Welcome to 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 February 2019.
Declaring a national emergency as an end-run around Congress
President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on Feb. 15 to gain the authority that Congress refused to give him to fund the construction of a wall on the southern border. It was a move intended to keep a campaign promise to his base, though that pledge had included forcing Mexico to pay for it.
At least 16 states and a host of organizations filed suit to stop the move, and Democrats in Congress passed a resolution to nullify the declaration, sending it to the Senate for a vote (Trump has vowed to veto the bill). At least 58 former U.S. national security officials from Democratic and Republican administrations signed a letter asserting that “no plausible assessment of the evidence” would justify the emergency declaration and that, in fact, it could undermine U.S. interests by diverting funding from necessary military expenditures and weakening America’s diplomacy. A poll conducted after the announcement found that more than 6 in 10 Americans disapprove of the emergency declaration, and almost that many don’t believe there is an emergency at the southern border and think Trump is abusing his presidential authority.
Earlier in the month, the Pentagon announced it would send 3,750 additional U.S. forces to the southern border for three months to support border agents, raising the total number of active-duty forces there to about 4,350. The rationale of the subsequent emergency declaration for using the military construction funding relies in part on the presence of military forces at the border.
Trump declares border national emergency to bipartisan skepticism by CNN’s Jeremy Diamond, Priscilla Alvarez and Kevin Liptak
What You Need to Know about the “National Emergency Declaration” by Just Security authors
Military Construction Funds and Local Politics that Will Shape GOP’s Stance on Trump’s Emergency Declaration by Luke Hartig for Just Security
States File Suit Against Trump Administration Over Wall Emergency by the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Sadie Gurman
Will the courts let Donald Trump build his wall? from The Economist
Pentagon Sending 3,750 Extra Troops to Mexico Border by the Daily Beast
Poll: 6-In-10 Disapprove Of Trump’s Declaration Of A National Emergency by NPR’s Domenico Montanaro
More than 50 ex-national security officials tell Trump his national emergency is not justified by Julia Ainsley at NBC
House votes to block Trump emergency declaration by the Associated Press’ Alan Fram and Andrew Taylor in the Boston Globe
Former FBI Deputy Director McCabe echoes reports of internal 25th Amendment talk
Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe alleged in an interview on the CBS program “60 Minutes” that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had considered wearing a wire to surreptitiously record Trump during a meeting, and that law enforcement officials informally discussed whether the president could be removed from office using the 25th Amendment. His account seemed to confirm a September New York Times story. But Rosenstein said both the Times story and McCabe’s account were “inaccurate and factually incorrect,” according to Reuters.
McCabe’s public comments in recent days about his dealings with Trump and his administration come in advance of today’s publication of McCabe’s new book “The Threat,” Isabel Dobrin reports at Politico.
Andrew McCabe: The full 60 Minutes interview by Scott Pelley at 60 Minutes
Rod Rosenstein Suggested Secretly Recording Trump and Discussed 25th Amendment by Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt in September
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein to step down in March – official by Sarah N. Lynch at Reuters
Trump calls out McCabe for ‘deranged’ story after ’60 Minutes’ interview by Isabel Dobrin at Politico
Rejecting a person’s American citizenship claim to bar her return from ISIS
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Feb. 20 that a woman who left Alabama to join ISIS in Syria when she was 20 years old is not a U.S. citizen and would not be allowed to return. Hoda Muthana had said she made a mistake in joining the group and now wants to return with her 18-month-old son. Pompeo claimed that Muthana has no “legal basis” to claim American citizenship, but gave no details on how the determination was made. News reports said the decision might have been based on the fact that her father had been a Yemeni diplomat posted at the United Nations when she was born. But a family representative told the New York Times that wasn’t a valid reason to deny her claim to citizenship because Muthana was born in New Jersey a month after her father had completed his term.
Hoda Muthana ‘deeply regrets’ joining Isis and wants to return home by The Guardian’s Martin Chulov and Bethan McKernan
Alabama Woman Who Joined ISIS Can’t Return Home, U.S. Says by Rukmini Callimachi and Alan Yuhas at the New York Times
Unpacking (Some of) the Legal Issues Surrounding Hoda Muthana by Steve Vladek at Just Security
This ISIS Citizenship Case Could Set a Terrifying Precedent by Krishnadev Calamur at The Atlantic
Judge grants expedited hearing for Alabama ISIS bride Hoda Muthana by Anna Beahm at Alabama’s AL.com
Persistent pattern of lying to the American people
Voters who support Trump often excuse even his most blatant lies by arguing that “all politicians lie.” But the Washington Post’s Fact Checker database by early November had catalogued 6,420 false or misleading claims by Trump over 649 days in office. In his Feb. 5 State of the Union (SOTU) address alone, he made nearly 30 statements containing “stretched facts and dubious figures,” according to the Post. CNN analysts John Kirby and Samantha Vinograd commented that Trump’s SOTU “indicated that he will continue to focus on manufactured emergencies that he ostensibly thinks play well politically, rather than on a prioritized set of threats to American national security.”
CNN anchor Jake Tapper produced a package exposing Trump’s lies during a rally in El Paso on one of the president’s favorite subjects of demagoguery — the alleged national security threat posed by migrants, a risk contradicted by the facts. Brian Klaas, a political scientist at University College London, said in a comment on Twitter, “Trump’s lies are not fibs or misleading statements. They are Orwellian in that they are complete inversions of the truth.”
Trump’s deceit isn’t always direct. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, described his former boss’s modus operandi to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee: “In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing,” Cohen said. “In his way, he was telling me to lie.”
President Trump has made 6,420 false or misleading claims over 649 days by By Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly at the Washington Post
Donald Trump’s File by PolitiFact
Jake Tapper Debunks ‘Lying’ Trump’s El Paso Border Wall Claims by David Barden at HuffPost
State of the Union Fact Check: What Trump Got Right and Wrong by the New York Times
Terrorists and the Southern Border: Myth and Reality by Nicholas Rasmussen for Just Security
Trump predicts all IS territory will be cleared next week by Matthew Lee at the Associated Press
Trump Declares ISIS ‘100%’ Defeated. That’s ‘100% Not True,’ Ground Reports Say. by Katie Rogers, Rukmini Callimachi and Helene Cooper
Fact-checking President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address by the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly
Trump needs to think before he speaks by John Kirby and Samantha Vinograd for CNN
Testimony From Cohen Could Compound Legal Issues for Trump by Michael D. Shear at the New York Times
Blurring the line between criticism of an investigation and obstruction of justice
Trump’s vociferous public criticism of the Special Counsel and congressional investigations into possible coordination between his campaign and Russia during the 2016 elections has become familiar — “a witch hunt,” he calls it. An analysis at the New York Times counted more than 1,100 instances of condemnation from Trump’s Twitter page, official speeches, rallies, media interviews, and press events. He calls those who cooperate with the probes “rats.” The comments also reflect actions he has taken to pressure those who aid or fail to hinder the investigations or to install officials who he sees as potential loyalists into positions where they might be able to undermine the investigations.
Trump Has Publicly Attacked the Russia Investigation More Than 1,100 Times by Larry Buchanan and Karen Yourish at the New York Times.
Intimidation, Pressure and Humiliation: Inside Trump’s Two-Year War on the Investigations Encircling Him by Mark Mazzetti, Maggie Haberman, Nicholas Fandos and Michael S. Schmidt at the New York Times
Withdrawal from multilateral treaties: The INF Treaty may be next
The U.S. gave the required six-month notice to Russia on Feb. 1 that it intends to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The treaty dates to 1987 and the waning days of the Soviet Union. Withdrawal risks a domino effect of undermining other treaties. Germany is so concerned about a pattern of U.S. action, including the planned INF withdrawal, that it is reassessing its longstanding arrangement that puts Germany under the U.S. nuclear shield.
Trump says U.S. to leave key nuclear arms treaty with Russia by Josh Lederman, Abigail Williams and Elisha Fieldstadt at NBC News
U.S. Suspends Nuclear Arms Control Treaty With Russia by David E. Sanger and William J. Broad at the New York Times
The INF Treaty Is Dead. Is New START Next? by Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer and Lara Seligman
Select Reactions to the INF Treaty Crisis by Shervin Taheran at the Arms Control Association
In Germany, a Cold War Deal to Host U.S. Nuclear Weapons Is Now in Question by the Wall Street Journal’s Bojan Pancevski
Administration refuses to provide required report to Congress on the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi
Trump defied Senator’s requests per the Global Magnitsky Act to provide Congress a determination and report that it had demanded for a Feb. 8 deadline, even as evidence continues to emerge that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The report was to outline the administration’s determination about whether Saudi leadership was responsible for the death and what sanctions, if any, would be imposed. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) accused the Trump administration of “aiding in the cover up.” Numerous Republican members of Congress expressed anger, too. But Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch said he felt the administration had “been very forthcoming with us.”
Trump Defies Congressional Deadline on Khashoggi Report by Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt at the New York Times
Year Before Killing, Saudi Prince Told Aide He Would Use ‘a Bullet’ on Jamal Khashoggi by Mark Mazzetti at the New York Times
Pompeo: US will continue investigating Khashoggi murder by The Hill’s Michael Burke
Amid uproar, GOP chairman satisfied with probe into Khashoggi killing by Burgess Everett at Politico
Trump’s Invoking Obama Signing Statement as Reason Not to Report to Congress on Khashoggi Murder: A Roundup of Expert Views by Just Security’s Ryan Goodman
Acting Attorney General shows contempt for House Judiciary Committee members
In his first Hill testimony as acting Attorney General, Matthew Whitaker chided panel Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) at one point about running over his allotted time. “Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker said. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) also had to rebuke Whitaker, saying, “Mr. Attorney General, we are not joking here … and your humor is not acceptable.” Whitaker and the Trump administration had taken particular umbrage at Nadler’s threat to hand the acting AG a subpoena from the dias should he claim executive privilege during the hearing. Nadler backed off the threat when DoJ said its boss wouldn’t testify unless the threat was rescinded.
Former senior FBI official calls Whitaker hearing ‘disgraceful’ by The Hill’s Tal Axelrod
Democrat to acting AG: ‘We are not joking here’ by Morgan Chalfant at The Hill
Trump administration supports foreign tyrants while denigrating domestic political opposition
Trump’s second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un broke up early when Kim demanded that the United States lift all sanctions in exchange for minimal concessions on his nuclear program. Despite the affront, Trump declared his friendship with Kim intact. “This wasn’t a walkaway like you get up and walk out,” Trump said, according to New York magazine. “No, this was very friendly. We shook hands … There’s a warmth that we have, and I hope that stays. I think it will.”
It was only one of many examples of Trump and his top administration officials currying favor with the world’s tyrants, even while excoriating political opponents at home, sometimes simultaneously. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for example, gave a speech on the Middle East and North Africa while in Egypt in January without mentioning the rampant human rights abuses meted out by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime or the gruesome murder by Saudi Arabia of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. But Pompeo did use the speech to castigate former U.S. President Barack Obama for what the diplomat asserted was an “age of self-inflicted American shame.”
Trump intensified his attacks on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this month, saying on Feb. 1, “She’s very bad for our country” and “doesn’t mind human trafficking” due to her opposition to his long-promised border wall. He took another swipe at her and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on Jan. 10, declaring to reporters at the White House, “I find China, frankly, in many ways, to be far more honorable than Cryin’ Chuck and Nancy. I really do.”
In his State of the Union address, Trump lashed out against Democratic investigations into him and his administration, calling them “ridiculous” and “presidential harassment.” He went to far as to say “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.” Pelosi, in turn, accused the president of delivering an “all-out threat” to lawmakers just carrying out their responsibility to provide a check and balance on his power.
Trump Cuts Short North Korea Summit, Returns Empty Handed by New York magazine’s Margaret Hartmann
Trump steps up attacks on Pelosi for opposing border wall funds by Steve Holland at Reuters
Trump lashes out as Democrats step up inquiries of president and administration by the Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis and Seung Min Kim
Trump derides ‘ridiculous partisan investigations’ in State of the Union by The Hill’s Morgan Chalfant
Trump: China is easier to deal with than Pelosi and Schumer by Matthew Choi at Politico in January
Pompeo Speech Lays Out Vision for Mideast, Taking Shots at Obama by Declan Walsh and David E. Sanger
Mike Pompeo goes to Egypt by The Economist