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 September 8-September 15, 2017.
THE PRESS AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE
Trump again suggests both sides were to blame for Charlottesville violence. The administration takes the next step in its leak crackdown, and the press secretary suggests a journalist should be fired for criticism of the president.
Trump Repeats Claim That Both Sides To Blame For Charlottesville
Speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One Thursday, Trump resurrected his claim that those protesting neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville last month were as much to blame as the alt-right marchers. Trump was characterizing his side of a conversation on Wednesday with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), during which Scott said he confronted Trump over his earlier claim that “both sides” were to blame for violence. “Especially in light of the advent of Antifa, if you look at what’s going on there, you know, you have some pretty bad dudes on the other side also,” Trump said. ‘Antifa’ refers to anti-fascists, who counter-protested the neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
“Now because of what’s happened since then, with Antifa, you look at really what’s happened since Charlottesville — a lot of people are saying — in fact, a lot of people have actually written, ‘Gee, Trump might have point,” the president said. “I said, ‘You’ve got some very bad people on the other side, which is true.’” Trump was roundly criticized for drawing a moral equivalence between white supremacists and counter-protesters at his press conference immediately following the Charlottesville violence last month.
Press Secretary Calls Journalist’s Tweet Criticizing Trump “Fireable Offense”
After ESPN host Jemele Hill tweeted that Trump was a “white supremacist,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the criticism a “fireable offense by ESPN.” It is highly unusual for the White House to call for a journalist to lose their job, or to exert this kind of influence over any private business.
— Ana Navarro-Cárdenas (@ananavarro) September 14, 2017
Can anyone remember such a thing? A WH spox calling for employee of private company to be fired for anti-POTUS comments? https://t.co/Ieh5jnWfoz
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) September 13, 2017
W.H. officials have pressured media companies about critics in *private* before. But this time it happened in public https://t.co/BB3mp1nMHF
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) September 13, 2017
Some have pointed out the hypocrisy of this statement, given that Trump previously called Obama a racist.
Press Secretary Suggests Comey Should Be Prosecuted
At Tuesday’s press briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the Department of Justice “should certainly look at” prosecuting fired FBI Director James Comey for leaking “privileged information” and giving “false testimony” to Congress. She also said Comey’s action were “improper and likely could have been illegal” and that “Comey leaked memos to the New York Times.” Comey provided memos of his conversations with Trump to a friend, who provided them to a reporter. The friend has said the information was not classified. The Justice Department is traditionally independent, and the White House does not normally direct Justice Department investigations.
A president who gave up an intelligence program to an adversary country should be careful about making accusations of classified leaks. https://t.co/5mECH8mDFy
— Benjamin Wittes (@benjaminwittes) September 12, 2017
— Peter Baker (@peterbakernyt) September 13, 2017
The fact that @SHSanders45 keeps misstating the law isn't funny. It's part of a calculated attack on a man with a career in law enforcement.
— Renato Mariotti (@renato_mariotti) September 12, 2017
— Ned Price (@nedprice) September 12, 2017
CDC Cracking Down on Employees’ Conversations With Press
Axios reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is cracking down on employees’ conversations with the press. An internal email sent by CDC’s public affairs officer in late August instructs employees not to speak to reporters, “even for a simple data-related question.” All correspondence with the news media must now be cleared by the Atlanta Communications Office.
Trump Administration Launches New Anti-Leak Program
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has requested that every government department and agency hold a one-hour training next week on “unauthorized disclosures” of classified and certain unclassified information, BuzzFeed News reports. The memo about leaks includes “suggested training materials” including a video of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ August news conference about leaks. The memo is the latest step in the Trump administration’s crackdown on leakers, and could signal a dramatic expansion of the previous administration’s leak crackdown. The Obama administration focused on national security leaks and “insider threats” from intelligence agencies. McMaster’s memo is directed to a much larger group, including virtually every senior official in the federal government.
NATIONAL SECURITY AND FOREIGN POLICY
More details emerge about Russian use of social media to influence American politics. Michael Flynn advocated for nuclear plan whose backers paid him, and questions emerge about whether Trump officials sought backchannel with Russia through UAE.
Russian Operatives Remotely Organized Political Rallies In the U.S. Through Facebook
Using false identities and Facebook’s events tool, Russian operatives organized and promoted political protests in the U.S., including an anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rally in Idaho last summer, the Daily Beast reports. Facebook confirmed that the events were promoted with paid ads. The Daily Beast describes the events as “the first indication that the Kremlin’s attempts to shape America’s political discourse moved beyond fake news and led unwitting Americans into specific real-life action.” The news follows Facebook’s disclosure last week that Russia used fake accounts and about 3,000 ads to spread politically divisive posts in America before and after the election, which were likely seen by between 23 and 70 million people. The Idaho event was “hosted” by a page outed as a Russian front, and its description stated: “We must stop taking in Muslim refugees! We demand open and thorough investigation of all the cases regarding Muslim refugees! All government officials, who are covering up for these criminals, should be fired!”
Rice Says She Ordered Unmasking After Unannounced UAE Crown Prince Visit With Trump Team
Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice has told House investigators that she unmasked the identities of senior Trump officials to understand why the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates was in New York last last year, CNN reports. The crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan came to New York last December to meet with Trump aides, including Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon. The UAE did not notify the Obama administration that Zayed was travelling to the U.S., which is unusual for a foreign dignitary. The UAE later tried to facilitate back-channel communication between Russia and the Trump team. Rice’s explanation raises questions about whether any Trump associates tried to arrange back-channel discussions with Russia.
Flynn, Bannon & Kushner discussed secret backchannel to Russia. Flynn & Bannon are gone. Why does Kushner still have a security clearance? https://t.co/qwltYxKesm
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) September 13, 2017
Flynn Advocated For For-Profit Nuclear Scheme While Working For Transition
When he was a top official in Trump’s transition team, Michael Flynn actively promoted a private-sector scheme to build nuclear reactors across the Middle East without disclosing the plan’s backers had paid him at least $25,000, Politico reports. He communicated with the plan’s backers during the transition, and also expressed his support for the plan with other transition officials, and discussed its merits with others outside the team. Special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional investigators are looking into Flynn’s activities during the transition as part of their Russia probes.
Mexico Rescinds Texas Aid Offer
Mexico has rescinded its offer of aid to victims of Hurricane Harvey, after the country suffered an earthquake and another hurricane. However, Mexico’s foreign ministry also noted that the U.S. embassy had taken nine days to respond to Mexico’s formal offer of aid, accepting “only certain logistical aid.” The Mexican media has also highlighted that Trump has not sent condolences or made a statement about the earthquake, nor did he publicly acknowledge Mexico’s aid offer.
After a devastating earthquake and hurricane (and after Trump failed to send condolences), Mexico today rescinded its offer of aid to the US
— Kate Linthicum (@katelinthicum) September 11, 2017
Trump later blamed bad cell phone service for his delayed phone call to Mexico’s president, which came on Thursday, nearly a week after the earthquake struck. However, other national leaders across the Americas were able to reach out by phone or social media to offer condolences or assistance just hours after the earthquake struck.
THE TRUMP-RUSSIA CONNECTION
Jared Kushner’s position in the White House was questioned by Trump’s lawyers.
Some of Trump’s Personal Lawyers Argued Kushner Should Step Down Because of Russia Probe
Earlier this summer, some of Trump’s lawyers concluded Jared Kushner should step down from his position as senior White House adviser because of legal complications arising from the Russia investigations. They also aired concerns about him to the president, the Wall Street Journal reports. The issues raised included the fact that Kushner was the adviser closest to Trump who had the most dealings with Russians during the campaign and transition, and his original omission of contacts with foreign officials on his security clearance form. Kushner has said he had four such meetings or interactions with Russian officials and businesspeople, and updated his security clearance form to include over 100 contacts with foreign officials.
WHITE HOUSE AND ADMINISTRATION
The Trump administration is reluctant to blame hurricanes Irma and Harvey on climate change. The government is slow to take action on opioid emergency but embraces regulation on social conservative issues.
Administration Reluctant to Connect Hurricanes With Climate Change
The White House has declined to draw a link between climate change and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. In a press briefing on Monday, Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert said that “causality is something outside of my ability to analyze right now.There’s a cyclical nature to a lot of these hurricanes. We continue to take seriously the climate change, not the cause of it, but the things we observe.”
Bossert: "We continue to take climate change seriously, not the cause of it, but what we can see right now.” pic.twitter.com/L3xc5g2wgW
— Christina Wilkie (@christinawilkie) September 11, 2017
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said Friday that it was “insensitive” to raise climate change as the storm was unfolding. “To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm; versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced,” he told CNN.
White House Chief of Staff Kelly Says “Every DOJ and DHS Lawyer Says DACA Is Unconstitutional”
Responding to criticism from a House Democrat who called him a “disgrace to the uniform” over Trump’s plans to end DACA, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has said that Congress did “nothing” to help Dreamers and that DACA is not legal. “Every DOJ and DHS lawyer says DACA is unconstitutional,” he wrote to Fox News. “Every other legal scholar – right and left – says the same thing. Trump didn’t end DACA, the law did.” Scholars are divided over DACA’s constitutionality, leading to some criticism of Kelly’s statement as misleading.
You cannot have a healthy informational diet and believe that there is a consensus among legal scholars that DACA is unconstitutional.
— Dara Lind (@DLind) September 11, 2017
— Jay Shooster (@JayShooster) September 11, 2017
Trump Slow To Take Action On Opioid “Emergency”
In early August, Trump announced that the opioid crisis was a “national emergency” and “a serious problem the likes of which we have never had.” One month on, Trump has yet to take urgent action to address the problem. Trump’s aides say they are pursuing an expedited process, but there are few details about how Trump plans to tackle the crisis. “While the president’s opioid commission, led by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, has urged him to move swiftly, Mr. Trump and his cabinet — primarily his health secretary, Tom Price — are trying to determine how best to move forward amid warnings from deficit hawks within the administration about the potential costs,” writes Maggie Haberman at the New York Times. As with many of his campaign promises, Mr. Trump is discovering the realities of limited government resources, slow-moving agencies and the competing agendas of cabinet members, even as they try to push in the same general direction.”
Aggressive Regulation on Conservative Social Issues Runs Counter To Trump’s General Position on Government
When it comes to government regulation, Trump tends to believe less is more and has promised to wind back two regulations for every new one his government creates. However, this approach has not extended to social conservative priorities, the New York Times reports. Initiatives like the removal of references to “LGBTQ youth” in a description of a federal program for sex trafficking victims and the elimination of funding to international groups that provide abortion point to “a fundamental repurposing of the federal bureaucracy to promote conservative social priorities,” the Times reports. Evangelical Christians and other conservative groups said in interviews that they have more regular discussions on policy with the administration than during the presidency of George W. Bush, a Christian conservative and the last Republican president.
CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
Trump’s company may benefit from Malaysian Prime Minister’s visit and will work with Chinese government-owned company. White House staffers can receive anonymous donations for legal defense funds, thanks to ethics rule change. Steve Mnuchin subject to inquiry after requesting a government jet for his honeymoon.
Malaysian Prime Minister Visits Trump International Hotel
In a possible violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, the Malaysian Prime Minister has visited the Trump International Hotel, which the president owns through a trust. The hotel and Malaysian officials declined to say whether Prime Minister Najib Razak and his delegation stayed overnight at the hotel, but Najib was seen to exit the hotel ahead of his meeting with Trump and his delegation’s presence was reportedly obvious at the hotel. Najib’s official White House visit brought at least 24 hours of activity and sales to the hotel, reports the Washington Post. The Justice Department is conducting its largest ever kleptocracy investigation into whether the prime minister diverted over $1 billion from a Malaysian-government investment fund to his own bank accounts.
Chinese Government-Owned Construction Company Hired To Work On New Trump Golf Club Development in Dubai
Trump has promised that his family business would not engage in any transactions with foreign government entities during the term of his presidency. However, the Middle East subsidiary of the majority government-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation has been awarded the $32 million contract to build a road as part of a Trump World Golf Club Dubai project. The contract was awarded by Trump’s partner, DAMAC Properties. Meredith McGehee, policy chief at Issue One — an organization which works to reduce the role of money in politics — told McClatchy DC that doing business with a foreign entity poses several potential problems for a president, including accusations that a foreign government is enriching him, gaining access to or building goodwill with him and becoming a factor in foreign policy. It might also raise emoluments clause issues.
Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Requested Government Plane for Honeymoon
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin requested a government plane to take him and his new wife Louise Linton on their honeymoon to Europe earlier this summer, ABC News reports. Mnuchin reportedly wanted a secure method of communication. The request reportedly led to an “inquiry” by the Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General. The request for a U.S. Air Force jet is “highly unusual,” according to ABC. “You don’t need a giant rulebook of government requirements to just say yourself, ‘This is common sense, it’s wrong,'” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon). “That’s just slap your forehead stuff.” The inspector general is already reviewing whether Mnuchin improperly used a government jet to get in a good spot for viewing last month’s solar eclipse.
You don't request taxpayer funding for your honeymoon in a vacuum. You do it when corruption has become a feature of government culture. https://t.co/fjpw3rCVMM
— Evan McMullin (@EvanMcMullin) September 13, 2017
White House Ethics Watchdog Changes Rules, Allowing Anonymous Gifts To Legal Defense Funds
The U.S. Office of Government Ethics has reversed an internal policy which prohibited anonymous donations from lobbyists to White House staffers’ legal defense funds. The quiet rule change may help Trump aides who have hired lawyers to represent them in the Russia investigations. However, it raises the potential for conflicts of interest. “You can picture a whole army of people with business before the government willing to step in here and make [the debt] go away,” Marilyn Glynn, a former George W. Bush-era acting OGE director who worked in the office for 17 years, told Politico.
Kushner Company Faced Difficulty Getting Investors Due to White House Role
A $1.2 billion mortgage for a Fifth Avenue tower owned by Jared Kushner’s family company will come due in 18 months, and with one-fourth of its offices empty lease revenue does not cover monthly interest repayments. One reason for the family’s difficulty courting investors and tenants: Jared Kushner’s White House role. “They were crushed by this,” Thomas Barrack, a a friend of Trump and Kushner’s and former project investor, told the Washington Post. Kushner’s move to the White House “just about completely chilled the market, and [potential investors] just said, ‘No way — can’t be associated with any appearances of conflict of interest,’ even though there was none.”
Trump’s voter fraud commission meets again, as controversy roils over its vice chair’s extra-curricular writing and a February request from the Heritage Foundation that no Democrats or mainstream Republicans be appointed to the panel.
Heritage Foundation Said Voter Fraud Commission Should Exclude Democrats and Mainstream Republicans
The conservative Heritage Foundation wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February, complaining that the administration’s voter fraud commission should not include Democrats or “mainstream” Republicans. “There isn’t a single Democratic official who will do anything other than obstruct any investigation of voter fraud and issue constant public announcements criticizing the commission,” wrote the Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, who has since been appointed to the commission. The email went on: “If they are picking mainstream Republican officials and/or academics to man this commission then it will be an abject failure because there aren’t any that know anything about this or who have paid any attention to this issue over the years.” Trump and the commission’s chair, Vice President Mike Pence, have said the panel will not have predetermined conclusions. Trump has named a number of Democrats to the commission.
Kobach Under Fire For Breitbart Article As Commission Convenes in New Hampshire
In an article published on the alt-right website Breitbart Friday, Kansas Secretary of State and electoral fraud commission vice chair Kris Kobach suggested there was evidence of widespread voter fraud in New Hampshire. In the article, Kobach pointed to statistics showing that more than 6,000 people had vote in a close election using out-of-state driver’s licenses. The article has been criticized by election experts. Kobach has previously noted that there should be no “preordained” or “preconceived” notions about what the commission will conclude after considering data and expert testimony. A Democrat on the commission, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, said Kobach’s article was “reckless.”
Trump goes around Republicans to work with Democrats – again.
Trump Appears To Cut Deal With Democrats on Immigration
At a dinner Wednesday with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.), Trump reportedly made a deal to pair legal status for Dreamers with enhanced border security measures. The deal did not include funding for the planned border wall with Mexico. No Republican lawmakers were invited to the dinner, and it was the second time in one week that Trump had bypassed the GOP to make a deal directly with Democrats. Politico’s Playbook puts it this way: “It can’t be overstated: this isn’t how Washington usually works. A Republican president cutting out his own party’s leadership on a politically sensitive issue to work directly with Democrats is unheard of and would otherwise be considered politically perilous.”