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

INTRODUCTORY NOTE

This edition of Norms Watch examines significant violations of democratic norms that happened in November 2017.

 

TRUMP-RUSSIA CONNECTION

Nov. 11-12 – While traveling to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election:

He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times…Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that’…And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it…I think he is very insulted by it.

His remarks appeared to contradict U.S. Intelligence Community assessments that Putin ordered interference in the election. Asked the next day at a joint press briefing to clarify his comments, Trump said:

I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election. As to whether I believe it or not, I am with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with the leadership…I believe that our intel agencies, our intelligence agencies, I work with them very strongly…As currently led, by fine people, I believe very much in our intelligence agencies.

Nov. 3 – Following the unsealing of Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos’ guilty plea in the Russia investigation, Trump tried to downplay the importance of a March 31, 2016 campaign foreign policy meeting. According to court documents, Papadopoulos offered to arrange a meeting with Putin at the meeting. Trump said:

I don’t remember much about that meeting…It was a very unimportant meeting…It took place a long time ago. Don’t remember much about it.

J.D. Gordon, a former Defense Department spokesperson and manager of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy advisory group, attended the meeting and recalled that then-foreign policy chairman Sen. Jeff Sessions “shut [Papadopoulos] down” when he offered to introduce Trump to Putin. He told the Washington Post: “It was a bad idea and the Senator didn’t want people to speak about it again.”

 

CONGRESS

Nov. 21 – Trump defended and nearly endorsed Roy Moore, the Republican candidate in the Alabama Senate race who has been accused of having relationships and sexually assaulting minors when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers. He said:

He denies it. Look, he denies it…If you look at all the things that have happened over the last 48 hours. He totally denies it. He says it didn’t happen. And look, you have to look at him also.

He implied a Moore victory was better than having a Democrat take the Alabama Senate seat:

We don’t need a liberal person in there, a Democrat, Jones. I’ve looked at his record. It’s terrible on crime. It’s terrible on the border. It’s terrible on military…I can tell you for a fact we do not need somebody who’s going to be bad on crime, bad on borders, bad for the military, bad for the Second Amendment.

Politico reported that in the days leading to Trump’s near-endorsement of Moore, Trump privately vented and expressed doubts about the accuracy of Moore’s accusers to senior Republicans and White House staff. He questioned why the accusations were emerging now, and compared Moore’s situation to his own during the last weeks of the 2016 campaign, when Trump faced a series of sexual harassment allegations.

Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, had criticized Moore to the Associated Press the week before:

There’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children. I’ve yet to see a valid explanation and I have no reason to doubt the victims’ accounts.

 

THE PRESS AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE

Nov. 27 At an event honoring native American veterans at the White House, Trump used an offensive racial slur to refer to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.):

You were here long before any of us were here. Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas.

Warren responded:

It is deeply unfortunate that the president of the United States cannot even make it through a ceremony honoring these heroes without having to throw out a racial slur.

Nov. 15 – After three American college basketball players from UCLA were arrested in China for shoplifting on Nov. 8 while visiting for a sports program, Trump directly intervened with Chinese President Xi Jinping to secure their release. Afterward, he tweeted:

That same day, the three UCLA players released statements publicly thanking Trump. Cody Riley, one of the three players, said: “To President Trump and the United States government, thank you for taking the time to intervene on our behalf. We really appreciate you helping us out.” LiAngelo Ball said he “would also like to thank President Trump and the United States government for the help that they provided.” And Jalen Hill, said: “Thank you to the United States government and President Trump for your efforts to bring us home.”

The next day, Trump accepted their thanks on Twitter:

But after LaVar Ball, LaMelo’s father, failed to acknowledge Trump’s role in securing his son’s release in a Nov. 19 interview, Trump began a days-long feud with him. He tweeted:

And on Nov. 22, Trump continued the feud by calling Lavar Ball an “ungrateful fool” and “a poor man’s version of Don King:”

 

 

Nov. 17 – Trump criticized Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) on Twitter over radio host and former sports broadcaster Leann Tweeden’s accusations of kissing and groping her without consent. He suggested with respect to a picture that Tweeden shared that Franken’s actions might have gotten worse off-camera:

NPR noted that Trump selectively addressed sexual harassment allegations against politicians, adding, “The tweet was pretty different from Trump’s relative silence on the subject of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when Moore was in his 30s.”

And with respect to the audio tape of Trump himself boasting about his sexual pursuits, NPR’s correspondent added that Trump quickly tried to shift the media’s focus: “As soon as the tape became public, Trump expressed regret. But just as quickly, he pivoted to offense. Let’s be honest, he said, calling the decade-old videotape nothing more than a distraction.”

 

NATIONAL SECURITY AND FOREIGN POLICY

Nov. 29 – Trump retweeted three anti-Muslim videos originally tweeted by the deputy leader of the ultranationalist Britain First political group. Two of the three videos depicted alleged Muslim people assaulting people and the third depicting one smashing a statue of the Virgin Mary. In response, British leaders roundly condemned Trumps’ actions as amplifying the views of a fringe hate group. The official spokesperson of UK Prime Minister Theresa May said:

Britain First seeks to divide communities by their use of hateful narratives that peddle lies and stoke tensions. They cause anxiety to law-abiding people. British people overwhelmingly reject the prejudiced rhetoric of the far right which is the antithesis of the values this country represents, decency, tolerance and respect.

Brendan Cox, the widow of British Member of Parliament Jo Cox, who was murdered by a right-wing extremist who shouted “Britain first!” before the attack, condemned Trump’s actions:

Likewise, Jonathan Greenblatt, the Director of the Anti-Defamation League also criticized Trump’s actions:

By contrast, Britain First’s deputy leader responded on Twitter: “GOD BLESS YOU TRUMP!” She is to appear in court in Northern Ireland on Dec. 14 on a charge of using “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” during speeches she made in Belfast.

Nov. 7 – In a speech to business leaders in Beijing, Trump said that he gave China “great credit” for “tak[ing] advantage” of the U.S. He began by saying that the current U.S.-China relationship is a “very one-sided and unfair one,” in favor of China. He added: “I don’t blame China…After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for benefit of their citizens? I give China great credit.”

He instead blamed former U.S. administrations “for allowing this trade deficit to take place and to grow.” He added: “It’s too bad that past administrations allowed it to get so far out of kilter…But we’ll make it fair and it’ll be tremendous to both of us.”

CNBC noted: “The comments are a remarkable shift in tone by Trump, who campaigned on a hard-line promise to take China to task over its trade practices with the United States only to soften his language toward Beijing as president.”

Nov. 13 – President Trump praised his “great relationship” with Phillipines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been accused of ordering a campaign of widespread extrajudicial killings in his administration’s war on drugs in the Pacific nation.

CBS News noted: “Mr. Trump repeatedly praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte…pointedly calling him by his first name, sharing a joke about the media and even complimenting Manila’s weather…What Mr. Trump did not do was what many predecessors have done before; highlight human rights abuses while overseas.”

 

WHITE HOUSE AND ADMINISTRATION

Nov. 3 – In an interview with a conservative radio show, Trump pressed the Justice Department and FBI to investigate Hillary Clinton, while acknowledging the impropriety of presidential intervention in Justice Department investigations:

But you know, the saddest thing is, because I am the President of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things I would love to be doing and I am very frustrated by it. I look at what’s happening with the Justice Department, why aren’t they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and with her dossier, and the kind of money… I don’t know, is it possible that they paid $12.4 million for the dossier…which is total phony, fake, fraud and how is it used? It’s very discouraging to me. I’ll be honest, I’m very unhappy with it, that the Justice Department isn’t going…maybe they are but you know as President, and I think you understand this, as a President you’re not supposed to be involved in that process. But hopefully they are doing something and at some point, maybe we are going to all have it out.

Nov. 8 – After Republican candidate Ed Gillespie lost the Virginia gubernatorial race to Democratic candidate Ralph Northam, Trump claimed that Gillespie did not fully embrace Trump or his principles:

The Washington Post noted that this tweet “also does something very dangerous for Trump right now. It shows, yet again, that he isn’t loyal to his political partners,” citing both Trump’s reaction to Gillespie’s loss as well as the president’s distancing himself from the Republican healthcare repeal effort after it largely failed.

 

CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Nov. 8 and 29 – Trump repeatedly claimed that he would not personally benefit from the Republican tax bill passed by the House (and later the Senate). On Nov. 8, he called 12 Senate Democrats to try to convince them to support the Republican tax cut bill and claimed: “My accountant called me and said ‘you’re going to get killed in this bill.” Likewise, on Nov. 29, he told a crowd of supporters in Missouri that “This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me…This is not good for me.”

However, according to an NBC News analysis, “Trump would save more than $20 million himself, according to the analysis of how the legislation affects his 2005 tax return, and his heirs could potentially save $1.1 billion based on his reported wealth.”

Nov. 3 – Trump secured visas for 70 foreign workers for the Mar-a-Lago club from the Department of Labor, the Palm Beach Post reported. The newspaper added: “However, hiring workers from abroad seems to contradict Trump’s public pronouncements. The president has publicly shamed Carrier Corp., Ford Motor and others for moving manufacturing jobs to Mexico.”

Likewise, the Washington Post reported that Mar-a-Lago must have applied for the visas the same week that Trump was publicly celebrating American workers:

This summer, in an official proclamation, the president dubbed July 17, 2017 “Made in America Day,” a time to “recognize the vital contributions of American workers and job creators to our Nation’s prosperity and strength.”

That same week, Mar-a-Lago was applying for H-2B visas to hire non-American workers. Mar-a-Lago is only open during Palm Beach’s winter season, when members descend from colder climates.

 

Nov. 22  – On a weekend where Trump was staying at his Mar a Lago resort, USA Today reported that: “Since his inauguration 10 months ago, the president has visited at least one of his properties on 34 out of his 45 weekends in office (including this one).” 

About the Author(s)

Artin Afkhami

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