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 August 4-August 11, 2017.
FOREIGN POLICY AND NATIONAL SECURITY
Trump talks tough on North Korea but soft on Russia, despite its expulsion of U.S. diplomats.
Trump Promises North Korea “Fire, Fury and Frankly Power”
In response to provocations from North Korea, Trump delivered bellicose rhetoric of his own that escalated throughout the week. He warned Tuesday that the rogue state would experience “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if threats to the U.S. continued. That statement was a “remarkable escalation of military rhetoric with little precedent in the modern era”, historians and analysts told the New York Times. Even as some U.S. allies appeared to urge Trump to de-escalate his rhetoric, Trump on Thursday escalated that rhetoric even further, threatening that “things will happen to them like they never thought possible” if North Korea attacked the U.S, and suggesting that his warning of “fire and fury” may not have been “tough enough.” Just this morning, the president tweeted that military solutions were “locked and loaded.”
Military solutions are now fully in place,locked and loaded,should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 11, 2017
“It’s hard to think of a president using more extreme language during crisis like this before,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian. “Presidents usually try to use language that is even more moderate than what they may be feeling in private, because they’ve always been worried that their language might escalate a crisis.” Some Democratic lawmakers said they feared the language could lead towards war.
Another break with precedent was the improvised nature of Trump’s Tuesday statement. “President Trump’s comment was unplanned and spontaneous,” a senior administration official who deals with the Korea issue told Reuters. White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that the remarks were not workshopped, saying in a statement, “The words were his own. The tone and strength of the message were discussed beforehand.” Beschloss told the New York Times, “If this was impulsive, that would be very much out of the history of the presidency on matters like this. You don’t have presidents blurting out things when lives are at stake, and if that is what it was, it would be scary.”
Trump “Thanks” Putin For Expelling U.S. Diplomats
Asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expulsion of 755 staff from the U.S. embassy in Moscow, Trump offered gratitude rather than condemnation Thursday. “I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down on payroll, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people, because now we have a smaller payroll,” Mr. Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “There’s no real reason for them to go back. So I greatly appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to cut our payroll of the United States. We’ll save a lot of money.”
Putin’s move, which will cut the American Embassy staff by more than half, was in retaliation for sanctions imposed by Congress, in response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The comments are consistent with Trump’s past failures to criticize Putin and Russia. They also irritated current and former diplomats. “Cutting our staff by 755 people will do tremendous damage to our diplomatic mission in Russia,” Michael A. McFaul, who was ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, told the Times. “That our president does not appreciate this obvious fact suggests he doesn’t understand what embassies do in the pursuit of American national interests.” Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s third-ranking official under former president George W Bush, told Reuters Trump’s comments were “grotesque”.
Foreign policy adviser to Obama noted on Twitter that Trump’s comments were also factually inaccurate, as the diplomats expelled from Russia will remain on the payroll.
All of those diplomats are still on USG payroll they're just unable to advance US interests in Russia. https://t.co/B3mBGyzbhG
— Ben Rhodes (@brhodes) August 10, 2017
“Mr. Trump said it with a somewhat light tone, but it was not clear if he was joking,” writes the New York Times’ Peter Baker. “A request to his spokeswoman for clarification was not immediately returned.”
Trump’s Personal Attorney Talks North Korea Policy
Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow has continued his habit of publicly opining on policy matters apparently unrelated to his role as Trump’s employee. This week, Sekulow weighed in on the threat from North Korea, tweeting that, “The strategic patience of the Obama Admin didn’t work w/ North Korea. We can’t negotiate our way to disarming North Korea. It doesn’t work.” Although his role is to represent Trump in the Russia investigations, Sekulow has previously made public representations about Trump’s travel ban, and has been seen as a surrogate media spokesperson even though he is not a government employee.
Strange comment from Trump's personal attorney… on North Korea. https://t.co/YWQ0xXzyvV
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) August 9, 2017
State Department employees are. So. Mad. About. This. Right. Now. https://t.co/6gideGShBC
— Nahal Toosi (@nahaltoosi) August 10, 2017
State Department’s Vacant Posts and Slow Reorganization
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to reorganize the State Department have contributed to paralysis in foreign policy, such as his failed efforts to resolve the Qatar blockade, the New York Times reports. Tillerson has failed to nominate anyone to most of the State Department’s 38 highest-ranking jobs, is micromanaging, and only expects to have fully-formed plans about his reorganization by the end of the year. “The secretary of state has to focus on the president, his policies and the other heads of government that he deals with, which means he cannot possibly run the department operationally himself,” R. Nicholas Burns, an under secretary of state for President George W. Bush, told the Times. “He has to delegate, and that’s what’s missing now.”
THE TRUMP-RUSSIA CONNECTION
Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort wakes to a raid of his home in Russia probe. The House Intelligence Committee has internal power struggle over Russia investigation.
Former Trump Campaign Chair’s Home Raided in Mueller Probe
The FBI raided the home of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort last month as part of the special counsel investigation into possible collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russia to interfere in last year’s election. Robert Mueller’s investigators executed a search warrant at Manafort’s northern Virginia house seeking tax documents and foreign banking records, the New York Times reports. The raid “suggests that investigators are looking at criminal charges related to the federal Bank Secrecy Act, which requires Americans to report their foreign banking accounts,” write the Times’ Michael S. Schmidt and Adam Goldman. “It was already known that Mr. Manafort was under investigation for his business dealings with his son-in-law; his role in a meeting on June 9, 2016, between Trump campaign officials and Russians; and whether his work for the Ukrainian government violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act.” Bloomberg also reports that Mueller has issued subpoenas to global banks for account information and transaction records for Manafort and some of his companies, as well as those of his long-time business partner, Rick Gates.
Devin Nunes Aide Sends Congressional Staffers to London to Find Christopher Steele
As a former House subcommittee staff director, I sent our investigators on foreign trips. This is super weird. 1/ https://t.co/H1KNTPgmhM
— Andy Wright (@AndyMcCanse) August 8, 2017
In July, two U.S. congressional staffers were sent to London, where they tried to contact former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, by a longstanding aide to House intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes. Steele, a former MI6 officer, wrote the infamous dossier suggesting collusion between Trump and the Kremlin. During their visit, the staffers turned up at Steele’s lawyers’ offices while he was in the building. “The trip has brought back to the surface a continuing struggle for control of the committee’s investigation into Moscow’s role in the 2016 US election,” writes the Guardian’s Julian Borger. The committee’s leading Democrat Adam Schiff said Sunday that neither he nor his Republican counterpart had been informed about the staffers’ trip. Nunes recused from the Russia investigation in April, after the House ethics panel started to look into whether he disclosed classified information in an attempt to discredit the Obama administration. Schiff has complained that Nunes has continued to intervene in the investigation.
THE PRESS AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE
The Justice Department will reconsider its policy on press subpoenas and crack down on leaks of classified information, and Trump retweets story based on classified intelligence. Trump keeps mum on Minnesota mosque attack.
Sessions Announces Leak Crackdown
Ten days after Trump called him “very weak” on pursuing leakers, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a new FBI counterintelligence unit to chase leaks of classified information and said that the Justice Department was pursuing about three times as many leak investigations as were open at the end of the Obama era. He also announced a review of Justice Department rules about when investigators can issue subpoenas related to the news media and leak investigations. “We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited,” he said. Sessions also said the Department would not hesitate to bring charges against leakers.
After Minnesota Mosque Explosion, White House Is Silent
FBI and MN Governor now confirm there was an act of terrorism at an Islamic Center in Minnesota. Thus far, Trump has said nothing about it. https://t.co/vgckEpG9ey
— Matt McDermott (@mattmfm) August 6, 2017
A Minnesota mosque was the target of terrorism Saturday, with an explosion caused by an improvised explosive device going off shortly after 5 a.m. Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton described the attack on the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington as a “wretched” hate crime, but Trump has been silent. The lack of response was explained by Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka, who told MSNBC that the attack might be a false flag–without providing any evidence. “There’s a great rule: All initial reports are false,” Gorka said. “We’ve had a series of crimes committed — alleged hate crimes by right-wing individuals in the last six months — that turned out to actually have been propagated by the left. So let’s wait and see, let’s allow the local authorities to provide their assessments, and then the White House will make its comments.” New York magazine writes, “The Trump administration’s muted response follows a clear pattern of playing down attacks by white perpetrators on minorities.”
Gorka asked why no WH comment on MN mosque attack, notes "series" of "alleged hate crimes" that "actually have been propagated by the left" pic.twitter.com/CAqX5s98f5
— David Wright (@DavidWright_CNN) August 8, 2017
NRA Targets New York Times In New Video
— NRATV (@NRATV) August 3, 2017
The NRA has released a new video, in which spokesperson Dana Loesch says the gun-rights organization is “coming for” the New York Times. In the video, Loesch describes the newspaper as an “untrustworthy, dishonest rag”. It follows an earlier controversial video, also featuring Loesch, which invited viewers to “fight this violence of lies with a clenched fist of truth.” Loesch denied this video was meant to be a call to arms or a threat to safety of Times reporters, saying anyone who interpreted it in that way was projecting “their violent fantasies on to others.”
Trump Picks Birther Conspiracist To Be Agriculture Department’s Chief Scientist
Donald Trump’s nominee for the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist pushed birther conspiracy theories and described then-Attorney General Eric Holder as a “racist black”, CNN reports. Sam Clovis was formerly a conservative radio host and political activist in Iowa, and was a vocal supporter of Trump’s campaign. In blog posts, he called black leaders “race traders” and accused Obama of being a “Maoist”.
“The Propaganda Document”: Trump Receives Daily Dose of Good News About Him
Twice a day, Trump receives a 20- to 25-page packet containing screenshots of positive cable news chyrons and news stories, supportive tweets, and occasionally pictures of Trump on TV looking powerful, which some in the White House have referred to as “the propaganda document.” The folder is put together at the Republican National Committee’s “war room.” Former White House officials told VICE that presenting a folder of only positive news was abnormal. “If we had prepared such a digest for Obama, he would have roared with laughter,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Barack Obama. “His was a reality-based presidency.”
Trump Retweets Fox Story Containing Classified Information
Trump retweeted a Fox News report based on anonymous U.S. intelligence sources Tuesday, despite urging his attorney general to crack down on leaks. The story said that spy agencies had detected North Korea loading anti-ship cruise missiles on a patrol boat, information which was attributed to anonymous U.S. officials. Asked about the story on Fox & Friends, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said, “I can’t talk about anything that’s classified and if that’s in a newspaper, that’s a shame.” The retweet comes after Trump was accused of sharing classified information about ISIS with Russian officials in May.
WHITE HOUSE AND ADMINISTRATION
Sebastian Gorka takes on Tillerson over North Korea comments.
Gorka Says It Is “Nonsensical” For Tillerson To Speak On Military Issues
White House aide Sebastian Gorka told the BBC Thursday that it is “nonsensical” for the U.S.’ chief diplomat to speak on military issues, and that Tillerson was out of line with remarks made the day before assuring Americans that military action against North Korea was not imminent. “The idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical,” Gorka said. “It is the job of Secretary Mattis, the secretary of defense, to talk about the military options, and he has done so unequivocally…That is his mandate. Secretary Tillerson is the chief diplomat of the United States, and it is his portfolio to handle those issues.”
Responding to questions about the remarks at a Thursday press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert emphasized that Tillerson’s words carry significant weight. “I think that everyone has clearly heard what Secretary Tillerson’s forceful comments have been and continue to be on the issue of DPRK and on other countries as well,” she said. “He’s a cabinet secretary. He’s the fourth in line to the presidency. He carries a big stick.”
The idea that Sebastian Gorka is discussing military matters for the WH and insulting the Secretary of State is simply nonsensical. https://t.co/hd7fLywrrZ
— Ben Rhodes (@brhodes) August 10, 2017
In a normal administration, this would lead to immediate firing, no? WH staffer publicly rebuking SecState https://t.co/Ci1UHLtGoc
— Josh Gerstein (@joshgerstein) August 10, 2017
Senior White House Advisers Receive Visit From Conservative Author Dinesh D’Souza
Dinesh D’Souza just deleted his tweets with photos from Steve Bannon’s office. Here are the screenshots: pic.twitter.com/F77C3cjWXY
— Christina Wilkie (@christinawilkie) August 4, 2017
Conservative author and documentarian Dinesh D’Souza visited the White House Friday “to brief Steve Bannon and @SebGorka on how Trump can flip the accusation of fascism on the Democratic left,” wrote the author in a quickly-deleted tweet featuring a picture of himself with Bannon holding D’Souza’s new book, The Big Lie.
“Although he did not meet the president, his appearance there underscores the continuing grip of divisive political rhetoric on the White House,” writes Alexander Nazaryan at Newsweek.
The book argues that the origins of the Democratic Party make Democrats and the forefathers of American and international genocide. It also compares American liberals to the Nazis, saying “They are the ones who use Nazi bullying and intimidating tactics and subscribe to a full-blown fascist ideology.” Two minutes after sending his first tweet, D’Souza tweeted a picture of himself with Gorka, saying “I signed copies of #TheBigLie for @realDonaldTrump, Bannon, @SebGorka (seen here) & senior staff.”
CIA Director Mike Pompeo Weighs In On Political Matters
CIA Director Mike Pompeo is perhaps the most openly political spy chief in a generation, according to the New York Times. “Unlike past directors, who typically sought to avoid policy discussions, Mr. Pompeo readily joins in when the president asks for his opinion, even on matters far afield of national security, such as health care,” writes Matthew Rosenberg. “And he brings to the table the views of a former congressman first elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 who staked out ground on the far right of the Republican Party.” His political stripes have caused concern within the apolitical CIA that Pompeo’s partisan opinions color his views on contentious issues, like Russia’s interference in the election.
CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Trump International Hotel is a boon to Trump company profits, and Ivanka Trump’s brand prepares to open in Trump Tower.
Trump’s DC Hotel Gaining Millions of Dollars From Political Crowd
The management of the Trump International Hotel deliberately capitalizes on the president’s popularity, marketing the hotel to Republican and conservative groups that embrace Trump’s politics, the Washington Post reports. “One of Washington’s most expensive hotels, the Trump International brought in $19.7 million between its opening last fall and mid-April, according to Trump’s most recent financial disclosure,” writes the Post’s Jonathan O’Connell in a long look at the hotel’s mingling of business and politics. “Some hotel industry experts say that number is higher than expected, and senior analyst Michael Bellisario of Robert W. Baird and Co. said, ‘Anecdotally, it’s doing well because people are staying there when they come to visit the White House.’”
The Trump Organization projected that it would lose $2.1 million during the first four months of 2017 as it established the new hotel in Washington, D.C. But it beat those expectations by $4.1 million, turning a $1.97 million profit so far in 2017. “Driving the profits are the extraordinary prices guests have been willing to pay for rooms, including members of Trump’s Cabinet who have stayed or lived there, as well as big spending on food and beverages in the meeting areas, bar and restaurant — spots frequented by members of Trump’s inner circle and other Republican leaders,” reports the Washington Post. It is probably the most expensive hotel in in the city, according to industry experts. The figures raise familiar questions about how the president is benefiting financially from his position in the government.
18 White House Staffers File Financial Disclosure Statements Late
Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner has been fined by the Office of Government Ethics for late reporting of a financial transaction. 17 other White House staffers filed their personal financial disclosure statements late. Those staffers include top aides, like former chief of staff Reince Priebus, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Omarosa Manigault, who serves as director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison. Government watchdog groups told McClatchy DC that the multiple instances of tardiness show that the Trump administration has failed to prioritize ethics, despite Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp.”
“These people coming into public service should have the attitude of bending over backwards to ensure…that the public interest is first and foremost in their mind,” said Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy at Issue One. “Confidence in government is largely based on this notion that you don’t have a conflict.”
Ivanka Trump Brand To Open New Store In Trump Tower
Ivanka Trump’s fashion brand is moving again into brick-and-mortar retail, as it is set to open a new store in Manhattan’s Trump Tower later this year. While Ivanka has handed over day-to-day management of the company bearing her name, she maintains her ownership. The shopfront has already attracted interest from tourists, and the new shop raises concerns that she could benefit from the fame her role in the government has earned her–particularly in light of its Trump Tower location.