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

Welcome to the latest installment of Norms Watch, our series tracking both the flouting of democratic norms by the Trump administration and the erosion of those norms in reactions and responses by others. This is our collection of the most significant breaks with democratic traditions that occurred in December 2018.

Federal prosecutors name the President of the United States as a direct participant in felonies committed to win election — and Trump reacts

Federal prosecutors for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) essentially alleged in a court filing that the President of the United States (identified as “Individual 1”) directed his then-personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen to engage in a criminal conspiracy involving the payment of hush money to help win the 2016 election.

According to CNN, Trump “lashed out” against his acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, in response to the SDNY court filings. “Trump pressed Whitaker on why more wasn’t being done to control prosecutors in New York who brought the charges” that directly implicated Trump in the hush money scheme with Cohen and charges of a conspiracy to commit federal campaign violations. The news report raised alarm that the president was interceding in an ongoing criminal matter to try to shield himself from accountability.

Mueller’s Roadmap: Major Takeaways from Cohen and Manafort Filings by Ryan Goodman and Andrew Wright at Just Security

Trump Lashed Out at Whitaker After Explosive Cohen Revelations by Laura Jarrett and Pamela Brown at CNN

‘Blatant Attempt at Obstruction’: Fmr Fed Prosecutor Says Trump Complaining About Cohen Investigation Was ‘Criminal’ by Colin Kalmbacher at Law & Crime

U.S. intelligence leaks on Khashoggi publicly contradict White House’s position

Trump’s repeated public questioning of U.S. intelligence findings that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) knew in advance of the planned killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi apparently prompted a leak to the Wall Street Journal of excerpts from a “highly classified CIA assessment,” which the Journal published on the first of the month. The excerpts said MBS sent at least 11 messages to the advisor who oversaw Khashoggi’s murder, according to the Journal. The leak highlights the tensions between Trump and the intelligence community and the erosion of the norm of protecting classified information by intelligence professionals when the president repeatedly makes misleading statements to the public about their assessment.

CIA Intercepts Underpin Assessment Saudi Crown Prince Targeted Khashoggi by Warren P. Strobel at the Wall Street Journal

Intercepts Solidify C.I.A. Assessment That Saudi Prince Ordered Khashoggi Killing by Julian Barnes and Eric Schmitt at the New York Times

With a Calculated Leak, the War Between Trump and the Intelligence Community Escalates by Abigail Tracy for Vanity Fair

A new CIA leak adds to the evidence against MBS. Congress must act by the Editorial Board of the Washington Post

Trump publicly engages in some light witness tampering

The president issued three tweets in quick succession one morning, lambasting his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in two of the messages for cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and applauding his longtime advisor, Roger Stone, in the third tweet for refusing to testify against Trump in the probe. Experts say he came right up to the line or even crossed over the threshold of witness tampering, a federal crime.

Trump’s latest tweets cross clear lines, experts say: Obstruction of justice and witness tampering by the Washington Post’s Deanna Paul

Ex-prosecutor: Trump ‘right on the edge of witness tampering’ from CNN’s Ana Cabrera

Did Trump commit witness tampering by tweet? I asked 9 legal experts by Sean Illing at Vox

Saudi spending spree at Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C.

An investigation by the Washington Post revealed that American lobbyists for the Saudi government spent more than $270,000 at the Trump Hotel in just three months shortly after his election. The guests were six groups of U.S. veterans brought to Washington to lobby on Capitol Hill against a law the Saudis opposed. Some of the veterans involved said they knew nothing of the Saudi role in the visit.

The spending has become ammunition in lawsuits alleging the president is violating the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause by accepting money from foreign governments. While Trump turned over control of his business to family members, he didn’t divest from his financial interest, raising the question of whether proceeds to the businesses could be construed as bribes.

Saudi-funded lobbyist paid for 500 rooms at Trump’s hotel after 2016 election by David A. Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell at the Washington Post

Maryland, DC begin issuing subpoenas for information about Trump Hotel By ABC’s Lucien Bruggeman

Marylanders are served by emoluments lawsuit by the Baltimore Sun Editorial Board

This Week in Conflicts: Saudi-Funded Lobbyists Pay for Rooms at Trump Hotel, Trump Jr.’s Lettuce Company and Subpoenas Issued in Emoluments Lawsuit by Lynn Walsh at the Sunlight Foundation

Repeated, escalated attacks on Mueller, Comey, Rosenstein, and Tillerson

Trump intensified his attacks on Special Counsel Robert Mueller and former FBI Director James Comey, just before Mueller’s team was due to release two new filings in its cases against Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. The president also publicly vacillated on his assessment of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, thanking him the evening before and then lambasting him the next morning.

Trump struck a new level of baseness in criticizing former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell.” The invective came in response to Tillerson’s criticism of his former boss as a “pretty undisciplined” head of state who “doesn’t like to read” or “get into the details of a lot of things.” Tillerson, speaking at a benefit in Houston, also had reported that Trump would get frustrated when his aides told him he couldn’t take a certain action because it would violate the law.

Trump Lashes Out at Mueller Ahead of Potentially Damaging Court Filings by Roll Call’s John T. Bennett

Trump Says Tillerson Is ‘Dumb as a Rock’ After Former Secretary of State Criticizes Him by Peter Baker at the New York Times

Tillerson says Trump paid little heed to the law by Demetri Sevastopulo at the Financial Times

Trump appears to meddle in Federal Reserve policy

The president took multiple swipes at the Federal Reserve during the month. He escalated his longstanding criticism of the Fed’s interest-rate increases on Dec. 17, appearing to try to sway the board in advance of another decision on rates. Similar comments on Dec. 24, including repeated criticism of Fed Chairman Jerome Powell that raised fears the president might take the unprecedented step of trying to force him out, tanked markets in just a half day of trading on Christmas Eve. The Dow closed down 653 points, or 2.9 percent, and the S&P 500 dropped 65 points, or 2.7 percent, according to Forbes.

While Trump’s predecessors have been unhappy with the Federal Reserve’s decisions in the past and some financial analysts also have expressed concern about the Fed’s current direction, presidents generally keep mum out of respect for the intended independence of the board from political manipulation of monetary policy. Trump’s comments spurred the White House and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at various times to issue statement aiming to reassure markets that Trump respects the Fed’s independence.

It is NOT normal for the president to weigh-in on Fed policy from Brennan Center Senior Counsel Rudy Mehrbani on Twitter

Trump puts the Fed on blast in critical tweet ahead of policy meeting by Yahoo Finance’s Scott Gamm

Trump’s Fed criticism is nearly without precedent in US history July 2018 background by Jeff Cox at CNBC

Trump Sends S&P 500 Into Bear Market With Critique Of Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell by Antoine Gara at Forbes  

Sudden withdrawal announced for U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan

Trump abruptly ordered the complete and immediate withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria and 7,000 — about half — from Afghanistan, against the long-standing advice of his generals and civilian advisors that the forces are needed to ensure the sustainable defeat of ISIS and al-Qaida. The decision prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and threw allies and military planners into confusion. Within less than two weeks, the White House began to backtrack, saying no final decision had been made on an Afghanistan drawdown and that the exit from Syria would be gradual.

Trump Withdraws U.S. Forces From Syria, Declaring ‘We Have Won Against ISIS’ by Mark Landler, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times

Afghans, diplomats surprised by report of Trump plan to pull out troops by Hamid Shalizi, Rupam Jain, James Mackenzie of Reuters

Jim Mattis’s exit is a watershed for the Trump presidency by Edward Luce for the Financial Times

Trump Hasn’t Ordered Afghan Troop Withdrawal, White House Says by Shannon Pettypiece and Bill Faries at Bloomberg News

Trump to Allow Months for Troop Withdrawal in Syria, Officials Say by By Eric Schmitt and Maggie Haberman for the New York Times

Trump’s first trip to a war zone and politicization of U.S. troops

After almost two years in office, Trump finally took a trip to a war zone, Iraq, to visit U.S. troops. But he failed to meet with the country’s leadership and spent time signing a bunch of red MAGA caps that materialized conveniently in the hands of troops. The White House denied politicizing the trip. He also boasted about photos with troops who were revealed to be Navy Seals, a branch that usually operates well under the radar to maintain security.

Trump’s visit to Iraq prompts concerns about politicization of military by Paul Sonne and Philip Rucker at the Washington Post

White House says it didn’t distribute MAGA hats Trump signed in Iraq, Germany by CNN’s Eli Watkins

Trump’s reveal of SEAL team in Iraq could endanger its members by NBC’s Dennis Romero

A course correction for democratic norms? The end of the love affair between Trump and “his generals”

The president often fawned over high-ranking military officers as a candidate and then brought so many into his administration that national security experts worried they would have too much sway over foreign policy. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn served as his national security advisor less than a month in 2017 before resigning and later pleading guilty in the Russia investigation. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster took over but served just over a year. Trump named retired Gen. John Kelly as his first secretary of homeland security before moving him to be his chief of staff. He just left. Retired Gen. Jim Mattis became Trump’s first secretary of defense, but resigned in December in disagreement with Trump’s abrupt Syria withdrawal (see above). Before the month was over, Trump also was lashing out at another storied general, retired Joint Special Operations Commander Stanley McChrystal.

With Mattis resignation, Donald Trump’s bromance with military generals is over by Tom Vanden Brook and John Fritze at USA Today

Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal: President Donald Trump immoral, doesn’t tell the truth by Roey Hadar at ABC News, based on an interview with Martha Raddatz, co-anchor of the Network’s “This Week” program

Osama Bin Laden Raid Architect Defends Retired General McChrystal After Trump Insults by Newsweek’s Tom Porter

Now Trump is at war with the generals by New America Vice President Peter Bergen for CNN

Trump removes Mattis two months early after rebuke by Demetri Sevastopulo at the Financial Times

Two migrant children die in U.S. custody at southern border; Trump blames Democrats

A 7-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy, both from Guatemala, died in U.S. custody in separate incidents after crossing the southern border, raising fresh questions about the administration’s policies that have resulted in separation of children from families, crowded detention centers, and rampant confusion among officials in charge. At least one of the cases cast doubt over whether U.S. Customs and Border Protection properly notified members of Congress of the fatality. Trump generated outrage when he tried in a tweet to blame the deaths on “the Democrats and their pathetic immigration policies.”

U.S. House Democrats call for congressional investigation into Guatemalan child’s death by Julian Aguilar

8-year-old Guatemalan boy who died in US custody had the flu, medical investigator says by USA Today’s Doug Stanglin

Trump’s tweet about migrant kids’ deaths caps a year that was horrible for children by Colby Itkowitz

Our View: What shrugging off thousands of border deaths says about us by the Editorial Board of The Republic in Arizona

IMAGE: Michael Cohen, personal lawyer for then-President-elect Donald Trump, gets into an elevator at Trump Tower in New York City on Dec. 12, 2016. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

 

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