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

The Trump administration pressures the Ukrainian government to investigate a political rival 

By far the biggest event of the month concerned allegations that President Donald Trump pressured his Ukranian counterpart to investigate the activities of his political rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in Ukraine. The affair began with the refusal of acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire to disclose a whistleblower complaint to Congress, and it quickly snowballed into the administration’s biggest crisis yet.

According to press reporting, as well as the White House’s own notes of the call, Trump asked Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens’ activities in the country in a call on July 25, 2019. The White House’s memorandum of the call also records Trump suggesting that Zelensky contact U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Rudy Guiliani, who Trump describes as his personal lawyer despite not paying him. Guiliani was apparently given wide latitude to act as an intermediary between the White House and Ukranian officials, circumventing the diplomatic process. 

Beyond the pressure applied on Ukraine, the whistleblower complaint revealed an additional concern: the concealment of that conduct by White House officials. Records of the July 25 call were moved to an isolated computer system reserved for the most highly classified national security information, seemingly to restrict access to those records. 

These allegations raise the unprecedented prospect of a sitting U.S. president personally soliciting foreign interference ahead of an upcoming presidential election.

The Whistleblower complaint at the center of the controversy is here

The White House’s memo on the call is here

The whistleblower complaint, annotated, by CNN’s Zachary B. Wolf and Curt Merrill

5 key takeaways and allegations from the Trump whistleblower complaint, by the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake 

Timeline: Trump, Giuliani, Biden, and Ukrainegate (updated), by Just Security’s Viola Geinger and Ryan Goodman 

Trump and Barr also asked foreign officials to cooperate with their investigation of the Russia investigation

The month ended with the news that Trump contacted Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to solicit the prime minister’s help in Barr’s efforts to investigate and seemingly discredit the Russia investigation. Barr has apparently sought the assistance of British and Italian officials to this end also. 

Trump Pressed Australian Leader to Help Barr Investigate Mueller Inquiry’s Origins, by the New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti and Katie Benner

First Barr, Now Pompeo: Italy Is Hub of Impeachment Intrigue for Trump Officials by the New York Times’ Jason Horowitz 

William Barr’s 4-country effort to discredit the Trump-Russia inquiry, explained by Vox’s by Matthew Yglesias

Official impeachment inquiry announced

In response to the unfolding Ukraine controversy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives would be opening a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump. For months, Pelosi’s reluctance to support impeachment proceedings put her and her supporters at odds with many in the Democratic Party. But the president’s admission that he spoke to the Ukranian president about the Bidens “changed everything,” according to Pelosi. Trump and his Republican allies rejected that the affair was worthy of an impeachment inquiry. Democrats appear to be poised to move quickly, as indicated by their moves to subpoena Giuliani and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for Ukraine-related documents, and to secure testimony from State Department officials and others.

Nancy Pelosi’s Statement on Impeachment: ‘The President Must Be Held Accountable’

Top Expert Backgrounder: Trump’s Impeachment–What Comes Next? by Harold Hongju Koh for Just Security

Why now? The moments that moved Pelosi and House Democrats toward impeachment, by the Washington Post’s J.M. Rieger, Kate Rabinowitz, Chris Alcantara, and Kevin Uhrmacher

Why Pelosi and her party finally embraced impeachment, by POLITICO’s Heather Caygle, John Bresnahan, Sarah Ferris, Andrew Desiderio, and Kyle Cheney

Complaint in Hand, Democrats Aim for a Fast, and Focused, Impeachment Inquiry, by the New York Times’ Nicholas Fandos

Trump administration makes no effort to stop the arrest of a New York Times journalist in Egypt 

The Trump administration has, to put it lightly, hardly been welcoming of press scrutiny. The notion that it is “passively accept[ing]” or even “tacitly encourag[ing]” crackdowns on journalists abroad may constitute further indication of an alarming disdain for press freedom. New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger recently revealed that, in 2017, the U.S. government took no official steps to warn the publication that one of its Egypt-based journalists, Declan Walsh, was to be imminently arrested by Egyptian authorities. According to Sulzberger, the New York Times only learned of this because a U.S. government official who believed the Trump administration would allow the arrest to take place contacted the publication, risking their career in the process. These warnings were a standard practice under previous administrations. Walsh was only able to escape arrest due to the quick response of his native Ireland to the New York Times’ request for help.

The Growing Threat to Journalism Around the World, by the New York Times’ A. G. Sulzberger

Egypt planned to arrest a New York Times reporter. The Trump administration reportedly wanted to let it happen, by the Washington Post’s Teo Armus

The Story Behind the Times Correspondent Who Faced Arrest in Cairo by the New York Times’ Declan Walsh

Trump announces cancellation of Taliban visit to Camp David on Twitter

The president has, for some time, sought to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and his administration has been in negotiations with the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban to this effect. On September 7, Trump announced on Twitter that he was suspending the negotiations and rescinding an invitation issued to Taliban leaders and Afghani officials to Camp David for secret peace talks. According to the president, this was in response to a suicide bombing, claimed by the Taliban, which killed an American service member and 11 others. The fact that the president was prepared to host the Taliban at Camp David was fiercely criticized, both inside and outside of the administration. Indeed, it caused a notable split between some of the administration’s most senior officials. Although Secretary of State Pompeo defended the move as necessary to negotiate peace, Vice President Mike Pence and (now former) National Security Advisor John Bolton echoed the thoughts of many outside the administration in their opposition to the invitation. For them, hosting a group that has been responsible for the deaths of many civilians and U.S. service members over the years, on the eve of the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, would have been unacceptable. Equally intolerable would be the legitimizing effect such a meeting would have had for the Taliban, and conversely, the demoralizing effect it would have had on the Afghan government which is still fighting it. In the end, the president pulled the plug on the meeting. But it is notable that his seeming haste to conclude a historic deal, with little regard for the consequences, disturbed even those within his inner circle. 

Divided White House Prompted Trump to Call Off Taliban Talks, by the Wall Street Journal’s Jessica Donati, Michael C. Bender, and Craig Nelson

How Trump’s Plan to Secretly Meet With the Taliban Came Together, and Fell Apart, by the New York Times’ By Peter Baker, Mujib Mashal, and Michael Crowley

Trumping the Taliban, by the Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board

Bolton refutes Trump on Twitter about the circumstances of his stepping down 

On September 10, John Bolton’s time as Trump’s third National Security Advisor ended. Whether he resigned of his own volition or whether the president fired him is disputed. The first word on Bolton’s dismissal came from the president himself on Twitter. His declaration that Bolton’s services were “no longer needed” appeared to indicate that he fired Bolton. But Bolton quickly and publicly disputed this, saying that he had offered his resignation first. He went so far as to describe the White House’s version of events as “flatly incorrect.” What is clear is that the relationship between Trump and Bolton had been deteriorating. Both men disagreed on the correct approach to take towards Iran, North Korea, and negotiations with the Taliban, for example. Bolton viewed the president’s openness to engaging with Iran, his receptiveness to a nuclear deal with North Korea, and a peace deal with the Taliban as alarming. Trump, for his part, saw Bolton as someone who would drag him, and the United States, into unwanted wars. In this light, their acrimonious separation was perhaps unsurprising. Bolton’s departure also adds another position to an already considerable list of high-profile Trump administration vacancies.

Trump Ousts John Bolton as National Security Adviser, by the New York Times’ Peter Baker

Who Could Replace John Bolton?, by the New York Times’ Katie Rogers

Something is fishy about Trump’s John Bolton announcement, by the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake

Trump, Alabama and Hurricane Dorian 

At the beginning of the month, Hurricane Dorian, the most powerful storm to hit the Bahamas since record-keeping began, turned towards the United States. On September 1, Trump tweeted that a number of states, including Alabama, would be “hit (much) harder than anticipated.” The National Weather Service’s (NWS) office in Birmingham, Alabama, along with the majority of forecasters, contradicted the president’s declaration that Dorian would hit Alabama. Nevertheless, the president continued to insist that Alabama would be affected by the storm. On September 4, in a video released by the White House, the president displayed a National Hurricane Center map which appeared to have been doctored, an action in breach of the law, to show Alabama as among the states that Dorian was forecasted to hit. Trump, unhappy at being contradicted by the NWS Alabama office, seemingly ordered his staff to ensure that the offending forecast was retracted. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) duly complied on September 6, in a highly irregular unsigned statement taking the president’s view on the matter. This statement, it appears, was secured through pressure applied by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, acting on instructions from acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Ross went so far as to threaten to fire top officials at NOAA if the retraction was not issued. Trump, for his part, dismissed these allegations as “fake news.” The Alabama NWS forecast was, of course, correct. 

Alarmed at the prospect of political interference with the nation’s independent forecasters, House Democrats began investigating the affair. NOAA’s chief scientist and the Commerce Department Inspector General are reported to be investigating it also. 

A government science agency has been enlisted to aid Trump in his battle against reality, by the Washington Post’s Philip Bump

Commerce Chief Threatened Firings at NOAA After Trump’s Dorian Tweets, Sources Say, by the New York Times’ Christopher Flavelle, Lisa Friedman, and Peter Baker

Trump pushed staff to deal with NOAA tweet that contradicted his inaccurate Alabama hurricane claim, officials say, by the Washington Post’s Andrew Freedman, Josh Dawsey, Juliet Eilperin, and Jason Samenow

Trump forced to deny personally doctoring hurricane map after sharpie spotted on his desk, by the Independent’s Tom Embury-Dennis

Pence, Air Force Staying at Trump Hotels 

Trump faced renewed criticism for allegedly harnessing the presidency to enrich himself this month. This followed reports, first, that Vice President Mike Pence, at the suggestion of the president, stayed at Trump International Golf Links & Hotel in Doonbeg during his visit to Ireland, and second, that since 2017, the Department of Defense has been sending U.S. Air Force personnel to the Trump Turnberry resort whilst they undertake routine refueling stopovers in Scotland. Reports alleged that the military’s spending at Trump Turnberry has been so significant that it has kept the previously struggling resort afloat. The administration has dismissed criticism on this issue by pointing to the vice president’s family history in the Irish town of Doonbeg, and by arguing that Trump Turnberry presented the most convenient and most cost-effective accommodation option. Nevertheless, in Pence’s case, this episode seemingly continues the trend of notable Republicans patronizing the president’s businesses. When it comes to the Air Force though, the utilization of the military to enrich the president may mark a new departure.     

‘Business as Normal’: Pence’s Stay at Trump Hotel in Ireland Follows a Trend, by the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Eric Lipton

Air Force crew made an odd stop on a routine trip: Trump’s Scottish resort, by POLITICO’s Natasha Bertrand and Bryan Bender

Pentagon Says It Spent $184,000 in 2 Years at Trump’s Scotland Resort, by the New York Times’ Eric Lipton

Image: US President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin from the Oval Office of the White House on January 28, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

  

About the Author(s)

Edwin Djabatey

Legal Fellow at Just Security