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 25-September 1, 2017.
RULE OF LAW
Trump’s pardon of Arizona’s former sheriff Joe Arpaio raises questions about the rule of law.
Trump Pardons Joe Arpaio
Last Friday Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff convicted of criminal contempt for continuing in his hunt of undocumented immigrants even after his policies were found to be unconstitutional. The president did not consult with the Justice Department on the pardon or go through the Office of the Pardon Attorney. All House Judiciary Democrats have jointly called for a hearing on the decision. The decision has also drawn criticism from Trump’s own side of politics. For example, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said “No one is above the law, and the individuals entrusted with the privilege of being sworn law officers should always seek to be beyond reproach in their commitment to fairly enforcing the laws they swore to uphold.” It has widely been described as an abuse of power. The New York Times’ Adam Liptak described the concerns with the pardon in this way: “Mr. Trump … used his constitutional power to block a federal judge’s effort to enforce the Constitution. Legal experts said they found this to be the most troubling aspect of the pardon, given that it excused the lawlessness of an official who had sworn to defend the constitutional structure.”
Arpaio is notorious for the harsh conditions in his county jail, made inmates wear pink underwear and served jail food that some prisoners described as inedible. A federal district judge ordered Arpaio in 2011 to stop detaining Latinos based solely on suspicion of their immigration status. Last month he was convicted for defying the order.
Trump Reportedly Asked Sessions About Closing Case Against Arpaio
Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions whether it would be possible for the government to drop its criminal case against Arpaio ahead of the trial, the Washington Post reports. After the conversation, Trump decided to let the case proceed to trial and grant clemency if he was convicted. “Presidents can set law enforcement priorities, but they are expected to steer clear of involvement in specific cases to avoid the perception of politicizing the impartial administration of justice,” writes the Post.
THE PRESS AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE
Trump use Hurricane Harvey to do a Friday night news dump, and his “off-key” response to the hurricane raises eyebrows.
White House Releases Several Significant News Items on Friday Night
Last Friday over the course of four hours, as the nation was watching hurricane Harvey make landfall, the administration released three significant pieces of news – the ban on transgender people serving in the military was made official, adviser Sebastian Gorka was fired, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio had been pardoned. According to the Washington Post, the timing gave “new meaning to the Friday night news dump strategy that has long been a staple for Washington politicians looking to bury controversial decisions.”
As millions of people in TX and LA are prepping for the hurricane, the President is using the cover of the storm to 1/
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) August 26, 2017
Trump later defended the timing of the announcement of Arpaio’s pardon, saying he assumed “ratings would be far higher” if it happened during the hurricane.
Trump just said he pardoned Arpaio during Hurricane Harvey because it would get better “ratings” from people following the storm on TV.
— Glenn Thrush (@GlennThrush) August 28, 2017
“Off-Key”: Trump Criticized For Response to Hurricane Harvey
Trump’s demonstrated an unorthodox style in responding to Houston’s hurricane Harvey this week, with some saying he lacked the requisite empathy. Apart from using it to release news of his pardon of Joe Arpaio, Trump’s tweets about the storm were described as “off-key” and conveying “an unabashed excitement about the historic nature of the storm” by the New York Times. “Many people are now saying that this is the worst storm/hurricane they have ever seen,” he tweeted. “Good news is that we have great talent on the ground.” He later followed with: “HISTORIC rainfall in Houston, and all over Texas. Floods are unprecedented, and more rain coming. Spirit of the people is incredible.Thanks!”
HISTORIC rainfall in Houston, and all over Texas. Floods are unprecedented, and more rain coming. Spirit of the people is incredible.Thanks!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 27, 2017
When he visited Houston Tuesday, Trump was compared unfavorably to previous presidents as he did not meet any victims. He again spoke repeatedly about the historic nature of the storm. His wife Melania drew attention for wearing stilettos on her way to Houston, which some saw as sending the wrong message. “Heading off to Texas, she looked dressed to view a natural disaster from a distance, from on high, not up close,” wrote Robin Givhan in the Washington Post.
Trump later tweeted that he had witnessed the devastation “first hand,” which has been criticized as misleading, given that he did not meet victims or witness the flooding.
— Todd J. Gillman (@toddgillman) August 30, 2017
When asked about Trump witnessing Harvey “first hand,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave a first-rate description of a second-hand account. https://t.co/zvE01Sbhen
— Brian Klaas (@brianklaas) August 31, 2017
Trump Energy Nominee Appeared To Denigrate Obama’s Mother Online
William C. Bradford, Trump’s appointee to head up the Energy Department’s Office of Indian Energy, has previously appeared in Norms Watch for describing Obama as a “Kenyan creampuff” on Twitter, amongst other disparaging tweets about public figures. CNN has now found more inflammatory comments that appear to have been made by Bradford online, including one last year that said Obama was “the son of a fourth-rate p&*n actress and w@!re.” Bradford has denied the comments are his, saying he is the victim of cyber attacks and “internet crimes.”
THE TRUMP-RUSSIA CONNECTION
An abandoned deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow worked on during the presidential campaign may cause Trump trouble, as an associate wrote the deal would get Trump elected and Trump’s lawyer sought Putin’s help.
Trump Associate Said Moscow Deal Would “Get Donald Elected”
A business associate of Trump boasted in 2015 that he would help Trump win the presidency by engineering a real estate deal with the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the New York Times reports. In emails to Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, Felix Sater boasted about his ties to Putin and suggested building a Trump Tower in Moscow would show off Trump’s negotiating skills. “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.” In a statement provided to Congress on Monday, Cohen suggested that he viewed Sater’s comments as puffery.
“The emails show that, from the earliest months of Mr. Trump’s campaign, some of his associates viewed close ties with Moscow as a political advantage,” reports the Times. “Those ties are now under investigation by the Justice Department and multiple congressional committees.”
Trump’s Team Asked Putin Aide To Help With Trump Tower Moscow
In pursuing the same project, Trump’s lawyer and business adviser approached Putin’s team for assistance. In January 2016, Michael Cohen wrote to Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, asking for “assistance” in arranging the deal. In a statement to the House Intelligence Committee, Cohen claims he sent the email at Sater’s request, because the proposal would require Russian government approval. He says he did not inform Trump that he had sent the email, and the deal was abandoned a few weeks later. He also say he does not recall receiving a response from Peskov or having further contact with Russian government officials.
“Cohen’s email marks the most direct outreach documented by a top Trump aide to a similarly senior member of Putin’s government,” reports the Washington Post. It “provides an example of a Trump business official directly seeking Kremlin assistance in advancing Trump’s business interests.”
Cohen says he discussed the tower deal with Trump three times during the presidential campaign. Trump signed a letter of intent to pursue the tower development in Moscow, according to the Trump Organization’s then-chief counsel Michael Cohen. During the campaign, Trump insisted his business had “no relationship to Russia whatsoever.”
Mueller’s Team Is Asking Whether Trump Tried To Hide Purpose of Trump Tower Meeting
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators are particularly interested in Trump’s role in crafting the response to reports that his son attended a meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower last year, according to NBC News. It has been reported that Trump dictated Donald Trump Jr.’s response, which was misleading.
Rep. Rohrabacher Says He Will “Rendezvous” With Trump To Relay Information From Assange on DNC Hack
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Cal.) has told Sean Hannity’s radio show that a “rendezvous” between him and Trump is being set up, at which he can relay information about the hack of the Democratic National Committee last year given to him by Julian Assange. Rohrabacher claims Assange told him that Russia was not involved in the hacking. Rohrabacher suggested the hack was an “inside job.” Assange has previously suggested that murdered DNC staffer might have been behind the leak of the information to WikiLeaks, a theory which undermines the Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russia was responsible.
Once again, this is outrageous conduct by Rohrabacher and outrageous for Trump to even consider taking this meeting. https://t.co/AQTNfv3hVG
— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) August 29, 2017
In light of his meeting with Assange, CNN reports that the Senate Intelligence Committee may want to talk with Rohrabacher. House Democrats have called for Rohrabacher to step down from chairing the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee that oversees Russia.
DCCC calls on Rep. Dana Rohrabacher to be removed from leading the HFAC subcommittee overseeing Russia. pic.twitter.com/fVq93X5bHl
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) August 31, 2017
Trump Curries Favor With Senator Investigating Don Trump Jr.’s Ties With Russia
On Wednesday morning, Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) tweeted that Trump had called him to say he was pro-ethanol, one of Grassley’s “most important parochial issues,” according to the Washington Post. The call comes ahead of a closed-door interview Grassley’s committee will be conducting with Don Trump Jr. about his June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians who claimed to have Kremlin connections as part of the committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
As the Post noted, the timing of the call is somewhat unusual, given that there is no major legislation that would impact ethanol before the Senate right now. A White House official claimed the call was to reassure Grassley after some in the ethanol industry claimed Trump’s withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would impact their business.
WHITE HOUSE AND ADMINISTRATION
Divisions in the administration spill into public view.
Trump’s Senior Aides Air Post-Charlottesville Grievances In Public
Following economic advisor Gary Cohn’s criticism of Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville last week, other cabinet members have publicly distanced themselves from Trump. In a television interview over the weekend, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that Trump “speaks for himself” rather than for the country’s values. “We express America’s values from the State Department — our commitment to freedom, our commitment to equal treatment of people the world over, and that message has never changed,” Tillerson told Fox News Sunday. Defense Secretary James Mattis advised U.S. troops to “hold the line until our country gets back to respecting each other.” Some have interpreted those comments as a critique of Trump.
An unforgettable moment. pic.twitter.com/KNu18g2FyP
— Margarita Noriega (@margarita) August 27, 2017
After Leaving White House, Sebastian Gorka Attacks Administration
After parting ways with the White House Friday, former adviser Sebastian Gorka has criticized Trump and Cabinet members in a series of interviews on Monday. On Fox News Radio, Gorka complained that Trump failed to mention radical Islamic terrorism in his speech on Afghanistan, and that indicated to him that “anti-MAGA [Make America Great Again] forces were in ascendance.” In the same interview, he questioned the credentials of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post the same day, he said National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster had a liberal worldview on the threat posed by radical Islamic extremists. The interviews pointed to deep divisions between so-called ‘globalists’ and Trump campaign loyalists within the administration.
People Keep Leaving Trump’s Advisory Groups
Three of the administration’s advisory groups have completely disbanded, and others are losing individual members, with resignations now totalling at least 69. One quarter of the members of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council resigned, citing Trump’s “insufficient attention” to cybersecurity threats and the administration’s undermining of the country’s “moral structure” in a group resignation letter.
DeVos Appoints Former For-Profit College Dean To Head Fraud Unit
Education Secretary Betsy Devos has chosen a former official at the for-profit DeVry University to run the Education Department’s fraud investigation unit. DeVry reached a $100 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission last year, which followed allegations that the school misled students about job prospects. The college also reached settlements with the New York attorney general and the Education Department. The unit is reportedly actively looking into DeVry’s operations. BuzzFeed reports that the appointment of Julian Schmoke to head of the enforcement unit has caused anxiety and frustration inside the Department.
This is a joke, right? Basically akin to nominating influenza to be the Surgeon General. https://t.co/dxyznIfgZz
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) August 30, 2017
Trump Urges State To Vote Out Democratic Senator In Presidential Speech
Launching his tax reforms in Missouri, Trump predicted that the state’s Democratic senior senator Claire McCaskill would not support his reform. “And if she doesn’t do it for you, you have vote. Her. Out. Of. Office,” went on. “This is a real problem,” according to Larry Noble, the senior director of the Campaign Legal Center. The president is “not supposed to do any electioneering when he’s on government business,” he told the Washington Post. “Calling for the defeat of somebody is electioneering and is a campaign statement, and therefore should only take place at a campaign event.”
If we still abided by the rule of law, the RNC would have to reimburse taxpayers for this trip https://t.co/H9LgQAygIr
— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) August 30, 2017
NATIONAL SECURITY AND FOREIGN POLICY
The U.S. retreats from international affairs by scaling back General Assembly presence and ending special envoy positions. The Trump administration again seems to present starkly inconsistent foreign policy positions.
Tillerson Scales Back U.S.’ General Assembly Presence
In a signal that the Trump administration is taking its promises to retreat from international affairs seriously, the State Department is planning to scale back its presence at September’s annual gathering of heads of state at the U.N. General Assembly general debate, Foreign Policy reports. While Trump will attend, “the ranks of professional diplomats, aides and officials that attend the event to promote American policy priorities on a range of issues will be thinned out.” Secretary of State Rex TIllerson will also spend less time engaging in diplomatic work at the meeting than his predecessors.
Tillerson Nixes Special Envoy Positions
Tillerson also plans to end or downgrade as many as three dozen special envoy positions at the State Department, he said in a letter to Foreign Relations Committee head Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). The envoys to be eliminated include those climate change, Syria, Sudan and South Sudan, and the Arctic.
Mattis and Trump Diverge on North Korea
Defense Secretary James Mattis has told reporters that “we are never out of diplomatic solutions” on North Korea, hours after Trump tweeted that “talking is not the answer.” Reuters described it as “the latest example of a once-rare public display of disagreement by top U.S. aides that has become more frequent under President Donald Trump.”
Sebastian Gorka Suggests U.S. Covertly Interfering With North Korea Missiles
Sebastian Gorka, a former deputy assistant to Trump who left the White House last Friday, seemed to confirm the U.S. had a covert cyber sabotage program directed at North Korea’s missiles in an interview on Fox News on Tuesday. “You’ve seen a lot of missile tests fail, most tests actually fail,” he said. “Sometimes there may be reasons other than just the incompetence of North Korea.” If true, this would likely be classified information.
Trump Removed the US Ambassador to Amman at the Request of the Jordanian King
US ambassador to Jordan Alice Wells was “pushed out” of the job by Trump soon after he took office, despite the fact that “there was no evidence the diplomat had misrepresented Washington’s policies,” write Dan De Luce and Ruby Mellen at Foreign Policy. Trump had apparently received complaints about Wells from the country’s king.
CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
When is a hat not just a hat?
Trump Draws Criticism For Wearing Hat His Campaign Sells
Appearing on television to support victims of Hurricane Harvey, Trump has worn white and red versions of a hat with “USA” on the front. The same hat appears to be for sale on Trump’s campaign website for $40, branded the “Official USA 45th Presidential Hat.” Ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington argues wearing the hat is inappropriate, as it constitutes free advertising for Trump products.