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

Trump and his congressional backers threaten to investigate FBI over Mueller probe

Seizing on a March letter from newly installed Attorney General William Barr saying Special Counsel Robert Mueller didn’t find sufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election, President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress began agitating for an investigation of the investigators who led the original probe before Mueller’s appointment. Barr embraced the GOP’s talking points, suggesting the Russia investigation may have involved inappropriate surveillance of the Trump campaign.

Attorney General Barr seems to embrace Republican talking points on Mueller Russia probe by NBC News’ Ken Dilanian

Barr Forms Team to Review FBI’s Actions in Trump Probe by Bloomberg’s Chris Strohm and Billy House

A President Falsely Charging ‘Treason’ Is What the Founders Feared by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf

White House threatens to release migrants in Democratic “sanctuary cities”

In an effort to punish Trump’s political opponents, the White House pressured immigration authorities to release migrants in U.S. detention into “sanctuary cities,” which are often located in largely Democratic districts. When the Washington Post first broke the story, citing emails discussing the idea, the White House said the proposal had been floated but quickly rejected. But Trump quickly and publicly contradicted his own staff, saying in a tweet that he was still giving the plan “strong considerations.”

White House proposed releasing immigrant detainees in sanctuary cities, targeting political foes by the Washington Post’s Rachael Bade and Nick Miroff

Trump confirms he’s looking at releasing detained immigrants into so-called sanctuary cities by CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez and Evan Perez

Democrats condemn Trump plan to send migrants to sanctuary cities as ‘cruelty’ by The Guardian’s Amanda Holpuch

Trump rejects and blocks Congress’s constitutional oversight role

After the release of the Mueller report, Trump moved quickly to shut down House Democrats’ ability to conduct their own investigations into Trump’s potentially criminal behavior and counterintelligence vulnerabilities, which were described by the special counsel. But the standoff didn’t end there. The administration is also trying to block Congress from obtaining information on a number of other issues.

Justice Department refuses to comply with congressional subpoena for testimony on citizenship question and 2020 Census by the Washington Post’s Rachael Bade

Treasury secretary misses deadline for providing Trump tax returns to House panel, says he will make final decision by May 6 by the Washington Post’s Damian Paletta and Erica Werner

Trump sues in bid to block congressional subpoena of financial records by the Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold, Rachael Bade and John Wagner

Trump Sues 2 Banks To Block Democrats From Investigating His Finances by NPR’s Jim Zarroli

Trump says he is opposed to White House aides testifying to Congress, deepening power struggle with Hill by the Washington Post’s Robert Costa,Tom Hamburger, Josh Dawsey and Rosalind S. Helderman

White House tells ex-security official Carl Kline to defy House subpoena by Fox News’ Brooke Singman

Trump isn’t just defying Congress. He’s rejecting the whole idea of oversight by Steve Vladeck for The Washington Post

Rosenstein and Barr do further damage to Justice Department norms

Since he took office, Trump has repeatedly and consistently ignored the norm that a president keep distance from criminal investigations, especially ones in which he is implicated. And he has continuously pressured other officials — at the Justice Department and elsewhere — to also operate outside of those boundaries. New reports about the behind-the-scenes role played by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein suggest he was unable to resist that pressure. He sought to “assure the president he was on his team,” “told the president he would make sure Trump was treated fairly,” and, in trying to save his job, told Trump that “I give the investigation credibility” and “I can land the plane.” On April 29, Rosenstein submitted his resignation letter, telling Trump he was grateful for the “courtesy and humor you often display in our personal conversations.”

April also saw the intensely anticipated rollout of Mueller’s report on the Russia investigation. Before releasing a redacted version of the report weeks later, Barr decided to summarize Mueller’s conclusions in a four-page letter. The letter was deeply misleading as to what Mueller’s team found and allowed Trump and his supporters to claim the president had been exonerated of all crimes when that was not what Mueller had concluded. Barr’s performance at a press conference later in the month cemented the idea for many that the attorney general was acting more like the president’s defense attorney than the country’s top law enforcement officer.

‘I can land the plane’: How Rosenstein tried to mollify Trump, protect Mueller and save his job by the Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey and Devlin Barrett

William Barr by Rod Rosenstein for Time

Rod Rosenstein Embodies the Republican Surrender to Trump by New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait

Rod Rosenstein submits letter of resignation to Trump by the AP’s Eric Tucker and Michael Balsamo

Barr under fire for news conference that was a boon for Trump, and often featured one of his preferred terms by the Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky and Josh Dawsey

Barr Misled the Public—And It Worked by the Atlantic’s David A. Graham

Rosenstein defends Barr’s handling of Mueller report by the Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz and Matt Zapotosky

Trump and his supporters try to smear Democratic freshman congresswomen

Trump and his supporters, including his son Don Jr., stepped up attacks against Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, questioning their faith, motives and patriotism. In the case of Omar, Trump’s repeated suggestion that she sympathizes with the 9/11 terrorists, an unfounded smear, caused a spike in death threats against her.

In Attacking Ilhan Omar, Trump Revives His Familiar Refrain Against Muslims by the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Sheryl Gay Stolberg

Ilhan Omar, AOC, and the silencing of women of color in Congress by Vox’s Nisha Chittal

Ocasio-Cortez slams Kellyanne Conway for questioning her faith by the New York Post’s Mark Moore

Ilhan Omar has had spike in death threats since Trump attack over 9/11 comment by the Guardian’s Tom McCarthy

Trump supporter threatens to kill Democratic lawmakers over Rep. Omar’s 9/11 comments, docs say by USA Today’s Christal Hayes

Trump says he has no regrets about sharing Ilhan Omar video by the Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz and John Wagner

Trump Jr. accuses trio of new Democratic lawmakers of being ‘Islamists’ the New York Post’s Nikki Schwab

Corruption flourishes in Trump world

Every month brings new stories of corruption and nepotism within the Trump administration and presidential campaign: Trump staffers racking up bar tabs at Mar-a-Lago, which the government has to repay; Trump donors getting ambassadorships; and members of Trump’s family profiting in more ways than one.

How Taxpayers Covered a $1,000 Liquor Bill for Trump Staffers (and More) at Trump’s Club by ProPublica’s Derek Kravitz

Don Jr.’s Girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle Lands Top Trump Campaign Role by the Daily Beast

U.S. Ethics Office Declines to Certify Mnuchin’s Financial Disclosure by the New York Times’ Alan Rappeport

Donors to the Trump inaugural committee got ambassador nominations. But are they qualified? By NBC News’ Emily R. Siegel, Andrew W. Lehren, Brandy Zadrozny, Dan De Luce and Vanessa Swales

Ivanka Trump says she passed on World Bank job by the Associated Press

Security lapses at Mar-a-Lago spark new counterintelligence concerns

Since becoming president, Trump’s frequent use of his private club, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, Fl., and the unprecedented levels of access it provides people to the president and his staff and family, have worried security officials. It is an obvious and easy target for foreign intelligence services. This was made clear when a Chinese woman carrying a thumb drive loaded with malware was detained there this spring. “Mar-a-Lago may present the worst counterintelligence nightmare the country has faced since the Cold War,” writes Ali Soufan.

Chinese woman carrying ‘malware’ arrested at Mar-a-Lago heading to a Cindy Yang event by Miami Herald’s Sarah Blaskey, Nicholas Nehamas, and Caitlin Ostroff

‘You pay and you get in’: At Trump’s beach retreat, hundreds of customers — and growing security concerns by the Washington Post’s By David A. Fahrenthold, Devlin Barrett, Josh Dawsey and Ellen Nakashima

Mar-a-Lago is a counterintelligence nightmare by Ali Soufan for the Washington Post

Nielsen’s Ouster at DHS and the purge that followed

In April, Trump forced out Kirstjen Nielsen, the head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and quickly tried to replace her, announcing on Twitter that Customs and Border Patrol Director Kevin McAleenan would take over DHS on an acting basis. But McAleenan was not legally next in line. Under the law, temporary duty should have fallen to Undersecretary for Management Claire Grady. So, she was forced out next. But these weren’t the only departures at DHS. Trump also fired Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Cissna and DHS general counsel John Mitnick were also expected to leave the administration. Many suspect the purge and ensuing power vacuum at DHS are meant to allow the White House to take an even more aggressive, and legally dubious, approach to immigration. Trump is reportedly seeking to reinstate the family separation policy, which he was forced to halt after intense public outcry.

Twelve days of chaos: Inside the Trump White House’s growing panic to contain the border crisis by the Washington Post’s By David Nakamura, Josh Dawsey and Seung Min Kim

Legality of Trump move to replace Nielsen questioned by POLITICO’s Josh Gerstein and Stephanie Beasley

Trump Eyes Purge at Homeland Security After Ousting Nielsen by Bloomberg’s Justin Sink and Jennifer Jacobs

Nielsen: Acting DHS Deputy Grady offers resignation by POLITICO’s Ted Hesson

Secret Service director and other top Homeland Security officials leaving in overhaul by CBS News’ Major Garrett

Grassley warns White House not to oust any more top immigration officials by the Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim

Don’t Count on DHS to Resist Trump’s Worst Impulses by Carrie Cordero and Garrett M. Graff for POLITICO

Silence and power vacuum at the Pentagon persist

It’s been more than 300 days since an official spokesperson has given an on-camera briefing to the Pentagon press corps. In the meantime, Trump has yet to nominate someone to replace Jim Mattis as defense secretary. His last day was Dec. 31, after he announced his resignation earlier in the month, publicly stating that his views were not aligned with the president’s. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, has been performing the duties of defense secretary in the meantime, waiting for Trump to announce a replacement and send it to the Senate for confirmation. Shanahan is believed to be Trump’s preferred choice for the job. He is one of several senior leaders at the Pentagon serving in an “acting” capacity.

It’s Been Over 300 Days Since a Pentagon Press Briefing. That Should Concern All Americans — Including the Military by James Stavridis for Time

Trump leaves Pentagon power vacuum by POLITICO’s Wesley Morgan

Trump Is Abusing His Authority to Name “Acting Secretaries.” Here’s How Congress Can Stop Him. by Steve Vladeck for Slate

Image: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein joins Attorney General William Barr as he speaks during a press conference on the release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report at the Justice Department on April 18. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

 

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