Donald Trump's highly abnormal presidency: the week of Sept. 25

The Supreme Court justice isn’t doing much to relieve concerns that he’s indebted to conservative policymakers.
September 28, 2017, 4:18pm

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Donald Trump made it clear at the beginning of his campaign that he wasn’t going to follow the normal rules or tone of politics. We’re keeping track of all the ways his presidency veers from the norm in terms of policy and rhetoric.

Day 253 Sept. 29

Neil Gorsuch has been taking some sketchy speaking engagements

Getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed to the Supreme Court is the Trump administration’s signature — and arguably only — achievement so far, so it’s natural that Republicans would want to trot him around.

But, unusually, Gorsuch isn’t doing much to relieve concerns that he’s indebted to conservative policymakers.

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On Thursday, Gorsuch spoke at a luncheon for the Fund for American Studies at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. You know, the hotel that Trump still owns and makes money off of, and which is the subject of multiple lawsuits against Trump alleging that he’s violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause. (Which could one day reach the Supreme Court.) That hotel.

Fund president Roger Ream explained the choice of venue this way: “We just thought it was a new elegant hotel and we’d try it.”

The Fund for American Studies, which favors free markets and limited government, has been funded by the Bradley Foundation. You probably don’t know that group, but it’s funding a group bringing suit over public-sector unions that the Supreme Court agreed to hear earlier on Thursday, according to New York Times reporter Noam Scheiber.

The luncheon — which was held in the Presidential Ballroom, because why not — also comes after Gorsuch hung out with Republican Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, speaking together at the University of Louisville and at Lexington’s University of Kentucky College of Law. McConnell was instrumental in getting Gorsuch to the bench: He blocked President Barack Obama’s nominee of Merrick Garland from ever getting a confirmation hearing, and then preventing Democrats from filibustering against Gorsuch by deploying the “nuclear option.”

Though your middle school textbook probably repeatedly invoked the importance of “checks and balances” in the separation of powers between the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of the U.S. government, none of this is illegal — or even unethical.

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Stephen Gillers, an ethics professor at New York University Law School, told NPR that “no ethical document governs the behavior of a Supreme Court justice.

“They live in an ethics-free environment in so far as codes are concerned,” Gillers said, adding that justices speak to political groups all the time. But “just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it. We rely on judges to exercise discretion to refrain from doing those things they can do but should not do to encourage public trust.”

Gorsuch is also set to be a keynote speaker at a November event for the Federalist Society, which gave Trump a list of names for potential Supreme Court nominees.
You guessed it: Gorsuch’s name was on that list.

Day 252 Sept. 28

Trump’s top economic adviser doesn’t seem to know how much things cost

Gary Cohn had a tough time defending President Donald Trump’s tax plan Thursday — probably because he seems not to know how money works for people whose paychecks are less than seven figures.

Trump’s top economic adviser, who’s worth more than $250 million, said Thursday that a typical family of four making $100,000 a year would see a tax decrease of $1,000 under the president’s proposed tax plan.

“What does that mean?” Cohn said. “They can renovate their kitchen. They can buy a new car.”

Unless it’s the early 20th century and you’re buying a Model T off of Henry Ford’s assembly line, you’re probably not going to be able to buy a car for $1,000.

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Plus, a “typical” family isn’t making $100,000 to begin with — the average American family brings in about $74,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Cohn also stumbled during an interview with ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos, who pointed out that many of the middle-class families Cohn claimed would benefit from Trump’s plan would in fact see a tax increase.

Cohn demurred: “George, there’s an exception to every rule.”

“So that’s a yes,” Stephanopoulos pressed.

“Look,” Cohn said. “I can’t guarantee anything.”

Stephanopoulos then set his sights on the president’s personal taxes, asking Cohn point-blank, “Can you guarantee that President Trump won’t get a tax cut under this plan?”

Cohn responded with another feat of concision:

“George, when we look at the tax plan and we look [at] what it does for Americans, we are very confident that Americans are getting a good deal here.”

The president’s tax plan could end up being “a huge windfall for the wealthiest Americans,” the New York Times reported Thursday. Trump and many in his Cabinet are in that exclusive group.

— Carter Sherman

Day 251 Sept. 27

White House admits Take a Knee is a black and white issue

The White House responded to questions Friday about NFL players taking a knee in protest during the American national anthem and the president’s response by admitting what most understand to be true: It’s a black and white issue.

“The president is simply talking about what we’re for, not what we’re against,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “And certainly this administration will always be for protection and celebration of the flag and the national anthem, and that’s not going to change.”

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Asked by April Ryan, the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, to clarify her statement, Sanders responded, “I don’t think there’s much to clarify, it’s pretty black and white there.”

NFL players from teams across the league agree. They have been kneeling while the American national anthem plays at their games toprotest police brutality and racial inequality in the United States. In response, Trump has called for the boycott of NFL games, and has said NFL team owners would be the “most popular person in this country” if they chose to “fire” the “son of a bitch,” who kneeled.

Sanders denied that the President was trying to stoke racial tensions or create an “us-versus-them” dynamic.

It’s not the first time Trump, who ran on a campaign promise to build a wall to keep out Mexicans and keeps adding more Muslim countries to his travel ban, has commented on black and white issues. In August, after a woman was killed by a white supremacist at a rally in Charlottesville, the president responded by pointing out that there were some “very fine people” carrying torches and protesting minorities.

— Alexa Liautaud

Trump blames healthcare bill failure on something that never happened

President Trump announced Wednesday that the abandoned Republican healthcare bill had enough votes to pass, blaming the delay on a hospitalized senator who, in fact, was not hospitalized.

“We have the votes for healthcare,” Trump said Wednesday, echoing a tweet he sent earlier that morning about the failed Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill. “We have one senator who’s in the hospital. He can’t vote because he’s in the hospital.”

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Though Trump didn’t make it immediately clear who he was referring to, it appeared the missing legislator was Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

But Cochran wasn’t in the hospital, and quickly released a statement explaining that he was dealing with a urological issue at home. After Trump’s comments Wednesday, the senator reaffirmed on Twitter that he was not in the hospital.

Trump’s comments also painted an alternative reality for the Republican congressional leaders who pulled the vote on Tuesday, admitting they didn’t have the numbers to push the bill through this week.

— Alexa Liautaud

Trump wants taxpayers to pay for his jet setting but not Tom Price’s

Health and Human Service secretary Tom Price has been enjoying the benefits of private jet travel on the government’s dime, and President Donald Trump — himself no stranger to using private jets or finding ways to charge the government for them — says he is “not happy” about it.

Asked whether he’d fire Price for this private jet use, Trump said Wednesday, “We’ll see.”

Politico has been meticulously documenting Price’s use of corporate jets for both government travel and for his own personal use. Over the summer, on a quick trip to Nashville, Price spent nearly half of day-long trip hanging out with his son — a trip that cost the federal government over $17,000.

But Price isn’t the only one flying on the taxpayer’s dime. Trump charged the Secret Service $1.6 million to travel on planes owned by one of his companies during the campaign. And his golf clubs are also benefitting from his frequent weekend trips — so far the agency has dropped about $60,000 on golf cart rentals alone.

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— Alex Lubben

Trump deleted tweets endorsing Alabama primary loser Luther Strange

Having congratulated Roy Moore on winning the Alabama Repulican primary, and praising his candidate Luther Strange for “running a good race,” Donald Trump decided it might be a good idea to delete some of his earlier tweets strongly endorsing the defeated candidate. After all, the president has repeatedly said he hates losers.

According to the ProPublica project that tracks Trump’s tweets, the U.S. president deleted three messages in support of Strange posted in the 24 hours before the election results deciding who’d run for Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat.

One of the tweets posted Tuesday read: “Luther Strange has been shooting up in the Alabama polls since my endorsement. Finish the job — vote today for Big Luther.”

He also deleted a version of a congratulatory tweet that gave the wrong date for the election. The White House has yet to comment on why the tweets were deleted.

While he deleted his most recent posts about Strange, there are still 14 older messages of support for the former senator, whom Trump had endorsed and campaigned heavily for in recent weeks.

Moore’s victory put Trump on the losing side of a battle between the populist movement he inspired and the establishment wing of the GOP.

Trump has deleted tweets before, often for spelling mistakes, and this has raised questions about whether he is violating the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which requires all the president’s records be preserved.

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— David Gilbert

Day 250 Sept. 26

Kushner’s lawyer tricked into discussing “half naked women on a trampoline”

Another day, another Washington lawyer catfished.

Jared Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, was duped by a prankster pretending to be Kushner asking for advice on what to do with ”some correspondence on my private email … featuring adult content.” The exchange occurred a day after Kushner publicly admitted to using private emails for official government business — an act that President Trump had lambasted Hillary Clinton for on the campaign trail.

“I need to see I think all emails between you and WH (just for me and us),” Lowell responded to the prankster, who used the email kushner.jared@mail.com. “We need to send any officials emails to your WH account. Not stuff like you asked about. None of those are going anywhere.”

“But we can bury it?” the prankster, who goes by @SINON_REBORN on Twitter, asked, posing as Kushner. “I’m so embarrassed. It’s fairly specialist stuff, half naked women on a trampoline, standing on legoscenes, the tag for the movie was #standingOnTheLittlePeople :(“

“Don’t delete,” Lowell replied. “Don’t send to anyone. Let’s chat in a bit.”

The day before the email exchange, Lowell had issued a statement about Kushner’s private email use saying “fewer than a hundred emails from January through August were either sent to or returned by Mr. Kushner to colleagues in the White House from his personal email account.”

It’s the second time this month that a lawyer for a senior White House official has fallen victim to an email prank. White House special counsel Ty Cobb was duped by the same prankster in early September, who pretended to be the White House head of social media Dan Scavino.

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— Alexa Liautaud

Day 249 Sept. 25

Trump acknowledges true crisis in Puerto Rico: “Billions of dollars” owed to banks

Between tweets about the NFL and CNN being “#FakeNews”, President Trump finally managed to address the disaster occurring in Puerto Rico — but only on Twitter, and only to chastise it.

Trump tweeted late Monday evening that the American territory was in “deep trouble” and owed “billions of dollars to Wall Street and the banks, which, sadly, must be dealt with.”

Despite Trump’s assurances that “food, water, and medical” are “doing well,” hospitals have been out of power for weeks, fuel supplies are nearing their end, and nearly three-quarters of the island is still without cell service. The governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, has been demanding a stronger response from the federal government, saying Puerto Rico is on the verge of a “humanitarian crisis.”

“We need more resources from the Department of Defense so we can get helicopters and resources,” Rossello told Politico Sunday. “We know that there are capabilities in the surrounding areas, helicopters, planes and so forth,” he said. “And our petition is for us to be able to use them.”

The DOD has sent thousands of U.S. servicemen and women, including engineers and U.S. Army reserves, to the island to help with relief efforts. Still, lawmakers in Washington say more is needed.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged the Pentagon to increase aid, saying Puerto Ricans “deserve to know that their government will be there for them, without question or hesitation,” according to the Washington Post.

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— Alexa Liautaud

Sure looks like Trump rage-tweeted at Iran over a fake missile launch

Chief of Staff John Kelly has reportedly gone to great pains to cut down on the misinformation that reaches President Trump’s desk, but he apparently takes the weekends off.

As has become customary, Trump spent his Saturday tweeting about the world’s most pressing issues, such as whether or not Stephen Curry is invited to the White House, and blasting Iran for reportedly launching a missile the day before.

It turns out that missile launch was probably fake, CNN and Fox News reported Monday.

The story goes like this:

Iranian state media released video footage of a missile launch on Friday, after having unveiled a ballistic missile at a military parade. State-run broadcaster Press TV reported the missile had a range of 1,250 miles and would soon be operational.

A day later, Trump seemingly tweeted out the report’s claims as fact.

“Iran just test-fired a Ballistic Missile capable of reaching Israel,” Trump tweeted. “They are also working with North Korea. Not much of an agreement we have!”

By Monday, U.S. officials told both Fox News and CNN that they could not confirm that Iran had actually launched a missile Friday and that the Press TV video was from a previous launch in January, which, by the way, had failed.

The Trump administration has yet to release a statement on his latest social media hiccup. And it would seem unlikely, considering the other, “declarations of war,” err tweets, Trump shot off this weekend.

— Alexa Liautaud

Jared and Ivanka reportedly used private email to talk with colleagues

Update 3:18 p.m. ET 9/25: According to documents obtained by watchdog group American Oversight, Ivanka also used a private email account to communicate with Small Business Administration Administrator Linda McMahon in February, the Hill reported.

It’s not just Hillary Clinton: Jared Kushner has been using a private email account to talk with other administration officials, Politico has reported.

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Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser has emailed ex-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, ex-strategist Steve Bannon, National Economic Council chief Gary Cohn, and others using the account, according to a review of two dozen emails by Politico.

Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, reportedly set up a private domain — what follows the “@” in an email address — toward the end of 2016, although Ivanka doesn’t appear to have conducted official business on her account on the personal domain. Other government officials are said to be using personal email accounts to communicate with one another and Kushner, as well.

Kushner’s lawyer Abbe Lowell told VICE News in a statement that Kushner has mostly used the email to send political news and commentary to himself and others and that “fewer than 100 emails from January through August” were sent to or from the account.

“All non-personal emails were forwarded to his official address, and all have been preserved in any event,” the statement added.

Of course, there’s a rich irony here. The Trump campaign’s most consistent and vicious line of attack against Clinton in 2016 was for her use a private email server to conduct official business while she was Secretary of State; “Lock her up” became a favorite and infamous chant of Trump supporters at rallies. To be fair though, there’s no evidence that Kushner set up an entire private email server, as Clinton did.

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As of September 2017, Clinton has not been locked up: the FBI said last November that Clinton should not face criminal charges for her email practices. And Trump continues to attack former FBI director James Comey, whom the president fired, in part, for declining to pursue charges against Clinton.

— Noah Kulwin

Trump still hasn’t apologized for dissing McCain’s war record

With his signature campaign promise to repeal Obamacare once again in jeopardy, Donald Trump has never needed Republican Sen. John McCain more than now.

And not that McCain’s vote would depend on it, but Trump still hasn’t apologized for mocking McCain’s war record, according to the senator’s interview on “60 Minutes” Sunday.

McCain made headlines Friday when he said he wouldn’t vote for the Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill, after casting the crucial “no” vote in July on the GOP’s previous repeal effort, 11 days after he had surgery for brain cancer.

On “60 Minutes,” McCain said he’d be open to talking with the president about the war-record comments Trump made as a candidate, but he implied Trump’s character would make that difficult.

“I’d be glad to converse with him. But I also understand that we’re very different people,” McCain said. “He is in the business of making money and he has been successful both in television as well as Miss America and others. I was raised in a military family. I was raised in the concept and belief that duty, honor, country is the lodestar for the behavior that we have to exhibit every single day.”

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The feud dates back to 2015.

McCain, one of the so-called “Gang of Eight” who passed bipartisan immigration reform in the Senate in 2013, told The New Yorker that then-candidate Trump had “fired up the crazies” at a rally in Phoenix with his hard-line immigration policies.

A few days later, Trump fired back at McCain, who was a prisoner of war for over five years in the Vietnam War, taking digs at his war record.

“He’s not a war hero,” Trump told a Republican forum in Iowa. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

But it’s still possible McCain could get an apology. “I fully think apologizing is a great thing, but you have to be wrong,” Trump told Jimmy Fallon in a Sept. 2015 appearance on hos late-night show. “I will absolutely apologize sometime in the distant future if I’m ever wrong.”

— Joshua Marcus

Day 246 Sept. 22

Obama-era education officials prepare to sue Betsy DeVos

As the Department of Education halts protections for student loan borrowers, Obama-era education officials are gearing up to fight their Trump-era counterparts in court.

Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is already facing lawsuits from state attorneys general over rollbacks of protections for students from schools that used illegal practices to encourage students to borrow. A group of former DOE lawyers and policy advisers formed the National Student Legal Defense Network to coordinate with these ongoing efforts and possibly file new suits on behalf of students.

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“DeVos and the Trump administration continue to pursue a deregulatory agenda of protections for student loan borrowers and victims of civil rights abuses. They’ve created a real need for nonprofit groups and state prosecutors to step up,” Aaron Ament, a former special counsel at the Education Department and co-founder of the new alliance told the Dayton Daily News.

In April, DeVos appointed a former for-profit college associate dean, Julian Schmoke Jr. of DeVry University, to lead the newly formed Student Aid Enforcement Unit at the Education Department. Just last year DeVry agreed to pay $100 million in a settlement agreement to students the school defrauded by peddling deceptive employment and earnings numbers.

Taylor Dolven

Day 245 Sept. 21

Air Force One phone records requested in Russia investigation

Remember that time Trump dictated Donald Trump Jr’s statement about his meeting with the Russians over the phone on Air Force One? So does special counsel Robert Mueller III.

And he’s asked the White House to hand over all related documents, including phone records, concerning the crafting of the statement, Politico reported Thursday.

The back-and-forth between father and son occurred in July, while Trump was flying back from the G-20 summit in Germany, and Donald Trump Jr. was facing public allegations of collusion with the Russians back in the United States.

Trump Jr.’s statement initially said the June 2016 meeting was about Russian adoption, though multiple accounts from other attendees as well as emails, released by Trump Jr. himself, contradicted that notion, the Washington Post reported in July.

One of the world’s biggest law firms is caught up in the Russia probe

One of the nation’s most prestigious white shoe law firms is going to need some lawyers of its own, because it too has been caught up in the ever-expanding Russia probe.

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, which was commissioned by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to draft a report for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, has been asked by the Justice Department for related documents, the New York Times reported Thursday.

The 2011 report was used to help convict Yanukovych’s political opponent, the former Ukrainian prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, on corruption charges, according to the Times.

Manafort is also the focus of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and whether Moscow interfered in the U.S. presidential election — a topic that seems ripe for discovery as new revelations continue to break in the press. To that end, the Washington Post reported Wednesday that Manafort had also offered “private briefings” on the campaign and the election to a Russian billionaire who was aligned with the Kremlin.

Manafort promised private campaign briefings to Russian billionaire, report says

A few weeks before Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination, his then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort offered “private briefings” on the 2016 presidential race to a Kremlin-aligned billionaire, the Washington Post reported Wednesday evening.

“If he needs private briefings, we can accommodate,” Manafort emailed an intermediary on July 7, 2016, two weeks before the Republican National Convention. Manafort asked for that message to be relayed to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with ties to Vladimir Putin. The Post reported July 29 of last year that Manafort had managed an investment fund for Deripaska some time before, and the oligarch was suing him, claiming he’d disappeared with $19 million, according to litigation in the Cayman Islands.

There’s no evidence that the promised briefings ever took place, but the offer raises further questions about possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Manafort has been a key focus of the federal government’s investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election and whether members of the Trump’s campaign were involved. The FBI raided Manafort’s home in Alexandria, Virginia, on July 26 to seize documents and other materials for the investigation led by special counsel and former FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Ty Cobb, a member of Trump’s legal team, told CNN it would be “shocking” if Manafort “tried to monetize his relationship with the president.” One of Manafort’s selling points to Trump during the campaign was that he would not monetize the relationship. In fact, Manafort told Trump he’d work for free.

Alex Thompson