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

Image: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks about bipartisan legislation to help prevent sexual harassment on Dec. 6, 2017 on Capitol Hill (Alex Wong/Getty)

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This edition of Norms Watch examines significant violations of democratic norms that happened in December 2017. Those norms often reflect historical customs and practices that presidential administrations and other branches have observed, and principles codified into law as to federal employees but for which it is unclear if presidential violations could be held legally liable.


Dec. 26, 2017 – President Trump derided the FBI on Twitter for using the Steele dossier as the basis for the Trump Russia investigation, although it is unclear to what extent the dossier played a role. Trump quoted a Fox report stating that the FBI is tainted, and labeled the dossier a “pile of garbage” affiliated with the Clinton campaign.

The New York Times reported that the investigation began after the Australian government alerted the FBI to the contents of a conversation between jailed former Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos and Australia’s top diplomat in the UK, in which Papadopoulos revealed that the Russian government had compromising information on Hillary Clinton.

Dec. 12, 2017 – On Twitter, Trump yet again derided the Russia investigation as a partisan effort, and claimed that it wasted millions of dollars and thousands of hours’ work:


Dec. 7, 2017 – Trump announced that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its Embassy there, reversing decades of U.S. policy that saw the city as part of a two-state solution. Western and Arab U.S. allies, including top UN and EU diplomats and Pope Francis, warned against the move, many noting the implications for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In his announcement, Trump said, “Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done.”

At least thirteen Palestinians were killed in protests in protests in the Gaza Strip that resulted from the move, largely in clashes with Israeli forces.

In response, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to reject the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem on Dec. 22, despite Trump threatening to cut off aid to any nation that voted for the resolution. The Palestinian Authority also recalled its envoy to the U.S. on Dec. 31.


Throughout the month, Trump attacked the independent news media on Twitter for what he labeled as intentional mistakes and fake news, going so far as to demand that specific reporters be fired and using derogatory terms such as “stain on America” to describe the Fourth Estate. Meanwhile, he promoted his tweets as the only reliable way for Americans to receive true information. At the same time, Trump derided women who have made claims of sexual misconduct against him, while ignoring the current national conversation about the problem of pervasive sexual misconduct.

Dec. 9, 2017 – “Vicious and purposeful” is how Trump described CNN’s error in reporting that Donald Trump Jr. got advance notice from WikiLeaks about a cache of hacked documents it was planning to release during the 2016 presidential campaign. In fact, the documents had been made public just prior to WikiLeaks’ contact. Trump tweeted that CNN’s slogan, ‘the most trusted name in news,’ is a possible “fraud on the American Public.”

In the same series of tweets, Trump also called for the resignation of ABC chief investigative reporter Brian Ross. Ross had erroneously stated in a television appearance the day prior that former national security Michael Flynn was prepared to testify that Trump ordered him to contact Russian officials before the 2016 election, rather than after.

That same day, Trump also called for the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel to be fired over the erroneous tweeting of a photo said to depict a Trump rally in Florida, suggesting the mistake may have been intentional and calling for an “apology & Retraction from FAKE NEWS WaPo”.

Dec. 10, 2017 – Trump referred to the news media as a “stain on America:”

Dec. 11, 2017 – Trump resumed his attacks on the media for the third day in a row, this time focusing on a New York Times report about his television watching habits, and attacking CNN anchor Don Lemon by repeating his previous smear of Lemon, calling him the “dumbest man on television!”

Dec. 13, 2017 – Trump continued his attack on the news media, insinuating that he used social media to “get the truth out” to an American public because an independent press could not be trusted:

Dec. 19, 2017 – Trump attacked a Washington Post report that indicated Trump considered rescinding his nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch prior to his confirmation over Gorsuch’s critical remarks about Trump’s attacks on the federal judiciary:

Dec. 30, 2017 – Trump ended the year by touting his use of social media as “the only way to fight VERY unfair and dishonest” press:

Dec. 11, 2017 – Several women who accused Trump of sexual misconduct during the 2016 campaign publicly repeated their allegations against him in December, demanding that Congress investigate his actions. Trump responded by deriding the women’s accusations as fake news on Twitter, despite the cultural backdrop of an increased public conversation about combating pervasive sexual misconduct found across American society.

Dec. 12, 2017 – After Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) called on Trump to resign over the repeated sexual misconduct allegations from the day before, Trump issued a suggestive tweet insinuating that the Senator would “do anything” for campaign contributions:

CNN reported that White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders later insisted that the tweet was not sexist, claiming that Trump had long expressed similar sentiments, including about men. Though she did not cite examples, she said: “He’s used that same terminology many times…There is no way this is sexist at all.”

Gillibrand responded by tweeting at Trump: “You cannot silence me or the millions of women who have gotten off the sidelines to speak out about the unfitness and shame you have brought to the Oval Office.”

She followed up on these remarks during a Capitol Hill news conference: “I see it as a sexist smear. I mean that’s what it is…It’s part of the President’s efforts of name calling and it’s not going to silence me, it’s not going to silence me. It’s intended to silence me. It’s not going to silence the women who have stood up against him directly, and it’s not going to silence the millions of women who been speaking out every day since his inauguration about things they disagree with.”


Dec. 31, 2017 – President Trump held a lavish New Year’s party at his Mar-a-Lago resort, which he hosted this year for the first time as President. The Trump Organization increased the ticket prices for the party this year. Politico reported that prices increased to $600 for dues-paying club members and $750 for their guests, from $525 for members and $575 for guests last year.

The Washington Post noted, “Critics said the boost in prices for Sunday’s party and Trump’s regular trips to Trump Organization properties — this is the president’s tenth visit to Mar-a-Lago this year — show how he is using his position to promote his brand.”

Bobby Birchfield, the Trump Organization’s outside ethics adviser, told Politico that the arrangement did not bother him: “I personally don’t see any issues that are raised…It’s not a campaign event. It’s a normal business New Year’s Eve party.”

Dec. 22, 2017 – A letter published in the Palm Beach Daily News indicates that the new taxpayer-funded helipad at Mar-a-Lago was used by a private business helicopter with the corporate Trump logo, despite a the Palm Beach Town Council regulation requiring it be used only for government-related business. The corporate helicopter landed hours before President Trump landed in the area on Air Force One. The helipad reportedly had only been used one other time, in April 2017, also allegedly involving a private Trump-branded helicopter.


Dec. 4-12, 2017 – On Dec. 4, Trump endorsed Roy Moore, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Alabama in a private phone call, and publicly tweeted his support. His endorsement came despite the fact that Moore had been accused of sexually assaulting multiple women during their teenage years while he was in his 30s. Trump reportedly ended the call by saying “Go get ’em, Roy!”

Likewise, on Dec. 8, Trump rallied a Pensacola, Fla. crowd in support of Roy Moore, four days before the special election. During the speech, Trump highlighted a discrepancy in the narrative of one of Moore’s accusers while claiming that “we” cannot afford to have a Democrat in the Alabama Senate seat:

“We can’t afford to have a liberal Democrat who is completely controlled by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. His name is [Democratic candidate Doug] Jones and he’s their total puppet. We need somebody in that Senate seat who will vote for our Make America Great Again agenda. So get out and vote for Roy Moore.”

Trump had tweeted that morning:

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said prior to Trump’s rally that if Moore were elected, “he would immediately have an issue with the Ethics Committee.”

On Dec. 12, the night of the election, Trump doubled down on his endorsement:

Dec. 4, 2017 – Trump announced reductions to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments in Utah, criticizing past Democratic administrations for designating the areas as federally protected land. The move represented the largest reduction in federally protected land in U.S. history. While past presidents have made small reductions to monument boundaries, none have reduced protected monuments as dramatically using the 1906 Antiquities Act.

The move immediately brought legal a series of legal challenges from Native American and environmental groups. Under the Antiquities Act, the President has the authority to create national monuments without seeking Congressional approval, but the law does not explicitly authorize the President to modify or remove designated monuments. According to an NPR report, groups that are suing cite a 1970s federal lands law that stipulates only Congress can reduce or eliminate a national monument.

Ten environmental groups sued the federal government in a Washington D.C. federal court in response to the move, claiming that the Grand Staircase reduction would leave “remarkable fossil, cultural, scenic, and geologic treasures exposed to immediate and ongoing harm.”

At the same time, the Antiquities Act stipulates that the smallest amount of land possible should be used to protect national monuments. Proponents of the Trump move cited that provision, in conjunction with the large size of the monuments, to support their position.


November and December 2017 – The Republican-led Congress, led by Republicans, approved a sweeping $1.5 trillion tax reform bill without Democratic support in either the House or the Senate on Dec. 19. The approval represented the culmination of a legislative process that eschewed the lengthy bipartisan congressional markup process that traditionally accompanies major legislation, such as the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2009.

The legislative process began when House Republicans introduced a draft of the tax bill in the House on Nov. 1, which both the House and the Senate Finance Committee approved on Nov. 16. The passage occurred without holding a single hearing on the 400-page text, and despite the objections of Democrats and 13 House Republicans. Several Senate Republicans also expressed concerns about the speed and tenor of the legislative push.

The Senate version of the bill was first presented late on the night of Dec. 1, when Republicans presented the 500-page draft to the entire chamber. They also inserted many last-second amendments to placate opposition among their ranks, increasing the lack of clarity about what was in the bill. “The vote happened even though the bill appeared to be incomplete, with entire passages crossed out by hand or written in the margins,” according to a Newsweek report.

By contrast, Newsweek noted, the text of the Affordable Care Act was made available for cCongressional review for 35 weeks, debated for 169 hours, and had at least 161 GOP amendments introduced in the Senate before passageing. The ACA underwent 13 days of review, including about 60 legislative hours of Senate health committee markups, from June through July 2009.

Senate Democrats were outraged raised a public outcry over the process used to move the tax bill through Congress, noting that lobbying groups obtained copies of the bill before lawmakers Congress did. They took to social media to express their grievances, with Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.) postedting a video criticizing the release of the bill: “a few hours before the vote:”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) posted a list of the last-second amendments:

In response to a complaint aired on the Senate floor by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that there would be “plenty of time” to read the bill after the Senate passed it and it headed to a House-Senate reconciliation committee.

Dec. 6, 2017 – Articles of impeachment against President Trump in the House of Representatives were overwhelmingly defeated in a bipartisan 364-58 vote of 364-58 on a measure to sideline the articles. Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.) introduced the articles of impeachment and forced a vote on the measure. House Democratic leaders viewed the effort to impeach Trump as an unnecessary distraction because of the Republican control of Congress.

In introducing the articles, Green said on the House floor: “Donald John Trump, by causing such harm to the society of the United States is unfit to be president and warrants impeachment, trial and removal from office.”

But House Democratic leaders viewed this effort to impeach Trump as an unnecessary distraction because Republicans control Congress. 

About the Author(s)

Artin Afkhami

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