Norms Watch: Democracy, the Trump Administration, and Reactions to It (October 2017)

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INTRODUCTORY NOTE

This edition of Norms Watch will examine the ten greatest violations of democratic norms in the month of October 2017. Our new monthly model reflects a focus on the long-term big picture of democratic norms as they evolve under the Trump Administration.

THE TRUMP-RUSSIA CONNECTION

In light of the indictment of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and business associate Rick Gates as part of Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation, President Trump strongly denied that there was any collusion between his campaign and Russian officials:

He also tried to shift the focus to Hillary Clinton, asking why the Mueller investigation did not include her:

On Nov. 1, Trump labeled the U.S. criminal justice system a “a laughing stock” and said it was not surprising that the U.S. has terror attacks because of the way the system punishes terrorists. He added that he would think about sending the attacker to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Observers noted that Trump appeared to be de-legitimizing the U.S. criminal justice system at the same time that it was investigating his associates for criminal charges:


WHITE HOUSE AND ADMINISTRATION

On Nov. 1, Trump tweeted that he ordered the Department of Homeland Security to step up its Extreme Vetting Program in response to the NYC terror attack:

Observers noted that DHS has been operating without a Secretary for three months, since the previous Secretary, John F. Kelly, resigned to become Trump’s Chief of Staff:

On Oct. 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed a Department of Justice policy explicitly defining transgender workers as protected from employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act discrimination laws. In 2014, the Obama administration had implemented a policy interpreting “sex” discrimination to encompass discrimination based on an individual being transgender.  

THE PRESS AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE

On Oct. 18, Trump called the families of four U.S. servicemen killed in a military operation in Niger. On his condolence call with the widow of La David T. Johnson, he told her that Sgt. Johnson “knew what he signed up for,” referring to him as “your guy.” The botched call led to a protracted row between Trump and the slain soldier’s family, with the soldier’s grieving mother accusing Trump of disrespecting her son.

On Oct. 22, Trump tweeted that Congressman Frederica Wilson, who was present with Sgt. Johnson’s widow during Trump’s call, and later supported the family’s account, is “wacky.”

At his first disaster relief event in Puerto Rico on Oct. 3, President Trump suggested Hurricane Maria was not a real catastrophe, unlike Hurricane Katrina:

“Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina, and you look at the tremendous — hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here, with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody’s ever seen anything like this. What is your death count as of this moment? 17? 16 people certified, 16 people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people and all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everybody around this table and everybody watching can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico.”

In a series of tweets on Oct. 12, Trump threatened to abandon the federal Puerto Rico recovery effort, noting that federal servicemen could not remain there forever. He also blamed Puerto Rico for having a bad electrical system and infrastructure even before Hurricane Maria hit, and blamed Puerto Ricans for creating their own financial crisis.

Meanwhile, observers noted that while wildfires raged across California, Trump did not appear to closely monitor the situation or the federal response to it. When asked about California’s wildfires, Trump said, “We have FEMA there. We have military there. We have first responders there. It’s a tragic situation,” and that, “We’re doing a good job.”

NATIONAL SECURITY AND FOREIGN POLICY

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) criticized the Trump administration for failing to meet an Oct. 1 deadline for designating which targets should be punished as part of Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors under the Russia Sanctions Act.

CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

On Oct. 4, it was revealed that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel notified Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that it had issued a warning letter to U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, reprimanding her for voicing support for a South Carolina congressional candidate. Her tweet violated the Hatch Act, a law limiting federal employees’ political activity.

In mid-October, the GEO Group, a private prison company whose CEO donated to the Trump presidential campaign, and which recently received a multimillion-dollar federal contract for an immigrant detention center, met for its annual conference at a Trump-brand golf resort in Miami.  

On Oct. 10, the Government Accountability Office released a report on the transition period between Trump’s election and inauguration. According to the report, ethics officials offered to help Trump eliminate his potential financial conflicts of interesting before inauguration, but Trump refused. Instead, he chose to maintain his business through a trust, without asking for the advice of GAO ethics officials.

CONGRESS

On Oct. 22, Republican Congressional leaders said that they were nearing the end of their Congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, even though the issue of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials is unresolved. 

About the Author(s)

Artin Afkhami

Associate Editor at Just Security You can follow him on Twitter (@artinafkhami).