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

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INTRODUCTION

The debate over the politicization of intelligence, represented by the Nunes Memo, which prompted the Democratic Memo in response, made headlines for much of February. The Nunes Memo, named after House Intelligence Committee Chair, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), claimed that the FBI’s investigation into Trump campaign aid carter page was based on political opposition research, and that the bureau misled the FISA Court about this when it applied for a warrant to monitor his communications. Opponents of the Nunes Memo’s release, including the DOJ and FBI, contended that it risked revealing classified information as part of a politicized attempt to discredit the Russia investigation by presenting the facts of the case in a misleading way. Moreover, they argued that the FBI did its job in not revealing the human source of the information to the court, while adding that it suspected that some of the underlying research was paid for by political opposition of the subjects.

The Trump administration weighed in by calling the law enforcement community’s concerns about the Nunes Memo’s disclosure of classified information “a disgrace.” At the same time, the White House violated other norms of public discourse, as when President Trump threatened a government shutdown over what he viewed as Democrats’ insufficient willingness to take on illegal immigration.

In addition, it was reported that close to 30 senior White House aides, including Jared Kushner, were working on interim security clearances at the highest level of classified information. After weeks of criticism, the White House downgraded those clearances.

Meanwhile, concerns about corruption and conflicts of interest were in sharp focus this month, as it was revealed that Jared Kushner met multiple times in the White House with a private equity manager that invested nearly $200 million in his family’s business.

Finally, the news that White House aide Rob Porter engaged in physical assault against two of his ex-wives, and that the administration kept him on regardless of having known about it, led to concern about the administration’s tolerance of domestic assault.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Mueller Investigating Whether Trump Knew in Advance About Russian-Hacked DNC Emails

Feb. 28 — According to an NBC News report, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is pursuing whether Donald Trump knew about the Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee emails as well as those of John Podesta, who was serving as chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, before the theft was publicly known, and whether he participated in the release of the emails to Wikileaks in some way.

Gates Pleads Guilty

Feb. 23 — Rick Gates, Trump campaign official and Paul Manafort’s business partner, pleads guilty to charges of lying to federal investigators and tax fraud pursuant to a plea deal, in which he pledges to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. Gates admitted that he lied to investigators about a 2013 meeting between Manafort and a pro-Russian member of Congress.

Because of his post-inaugural role, the Times reports that Gates may be able to provide the Mueller investigation with information about Trump’s decision-making on Russia-related issues once in he was in office. The Times notes that Gates’ “plea agreement is further evidence that the Trump campaign attracted a cast of advisers who overstepped legal and ethical boundaries.”

WHITE HOUSE AND ADMINISTRATION

Trump White House Lets Aide Rob Porter Keep Job After FBI Report of His Physical Abuse

Feb. 7 — White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter resigns a day after his two ex-wives publish allegations of physical abuse in the press. Politico notes that he reportedly was deeply influential, working at Trump’s side almost every day of his tenure. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders releases a statement suggesting that Porter’s background check was ongoing when the domestic violence allegations were published.

However, on Feb. 13, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before the Senate that the FBI gave the White House the results of its background investigation on Porter in January 2018, including its investigation into the abuse allegations, according to the New York Times. Wray also stated that the FBI gave the White House three updates on its background check of Porter in March, July, and November 2017. And sources told the Times that the FBI first alerted the White House to the allegations of abuse against Porter in July 2017. It also reportedly provided new information about the allegations to the White House in November 2017. The Times’ account thus suggests that the Trump administration allowed Porter to keep his job after having learned of the abuse allegations.

Trump Criticizes Sessions’ Handling of “Massive FISA Abuse”

Feb. 28 — On Twitter, Trump criticizes Attorney General Jeff Sessions for asking the Justice Department’s inspector general (IG), who was appointed by President Barack Obama, to investigate perceived surveillance abuse, presumably related to the FISA warrant application for former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Trump said he’d prefer if “Justice Department lawyers” were in charge of the inquiry. The IG is an independent oversight body within the Justice Department charged with detecting and deterring waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct in DOJ programs and personnel.

Sessions responds to Trump’s attack, saying:

We have initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this Department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary. As long as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.

Trump and his supporters have been attacking the impartiality of FBI and Justice Department leadership for months, accusing it of bias against the President and his associates.

White House Security Clearances Downgraded

Feb. 23 — Politico reports that the White House downgrades all administration officials with interim Top Secret/SCI clearances — including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law — to the Secret level. Though the President has the power to intervene and grant Kushner a permanent security clearance, Trump says on the same day that Chief of Staff John Kelly will ultimately decide whether Kushner is able to keep his TS/SCI clearance.

Kushner’s Financial Vulnerabilities Make Him a Potential Target of Foreign Manipulation

Feb. 27 — The Washington Post reports that officials from China, Israel, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates privately discussed how to manipulate Kushner through taking advantage of his family’s debt problems and global business entanglements, plus his foreign policy inexperience. It is unclear what actions, if any, the countries took based upon these discussions.

The Post also reports that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster found out that Kushner did not coordinate some of his contacts with foreign officials through the National Security Council, or report those contacts to the Council. In fact, McMaster’s intelligence briefings have reportedly included the foreign officials’ discussions about Kushner’s vulnerabilities and foreign contacts.

On top of the policy dimensions, the Post reports that one former U.S. official said that Mueller has interviewed individuals as part of the Russia Investigation about Kushner’s foreign contacts and the protocols he used in setting them up.

Hope Hicks, One of Trump’s Closest and Longest-Standing Aides, Resigns

Feb. 28 — CNN reports that White House Communications Director Hope Hicks is to resign in the coming weeks. Her departure represents the latest in a long line of senior Trump aides who have left the administration. A recent Brookings study found that “President Trump’s “A” Team turnover is record-setting—double the previous leader, Reagan, and more than triple his immediate predecessor, Obama[,]” and that his overall staff turnover rate is higher than that of the last five presidents.

The study noted the downsides of such high-level departures: “[Any such departure] requires hiring a replacement, helping the replacement learn the ropes, and other staff shouldering more work until the new hire is up-to-speed (or permanently if the position stays vacant). Those remaining face disruptions and inefficiencies during the process.” Likewise, “Turnover also deprives the White House of the previous incumbent’s personal relationships,” and “a high-level departure may have a domino effect, since some or all of those who worked most closely with the departing staff member often leave as well.”

Hicks represents Trump’s fourth communications director, following Sean Spicer, Mike Dubke, and Anthony Scaramucci. A CNN analysis finds that Trump’s comms directors stay in their positions an average of less than 100 days, “setting the record for shortest average stint since the post was created during President Richard Nixon’s administration.”

NATIONAL SECURITY AND FOREIGN POLICY

Trump Supports Release of Nunes Memo Despite Widespread Bipartisan Concern

Feb. 1 — The New York Times reports that Trump supports the release of the Nunes memo on the Carter Page FISA Application despite Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and FBI Director Christopher Wray expressing their concerns, with the FBI statement noting its “grave concerns about the accuracy” of the memo. The next day, the President of the FBI Agents Association release a statement defending the role of the FBI.

Trump’s support for releasing the memo also goes against the caution urged by Republican Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and John Thune (S.D.). Flake and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons (Del.) release a joint statement in response to reports of Trump’s support for releasing the memo:

President Trump should heed the warnings of the Justice Department and FBI, and reverse his reported decision to defy longstanding policies regarding the disclosure of classified information. The president’s apparent willingness to release this memo risks undermining U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts, politicizing Congress’ oversight role, and eroding confidence in our institutions of government.

At the same time, CNN reports that senior White House aides were worried that FBI Director Christopher Wray might resign over the release. A senior law enforcement official told CNN that “Wray has made clear he is frustrated that President Donald Trump picked him to lead the FBI after he fired FBI Director James Comey in May, yet his advice on the Nunes memo is being disregarded and cast as part of the purported partisan leadership of the FBI.” Another source told CNN that Wray’s position on the memo is “raising hell.”

Trump Won’t Publicly Back Rosenstein

Feb. 2 — In another show of displeasure toward a senior Justice Department official that Trump himself appointed, Trump refuses to say whether he would fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at an Oval Office news conference with reporters, according to a CNN report.

A White House reporter asks: “Are you planning to fire [Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein?”

Trump responds: “You figure that one out.”

Trump’s displeasure with Rosenstein was likely related to his and FBI Director Christopher Wray’s concerns about releasing the Nunes memo, itself a response to the Russia investigation. Unlike previous presidents, Trump shows little respect for the independence of the Justice Department, particularly with respect to DOJ federal investigations, which are not overseen by the president.

NSA Chief Testifies that Trump Has Not Ordered a Stop to Russian Election Interference

Feb. 27 — In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, NSA and Cyber Command Chief Adm. Mike Rogers testified that President Trump had not ordered him, or granted him new authorities, to combat Russian cyber efforts to interfere in U.S. elections and manipulate public opinion. Read the full exchange below:

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.): Is Russia attempting to achieve a strategic objective by influencing US public opinion and elections?

Adm. Mike Rogers: Yes sir, I believe they are trying to undermine our institutions.

Sen. Jack Reed: Now, aside from our intelligence agencies operating under a presidential finding, are there any other organizations other than the Cyber Command’s Cyber Mission Forces that have the authority and capability to disrupt Russian election hacking operations where they originate? Does the FBI, DHS, or the states, the private sector, have such authorities or capabilities?

Adm. Mike Rogers: You could argue probably only that the — again, there’s a legal aspect to this that I’m not the most qualified — but probably you’d argue some combination of DOD, DOJ have the standing authority in that regard.

Sen. Jack Reed: But the mission teams, particularly at the origin of these attacks, have the authority to do so?

Adm. Mike Rogers: If granted the authority. And I don’t have the day-to-day authority to do that. If granted the authority.

Sen. Jack Reed: So you would basically need to be directed by the president through the Secretary of Defense?

Adm. Mike Rogers: Yes sir.

Sen. Jack Reed: Have you been directed to do so, given the strategic threat that faces the United States and the significant consequences you recognize already?

Adm. Mike Rogers: No, I have not. But if I could flesh this out, I’ll say something in open and unclassified, I’d be glad to go into more detailed in the classified. Based on the authority that I have as a commander, I have directed the National Mission Force to begin some specific work. I’d rather not publicly go into that. Using the authorities that I retain as in this mission space.

Sen. Jack Reed: It is inherent in a commander to prepare, plan, and structure, but you need the direct authority of the president through the secretary of defense?

Adm. Mike Rogers: To do some specific things.

Sen. Jack Reed: Some specific things.

Adm. Mike Rogers: There are some things I have under my authority, and I am acting within that authority now, not waiting.

PRESS AND PUBLIC DISCOURSE

Trump Voices Support for Killing Drug Dealers

Feb. 28 — Axios reports that Trump privately tells his associates he supports imposing the death penalty on drug traffickers, similar to how authoritarian governments in China, the Philippines, and Singapore deal with trafficking suspects. For months, Trump has reportedly been praising Singapore’s national policy of executing drug traffickers as the cause of its low drug consumption rates. Multiple sources added that Trump often launches into impassioned diatribes arguing that drug dealers should all receive the death penalty and are the moral equivalent of serial killers.

A Washington Post analysis notes that “Advocates say Singapore’s judicial process is often shrouded in secrecy and misinformation and is designed to tip the scales of justice heavily toward prosecutors, who have nearly limitless power over who dies and who is spared…People convicted of capital offenses in Singapore are executed by hanging.” Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director notes that with respect to the Philippines, “more than 7,000 suspected drug users and drug dealers killed by police and ‘unidentified gunmen’ since Duterte took office on June 30, 2016. They also challenge the Duterte government’s persistent denial that police are committing extrajudicial killings.”

At the same time, Trump reportedly tells associates that he does not believe a “softer” approach to drug reform will succeed — such as adopting less stringent sentencing guidelines and attempting to rehabilitate or show sympathy for drug offenders.

The policy upshot, Axios reports, is that Trump may support legislative efforts to change mandatory minimum sentencing laws with respect to fentanyl dealers.While such a move would likely have support from law enforcement and health officials, Trump could still push to implement more aspects of a Singapore- or Philippines-like “zero tolerance” policy.

Trump Threatens a Government Shutdown

Feb. 6 — As members of Congress work toward a budget deal to avert a government shutdown, Trump threatens to move for a government shutdown if Congress did not take action on illegal immigration, according to the New York Times. On Feb. 6, the House approved a temporary funding measure designed to resume funding for the government for the next six weeks.

As congressional negotiations worked toward for a deal that would pass the Senate, Trump criticized the House measure: “Frankly, I’ll go a step further…if we don’t change the legislation, if we don’t get rid of these loopholes where killers are allowed to come into our country and continue to kill. Gang members, and we’re just talking about MS-13, there are many gang members that we don’t even mention. If we don’t change it, let’s have a shut down. we’ll do a shutdown, and it’s worth it for our country. I’d love to see a shutdown, if we don’t get this stuff taken care of.”

At least one congressional Republican repudiated his comments. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), said at the same meeting at which the President spoke: “We don’t need a government shutdown on this.”

Trump Falsely Says his State of the Union Speech Was the Most Watched in U.S. History

Feb. 1 — President Trump tweets that he delivered the most-watched State of the Union speech in U.S. history, with 45.6 million people watching.

But Trump’s claim is contradicted by Nielson’s historical data about State of the Union speeches:

According to this table, Trump would place seventh among State of the Union speeches for which we have ratings information.

Likewise, a Washington Post analysis showed that 16 of the past 25 SOTU speeches garnered the attention of a higher proportion of the U.S. population:

And that his speech under-performed in gaining viewers in comparison to recent Presidents’ first-year speeches, which tend to get the highest ratings of a given presidency:

A CNN news analysis speculated that, given the easily disprovable nature of this claim, it is possible that Trump heard the claim from an outside source and was merely repeating what he thought he heard; that he was otherwise unaware his statement was false; or that he knew it was false and said it anyway.

Regardless of whether any of the three possibilities is true, the analysis adds:

Regardless of the “why” what we know now is that this President is saying things that aren’t true at a remarkably fast pace. According to stats kept by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, Trump said more than 2,000 things that were either totally false or broadly misleading before he had even spent a full year in office.

It’s easy to make fun of Trump for not telling the truth about something so easily checkable…But someone who lies about little things — things that are easily proven wrong — will also lie about big things. Big things that impact the country — now and in the future. When the person doing the lying (and lying and lying and lying) is also the President of the United States, we have a very big problem on our hands. And it’s no laughing matter.

CORRUPTION AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Kushner Meets with Private Equity Manager at White House, Who Later Loans Kushner’s Business Millions

Feb. 28 — According to the New York Times, Joshua Harris, the founder of a private equity firm met regularly with Jared Kushner at the White House in early 2017 while Harris was advising Trump administration officials on infrastructure policy. Then, in November 2017, Harris’ private equity firm lent $184 million to Kushner’s family real estate company.

The Times notes that government experts say, “There is little precedent for a top White House official meeting with executives of companies as they contemplate sizable loans to his business[.]”

Don Fox, former acting director at the Office of of Government Ethics, tells the Times: “This is exactly why senior government officials, for as long back as I have any experience, don’t maintain any active outside business interests…The appearance of conflicts of interest is simply too great.”

Kushner Increases Credit Line Debt by Millions After Joining White House

Feb. 13 — According to financial disclosure form updates filed by Ivanka Trump, Trump adviser Jared Kushner appears to have drawn millions of dollars worth of credit line debt after he began working at the White House. Politico reports that three lines of credit, which were disclosed as being valued at between $1 million and $5 million in the family’s July 2017 disclosures, were revised to the $5 million to $25 million range in updates that the Office of Government Ethics certified on Dec. 26, 2017. Observers note that credit increases created the potential for conflicts of interest and corruption.

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Artin Afkhami

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