Norms Watch: Democracy, the Trump Administration, and Reactions to It (September 22-September 29)

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THE PRESS AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE

Trump again stirs up racial divisions, this time by weighing in on NFL stars’ protests.

 

All About That Base: Trump Goes To War With NFL Over Racial Justice Protests

Trump spent this past weekend stirring up racial divisions in a sustained attack on NFL players kneeling in protest during the pre-game national anthem that was reportedly a deliberate nod to his electoral base. The attack started at an Alabama rally on Friday night, when Trump took aim at the football stars, most of them black, who have taken to kneeling during the pre-game playing of the national anthem as a protest of police brutality and systemic racism.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ’Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired,” Trump said to loud applause. Then followed a slew of tweets over the weekend, including: “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!” Trump also waded into the world of basketball, tweeting on Saturday that Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry’s invitation to visit the White House was “withdrawn!”

 

Trump’s comments on sports are notable for their racial undertones, particularly in light of his equivocal responses to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville this summer. The first player to kneel during the anthem, Colin Kaepernick, explicitly did so to protest police treatment of black people, and most NFL players to kneel this weekend were black. However, on Sunday, Trump insisted the episode had “nothing to do with race” but was instead “to do with respect for our country.”

 

Trump told members to his New Jersey golf club over the weekend that his attacks on Kaepernick appealed strongly to his base, suggesting that he did not mind alienating critics in the process. According to the New York Times, White House officials say Trump is worried that his recent collaboration with democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer threatens his standing with his base.

Trump’s critiques prompted robust ripostes from the football world. On Saturday, the NFL and its players’ union denounced Trump for his suggestion that owners should fire players who kneel during the anthem. And on Sunday, about 200 players sat, knelt or raised their fists during the national anthem – up from just six one week ago. Others stayed in the tunnel before the anthem, and most players locked arms with their teammates in a show of solidarity.

 

Trump Invents Story About Senator In Hospital

Appearing on Fox & Friends Thursday, Trump said the latest healthcare bill could not pass, in part because a crucial senator is in the hospital. This statement followed a tweet on Wednesday morning, saying, “With one Yes vote in hospital & very positive signs from Alaska and two others (McCain is out), we have the HCare Vote, but not for Friday!” He repeated the claim again during his tax form comments that day. There is no senator in hospital. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias explains: “This appears to be a reference to Sen. Thad Cochran who, though not hospitalized, is at home recuperating from some kind of urological issue. However, Trump appears to have cause and effect reversed here. According to Cochran’s staff, he is resting in Mississippi because there are no crucial senate votes rather than the senate not holding votes because Cochran is in Mississippi.”

 

WHITE HOUSE AND ADMINISTRATION

Trump comes under fire for a lacklustre response to devastation in Puerto Rico, the acting DEA head steps down after concerns about Trump’s respect for the rule of law, and HHS continues to step back from Obamacare. 

 

“Great”, “Amazing”, “Tremendous”: Puerto Rico Languishes In Hurricane Maria’s Wake As Trump Congratulates Himself

The administration is earning “tremendous reviews” for its response to the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, Trump said in a Rose Garden news conference Tuesday. “Everybody has said it’s amazing the job that we’ve done in Puerto Rico,” he said. “We’re very proud of it. . . . This was a place that was destroyed. I think we’ve done a very good job.”

 

The self-congratulation came amid criticism that Trump has seemed less engaged by the humanitarian crisis on foot in the U.S. territory than he was by the struggles faced by Florida and Texas after recent hurricanes there. Maria killed at least 16 people and left most of the island’s 3.4 million people without power and lacking food and medical supplies. Over the weekend, judging by his Twitter feed, Trump seemed more exorcised by the issue of NFL players’ responses to the national anthem than the troubles of Puerto Ricans. Indeed, some even suggested that Trump was blaming the island for its own misfortune, as he tweeted unsympathetically that Puerto Rico owed billions to Wall Street and was “in deep trouble.”

 

On Tuesday, the Trump administration said there was no need to waive shipping restrictions in order to get fuel and supplies to Puerto Rico, because it would not address the island’s main impediment to shipping, damaged ports. In the wake of storms, the government has occasionally issued temporary waivers to the Jones Act, which limits shipping between coasts to U.S. flagged vessels. The government issued waivers after hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit Florida and Texas. In a letter to the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, Elaine Duke, Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) said, “It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster.”

On Thursday, the administration reversed that position, with Duke announcing the Jones Act would be waived.

 

DEA Head Resigns Over Trump’s Lack of Respect For Law

The acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration is set to resign at the end of this week after becoming convinced that Trump has little respect for the law, the New York Times reports. When Trump told law enforcement officers in July “please don’t be too nice” when handling crime suspects, the official, Chuck Rosenberg, sent an email to all D.E.A. employees instructing them not to mistreat suspects and urging them to “act honorably.” Rosenberg, a career prosecutor, had previously served as FBI Director James Comey’s chief of staff, and remains a close confidant following Comey’s firing. Many career officials have become uncomfortable at Trump’s habit of injecting the White House into law enforcement matters, including disparaging comments about ongoing criminal investigations into his associates and encouraging the Justice Department to investigate his political rivals, including Hillary Clinton.

 

Still No Action on Opiod “National Emergency”

 

Treasury Department Significantly Understaffed, Posing Risk in Crisis

Nine of eighteen positions in Treasury requiring Senate confirmations remain unfilled eight months into Trump’s presidency, posing a risk should crisis hit and making Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s task of carrying out the administration’s ambitious economic agenda more difficult. Among the high-ranking positions without a permanent appointee is the deputy secretary role. Trump has not found a nominee for the role after Goldman Sachs partner Jim Donovan removed himself from consideration in May. “I cannot imagine having this skeletal staff if a crisis were to hit,” Stephen Myrow, who worked at Treasury during the George W. Bush administration when the global financial crisis began, told Bloomberg. “So many people go into government with a set agenda but what we’ve seen time and time again is that you spend your time working on crises — no one knows that better than those of us that served in 2008.” Mnuchin is responsible for chipping in on Trump’s tax reform and intensified sanctions against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela.

 

Interior Secretary Zinke Questions Employees’ Loyalty

Nearly one third of employees at the Interior Department are not loyal to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke or Trump, Zinke said Monday. In a speech to an oil industry group, ZInke said he knew when he took over the department that, “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.” He compared the department to a pirate ship that captures “a prized ship at sea and only the captain and the first mate row over” to finish the mission. The comments play into others in the administration’s rhetoric about a “deep state,” undemocratically sabotaging the Trump administration from within government.

 

Department of Health and Human Services Pulls Out of Obamacare Enrollment Events

All of the Department of Health and Human Services’ ten regional directors have been told not to participate in open enrollment events in the states as they have in past years, BuzzFeed reports. This move is in line with the Trump administration’s trend of diminishing federal assistance for Obamacare and dialing back resources for the upcoming open enrollment period.

 

NATIONAL SECURITY AND FOREIGN POLICY

White House staff used personal email accounts to conduct official business. New travel restrictions replace the travel ban, and North Korea’s threats ratchet up a level.

 

At Least Six White House Advisers Used Private Email Accounts

At least six top White House advisers have used private email addresses to discuss governmental matters, the New York Times reports. Jared Kushner sent or received about 100 work-related emails through a private address in the administration’s first seven months. Ivanka Trump used a private account when she acted as an unpaid adviser in the first few months of the administration. Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus also indulged in private emails occasionally. And other advisers, including Gary Cohn and Stephen Miller, sent or received at least a few emails on personal accounts. Government officials are supposed to use government emails for official duties so that their conversations are preserved. Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state was a major theme of Trump’s election campaign.

On Thursday, it emerged that Kushner had not shared the existence of his personal email account with the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee in his closed interview. The committee’s chair and vice chair learned of the existence of the personal account through the media, and have written to Kushner instructing him to check he has turned over every relevant document, including those from his “‘personal email account’ described to the news media, as well as all other email accounts, messaging apps, or similar communications channels you may have used, or that may contain information relevant to our inquiry.” CNN obtained a copy of the letter after a self-dubbed “email prankster” posed as Kushner and wrote to his attorney earlier this week. When his attorney attempted to forward the committee’s letter to Kushner, his email apparently auto-filled the fake Kushner account’s address, and the prankster forwarded the email to CNN.

 

Trump Replaces Travel Ban With Restrictions on More Countries

Trump’s travel ban, which bans immigration from six majority Muslim countries and is set to expire soon, will be replaced by a new set of restrictions on travellers from a wider range of countries, according to U.S. officials. Travel will be limited from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen (Sudan has been dropped from the list, and Chad, North Korea and Venezuela added).

 

North Korean Leader Says Trump “Deranged”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has described Trump as “deranged” and a “rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire” and said he will “pay dearly” for this threats, following Trump’s fiery speech at the United Nations General Assembly last week. North Korea’s foreign minister added hours later that the country may test a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific ocean. In Trump’s speech last week, Trump described Kim as “Rocket Man”, said Kim was “on a suicide mission”, and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. Senior aides reportedly warned him not to make these comments, which were not included in the speech draft vetted by senior aides the day before Trump’s speech. The fear was that insulting Kim so publicly could escalate tensions and shut down opportunities for negotiations to defuse the nuclear standoff.  

 

Leading Law Firm Faced With Questions Over Work With Manafort

Prominent New York-based law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & From has been asked for information and documents related to work it did with Paul Manafort five years ago, the New York Times reports. Manafort requested the firm draft a report that was then used by allies of his client, Viktor Yanukovych, the Russia-aligned Ukrainian president, to justify jailing a political rival. Manafort’s work for Yunukovych’s party and Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, and the handling of payments for that work, have assumed importance in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. It is unclear if the request to Skadden is part of Mueller’s inquiry. At the time of its release, a State Department official called the report “incomplete” at a press briefing, saying that it “doesn’t give an accurate picture.”

 

SOCIAL MEDIA MANIPULATION

New details emerge about Russia’s manipulation of Facebook and Twitter to stir up confusion and divisions and spread disinformation in the U.S.

 

Facebook Turns Over Russian-Bought Ads To Congress, Revealing They Played On Deep Divides in American Society

The batch of over 3,000 Russian-bought ads on Facebook, to be turned over to Congress, reveal a sophisticated attempt to take advantage of social divides in American society, the Washington Post reports. Some promoted groups like Black Lives Matter and others suggested the same groups posed threats, taking advantage of Facebook’s ability to target ads based on political and demographic characteristics. Other ads sought to sow discord among religious groups, and others highlight support for Hillary Clinton among Muslim women. “Their aim was to sow chaos,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the Post. “In many ­cases, it was more about voter suppression rather than increasing turnout.” The House and Senate intelligence committees will begin reviewing the ads in coming weeks. Facebook has identified at least $100,000 in ads purchased through 470 fake Facebook pages and accounts.

This week it was also reported that Obama personally appealed to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to take the threat of fake news and political disinformation seriously, nine days after Zuckerberg described as “crazy” of the idea that Facebook’s fake news played a key role in the U.S. election, and during the transition. Zuckerberg’s initial response plays into criticisms that the company dragged its feet and is only taking action now because of external pressures. “There’s been a systematic failure of responsibility” on Facebook’s part, Zeynep Tufekci told the Washington Post, as associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies social media companies’ impact on society and governments. “It’s rooted in their overconfidence that they know best, their naivete about how the world works, their extensive effort to avoid oversight, and their business model of having very few employees so that no one is minding the store.”

 

Russians Posed As Real American Muslims on Facebook and Instagram

Russians used a Facebook group called the United Muslims of America as a front to push disinformation about terrorist organizations and U.S. politicians to American Muslims, buying Facebook ads to reach its audience, promoting political rallies aimed at Muslim audiences, and spreading its memes on Twitter and Instagram, the Daily Beast reports. At the same time, Russian trolls were using other accounts to push Islamophobia to right-wing audiences. The United Muslims of America is a real organization based in California, although it is currently non-functional. The Facebook group was also subtler than others the media have identified as Russian-linked Facebook accounts: fake news was sprinkled into otherwise apolitical, positive portrayals of Islam. It gained 268,000 followers.

Twitter Execs Don’t Seem to Get It

While Twitter has suspended a little more than 200 accounts for spreading Russian propaganda and fake news in an attempt to manipulate U.S. society and influence the 2016 presidential election, the Silicon Valley company’s executives do not appear to be taking the problem seriously enough, according to lawmakers.

The Guardian reported Thursday that following a Capitol Hill briefing by Twitter officials, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner, said the company displayed an “enormous lack of understanding” during its briefing, which was “frankly inadequate on almost every level”.

He went to to accuse Twitter of underestimating, “how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions and again begs many more questions than they offered”.

“There is a lot more work they have to do,” according to The Guardian.

Bannon Sought To Infiltrate Facebook’s Hiring Process

Days before he took over Trump’s election campaign, Bannon sought to infiltrate Facebook by planting candidates for a job who would report back to him, BuzzFeed reports. Emails show that an official at the Family Research Council tipped Bannon off about a job ad for a ‘public policy manager’, saying, “This seems perfect for Breitbart to flood the zone with candidates of all stripe who will report back to you / Milo with INTEL about the job application process over at FB.” Bannon told a staffer, “Can u get on this.” It is unclear how far the plans advanced.

“The secret attempt to find bias in Facebook’s hiring process reflects longstanding conservative fears that Facebook and the other tech giants are run by liberals who suppress right-wing views both internally and on their dominant platforms,” writes Joseph Bernstein at BuzzFeed.

 

CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

HHS Secretary Tom Price comes under fire for significant travel expenses. Corey Lewandowski appears to be working with a lobbying firm.

 

HHS Secretary Tom Price Spends Over $1 Million of Public Funds on Charter Jets and Government Planes

Taxpayers have spent over $1 million on the travels of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price since May, including over $500,000 on military aircraft for multi-national trips to Africa, Europe and Asia approved by the White House, Politico reports. On Thursday, Price said he would reimburse the government for the cost of his own seat on domestic trips using private aircraft, which amounts to around $52,000, but that would not include the cost of the military flights. One of Price’s predecessors, Kathleen Sebelius, who was HHS Secretary for five years under Obama, said she always flew commercially when travelling overseas. When asked whether he would fire Price over his use of chartered aircraft on domestic flights, Trump said “we’ll see.”

 

Public information About Ivanka Trump’s Supply Chains Becomes Harder To Find

Since Ivanka Trump joined the White House, public information about companies importing her company’s goods into the U.S. has become harder to find, AP reports. The identities of companies involved in 90 percent of shipments are now unknown, and even less information is available about her manufacturers. The lack of transparency means that it is difficult to tell who the company is doing business with in China. Trump and her husband Jared Kushner have taken a leading role in managing the administration’s relationship with China. “The lack of disclosure makes it difficult to understand whether foreign governments could use business ties with her brand to try to influence the White House — and whether her company stands to profit from foreign government subsidies that can destroy American jobs,” writes Erika Kinetz at AP.

 

Corey Lewandowski Appears To Be Working As With Lobbying Firm

Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski appears to be working with a lobbying firm after quitting the one he co-founded after the 2016 election, Politico reports. The news raises the question whether Lewandowski is profiting from his close relationship with the president. The firm, Turnberry Solutions LLC, is staffed by two lobbyists who worked for Lewandowski’s old firm, Avenue Strategies. The firm’s name evokes Trump’s Scottish golf resort, Trump Turnberry. Lewandowski was reportedly on a recent conference call between Turnberry and one of its client, and Turnberry has created an email address with his first name.

 

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Schedule Reveals Many Meetings With Corporate Execs and Few With Environmental Groups

Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt’s schedule reveals regular meetings with corporate executives from the automobile, mining and fossil fuel industries, sometimes just before making decisions favorable to those interest groups, the Washington Post reports. Between April and early September, Pruitt’s schedule features only two environmental groups and one public health group.

 

CONGRESS

Divisions between mainstream Republicans and Bannon’s insurgency emerge in Alabama primary. John McCain stops healthcare reform over transparency concerns, as Trump reportedly begins to physically mock him in private.

 

Another Healthcare Bill Falls Flat

The latest attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, this time led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), has failed after Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) declined to support it Friday, citing a lack of scrutiny and bipartisanship around the bill. Republican leaders announced Tuesday that the Senate would not vote on the bill.

 

Bannon Defeats Trump and McConnell as Roy Moore Wins Alabama Primary

Incumbent and Trump’s candidate of choice Sen. Luther Strange was defeated in Alabama’s special Republican Senate primary election Tuesday night by Roy Moore, who was supported Steve Bannon. The victory foreshadows future primary challenges from anti-establishment Republicans. Robert Costa at the Washington Post describes the victory as “a political lightning strike — setting the stage for a worsening Republican civil war that could have profound effects on next year’s midterm elections and undermine Trump’s clout with his core voters.” Sen. Strange benefited from millions of dollars in spending by a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Introducing Moore at Tuesday’s victory party, Bannon described Alabama as the start of a “revolution.”

 

Moore is the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who came to national prominence after he defied a federal order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a state building and was removed from his post. After the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell judgment allowing gay marriage, and following Moore’s re-election to the role of chief justice, he directed the state’s probate court judges not to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Moore was suspended from his post and resigned to run for Senate. Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman writes that Moore’s candidacy is “a serious threat to the Constitution and the rule of law. The shenanigans that got Moore thrown out of office as the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court — twice! — were more than just acts of civil disobedience on behalf of evangelical religion. Both times, Moore intentionally defied and denied the authority of the U.S. courts to have the final say on the Constitution. That’s the core principle on which our legal system rests.”

 

Trump Mocks McCain and McConnell In Private

Trump has reportedly taken to physically mocking his fellow Republicans Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John McCain — the former by slumping his shoulders and adopting lethargic body language; the latter by imitating McCain’s now-famous thumbs-down to kill an earlier healthcare repeal effort.

 

 

Image credit: Billie Weiss / Getty Images 

About the Author(s)

Hannah Ryan

Former Junior Research Scholar at Just Security, Former Fulbright Scholar and Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard Law School Follow her on Twitter (@HannahD15).