Over the last several weeks, the Trump administration has endured a hurricane of controversy.
Key resignations, challenges in filling his Cabinet, and other crucial federal positions, fights with the press, US intelligence agencies, and his critics have all culminated thus far in a tumultuous first month in office for President Donald Trump.
Inside the eye of this hurricane, however, Trump could soon face critical issues that have yet to fully materialize – like next week’s planned replacement of his rejected immigration executive order that is likely to be challenged in courts throughout the country.
Trump was named in 42 federal lawsuits in his first 11 days as commander-in-chief, CNN reported earlier this month. Those lawsuits focus mostly on the president’s original travel ban and accusations of conflicts of interest, but other questions surrounding the legality of some of the White House’s statements and actions may follow.
In an interview with Business Insider, UCLA School of Law professor Jon Michaels offered insight into whether the Trump administration has been acting consistently with the rule of law. ” I wouldn’t say that we can make a big deal of one particular deviation from custom,” Michaels said, “but patterns of it? Then it looks a little different.”
Noting what seemed to be repeated missteps in rolling out various initiatives, Michaels said “the additive effect of all these questionable moves raised serious questions about the integrity of the decision-making of the executive branch these days.”
Here are some of the controversial and legally questionable actions the Trump administration has taken, and the ramifications he could face.
Trump’s original executive order targeting refugees and travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries
On January 27, Trump signed an executive order that temporarily barred people from majority-Muslim Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the US. Syrians were banned indefinitely.
Although Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly rejected the notion that the original order was a ban on Muslims specifically, Trump’s December 2015 demand for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” would eventually complicate the defense of his travel ban in court.
“Leaving aside the merits of it … It was a sheer act of unprofessionalism to issue the memo the way he did,” UCLA law professor Jon Michaels said. “By all reports, he did not consult with the Justice Department, the State Department, or the Department of Homeland Security.”
Michaels explained why that matters:
- “The reason why this custom makes sense is because the Justice Department vets the law. [The Justice Department] aren’t just presidential aides … They have constitutionally sworn duties to make sure the government follows the law.” “The State Department needs to make sure that … at the very least, they’re able to communicate with our allies and to the affected countries so that there’s a diplomatic ‘heads up’ to manage the fallout.” “If you don’t tell the Department of Homeland Security, you don’t have the operations on the ground to handle demand – and we saw this incredible chaos.”
The controversial travel ban led to massive protests nationwide, but in the background, legal proceedings ensued to challenge the constitutionality of Trump’s executive order. The order’s confusing provisions created chaos that briefly denied the entry of both green card holders and dual citizens alike.
Michaels said: “Regardless of whether you think it’s a good or bad policy, it was very poorly implemented. And that’s not the Department of Homeland Security’s fault per say … they were caught off-guard when planes were already in the air.”
Judges from lower courts eventually blocked parts of the executive order, ruling that it violated due-process and equal protection rights guaranteed by the Constitution. After being blocked by federal judges in Washington state and Minnesota, the ban was eventually slapped down by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, freeing people from the affected countries to continue traveling into the US..
The White House has since planned to try again with a new executive order.
An ethics pledge and lobbying the government
- Evan Vucci/AP
In another executive order, Trump began weakening the ethics firewalls put in place by the Obama administration – one of which prevented lobbyists from joining the administration if they were registered lobbyists the year prior.
Trump’s ethics pledge issued last month, as noted by Politico, prevents White House officials from lobbying the same agency for which they worked for five years after they leave, however, this still leaves open the possibility to lobby other parts of the government.
Additionally, the pledge prevents lobbyists-turned-staffers from working on issues for which they lobbied for two years. That stands in contrast to Obama’s blanket-ban from 2009 which said lobbyists were entirely banned from joining the administration if they were registered lobbyists in the preceding year.
Trump also changed Obama’s rules meant to prevent staffers-turned-lobbyists from contacting their former government agencies. Under Obama, the ban was for two years. Trump knocked it down to one. And while Obama’s order applied to all staffers, Trump’s rules do not apply to cabinet-level appointees.
“There’s every reason to expect this administration will be the most scandal-ridden in history, and [the] executive action does nothing to change that,” said Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog Group Public Citizen, in an interview with Politico.
Norm Eisen, the Obama administration’s ethics attorney gave this assessment of the matter to Politico:
“The single biggest insulation that we had, in retrospect, against scandal in the Obama administration was the two-year exit ban,” Eisen said. “People will pay you to put you on ice for one year and then after that year is up to ply your contacts. But no one wants to pay you to put you in cold storage for two years.”
“Go buy Ivanka’s stuff”: A top White House adviser’s “free commercial” for Trump’s retail brand
- Fox News
After Nordstrom dropped Ivanka Trump’s brand due to poor sales, President Donald Trump aired his grievance about it on Twitter: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”
The president’s public criticisms have raised ethical concerns, but the actions of his counselor, Kellyanne Conway, prompted calls for a government ethics investigation.
Conway, in an interview on the Fox News program, “Fox and Friends” declared “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff … I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody; you can find it online.”
Legal experts were quick to point out that Conway’s statements violated the Office of Government Ethics’ rules governing the use of a public office. Here’s the most relevant portion of that rule:
“An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity …”
Conway drew criticism from Republicans and Democrats over her remarks. Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, the C hairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee , said Conway was “wrong” to promote Ivanka Trump’s brand. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the Democratic chair on the House oversight committee, called it a ” textbook violation” of ethics rules.
A shocking conflict of interest with China
- Andy Wong/AP
Trump has said he would remove himself from the day-to-day operations of the Trump Organization and move his investments into a trust controlled by his sons and a longtime employee.
Critics remain skeptical, however, because he still maintains control of at least some elements of his empire. And, as The Washington Post reported earlier in February, he is listed as the sole beneficiary of the trust.
Since he did not divest himself completely, that calls into question whether Trump is violating the law that governs foreign payments to the president.
One such issue came to light last week, as explained by Business Insider correspondent Pedro Nicolaci da Costa. Trump was awarded a valuable 10-year trademark in China after an earlier phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping in which Trump affirmed that the US would support the “One China” policy that sees Taiwan as part of China.
Trump has 77 registered trademarks in China and 49 waiting for approval.
“There can be no question that it is a terrible idea for Donald Trump to be accepting the registration of these valuable property rights from China while he’s a sitting president of the United States,” former Obama administration lawyer Norman Eisen said in an interview with the Associated Press.
“It’s fair to conclude that this is an effort to influence Mr. Trump that is relatively inexpensive for the Chinese, potentially very valuable to him, but it could be very costly for the United States,” he added.
Trump’s campaign-trail criticisms of US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl could jeopardize Bergdah;’s pending court martial trial
- Jonathan Drake/Reuters
Early in his election campaign, Trump voiced sharp criticism against US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier who walked off his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was later captured by Taliban forces. The US regained custody of Bergdahl in 2014, in exchange for five Taliban-affiliated detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.
Since the swap and the legal proceedings that followed in 2015 and 2016, then-candidate Trump had some words about the matter that have riled up Bergdahl’s attorneys and a US Army colonel presiding over the soldier’s court martial.
Trump said at a campaign rally in October 2015: “We’re tired of Sgt. Bergdahl, who’s a traitor, a no-good traitor, who should have been executed. … Thirty years ago, he would have been shot.”
At a January 2016 event in Pensacola, Florida, Trump said ” Frankly, I would take that son of a b—-, I’d fly him back, I’d drop him right over the top.”
Bergdahl, who has been in legal proceedings since his return, faces a court-martial for charges on desertion and misbehaving before the enemy.
During a pre-trial hearing, defense attorneys argued that Bergdahl’s right to a fair trial had been compromised due to the fiery references Trump had made. US Army Col. Jeffery Nance, the military judge presiding over the case, called Trump’s campaign rhetoric about Bergdahl “disturbing.”
Bergdahl’s attorneys argued that the case should be dismissed.
“I think President Trump’s words and actions during the campaign made him a bull in a china shop, and now a number of federal agencies will have to be cleaning up after him,” said Yale Law School research scholar and former US Coast Guard judge advocate Eugene Fidell in The Charlotte Observer.
The trial is set to begin on April 18, however, if Col. Nance rules that Trump’s statements were an unlawful command influence, Nance has the option to dismiss the charges against Bergdahl.
The White House has remained silent about Bergdahl since Trump’s inauguration.