Norms Watch: Democracy, the Trump Administration, and Reactions to It (Jan. 2018)

Sign up here to receive Norms Watch in your inbox once a month.

INTRODUCTORY NOTE

Throughout January, President Trump and congressional Republicans attacked the integrity of the Justice Department, FBI, and officials at both — all in connection with the Russia investigation. The House Intelligence Committee voted to approve the release of the so-called Nunes memo, a move supported by the President despite the FBI and DOJ opposing the release. FBI Deputy Director Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation, warned the White House that releasing the memo would set a dangerous precedent for politicizing intelligence. Meanwhile, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe resigned from government service after months of criticism from Trump and pressure from Trump-appointed FBI Director Christopher Wray. Commentators voiced concerns about these attacks on the integrity of the nation’s top law enforcement agency, noting that the President came into office with what appears to be a misconception about the role of the FBI. In foreign affairs, the Trump administration’s expected pick for Ambassador to South Korea announced his disagreement with the strategy of a limited strike on North Korea, resulting in the administration moving on from him. And in other cabinet news, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control resigned over making a dozen investments in tobacco companies following her appointment to lead the agency.

THE TRUMP-RUSSIA CONNECTION

Feb. 1, 2018 – Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) announced that he discovered late on the night of Jan. 31 that House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) had “made material changes” to the copy of the committee’s memo alleging FBI bias that he sent to the White House for approval for release. Schiff argued Nunes’ edits meant that the memo sent to the White House was not the one earlier approved by the House Intelligence Committee for release, requiring the committee to halt the current process being used to release the memo and vote on the version that Nunes allegedly sent to the White House.

Feb. 1, 2018 – CNN reported this morning that during a December meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, President Trump focused on the issue of Rosenstein’s loyalty, specifically asking Rosenstein whether he was “on my team.” Rosenstein was reportedly surprised by this and other questions Trump posed to him, including about the direction of the Russia investigation, and hesitatingly responded: “Of course, we’re all on your team, Mr. President.”

The Deputy Attorney General had requested the meeting with Trump to seek his support for holding off on providing DOJ documents that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes requested as part of his investigation into what the chairman claims to be surveillance abuses by the Department and FBI, according to CNN. Many perceive Nunes’ allegations to be based on scant evidence and designed to distract from or discredit Mueller’s investigation, which Rosenstein oversees.

Trump also centered his questioning on Rosenstein’s then-upcoming House Judiciary Committee testimony. CNN reported that outside of his meeting with Rosenstein, Trump suggested questions to lawmakers that they could ask Rosenstein at the House hearing. One suggested question was whether Rosenstein appointed Mueller to lead the Russia investigation because he was disappointed Mueller was not been chosen lead the FBI Director, following Comey’s firing.

At Rosenstein’s House testimony, he stated that, “Nobody has asked me to take a loyalty pledge, other than the oath of office.”

Jan. 30, 2018New York Times Washington correspondent Charlie Savage wrote a news analysis noting that, although House Speaker Paul Ryan has said that the issue of the Nunes memo “is a completely separate matter from Bob Mueller’s investigation, and his investigation should be allowed to take its course,” the true aim of the Nunes memo campaign is to defend President Trump’s conduct with respect to the Russia investigation by attacking DOJ and FBI investigators. Savage notes that as the Mueller investigation has begun focusing in on senior Trump administration and campaign officials, such as former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and national security adviser Michael Flynn, Trump allies have tried to shift the public narrative to focus on the actions of the investigators.

Jan. 31, 2018 –  FBI Director Christopher Wray has informed the White House that he opposes the release of the Nunes memo because of its inaccuracy and the incorrect narrative it portrays, according to a Bloomberg report. It adds that the FBI came close to opposing the release publicly, but instead issued a public statement on Jan. 31 noting its “grave concerns” about the memo’s accuracy:

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told Fox Radio on Wednesday morning that:

The memo came over day before yesterday. The unique thing about all of this frankly is in every other case that I can remember in my lifetime where a president was in some kind of trouble, the president, the White House attempted to not release things. We’ve got our folks, the national security lawyers in the White House they work for me, they work for the President they’re slicing and dicing in it looking at it so that we know what it means and what it understands…It’ll be released here pretty quick I think and the whole world can see it.

In response, Rep. Nunes accused U.S. intelligence agencies and courts of being “misused,” posting the following statement about the DOJ and FBI objections on the House Intelligence Committee’s website:

Having stonewalled Congress’ demands for information for nearly a year, it’s no surprise to see the FBI and DOJ issue spurious objections to allowing the American people to see information related to surveillance abuses at these agencies. The FBI is intimately familiar with ‘material omissions’ with respect to their presentations to both Congress and the courts, and they are welcome to make public, to the greatest extent possible, all the information they have on these abuses. Regardless, it’s clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counter-intelligence investigation during an American political campaign. Once the truth gets out, we can begin taking steps to ensure our intelligence agencies and courts are never misused like this again.

In addition to the FBI’s statement Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that on Monday, Jan. 29, Wray and Deputy Director Rod Rosenstein went to the White House to speak with Chief of Staff John Kelly about persuading the President not to release the memo. Rosenstein said that the DOJ did not think the memo accurately depicted its investigative practices, and that releasing it could jeopardize classified information while setting a dangerous precedent for politicizing intelligence. In response, Kelly said that Trump still favored releasing the memo but that the National Security Council and the White House Counsel would review it prior to release.

Bloomberg noted that C-SPAN cameras caught President Trump speaking with Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) on the House floor after delivering the State of the Union address. When Duncan asked Trump about releasing the memo, he responded:

Oh yeah, don’t worry, 100 percent…Can you imagine [not releasing the memo]? You’d be too angry.

Finally, commentators observed that Rep. Nunes himself did not appear to read the underlying memo, with his staffers having coordinated with the White House on its release:

Jan. 29, 2018 – FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe abruptly resigned his position after enduring months of public criticism by President Trump and telling associates that he felt pressured by FBI Director Christopher Wray to leave.

As recently as last week, McCabe had said that he planned to work until his retirement in March 2018, when he expected to accrue full pension benefits, according to the New York Times. McCabe will instead be taking paid leave until his March retirement date. FBI staff reportedly learned of McCabe’s departure through the news media, adding confusion to his resignation.

Wray reportedly had a recent conversation with McCabe in which he suggested McCabe either move into a new position that would have been a demotion, or resign, at which point McCabe chose to resign. CNN also reported that Wray suggested in an email to all FBI staff that an upcoming Inspector-General report into the FBI’s handling of the 2016 Hillary Clinton email investigation played a role in McCabe’s decision to leave.

On Jan. 31, the Wall Street Journal reported that one prong of the IG investigation focuses on the month’s delay between the time when McCabe learned about thousands of emails potentially related to the FBI’s Clinton investigation and Director Comey’s Oct. 28 letter informing Congress about the emails.

Trump reportedly asked McCabe who he voted for in the 2016 election during a White House meeting just after former Director Comey’s firing last year, and had repeatedly attacked him on Twitter over his wife’s acceptance of donations from an ally of Bill Clinton as part of her unsuccessful 2015 Virginia state senate run.

Jan. 30, 2018 – NBC News reported that President Trump has decided to adopt a strategy of undermining the credibility of the FBI and Russia investigation, rather than trying to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller or shut the investigation down directly. As part of this strategy, Trump has reportedly spoken with allies about asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to prosecute Mueller for a crime, though the NBC report did not make clear which crime or crimes Trump had in mind. One Trump ally told NBC: “Here’s how it would work: ‘We’re sorry, Mr. Mueller, you won’t be able to run the federal grand jury today because he has to go testify to another federal grand jury.’”

Jan. 30, 2018 – House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) gave an interview to “Fox & Friends” Ainsley Earhardt calling for an FBI “cleanse:”

“Let it all out, get it all out there. Cleanse the organization…I think we should disclose all this stuff. It’s the best disinfectant. Accountability, transparency — for the sake of the reputation of our institutions.”

Ryan also voiced support for disclosing the Nunes Memo in the interview: “[W]e should disclose…disclosure is the way to go.”

Jan. 23, 2018 – In the Washington Post, Greg Sargent writes that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told him that Rep. Nunes’ decision to allow around 200 Republican colleagues to inspect the memo in a classified setting violated the agreement that Nunes struck earlier in January with the FBI and DOJ to limit the circulation of documents provided to the House Intelligence Committee. Schiff told Sargent: “The agreement was because of the sensitivity of the materials to limit their distribution…There were certain conditions attached to the viewing of the materials which have been violated.” Schiff added that publicly releasing the memo would also violate the agreement.

Moreover, Schiff told Sargent that committee Republicans, voting along party lines, killed a motion to delay the Nunes memo’s release until all committee members could access to the underlying material. “That’s pretty telling,” Schiff added.

Jan. 19 to 26, 2018 – The DOJ released a cache of over 9,000 text messages involving FBI investigator Peter Strzok and lawyer Lisa Page, in response to concerns about anti-Trump comments they had made over text message. The two had worked on the Russia investigation, but both were removed when Special Counsel Mueller learned of the anti-Trump comments.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chair Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), along with Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and other congressional Republicans, seized on a message in which Strzok and Page discussed a “secret society,” believing it referred to an actual group of FBI agents that met off-site to conspire to influence the handling of the Clinton investigation. Johnson told Fox News’ Bret Baier that text messages between Strzok and Page regarding the Clinton investigation represented “further evidence of corruption, more than bias but corruption, at the highest levels of the FBI, and that secret society, we have an informant that’s talking about a group, that were holding secret meetings off-site.”

Baier: Woah…wait a minute, let’s stop there. A secret society, secret meetings off-site of the Justice Department?

Johnson says: Correct.

Baier: And you have an informant saying that?

Johnson: …Yes.

Baier: Is there anything more about that?

Johnson: No, we have to dig into it, that’s…that’s…this is not a distraction [from the Mueller investigation]…again, this is bias, potentially corruption at the highest levels of the FBI that is now investigating…and by the way, Robert Mueller used to run the FBI…uh, he’s in no position to do an investigation over this kind of misconduct. So I think at this point in time, we probably should be looking at a special counsel to undertake this investigation, but congress is going to have to dig.”

But the “secret society” was later reported by ABC, CNN, and others to be part of an attempt at humor between Strzok and fellow FBI agent Lisa Page, in a message invoking Vladimir Putin-themed calendars that one FBI employee bought for agents working on the Russia investigation. In the full text of the message, Page asked Strzok: “Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.”

Jan. 31, 2018 – According to a New York Times report, the statement released by President Trump’s team regarding a meeting between Trump campaign officials, including Donald Trump Jr., and a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer, has become a central focus of the Mueller investigation, with the Special Counsel’s team notifying Trump’s lawyers that prosecutors want to discuss the statement and about a dozen other subjects with Mr. Trump during a face-to-face interview.

The move is notable because lying to the news media, as Trump officials appear to have done, is not a crime in and of itself; the Mueller team’s interest in the matter is thus likely related to other aspects of the investigation.

The Times report adds that former Trump legal team spokesman Mark Corallo has agreed to an interview with the Special Counsel’s office. Corallo reportedly plans to discuss a conference call between President Trump and Communications Director Hope Hicks, in which Hicks told the president that emails revealing the Russian lawyer’s offer of political “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and Trump Jr.’s desire to receive it, “will never get out.” Corallo reportedly became concerned upon hearing this exchange that Hicks might have been intending to obstruct justice to prevent the emails from being made public.

WHITE HOUSE AND ADMINISTRATION

Jan. 30, 2018 – The New York Times and Washington Post published extensive articles fact-checking President Trump’s State of the Union Address address on Tuesday night. While major news publications have been fact-checking State of the Union addresses for many years, Trump’s speech was notable for generating more extensive fact-checking articles than previous speeches, such as President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union.

CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Jan. 31, 2018 – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald resigned, one day after Politico revealed that she had made a dozen investments in tobacco industry stocks following her appointment as director of the very agency responsible for reducing tobacco use, the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S.

“You don’t buy tobacco stocks when you are the head of the CDC. It’s ridiculous; it gives a terrible appearance…it stinks to high heaven,” Richard Painter, a former chief White House ethics lawyer, told Politico.

Earlier in January, Politico reported that Fitzgerald was unable to testify before Congress on issues related to cancer and the opioid crisis because she had recused herself owing to financial conflicts of interest created by her and her husband’s over $300,000 of investments in companies related to those fields.

In December, the Washington Post reported on her ethics agreement, which stipulates that because Fitzgerald and her husband cannot divest from certain investments in health information and cancer detection technology firms due to legal obligations, she must promise to recuse herself from government business that could implicate those businesses.

Jan. 30, 2018 – Vox reports that while the Republican National Committee has accepted the resignation of Steve Wynn from his post as RNC Finance Chair, it refuses to return his donations following a Wall Street Journal investigation that found dozens of people alleging a pattern of sexual misconduct by Wynn.

RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel said on Fox News that the committee would not return his donations, adding that: “He should be allowed due process.”

NATIONAL SECURITY AND FOREIGN POLICY

Jan. 30, 2018 – The Washington Post reports that respected academic and diplomat Victor D. Cha, who was previously expected to be the Trump administration nominee for Ambassador to South Korea, has privately and publicly expressed strong disagreement with the Trump administration’s consideration of limited, preemptive missile strikes on North Korea in response to a missile or nuclear test — a concept known as the “bloody nose strategy.”

Cha warned National Security Council officials that such a strike would risk entangling the U.S. in a bloody regional war that could claim hundreds of thousands of lives, and outlined his concerns in a Washington Post op-ed. He also objected to the Trump administration’s stated threats to renegotiate a bilateral trade pact with South Korea.

The New York Times noted that not since U.S. invasion of Iraq has there been such intense debate of preemptive military action against a hostile nation, while Just Security authors have noted that such strikes would be illegal under International Humanitarian Law.

Jan. 29, 2018 – The Trump administration announced that it would not impose sanctions on countries that purchase Russian military equipment, despite a bipartisan law that was passed on a 98-2 vote in the Senate requiring such sanctions to be imposed. Administration officials cited exceptions under the law in justifying the decision to congressional representatives during a classified session Monday.

The law, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, was passed in Aug. 2017 in response to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to Congress passing the law by ordering the U.S. to reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia by 755 people and by appropriating two U.S. diplomatic properties.

At the time, the President claimed in a statement to Congress that it “included a number of clearly unconstitutional provisions.” He left open the possibility that he might not enforce the bill’s sanctions provisions, saying he would “give careful and respectful consideration to the preferences expressed by the Congress.” In a separate statement to reporters, he added: “This bill remains seriously flawed — particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate.”

Critics noted that such sanctions are critical to curbing Russian aggression, especially when compared to recent actions the executive branch claims to have taken in this direction, such as publishing a list of Russian oligarchs (that was reportedly cribbed from Forbes magazine).

Peter Harrell, who served from 2012 to 2014 as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, wrote on Twitter:

Meanwhile, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told CNN’s Chris Cuomo:

That bill passed with only two dissenting votes in the Senate. It was not partisan in the least. Bob Corker, Ben Cardin, the leaders of the Foreign Relations Committee worked very closely, together they came up with a bill that was balanced and needed. The one thing we know for sure already is the Russians did attempt to meddle in our elections, and not only should there be a price to pay in terms of sanctions, but also, we need to put safeguards in place right now for the elections for this year, because we know that the Russians have not given up on their disinformation campaign and their attempt to sow discord in this country and also to undermine faith in democratic institutions.

 

Jan. 31, 2018 – CNN reports that U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman told Russian TV that CIA Director Mike Pompeo met with senior Russian intelligence officials last week during the officials’ trip to the U.S. CNN noted that Russian media are reporting Pompeo may have met with Russia’s U.S.-sanctioned foreign intelligence chief, Sergey Naryshkin. It adds that the alleged talks happened days before Pompeo warned publicly that Russia would again try to influence the outcome of the U.S. midterm election in 2018.

Reuters reports that Naryshkin met with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and other U.S. Intelligence Community officials, but its report did not mention Pompeo. By contrast, CNN could not confirm whether Naryshkin and Pompeo met. Reuters added that, “News of Naryshkin’s secret visit poured fresh fuel on the battles pitting the Trump administration and its Republican defenders against Democrats over investigations into Moscow’s alleged 2016 election interference.”

THE PRESS AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE

Jan. 23, 2018 – The Washington Post reports that female journalists reporting on Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to Israel were subject to disparate treatment from their male colleagues. First, female journalists were forced to report on Pence’s visit to the Western Wall from the other side of a fence, rather than standing with Pence’s entourage directly. And second, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security detail was so aggressive in performing its security checks on female journalists that they demanded that one visiting female journalist from Finland’s state television remove her bra. When she refused, the security detail prevented her from covering a Pence-Netanyahu news conference.

By contrast, previous administrations have strongly defended the freedom of the press and individual journalists during presidential visits abroad. In one example, in November 2010, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs threatened to physically remove President Obama from a bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after Indian officials tried to cut the agreed-upon number of journalists at the meeting from eight to five. Likewise, George W. Bush administration Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told Politico:

When presidents go abroad they personify the laws and values of our country, and one of those values is a free press…Our diplomats routinely espouse the virtues of a free press around the world. So when you go to non-democratic countries that don’t have a tradition of a fully free press, the signal a president sends by how we treat our American press is a powerful statement.

Jan. 23, 2018 – ProPublica reported that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau decided not to prosecute a case it had previously brought against subprime lender World Finance. In 2013, ProPublica published an investigative report into World Finance’s practices of charging annual interest rates sometimes above 200 percent, trapping consumers into endless cycles of debt repayment by encouraging them to renew their loans over and over, while the consumers were only able to repay interest. The CFPB began an investigation into World Finance the next year, in 2014, but with the ascendance of Trump-appointed Director Mick Mulvaney, the Bureau has begun adopting corporation-friendly policies. It announced on Jan. 18 that it would reconsider a previously promulgated rule regulating payday loan providers. Then, it dropped a lawsuit against a payday loan provider that was charging 950 percent interest rates. Now, it has dropped its investigation into World Finance.

In the eyes of observers, these moves and others reflected a prioritization of the Trump administration for rewarding corporations and businesses, even at the expense of consumers that are being taken advantage of. And because of the information asymmetry and greater economic risks faced by victims of misleading and unfair lending practices, observers believed these policy moves seemed designed in part to thwart democratic processes. The International Business Times reported today that World Finance had previously donated thousands to Mulvaney’s congressional campaigns.

(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

Artin Afkhami

Associate Editor at Just Security (2017-2018). You can follow him on Twitter (@artinafkhami).