal. “If there was already a grand jury in [Virginia] looking at [former national security adviser Michael Flynn], there would be no need to reinvent the wheel for the same guy. This suggests that the investigation is bigger and wider than Flynn, perhaps substantially so.” On the same day as the reports emerged, Trump criticized Mueller’s investigation at a rally in West Virginia. “They’re trying to cheat you out of the leadership that you want with a fake story,” he said. “Most people know there were no Russians in our campaign; there never were. We didn’t win because of Russia. We won because of you.”
Trump Dictated Don Jr.’s Misleading Statement on Russian Lawyer Meeting
Trump was responsible for drafting the misleading statement about his son Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign, the Washington Post reports. Trump dictated the statement aboard Air Force One, in which Trump Jr. said he and the lawyer had “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children.” It was ultimately revealed that Trump Jr. attended the meeting after receiving an email promising useful information about Trump’s presidential rival, Hillary Clinton.
When news of the meeting broke, Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow denied twice on television that the president was involved in the statement’s drafting. In Tuesday’s press briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that that Trump had “weighed in”, saying he did “as any father would.” While Mueller investigates Trump for obstruction of justice, Trump’s aides worry that the news that Trump personally intervened in the drafting of his son’s statement exposes him to legal risk, leaving him “needlessly vulnerable to allegations of a coverup,” the Post reports.
Grand Jury Subpoenas Reportedly Issued In Relation to Trump Tower Meeting With Russian Lawyer
Grand jury subpoenas have been issued in connection with the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower attended by Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, then-campaign chair Paul Manafort and a Russian lawyer Trump Jr. was told would offer dirt on Hillary Clinton, Reuters reports. It is the first concrete sign that the meeting is of investigative interest as Mueller investigates possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
Federal Investigators Looking Into Trump And Associates’ Financial Ties To Russia
Robert Mueller’s investigators are looking into whether financial laws were broken and whether any real estate dealings could put Trump or his associates in a compromising position, CNN reports. Investigating potential financial ties between Trump and his associates to Russia has emerged as one of the most “fertile avenues for moving [the] probe forward”, according to the report.
Russian Operatives Discussed Working With Manafort To Coordinate Damaging Clinton Information, Intelligence Intercepts Reportedly Show
CNN also reports federal investigators possess intercepted communications featuring suspected Russian operatives discussing efforts to work with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to coordinate information damaging to Hillary Clinton.
“The suspected operatives relayed what they claimed were conversations with Manafort, encouraging help from the Russians,” CNN reports. Investigators are looking into whether Manafort was involved in money laundering or tax violations in business dealings with pro-Russian parties in Ukraine.
Bills Protecting Special Counsel To Be Introduced
Senate Republicans and Democrats are working on two bills aimed at making it more difficult for Trump to fire Mueller, involving judges in any decision to remove him. The bills come in response from perceived threats that Trump has issues toward Mueller and his investigation, argued he has conflicts of interest, and indicated that if Mueller investigated his finances he would be crossing a line.
THE PRESS AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE
The president invites law enforcement to act violently, and the White House is revealed to have been involved in spreading Seth Rich conspiracies.
Trump Invites Police Officers To Handle Prisoners Roughly
Speaking before a crowd of law enforcement officers on Long Island Friday, Trump told them they shouldn’t be “too nice” when arresting “thugs”. “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon—you just see them thrown in, rough—I said, please don’t be too nice,” Trump said. The comments were widely condemned, including by police associations.
The Suffolk County Police Department said it disagrees with the advice it got today from the President of the United States pic.twitter.com/PmXk95TmEs
— Liam Stack (@liamstack) July 28, 2017
The acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chuck Rosenberg–who works for Trump–issued a memo saying his agents must “always act honorably” by maintaining “the very highest standards” in the treatment of criminal suspects. Rosenberg stated that he wrote the memo because we have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong. That’s what law enforcement officers do. That’s what you do. We fix stuff. At least, we try.”
https://t.co/8KJUbDoS9N. DEA chief shows the way. We all have to help Trump learn "presidential". Gen Kelly can't do it alone.
— john mclaughlin (@jmclaughlinSAIS) August 2, 2017
White House Was Involved In Seth Rich Conspiracy Theory, Lawsuit Claims
A Fox News story aired in May – since retracted – suggesting that Democrats might have been connected to the death of DNC aide Seth Rich was concocted in tandem with the White House, a new lawsuit alleges. The suit is brought by Rod Wheeler, a paid Fox commentator who was hired to investigate Rich’s murder by Ed Butowsky, a wealthy Trump supporter who alleges he was misquoted in the story. The lawsuit quotes a voicemail and text from Butowsky boasting that Trump had reviewed drafts of the Fox News Story ahead of broadcast. A month before the story ran, Butowsky and Wheeler met at the White House with then-press secretary Sean Spicer to brief him on what their investigation was uncovering. Spicer confirmed that he took the meeting, but said he was unaware of any contact involving the president.
Trump Lies About Boy Scouts Praise
In a leaked transcript of his interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump is quoted as saying that “the head of the Boy Scouts” called him after his speech to the national jamboree, telling him “it was the greatest speech that was ever made to him.” The speech was controversial, veering into political material that some thought inappropriate. However, in a statement the Boy Scouts said that they were “unaware of any such call”, and that neither of the organization’s two top leaders had placed such a call.
WHITE HOUSE AND ADMINISTRATION
Trump fires his short-lived Communications Director and boasts about his business after signing Russia sanctions bill. The administration continues to fill posts slowly, and a nominee withdraws in light of transgender military ban.
Trump Questions Constitutionality Of Sanctions Law In Signing Statement And Boasts About Business
A week after it was approved by overwhelming majorities in both congressional chambers, Trump signed legislation imposing new sanctions on Russia into law, while querying the law’s constitutionality and boasting about his business skills. Trump’s signing statement said that parts of the measure were “clearly unconstitutional”, and suggested he might ignore provisions regarding the territorial integrity of Ukraine and denial of visas to foreign nationals. He also described the law as “seriously flawed”, because it tied his hands in negotiating sanctions on Russia without congressional approval.
“It was politically remarkable for Mr. Trump to issue a statement challenging aspects of this particular bill, which a distrustful Congress forced upon him,” writes Charlie Savage at the New York Times. “Notably, when President Obama signed a similar bill in 2015 permitting Congress to review his decision to lift sanctions against Iran for the nuclear deal, he issued no such statement.”
Trump's signing statement (as opposed to the statement he made when signing the bill) is actually quite aggressive here. pic.twitter.com/xAx1djU0P3
— Chris Geidner (@chrisgeidner) August 2, 2017
In a separate press release upon the bill’s signing, Trump criticized Congress in more informal language. Its concluding paragraph read: “I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”
Trump just used a signing statement on Russia sanctions to talk about his business and how great he is at running it. THIS IS NOT NORMAL. pic.twitter.com/QrrN0Pfv9y
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) August 2, 2017
Trump Continues To Fill Posts Slowly
Trump has had only 50 nominees confirmed by the Senate, out of the 575 key policymaking positions he is responsibility for filling, the Washington Post reports. “For another 600-plus Senate-confirmed positions he’s supposed to fill — including ambassadors, U.S. attorneys, U.S. marshals, officials on boards and commissions — he’s been even slower.” By this point in his presidency, Barack Obama had filled 228 of those key policymaking positions. Political science professor at Vanderbilt David E. Lewis writes for the Post that “key positions in tax policy, immigration, and infrastructure remain vacant. This leaves the president shorthanded. An understaffed and inexpert White House must do all of the policy and public relations work that could be done by the president’s appointees.”
Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci Lasts Eleven Days
He shot to fame quickly as Trump’s communications director, and played a starring role in last week’s Norms Watch after deriding his colleagues in a expletive-laden rant to a reporter and inviting the FBI and Justice Department to investigate White House leaks, in violation of the strict separation of politics and law enforcement. This week, Anthony Scaramucci was fired ten days after he was hired. The unusually short tenure illustrates the chaos in the White House, even as the firing happened on the same day Trump tweeted there was “No WH chaos!”
DHS Candidate Withdraws Over Trump’s Transgender Military Ban
A candidate for a senior role at the Department of Homeland Security has withdrawn his name from consideration in light of Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military. In an email sent the day after Trump’s announcement of the policy on Twitter, John Fluharty said he was no longer seeking the position of assistant secretary of partnership and engagement because the decision “runs counter to my deeply held beliefs.” He went on, “it would be impossible for me to commit to serving the Administration knowing that I would be working against those values.”
White House Officials Fall For Email Prank
A British prankster fooled top officials, including Trump’s homeland security adviser, into replying to emails, the White House admitted Tuesday. Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, appeared to believe he was corresponding with Jared Kushner, and included his personal email address in his reply. Then-Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci also replied to a prank email, which he believed was from his rival Reince Priebus.
The Admin's DHS point person on cyber security issues gave his personal email to a hacker pretending to be Kushner. https://t.co/NsD4QlBLaR
— Noah Rothman (@NoahCRothman) August 1, 2017
CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Former Trump campaign manager mixes a new business with his access to the president, and former national security adviser Michael Flynn discloses ties to Cambridge Analytica.
Former Trump Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski Has Advisory Firm While Advising White House
Trump’s first campaign manager Corey Lewandowski maintains a role as an unofficial White House adviser, and has also started an “advisory” business whose clients have major interests before the Trump administration, the New York Times reports. His new firm “once again puts Mr. Lewandowski at the center of the ethical quandaries surrounding the Trump White House, where the president has given significant access and power to friends and loyalists who are not on the government payroll but work as lobbyists or retain significant outside business interests”, writes the Times.
Lewandowski had quit a new Washington lobbying firm he helped to start after the election three months ago; the new business, Lewandowski Strategic Advisors, was founded a week after leaving his old firm. The firm is said not to engage in “lobbying or advocacy services”, yet among his clients are an Ohio-based lender seeking to block new federal financial regulations. Other Trump aides who have joined advisory firms or made deals with lobbying firms include Jason Miller and Michael D. Cohen.
Flynn Amends Disclosure, Detailing Ties To Cambridge Analytica and Transition Pay
Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn had a brief advisory role with a firm related to Cambridge Analytica, the controversial data analysis company that helped the Trump campaign, according to Flynn’s amended public financial filings. “Democratic lawmakers and Trump critics have seized on Cambridge Analytica’s role as they’ve pushed congressional investigators to scrutinize the Trump campaign’s data operation as part of probes into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election,” writes AP. The disclosure shows that just prior to the election, Flynn entered a consulting agreement with SCL Group, a Virginia-based company related to Cambridge Analytica. The disclosure also lists payment from the Trump transition team, and money received for consulting on a plan to build nuclear power plants through the Middle East.
FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY
Transcripts of Trump’s phone calls with world leaders leak, his daughter meets with the UN chief, and the White House stays mum on Russian expulsion of U.S. diplomatic staff.
Transcripts of Trump Phone Calls With Mexico And Australia Leak, Revealing Combative Diplomacy
Transcripts of Trump’s first phone calls in January with the leaders of Mexico and Australia were leaked and published by the Washington Post Thursday. In the transcripts, Trump appears combative and impatient, an unusual diplomatic strategy to adopt when dealing with allies. “I have had it,” Trump told Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after a discussion about a deal between the countries to resettle refugees. “I have been making these calls all day, and this is the most unpleasant call all day.” He went on to say that “Putin was a pleasant call.” Details of this call had been previously reported, which Trump had described as “FAKE.”
— Philip Rucker (@PhilipRucker) August 3, 2017
Trump also pressured the Mexican president to stop saying publicly that his government would not pay for a border wall. In the same conversation, he described New Hampshire as a “drug-infested den,” a comment which drew criticism from its politicians. “The president is wrong,” said New Hampshire’s Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire. “It’s disappointing his mischaracterization of this epidemic ignores the great things this state has to offer.”
— Ned Price (@nedprice) August 3, 2017
Some were critical of the leak, which is symptomatic of an administration in which many secrets have become public, as a violation of norms that may make world leaders less candid in their conversations with Trump.
Transcripts of @POTUS calls w/leaders of Mexico; Australia were embarrassing. Yet the leaking of them feels like a terrible precedent.
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) August 4, 2017
Trump Questions Quality Of His Military Advice On Afghanistan
In a two-hour July 19 meeting in the situation room on the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Trump appeared to compare the advice he received from his generals to that of a paid consultant who cost a New York restaurateur profits because of bad advice. Trump had recently met with veterans who criticized the American strategy, and seemed to believe they were better positioned to advise him. To make the point, he drew a comparison with Manhattan’s ‘21’ Club, which had hired an expensive consultant to advise on a renovation, whose only recommendation after a year of consideration was that the restaurant needed a bigger kitchen. “Officials said Trump kept stressing the idea that lousy advice cost the owner a year of lost business and that talking to the restaurant’s waiters instead might have yielded a better result,” NBC News reports. “He also said the tendency is to assume if someone isn’t a three-star general he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and that in his own experience in business talking to low-ranking workers has gotten him better outcomes.”
Contradicting Trump’s Claims, McMaster Concludes Rice Did Nothing Wrong Over Unmasking Claims
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has determined that his predecessor Susan Rice did nothing wrong amid accusations of “unmasking” the identities of Trump associates. In an April interview, Trump claimed Rice may have committed a crime by unmasking the names of Trump associates, redacted in intelligence reports.
Ivanka Trump Has Private Meeting With United Nations Secretary General
Donald Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump had a private lunch meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Friday. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley was not present at the meeting, although a White House official said Ivanka was coordinating her conversations with Haley.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss women’s economic empowerment, one of Ivanka’s pet issues. Before taking on her White House role, Ivanka ran a fashion business and had no foreign policy experience.
White House Quiet On Russian Expulsion Of U.S. Diplomats
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision, announced on the weekend, to expel hundreds of American diplomats has met with silence from the White House. Asked about the issue on Monday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “Right now we’re reviewing our options, and when we have something to say on it, we’ll let you know.”
Could someone send me the statements of outrage from the WH or State about the Russian expulsion of our diplomats? Haven't seen yet.
— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) July 31, 2017
In a tweet on Thursday morning, Trump suggested souring relations with Russia were due to the U.S. Congress, not Russian interference in the election and its increasingly aggressive foreign policy. The tweet drew rebuke, including implicitly from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who tweeted the same day: “Our relationship w/ Russia is at dangerous low. You can thank Putin for attacking our democracy, invading neighbors & threatening our allies.”
Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us HCare!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 3, 2017
Tillerson Turns Down Millions Allocated By Congress For Fighting Russian Disinformation and Terrorist Propaganda
Congress allocated $80 million to the State Department for fighting Russian disinformation and terrorist propaganda, but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has not accepted the funds. One Tillerson aide suggested in discussions that the money was unwelcome because funding programs to counter Russian media influence would anger Moscow, according to POLITICO. “It is highly unusual for a Cabinet secretary to turn down money for his department. But more than five months into his tenure, Tillerson has not issued a simple request for the money earmarked for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center,” reports POLITICO. $60 million is currently at the Pentagon, and will expire on September 30 if not transferred to State by then. “This is an extraordinary example of the dysfunction that is ripping through the State Department,” Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat told POLITICO. “What we’re seeing is a small group of people with very thin knowledge making all the decisions in a very centralized and isolated process. It causes unnecessary delays and confusion.”
Image: Alex Wong/Getty Images