Norms Watch: Damage to Democracy and Rule of Law in January 2019

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 January 2019.

The President of the United States is under investigation as a possible agent of Russia and conceals his talks with Vladimir Putin

News reports made explicit an inference that some experts had long held about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — that in addition to a criminal investigation into whether President Donald Trump had obstructed justice by trying to thwart the probe in a variety of ways, Trump is also a target of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation. The latter is intended to determine whether repeated actions by Trump such as his campaign calls for Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails or his firing of FBI Director James Comey indicated that he was working “on behalf of Russia against American interests,” the New York Times reported. An official told the Washington Post that the criminal and counterintelligence investigations were always linked.

In the meantime, Trump has met with Putin at least five times over two years with no detailed record, according to a Jan. 13 report in the Washington Post, even in one case taking his interpreter’s notes and ordering the translator to say nothing about what was discussed. 

F.B.I. Opened Inquiry Into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia by Adam Goldman, Michael S. Schmidt and Nicholas Fandos at the New York Times

FBI’s investigation of Trump included a counterintelligence inquiry by the Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett and Ellen Nakashima

Why Americans Should Care About Mueller’s Counterintelligence Probe—Aside from Any Criminal or Political Implications Nov. 2018 analysis by Stephanie Douglas for Just Security

Trump has concealed details of his face-to-face encounters with Putin from senior officials in administration by Greg Miller at the Washington Post

Trump’s Efforts to Hide Details of Putin Talks May Set Up Fight With Congress by Julian E. Barnes and Matthew Rosenberg at the New York Times

Trump and Putin Have Met Five Times. What Was Said Is a Mystery by Peter Baker at the New York Times

Trump sat down with Putin at G20 without US note-taker by James Politi and Demetri Sevastopulo at the Financial Times

White House explains Trump-Putin encounter at G20 by Samuel Chamberlain and John Roberts at Fox News

Starting the New Year with a 95-minute self-referential rant, and doubling down against the norm of presidential candor

Trump started the New Year with a Cabinet meeting on Jan. 2 that quickly became the kind of long, rambling monologue characteristic of authoritarian leaders, extending to 95 minutes and bubbling over with falsehoods. In addition to criticizing the recently departed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who had resigned in protest over Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, the president also told new acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to no longer publicly release inspector general reports on U.S. military operations, saying it’s “insane” that everyone, including U.S. enemies, can read the watchdog findings. He cited no evidence of harm done.

The president also seemed to endorse the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, saying it was necessary because terrorists were entering the then-Soviet Union, an assertion that has no basis in fact (the Soviets invaded to support a communist government). It was at least the third time Trump has made oddly arcane — and wholly inaccurate — claims favorable to Russian propagandists during his presidency. 

The pattern extends Trump’s penchant for subverting the norm of candor to the public by purposefully creating false narratives that he repeats for his personal and/or political gain. Another example came later in the month, when news surfaced that he had pursued his Trump Tower Moscow deal throughout his campaign, much longer than had been acknowledged previously.

Within his first two years in office, Trump made 8,158 false or misleading claims, according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker’s database.

A defensive Trump calls a Cabinet meeting and uses it to boast, deflect and distract by the Washington Post’s Anne Gearan

Trump’s bizarre history lesson on the Soviet Union, Russia and Afghanistan by Aaron Blake of the Washington Post

Trump curiously well-versed in specific Russian talking points by Rachel Maddow at MSNBC

Trump parrots Russian revisionism on Soviet Afghanistan invasion by Rachel Maddow at MSNBC

Trump’s Cracked Afghan History by the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal

Why Did Soviets Invade Afghanistan? Documents Offer History Lesson for Trump by Peter Baker at the New York Times

Deciphering the Patterns in Trump’s Falsehoods by Linda Qiu at the New York Times

Moscow Skyscraper Talks Continued Through ‘the Day I Won,’ Trump Is Said to Acknowledge by the New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti, Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt

Trump pursued a deal in Russia and hid it from voters by USA Today Editorial Board

President Trump made 8,158 false or misleading claims in his first two years by Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly in the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column

Longest federal government shutdown in American history

Some 800,000 federal employees languished on furlough or worked without pay for 35 days in a partial government shutdown that went into the record books as the longest shutdown in history. It had started on Dec. 22, after Trump unexpectedly refused to accept a budget deal that had passed the House and Senate but did not contain as much money as he had demanded for a wall on the southern border with Mexico.

Trump ordered certain categories of federal employees back to work for functions such as processing tax returns and conducting food inspections. He and his supporters also disparaged federal workers during the shutdown to justify the move and downplay its impact. Vice President Mike Pence, charged with negotiating with Congress for a resolution, ended up dealing at times with congressional staff instead of leaders.

Trump finally ended the shutdown late on Friday, Jan. 25, when he agreed to demands from Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to reopen the government before negotiations on the border wall could proceed. Still, the continuing resolution that he signed is valid only until Feb. 15, and Trump already has begun saying he would accept no deal without funding for a wall, a position contrary to that of the Democrats.

Kevin Hassett, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, warned the shutdown could have permanent effects if businesses and markets begin to hedge even afterwards out of fear that it could happen again. While employees will receive backpay once the shutdown ends, many federal government contractors won’t.

This is the longest shutdown in U.S. history by CNN’s Meg Wagner, Veronica Rocha and Amanda Wills

Wrecking the Government to Build a Wall by Darren E. Tromblay for Just Security

Trump administration recalls tens of thousands of federal workers as it seeks to blunt shutdown’s impact by Jeff Stein at the Washington Post

Majority of Americans blame Trump for the shutdown by Laura Santhanam at PBS Newshour

D.C. Judge Tells Furloughed Workers They Must Stay On The Job by Daniella Cheslow for NPR

I’m a Senior Trump Official, and I Hope a Long Shutdown Smokes Out the Resistance by an anonymous author in The Daily Caller

Shutdown’s Economic Damage Starts to Pile Up, Threatening an End to Growth by Jim Tankersley at the New York Times

Pence huddles with congressional staffers amid effort to end shutdown by The Hill’s John Bowden

Pence and White House officials leave meeting with congressional aides with no end to shutdown by Seung Min Kim, Robert Costa and Anne Gearan at the Washington Post

The President of the United States is disinvited to provide the State of the Union address in Congress

As the record federal government shutdown dragged into its 26th day, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent the White House a letter asking that they reschedule the annual State of the Union address that had been set for Jan. 29 until after the shutdown ends or submit it in writing. She cited the lack of sufficient staff to provide security and manage the event, but Republican members of Congress who support Trump decried the move as politically motivated. In what Democrats called retaliation, Trump shot back a letter to Pelosi the next day, canceling a trip she was leading for members of Congress and staff to NATO headquarters in Brussels and to Afghanistan. The letter, also made public, not only caused confusion for the delegation, which had already boarded a bus at the Capitol to take them to their flight, but also revealed a visit to a war zone, which usually is kept under wraps for security reasons until after visitors return to safety.

Once the shutdown ended, Pelosi reissued Trump’s invitation and the State of the Union address is now scheduled for Feb. 5.

Pelosi asks Trump to reschedule SOTU because of the shutdown by Heather Caygle and Rachel Bade at Politico

Pelosi asks Trump to move State of the Union address by CNN’s Lauren Fox, Alex Rogers and Kaitlan Collins

What Trump Just Wrecked by Canceling Pelosi’s Trip to Afghanistan by Erin Banco, Sam Stein, and Lachlan Markay at The Daily Beast

What the Constitution Says About Trump’s Obstruction of Pelosi’s Afghanistan Trip by Andy Wright at Just Security

Chasing Nancy Pelosi’s bus to nowhere by Politico’s Andrew Desiderio

President Trump, Nancy Pelosi agree on Feb. 5 for State of the Union address by Laurie Kellman at the Associated Press

Administration invites sanctioned Russian official for a visit

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, reportedly got U.S. sanctions waived last year for his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Rogozin, to speak at Bridenstine’s alma mater, Rice University, in Houston in January. Rogozin, a former deputy prime minister, heads the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. The Obama administration sanctioned him and others for their roles in Russia’s 2014 occupation and claimed annexation of Crimea. Rogozin is notorious as an ultranationalist with a record of racist, homophobic and anti-American rhetoric. With publicity and blowback from the public and Congress, Bridenstine rescinded the invitation.

‘Wow’: NASA startles with invitation to sanctioned Russian by Politico’s Ben Schreckinger

NASA administrator rescinds invitation to Russian counterpart after backlash on Capitol Hill by Christian Davenport at the Washington Post

Facing blowback, NASA chief withdraws invite to Russian official sanctioned by US by Ledyard King at USA Today

Democratic election interference in Alabama augurs ill for 2020

Democratic operatives apparently wielded the same kind of disinformation on Facebook and Twitter that was used by Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in an effort to boost their challenger to Republican Roy Moore in the special December 2017 Alabama U.S. Senate race. Democrat Doug Jones barely squeaked by to win the seat and has asked for an investigation into the practices. The Democratic effort in Alabama was financially supported by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, who disavowed knowledge of the tactics and criticized those responsible. The incident highlighted the debates within each major party as the 2020 election campaigns get underway over what kinds of tactics should be off limits in countering opponents.

Secret Experiment in Alabama Senate Race Imitated Russian Tactics by Scott Shane and Alan Blinder at the New York Times

Facebook suspends five accounts, including that of a social media researcher, for misleading tactics in Alabama election by the Washington Post’s Tony Romm and Craig Timberg

LinkedIn Co-Founder Apologizes for Deception in Alabama Senate Race by the New York Times’ Scott Shane

Democrats Faked Online Push to Outlaw Alcohol in Alabama Race by Scott Shane and Alan Blinder at the New York Times

Secret campaign to use Russian-inspired tactics in 2017 Ala. election stirs anxiety for Democrats’ by Craig Timberg, Tony Romm, Aaron C. Davis and Elizabeth Dwoskin at the Washington Post

Doug Jones calls for investigation into disinformation campaign during his Senate run by The Hill’s Owen Daugherty

Fake News as ‘Moral Imperative’? Democrats’ Alabama Move Hints at Ugly 2020 by Jim Rutenberg at the New York Times

Intelligence heads warn of more aggressive election meddling in 2020 by Politico’s Martin Matishak

The National Security Advisor the president hired because their thinking was so in sync … got out of sync

White House national security adviser John Bolton said during a visit to Israel that a number of conditions would have to be fulfilled before U.S. forces withdraw from Syria. That contradicted a Dec. 19 announcement by President Trump that the U.S. would withdraw from the war-torn country within 30 days.

Not only had the administration’s decision-making clearly disintegrated going into the announcement, so did its response to the backlash. Thrashed by the resignation of his defense secretary and a top State Department official, and vociferous criticism from both sides of the aisle on the abruptness of his decision, Trump extended his 30-day timeline for the withdrawal to four months. Other administration officials have subsequently said there is no specific timeline.

Bolton Puts Conditions on Syria Withdrawal, Suggesting a Delay of Months or Years by David E. Sanger, Noah Weiland and Eric Schmitt at the New York Times

Contradicting Trump, Bolton says no withdrawal from Syria until ISIS destroyed, Kurds’ safety guaranteed by Karen DeYoung and Karoun Demirjian at the Washington Post

What happened to Trump’s Syria withdrawal? by the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor

If Trump’s Syria and Afghanistan Decisions Seem Bad, Imagine What He’d Do in a Crisis by Joshua Geltzer for Just Security

Trump repeatedly claims he could declare a “national emergency” to build his border wall

Since early January, Trump has repeatedly said he is considering declaring a “national emergency” and using the the military to build the border wall he wants, despite Congress’ decision not to appropriate funds. Democratic lawmakers have said the funding and authorization must be provided in legislation and that they would challenge such a move in court.

Trump says he may call a national emergency to build border wall by The Hill’s Tal Axelrod

President Trump Renews Threat to Declare National Emergency to Build Border Wall by Mark Niquette and Justin Sink at Bloomberg News for Time

President Trump could declare a national emergency. But would that get him funds for a wall? by USA Today’s William Cummings and John Fritze

Trump’s Plan to Have the Military Build a Wall is Illegal by Sam Berger for Just Security

Trump hosts Clemson football team with a spread of hamburgers and gilded candelabras

The president welcomed the 2018 NCAA Football National Champions, the Clemson Tigers, to the State Dining Room on Jan. 14 with meals from Domino’s, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King. The burgers and pizza were spread across an otherwise elegant dining table bedecked with two elaborately gilded candelabras. Trump said he paid for the food personally because large numbers of White House staff were furloughed due to the partial government shutdown. Megan Garber at The Atlantic called it “a dinner of champions, with only one winner.”

News emerged later that a number of Clemson’s black players didn’t attend: of the 57 black athletes on the team’s official roster, only 15 chose to make the trip to the White House.

The President’s Big-Mac Feast Was Politically Savvy by Megan Garber at The Atlantic

Donald Trump slammed for feeding fast food to Clemson football team during White House visit by the Associated Press

Exclusive: Clemson’s Black Players Refused to Accept Donald Trump’s Invitation to the McCookout by Michael Harriot at The Root

First daughter Ivanka helps select next World Bank President

When World Bank President Jim Yong Kim abruptly announced in January that he would step down, rumored candidates to replace him included Ivanka Trump. The White House dismissed that speculation but did confirm that she would help Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney make the selection, despite her lack of professional qualification for the role. Ivanka Trump has had some involvement with the Bank during her father’s term in office, including originating and establishing a fund intended to raise $1.6 billion in capital for female entrepreneurs in developing countries.

As of Jan. 31, the candidates President Trump interviewed included Heidi Cruz, the wife of U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and someone who Trump had ridiculed during his presidential campaign. Heidi Cruz is a managing director of Goldman Sachs’s investment division in Houston. If Trump’s pick is seen as too extreme or unqualified, it could upset the tradition of World Bank members generally accepting the U.S. president’s nominee, while European members traditionally pick the head of the International Monetary Fund. Bloomberg News reported that Cruz will not be nominated and that the frontrunner was Treasury Undersecretary David Malpass, who had been a senior economic advisor to Trump’s campaign.

Ivanka Trump to Help Choose New World Bank President by the New York Times’ Annie Karni

Trump Met Heidi Cruz for World Bank Job But Passed on Her, Sources Say By Jennifer Jacobs, Andrew Mayeda, and Saleha Mohsin at Bloomberg News

Trump interviews Heidi Cruz, once the subject of his ridicule, for World Bank post by CNN’s Betsy Klein

Trump’s World Bank President shortlist includes GOP donors and campaign supporters by Karl Evers-Hillstrom at the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets News

IMAGE: President Donald J. Trump poses for news media in the State Dining Room on Jan. 14, 2019, where the 2018 NCAA Football National Champions, the Clemson Tigers, were about to be welcomed with food from Domino’s, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

 

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