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

Editor’s Note: 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 June 2019. 

Trump administration defends horrendous conditions at migrant detention centers 

Migrant children, who traveled alone or were separated from their family members, are being held in dangerous conditions in Border Patrol facilities in Texas. The centers, which were designed to temporarily hold adults, are being used to house young children and even babies for weeks on end. Interviews with lawyers revealed that many have not been able to shower or wash their clothes since arriving, and they have no access to toothpaste or soap. And while a 1997 settlement known as the Flores Settlement requires, among other things, that the government hold minors in facilities that are “safe and sanitary” –– a standard that a district judge found in 2017 to require the provision of soap, dry towels, showers, toothbrushes, and dry clothes –– a Trump administration lawyer argued in the Ninth Circuit Court that children do not need soap, toothbrushes, or sleep to be “safe and sanitary” while in Border Patrol custody. But even prisoners of war are entitled to sufficient water and soap, as Just Security Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman noted, “The United States government is treating innocent immigrant children worse than the most basic standards required by international humanitarian law for enemy prisoners of war.”

Inside a Texas building where the government is holding immigrant children by The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner 

Attorneys: Texas border facility is neglecting migrant kids by The Associated Press’s Cedar Attanasio, Garance Burke and Martha Mendoza 

‘There is a stench’: no soap and overcrowding in detention centers for migrant children by The New York Times’ Caitlin Dickerson 

As immigrant children go without soap and toothbrushes, Trump and Pence say Congress is to blame by Vox’s Anya van Wagtendok 

The White House tries to enlist the Navy in Trump’s long-running war against John McCain

The White House, ahead of President Donald Trump’s late May visit to a naval base in Japan, ordered the Navy to hide a destroyer named after the late Republican Senator John McCain, with whom Trump had long feuded. Navy officials initially responded to this request by covering the “McCain” name with a tarp and hiding the ship behind another from the fleet. But when higher-level Navy officials heard of the plan, they ordered the tarp removed and the ship moved. Still, sailors from the McCain ship were not invited to Trump’s speech, although those from most other American ships at the base were. “Somebody did it because they thought I didn’t like him, O.K.? … They were well-meaning, I will say,” President Trump told reporters, speaking of his staff. “I wasn’t a fan of John McCain—I never will be.” 

White House wanted USS John McCain ‘out of sight’ during Trump Japan visit by The Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus and Gordon Lubold 

Let’s not upset the President: The White House tells the Navy to hide the U.S.S. McCain by The New York Times’ Mark Landler and Eileen Sullivan 

Mick Mulvaney: “Not unreasonable” to hide U.S.S. John McCain so Trump wouldn’t get upset by Vanity Fair’s Kevin Fitzpatrick 

McCain warship incident raises questions about a changing military culture under Trump by The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan and Paul Sonne

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao’s conflicts of interest

In October 2017, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao “made a series of unorthodox requests” ahead of her first scheduled visit to China as a Trump cabinet member, asking government officials to coordinate travel for family members and include some relatives in meetings with government officials, a New York Times investigation revealed. The Chaos run Foremost Group, an American shipping company that maintains “deep ties” to China’s economic and political elite. Chao, who has in the past boosted the company’s profile in China by appearing at promotional events and joining her father James for interviews with Chinese-language media, has no official holdings in Foremost, but her father ran the company until 2018, and her sister remains Foremost’s chief executive. Secretary Chao’s family has given her husband, Senator Mitch McConnell, around $1 million in political contributions. Her request to include family members in U.S.-China meetings raised eyebrows in the State Department, as one official put it, because these family members’ “business interests were potentially affected by [these] meetings.” David Rank, the former deputy chief of mission in Beijing, called the requests “alarmingly inappropriate.” 

In early June, after facing separate conflict of interest allegations, Secretary Chao sold stock she owned in Vulcan Materials, a company on whose board of directors she served for nearly two years. Shares of the company, which produces highway construction materials and is within the purview of the Transportation Department –– the agency Chao heads –– have risen nearly 13 percent since April 2018, meaning that Chao secured a gain of more than $40,000 in this period. While Chao had promised in May 2017 to relinquish her holdings in Vulcan, a Department of Transportation official defended her right to keep them in early June 2019, saying that it did not present a conflict of interest for her. Still, she sold the shares just days after her continued ownership was reported.

A ‘Bridge’ to China, and Her Family’s Business, in the Trump Cabinet by The New York Times’ Michael Forsythe, Eric Lipton, Keith Bradsher and Sui-Lee Wee

Elaine Chao’s conflicts of interests could have major consequences by The Boston Globe’s Rachel Slade

Chao created special path for McConnell’s favored projects by POLITICO’s Tucker Doherty and Tanya Snyder

Transportation secretary still owns stock she pledged to divest by the Wall Street Journal’s Ted Mann and Brody Mullins

Elaine Chao sells Vulcan stock holdings by the Wall Street Journal’s Ted Mann and Brody Mullins

White House plans to continue blocking congressional oversight

The Trump administration is expected to block Annie Donaldson from answering the House Judiciary Committee’s questions about her tenure as the chief of staff to ex-White House counsel Don McGahn. While Donaldson struck a deal with the committee to answer written questions, rather than travel to Washington to testify in person, the White House, after directing Donaldson to defy the committee’s subpoena seeking documents, plans to block her testimony in full by claiming that all former aides have “absolute immunity” from testifying to Congress about their White House service. The White House wielded this supposed immunity similarly when former top aide Hope Hicks testified in June, as Trump administration lawyers objected over 150 times during House proceedings, asserting that she is “absolutely immune” from being compelled by Congress to testify about her time working for Trump. Democrats have called this claim legally baseless. 

White House to assert ‘immunity’ claims over ex-McGahn aide by POLITICO’s Andrew Desiderio 

Explainer: Can Trump block ex-aide Hicks from talking to Congress by citing immunity? by Reuters’s Jan Wolfe

White House blocks former Trump aide from answering House panel’s questions, angering Democrats by The Washington Post’s Rachael Bade, Mike Debonis and Haily Fuchs

Kellyanne Conway challenges her Hatch Act violations

Kellyanne Conway said on FOX News in late June that the Hatch Act, which bars all but the highest-ranking executive branch officials from engaging in political activities, does not apply to senior White House aides like herself. “They want to put a big roll of masking tape over my mouth,” she said. “They don’t like how I’m so effective.”

Conway’s comments came in response to the non-partisan U.S. Office of Special Counsel’s mid-June recommendation that she be removed from her position for repeatedly violating the Act. The office wrote: 

“Ms. Conway’s violations, if left unpunished, would send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions. Her actions thus erode the principal foundation of our democratic system—the rule of law.” 

It was the first time the office had made such a recommendation for a White House official. The administration then barred Conway from testifying ahead of her scheduled June 26 hearing, citing the “precedent” for White House staff to decline invites to appear before Congress. The House Oversight Committee subsequently voted to subpoena testimony from Conway, and Elijah Cummings, the committee’s chairman, said he is prepared to hold Conway in contempt if she does not comply with the subpoena.

Conway says calls for her firing are efforts to ‘put a big roll of masking tape over my mouth’ by POLITICO’s Pia Deshpande 

Kellyanne Conway defends herself against alleged Hatch Act violations by ABC News’s Elizabeth Thomas 

White House rejects House panel’s request for Conway’s testimony by Bloomberg’s John Harney and Billy House 

House panel subpoenas Kellyanne Conway on ethics law violations by The New York Times’ Catie Edmonson 

Trump properties continue to take advantage of their ties to government

Every month brings an array of stories demonstrating how Trump-owned properties, and therefore Trump and his family, continue to benefit from Trump’s position as president.

Trump hotel in Washington charged Secret Service $200,000 in president’s first year by NBC News’ Kezni Abou-Sabe and Safia Samee Ali

When Trump visits his clubs, government agencies and Republicans pay to be where he is by The Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold, Josh Dawsey, Jonathan O’Connell and Michelle Ye Hee Lee

How payday lenders spent $1 million at a Trump resort — and cashed in by Pro Publica’s Anjali Tsui and WYNC’s Alice Wilder 

Reps of 22 foreign governments have spent money at Trump properties by NBC News’ Shelby Hanssen and Ken Dilanian 

Trump adds to his endless parade of corruption and conflicts of interest by The Washington Post’s Editorial Board 

Ivanka Trump made $4 Million from President’s D.C. hotel by Bloomberg’s Bill Allison and Jarrell Dillard

Company part-owned by Jared Kushner got $90m from unknown offshore investors since 2017 by The Guardian’s Jon Swain 

Trump, citing CNN’s coverage of him, suggests customers drop AT&T

In early June, Trump upped the ante on his long-running attacks against CNN, telling customers to boycott its parent company, AT&T. Trump wrote on Twitter that such a boycott would force “big changes at CNN” ––– presumably to have the network cover him more favorably. Trump’s comments, which came in response to CNN’s coverage of his Europe trip, prompted criticism and concern that he was inappropriately wielding the powers of the presidency.

“For a president to call for punitive action against a corporation in an effort to shape news coverage is, to say the least, highly unusual,” presidential biographer Jon Meacham told The Washington Post. “It’s the kind of behavior more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes, not democratic ones.”

Trump urges customers to drop AT&T to punish CNN over its coverage of him by The Washington Post’s Craig Timberg, Taylor Telford, and Josh Dawsey 

President Trump wants you to stop using AT&T because he doesn’t like CNN by The Verge’s Chris Welch 

Trump’s children promote the family business on Trump’s trip abroad

Trump’s two eldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, who oversee the Trump Organization’s real estate holdings, utilized their father’s state visit to the United Kingdom to promote Trump-owned properties. Donald Jr. and Eric took part in both official duties –– including sitting for dinner with Queen Elizabeth and touring the Churchill War Rooms –– before traveling to and embarking on a media-friendly tour of Doonberg, a small Irish village where President Trump owns property. Their actions blurred the lines between personal and political business, prompting ethics concerns. The family claimed that Donald Jr., Eric, and Tiffany Trump covered their own expenses. Meanwhile, Ivanka and her husband Jared participated as government officials. 

‘These boys were on a holiday’: Trump family members promote themselves, and businesses, on European trip by The Washington Post’s David Nakamura, Toluse Olorunnipa, and Amanda Ferugson 

Of course Eric and Don Jr. descended on Irish village like frat boys on spring break by Vanity Fair’s Bess Levin 

For Trump, London visit is a (royal) family affair by The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Katie Rogers

While abroad, Trump insults London mayor, Robert Mueller, and Nancy Pelosi 

In comments made a few days apart, Trump criticized London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. 

Trump insults London mayor as ‘loser’ as he pays tribute to the Queen by The New York Times’s Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman 

At side of D-Day ceremony, Trump calls Mueller ‘a fool,’ says Pelosi is ‘a disaster’ by The Washington Post’s John Wagner 

Trump insulted Nancy Pelosi and Robert Mueller while at a cemetery for American WWII dead by Vox Staff 

Trump escalates unprecedented public pressure on the Fed chair 

Trump repeatedly criticized Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell, whom he selected for the post, further undermining the bank’s independence. Trump complains constantly about Powell’s refusal to pursue easy money policies utilized by countries like China, and in June took aim at him for not cutting interest rates. While Powell has repeatedly brushed off White House criticism, Trump, according to Bloomberg, has for months been exploring options for removing Powell from his position. And, on June 18, the president for the first time publicly opened the door for Powell’s removal: “Let’s see what he does,” Trump said when a reporter asked him whether Powell should be removed.

“Such a step would be yet another violation by Mr. Trump of norms that previous presidents of both parties exercised,” wrote The New York Times’ Charlie Savage in response. “It would also constitute an unprecedented challenge to the agency’s relative independence from politics.”

Trump bashes Powell, says he’s ‘waited long enough’ for rate cut by The Hill’s Sylvan Lane 

Trump asked White House lawyers for options on removing Powell by Bloomberg’s Saleha Mohsin and Jennifer Jacobs

On eve of critical Fed meeting, Trump suggests he might remove Chair Jerome H. Powell by The Washington Post’s Heather Long 

Trump mocks Fed’s Powell: ‘He’s trying to prove how tough he is’ by POLITICO’s Caitlin Oprysko 

Does Trump have the legal authority to demote the Federal Reserve chairman? by The New York Times’ Charlie Savage

Trump says he’d collude in 2020 (if offered the opportunity) 

In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Trump said he would not alert the FBI if a foreign country offered his campaign opposition research about his Democratic challenger. He also pushed back against the notion that a foreign government, in offering this information, would be interfering in American politics. “If somebody called from a country, Norway, ‘We have information on your opponent,’ oh, I think I’d want to hear it,” Trump said. “It’s not an interference, they have information — I think I’d take it.” 

Trump’s comments prompted backlash from Democrats, and even some Republicans. “You have to report it to authorities. Generally speaking, it’s a part of, in the case of like Russia, it’s an effort to disrupt our elections,” Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina said in reaction to Trump’s comments. “My first call would be to the FBI.”

Special Counsel Robert Counsel found in his report that the Russian government interfered in 2016 election in a “sweeping and systemic fashion,” and that the Trump campaign had been open to Russian assistance. 

‘I think I’d take it’: In exclusive interview, Trump says he would listen if foreigners offered dirt on opponents by ABC News’ Lucien Bruggeman 

Trump says he’d consider accepting information from foreign governments on his opponents by The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz and Tom Hamburger 

Republicans lash Trump for being open to foreign oppo by POLITICO’s Burgess Everett and Marianne Levine 

Image: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin President Donald Trump arrive for a group photo at the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

 

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About the Author(s)

Charles Dunst

Freelance journalist, incoming M.Sc. candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics, worked in the offices of Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Follow him on Twitter (@charlesdunst).