Norms Watch: Damage to Democracy and Rule of Law in August 2018

Here is the latest installment of Norms Watch, our series tracking the flouting of democratic norms by the Trump administration and the erosion those norms suffer as a result. This is our collection of the most significant breaks with democratic traditions that occurred in August 2018. Please let us know if you think we missed any.

1. Trump implicated as a co-conspirator in Cohen’s guilty plea

In his guilty plea, Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen alleged that Donald Trump (labeled “Individual 1” in Cohen’s plea agreement) directed hush-money payments to women with whom he had affairs for the purpose of influencing the presidential campaign. These claims, suspected but not previously confirmed by Cohen under oath, sparked new calls for impeachment, assertions of the president’s illegitimacy, and angry backlash from the president.

Michael Cohen Says He Arranged Payments to Women at Trump’s DirectionThe New York Times’ William K. Rashbaum, Maggie Haberman, Ben Protess and Jim Rutenberg

President Trump Lashes Out at Michael Cohen After Guilty PleaTIME’s Zeke Miller, Jonathan Lemire and Darlene Superville

With Michael Cohen’s Guilty Plea, President Trump Has Been Implicated In A Criminal Conspiracy – The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson

Donald Trump’s High Crimes and Misdemeanors — Op-ed by The New York Times’ Bret Stephens

2. The Manafort trial and verdict fueled Trump’s outrage and impatience with the Mueller probe

The Virginia trial and resulting guilty verdicts of Paul Manafort, the former chairman of the Trump campaign, created a weeks-long media frenzy. Throughout it, the president continued to undermine the credibility of the investigation being carried out by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Justice Department while expressing sympathy for Manafort.

“The Manafort trial Is spinning him into a frenzy”: Inside the White House, Trump is going crazy–threatening to fire Rosenstein and talking about a timeline to end the Mueller probeVanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman

Trump at a precarious moment in his presidency: Privately brooding and publicly roaring The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and Ashley Parker

Giuliani says Trump sought legal advice on Manafort pardon “weeks ago”Axios’ Michael Sykes

Trump says he could ‘run’ Mueller probePOLITICO’s Brent D. Griffiths

Trump: Manafort is a “good man” and the conviction is “very sad”Vox’s Alex Ward

3. Trump steps up public feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions

The public tension between Trump and his own attorney general was at an all time high in August, with a beleaguered Sessions finally returning fire, defending the independence of the Justice Department. While Trump’s advisers seem to have persuaded him to hold off on firing Sessions for now, the president’s frustration over the Russia investigation appears more difficult to contain.  

Trump Tells Sessions to ‘Stop This Rigged Witch Hunt Right Now’The New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld-Davis, Eileen Sullivan and Katie Benner

Trump Escalates Attack on Jeff Sessions, Calling Him ‘Scared Stiff’The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman

Jeff Sessions Pushes Back Against Trump’s Criticism That He ‘Never Took Control of the Justice Department’ TIME’s Zeke Miller, Catherine Lucey and Jonathan Lemire

‘Come on Jeff’: Trump continues public feud with Sessions, urging investigations of the ‘other side’The Washington Post’s John Wagner

Key Republicans Give Trump a Path to Fire Sessions After the ElectionBloomberg’s Steven T. Dennis

Trump personally lobbying GOP senators to flip on SessionsPOLITICO’s Eliana Johnson and Elana Schor

4. Family separation persists

More than a month has passed since the federal court deadline for the Trump administration to reunite migrant children with their parents, yet nearly 500 such children remain separated and in U.S. custody.

Still separated: Nearly 500 migrant children taken from their parents remain in U.S. custodyWashington Post’s Maria Sachetti

Will Anyone in the Trump Administration Ever Be Held Accountable for the Zero-Tolerance Policy?The New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer

Beyond family separation: Trump’s ongoing war on asylum, explainedVox’ Dara Lind

Judge blocks Trump from deporting reunited families — Vox’s Dara Lind

5. Trump antagonizes Canada, stalling trade talks

Weeks of trade negotiations over NAFTA ended with no agreement between the United States and Canada and tensions ran high between the two countries  following reports of hardline comments from Trump. Relations between the U.S. and its longtime ally have been strained by Trump’s behavior this summer toward Canadian President Justin Trudeau and the G7.

Trump threatens Canada with auto tariffs, renews call to end NAFTAThe Washington Post

US-Canada NAFTA talks break up after inflammatory Trump comments leakBusiness Insider’s Michelle Mark

Trump admits to explosive off-the-record comments on Canada  – Axios’ Dave Lawler

Trump Wins a Round on NAFTA, and America Loses the Trade WarThe Atlantic’s Matt Peterson

6. Mounting ethics allegations make Wilbur Ross the latest poster child of Trump administration corruption

New reports from Forbes surfaced in August alleging legal and ethical violations by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. The reports revealed a lawsuit against Ross for theft and pointed to serious conflicts of interest in Ross’ official actions, including opening an investigation into steel imports while retaining an undisclosed position in a U.S. railcar manufacturer.   

New Details About Wilbur Ross’ Business Point To Pattern Of Grifting – Forbes’ Dan Alexander

New Report Uncovers (Even More) Ethical Issues For Wilbur RossForbes’ Dan Alexander

The number of money scandals in Trumpland is overwhelmingThe Economist

7. Unhappy with John Brennan’s public rebukes, Trump revoked the ex-CIA chief’s security clearance

Trump followed through on his threat to revoke the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan, who has been vocal in criticizing the president. The political reprisal is the latest demonstration of the president’s intolerance for dissent from the intelligence community.

Trump Revokes Ex-C.I.A. Director John Brennan’s Security ClearanceThe New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear

White House drafts more clearance cancellations demanded by TrumpThe Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Josh Dawsey

Taking Away John Brennan’s Clearance Threatens National SecurityWired’s Emily Dreyfuss

Trump revoked John Brennan’s security clearance. The long-term consequences may be dire. The Washington Post’s Michael Pozansky

8. Trump persisted in targeting journalists and news outlets with angry missives despite growing concern over inciting violence against the press

President Trump and his administration continued attacking the press this month as pushback increased from journalists and media outlets. Trump’s incendiary rhetoric has prompted widespread criticism at home and abroad, including from those concerned it is endangering the safety of journalists.

Sarah Sanders presents the official White House policy: The media is the enemy of the peopleThe Washington Post’s Amber Philips

UN Experts Attack Trump’s Attacks on the MediaFortune’s Natasha Bach

Hundreds Of Newspapers Denounce Trump’s Attacks On Media In Coordinated EditorialsNPR’s James Doubek

Trump’s Attacks on the News Media Are Getting Even More DangerousThe New Yorker’s John Cassidy

9. Trump’s dishonest rhetoric and contempt for the rule of law attracted deepening concern at the same time it was further normalized by politicians looking to protect themselves from prosecution  

Trumpian rhetoric seemed to have achieved a new degree of normalcy this month as it spread to new users and contexts, perhaps most boldly demonstrated by Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter’s claim that his prosecution for campaign finance violations is a “witch hunt” being carried out by the “deep state.”

Trump’s cynical attacks on the rule of law hurt the nationThe Washington Post’s Editorial Board

Rep. Duncan Hunter says Democrats, ‘deep state’ behind indictment, says he’s not resigning The San Diego Tribune’s Andrew Dyer and Kristina Davis

Trump’s Tweets and the Creation of ‘Illusory Truth’The Atlantic’s Olivia Paschal

Gather Round, Everyone. It’s Time to Play ‘Find the Collusion’!The New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld-Davis

10. The confirmation process for Brett Kavanaugh to serve on the Supreme Court sunk to new partisan lows as questions about transparency surrounded unreleased documents

The debate leading up to Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, which began this week, maintained a fever pitch throughout August. While partisanship is not a new feature of the confirmation process, rancor across the aisle reached new heights over Senate Republicans scheduling the hearings before all of Kavanaugh’s documents would be released and, ultimately, the White House ordering that more than 100,000 pages be withheld from the Senate altogether.

Democrats are resorting to FOIA requests to vet Brett KavanaughVox’ Li Zhou

Dems say they’ll sue if they don’t get Kavanaugh documentsAP’s Alan Fram

Trump administration withholds 100K Kavanaugh pagesAP’s Lisa Mascaro

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

 

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About the Author(s)

Katherine Cheasty Kornman

Legal researcher at Just Security and student at Yale Law School. Follow her on Twitter (@kckornman).