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

Trump sows policy chaos with multiple sudden announcements, sometimes via Twitter

On March 21, Trump unexpectedly tweeted that the U.S. should recognize the Golan Heights as the territory of Israel, a decision that reversed 50 years of U.S. policy and United Nations Security Council resolutions. He signed the formal proclamation at the White House on March 25 in the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Commentators saw the move as a gift to the Israeli leader just before he seeks reelection in the April 9 Israeli elections, though Israel reportedly hadn’t asked the U.S. for the recognition. Trump’s decision could set precedents for other territory the U.S. has considered to be illegally occupied, including Crimea in Ukraine and areas of the South China Sea claimed by China in disputes with U.S. allies.

Just one day after the Golan Heights tweet, Trump fired off a tweet reversing his own Treasury Department’s announcement the previous day of new sanctions against two Chinese shipping companies that allegedly helped North Korea evade other sanctions. After Trump’s reversal on Twitter, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders explained, “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.” Former officials of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which handles sanctions, called the reversal “unprecedented” and “utterly shocking.” Administration officials later told reporters the sanctions that Trump had nixed were still pending, not the same ones announced, but that wasn’t true, according to Bloomberg News.

Days later, the Department of Justice announced in a two-sentence court filing that the administration would no longer defend the Affordable Care Act against a lawsuit — and a judge’s ruling — invalidating the health plan. Trump reportedly made the decision over the objections of key Cabinet secretaries, and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill balked at the President’s apparent assumption that they would resume their failed efforts to come up with an alternative.

And on March 29, Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida that there was a “very good likelihood” that he would “close the border” with Mexico if that country’s leaders don’t do more to stop the migrant flow to the U.S. He also announced that the U.S. had “stopped payment” of aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala that is intended to improve the harsh conditions that drive emigration. Trump apparently made the public comments before the administration had begun the required congressional notifications about the aid and before details were clear, such as whether existing contracts could be honored.

No president has recognized Israel’s control of the Golan Heights. Trump changed that with a tweet. By Adam Taylor at the Washington Post

Trump’s Golan Heights tweet disregards decades of U.S. commitment to U.N. resolutions by Jeremy Pressman for the Washington Post

‘The jungle is back.’ With his Golan Heights tweet, Trump emboldens the annexation agendas of the world’s strongmen by Mark Mackinnon at the Globe and Mail of Toronto

France says Israeli sovereignty over Golan breaks international law by France 24

The Golan Heights and the Perils of “Defensive Annexation” by Eliav Lieblich for Just Security

‘This Is Utterly Shocking’: Trump Sparks New Confusion Over North Korea Policy by Margaret Talev and Saleha Mohsin at Bloomberg News

Trump botches North Korea sanctions announcement, sparking widespread confusion by the Washington Post’s John Hudson and Josh Dawsey

Trump Tried to Undo North Korea Penalty, Contrary to U.S. Account by Saleha Mohsin, Jennifer Jacobs, and Nick Wadhams at Bloomberg News

Trump Officials Broaden Attack on Health Law, Arguing Courts Should Reject All of It by Robert Pear at the New York Times

What Happens if Obamacare Is Struck Down? By Reed Abelson, Abby Goodnough and Robert Pear at the New York Times

White House Obamacare reversal made over Cabinet objections by Politico’s Eliana Johnson and Burgess Everett

Trump Directs State Dept. to End Aid to 3 Central American Countries by By Katie Rogers, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Michael D. Shear at the New York Times

Trump plans to cut U.S. aid to 3 Central American countries in fight over U.S.-bound migrants by the Washington Post’s Mary Beth Sheridan and Kevin Sieff

Trump appears to portend violence by his supporters and issues thinly veiled threats

In a wide-ranging Oval Office interview with Breitbart News, President Donald Trump appeared to suggest that his supporters might ultimately use force if he and they don’t get what they want. Complaining that “the left is more ‘vicious’ than the right” politically, he went on to say, “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point and then it would be very bad, very bad.” He has used the same formulation before, touting support from police, the military and Bikers for Trump.

Trump again used threatening language in suggesting retaliation against accusers after the release of Attorney General William Barr’s memo saying that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had not found sufficient evidence that the Trump campaign criminally conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election. “There are a lot of people out there that have done some very, very evil things, very bad things — I would say treasonous things against our country,” Trump said. “Those people will certainly be looked at. I’ve been looking at them for a long time.”

Trump again nods toward violence by his supporters — and maybe something bigger by Aaron Blake at the Washington Post

Exclusive — President Donald Trump: Paul Ryan Blocked Subpoenas of Democrats by Alexander Marlow, Matthew Boyle, Amanda House, & Charlie Spiering at Breitbart

Michael Cohen: Trump indirectly told me to lie to Congress by Jeff Mordock at the Washington Times

Michael Cohen: Trump, ties and decoding the president video clip by the BBC

How Trump speaks like a mob boss by George Washington University professor Henry Farrell for the Washington Post

Trump plots post-Mueller payback by Jordan Fabian at The Hill

Heightened questioning of Trump’s mental fitness

Public commentary raising serious questions about the President’s mental fitness has reached a level rarely seen in recent times (President Ronald Reagan may be an exception). Mental health professionals have long commented on Trump’s mental health, despite the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA’s) “Goldwater Rule” against providing opinions on the mental health of a public figure they haven’t examined personally.

This month, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s husband, lawyer George Conway, tweeted about Trump that “whether or not impeachment is in order, a serious inquiry needs to be made about this man’s condition of mind.” He continued through the weekend by tweeting screenshots from the APA’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” including criteria for “narcissistic personality disorder” and “antisocial personality disorder.” Kellyanne Conway told reporters she does not share her husband’s concerns.

George Conway’s tweets may have prompted another of the President’s counterpunches, when he tweeted that the lawyer was “the husband from hell.”

Trump’s obsession with disparaging the late U.S. Senator John McCain even after the war hero’s death prompted Peter Wehner, a former official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes to ponder on Twitter that it was “another demonstration of what a genuinely broken soul the president is. His resentment & utter lack of dignity/empathy for the family of a war hero who recently died is but one reminder of the president’s disordered personality.”

The second edition of the New York Times bestseller, “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” also was released in March. The editor of the volume, Yale School of Medicine forensic psychiatrist Brandy Lee, accompanied the release with another in a series of conferences on the topic.

George Conway Urges ‘Serious Inquiry’ Into Trump’s Mental Health After Latest Lie by HuffPost’s Ed Mazza

Kellyanne Conway dismisses her husband’s concerns that Trump’s mental health is deteriorating by the Washington Post’s John Wagner

Yale psychiatrist: Trump’s “lack of conscience” makes the president “capable of criminal activity” by Tana Geneva at Salon

Trump Tests Republicans With Attacks on John McCain by Susan Milligan at U.S. News & World Report

Dear Mr. President, stop railing against John McCain by John Kirby for CNN

Trump, airing grievances with immigration system, says U.S. needs to “get rid of judges” by CBS News

Trump is unraveling before our eyes. He isn’t fit for reelection. By Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post

Favoring antagonists over allies

President Trump returned from a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without gaining concessions that would reduce North Korea’s nuclear program. The U.S. commander in chief nevertheless announced a concession of his own – scaling back military drills with longtime ally South Korea. Trump also appeared to defend Kim over the death of American student Otto Warmbier, who died in 2017 shortly after the North Koreans released him from more than a year in prison there. Doctors said he had suffered brain injuries. The decision extends Trump’s pattern of intensely personal diplomacy that shunts aside longtime technical and foreign policy experts in government and favors traditional U.S. adversaries over allies.

U.S. to end large-scale military drills with South Korea by Courtney Kube, Dan DeLuce, and Stella Kim at NBC News

Responding to Trump, Otto Warmbier’s Parents Blame Kim Jong-un and ‘Evil Regime’ for Son’s Death by Christine Hauser at the New York Times

Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence gathering appears to accelerate

An investigation by NBC7 San Diego found that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was maintaining lists of activists, journalists and others prominent on social media related to a “caravan” of migrants from Central America who were arriving at the border in south San Diego County. Some of the targets had alerts placed on their passports and found themselves pulled aside for questioning at the border or with visa applications denied. DHS said it was keeping tabs on people it thought were in the vicinity of violent incidents near the border. The department’s inspector general’s office said it would investigate. In another news report, The Nation found that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of DHS in New York City had created an “Anti-Trump Protest Spreadsheet.” DHS explained that it was just providing the information for ICE agents so they could be aware of local conditions when traveling through New York.

Source: Leaked Documents Show the U.S. Government Tracking Journalists and Immigration Advocates Through a Secret Database by Tom Jones, Mari Payton and Bill Feather at NBC7 San Diego

Exclusive: ICE Has Kept Tabs on ‘Anti-Trump’ Protesters in New York City by Jimmy Tobias at The Nation

Watchdog investigating CBP amid report the agency targeted journalists, activists by CNN’s Geneva Sands and Priscilla Alvarez

Homeland Security’s Intelligence Overreach: Two Cases Illustrate Risks to Civil Society by Faiza Patel for Just Security

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar stirs controversy with remarks on Israel

Democrats won passage of a House resolution condemning anti-Semitism, discrimination against Muslims and bigotry against minorities, after freshman House Democrat Ilhan Omar of Minnesota prompted outrage and consternation a second time with remarks about support for Israel. The controversy had begun in February, when she tweeted that the motivation of Americans supporting Israel was “all about the Benjamins baby,” and escalated later that month with her comment during a panel discussion that support for Israel constituted “allegiance to a foreign country.” While she apologized at least in part, both statements echoed anti-Semitic tropes and handed ammunition to Republicans seeking to portray the Democratic Party as less supportive of Israel. President Trump a week later fanned the flames again, tweeting, “The ‘Jexodus’ movement encourages Jewish people to leave the Democrat Party. Total disrespect! Republicans are waiting with open arms.”

Some commentators argued that while Omar’s statements were objectionable and fit for repudiation, the acute focus on her appeared discriminatory when other political leaders have fanned the flames of white nationalist and anti-Semitic hate.

Ilhan Omar’s Latest Remarks on Israel Draw Criticism by Karen Zraick at the Washington Post

In Minnesota, Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments cause pain and confusion by Elise Viebeck at the Washington Post

The Ilhan Omar anti-Semitism controversy, explained by Vox’s Zack Beauchamp

The Fight Over Ilhan Omar Is a Fight Over the Identity of the Democratic Party by Emma Green at The Atlantic

House overwhelmingly passes resolution condemning hate after Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments by USA Today’s William Cummings and Christal Hayes

READ: House resolution condemning anti-Semitism, bigotry by The Hill staff

State Department exclusively briefs “faith-based media” in secret session

Traditional media covering the State Department were barred from a March 18 telephone briefing the department arranged for “faith-based media.” In the briefing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed “international religious freedom” before he embarked on a five-day trip to Beirut, Jerusalem, and Kuwait City. Department media briefings, whether in person or by phone, generally are open to any news outlets covering foreign policy. Department officials also refused to release a list of media on the call or a transcript, also a breach of traditional transparency practices by government departments. Pompeo, who moved to the State Department from his perch as CIA Director and previously had been a member of Congress, is an evangelical Christian and has been cited making pronouncements tinged with religious overtones. During his stop in Jerusalem, for example, he responded to a question from a Christian broadcaster by agreeing that Trump might be like a biblical character credited with saving the Jewish people.

State Department bars press corps from Pompeo briefing, won’t release list of attendees by CNN’s Michelle Kosinski and Jennifer Hansler

Mike Pompeo criticized for allowing only “faith-based media” on State Department call by Matthew Rosza at Salon

Pompeo: All faiths will have ‘something to say’ on forthcoming peace plan by Emily McFarlan Miller at Religion News Service

Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, talks about politics as a battle of good and evil, a profile of Pompeo when he was appointed in March 2018, by Tara Isabella Burton at Vox

Pompeo: Perhaps Trump is, like the Bible’s Esther, meant to save the Jewish people from Iran by Sarah Pulliam Bailey at the Washington Post

IMAGE: Then-candidate Donald Trump greets members of Bikers for Trump during the annual Rolling Thunder First Amendment Demonstration Run on May 29, 2016 in Washington, DC. The event, usually on Memorial Day weekend, is in tribute to those who were prisoners of war and missing in action. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

  

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