This was a hallmark week for the Trump administration—one of the president’s top counselors appeared, by every measure, to violate a federal ethics law. Two federal courts slapped down President Trump’s travel ban. And behind the scenes, the White House churned out another stream of executive orders and presidential statements with alarming implications for the unemployed and people who might find themselves resisting arrest, among others.
Here’s the big things that mattered this week.
Fought for the travel ban in court—and lost. Last Friday, a federal judge in Washington state put a nationwide halt on Trump’s travel ban. The administration immediately appealed the ruling to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. A three-judge panel heard arguments Tuesday, and Thursday rejected the administration appeal, keeping the ban from being enforced.
Trump issued a series of tweets blasting the courts, and labeled the Washington judge a “so-called judge.” This attack on the judiciary alarmed many experts who felt it was an attack on the fundamental system of checks and balances.
Signed three tough-on-crime executive orders (that don’t do much). On Thursday morning, without any advance notice to the press, Trump signed three executive orders on crime—one that promises a crackdown on transnational drug gangs, one that aims to heighten penalties for crimes against police officers, and an order that creates a task force on reducing crime. The three orders, to put it bluntly, don’t really do anything. They instruct federal agencies to enforce existing laws, share more intelligence information, and plot various studies and commissions about crime. The most ominous thing in the orders: expressing a desire for nationwide legislation to toughen penalties for crimes against law enforcement, similar to Louisiana’s “Blue Lives Matter” legislation. There are already strict penalties for attacking officers, and the Louisiana bill broadens them to the point of making resisting arrest a felony offense. National legislation to this effect would be a disaster, but the executive order does nothing more than signal an intent to pursue it at some point in the future.
Recommitted to “One China’ policy. Since 1979, the United States has agreed to recognize Taiwan as part of mainland China. In December, Trump shocked leaders around the world by speaking with the president of Taiwan directly and signaling he might end the policy. There are legitimate human-rights reasons why this policy is flawed, but experts were stunned that Trump had called it into question, threatening a major plank of world order, without building any diplomatic groundwork or giving advance warning—and before he was even president. But Thursday evening, in a phone call with the Chinese president, Trump recommitted to the One China policy. This has become somewhat of a pattern in the new administration—tough administration talk followed up by a retreat to routine policy. It was true of the settlements in Israel and two-state solution, administration actions on Iran following a missile test, and now relations with China.
Released a list of terrorist attacks the media supposedly didn’t cover. This isn’t a policy action, but it’s worth noting. On Monday, in a speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, Trump made a remarkable accusation about terror attacks in Europe: “It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported. And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons and you understand that.” The dark implication that “the press” was deliberately ignorant to, or worse, aiding foreign terror groups is deeply disturbing—-and also unsubstantiated, leading scores of reporters to demand information on what attacks hadn’t been covered. The administration then released a list later Monday of terror attacks that had, indeed, been covered. (Many locations were also misspelled.) Taken in concert with the attacks on the judge in Washington—and Trump’s direct implication that the judge would be responsible for future terror attacks—the White House is already laying blame on the judiciary and the media for any attack that happens. Not incidentally, these are two critical institutions that would serve a check on presidential power and overreach in the wake of a major attack.
Ethics violations? “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff,” Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway said during an interview from the White House briefing room on Thursday. By delivering what she called a “free commercial” for her boss’s daughter’s company, Conway appears to have violated federal ethics rules that forbid public officials from using their offices either for their own gain or others. Watchdog groups have filed complaints, and the chairman and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee sent a joint letter calling on the Office of Government Ethics to recommend “appropriate disciplinary action.” But it’s up to the Trump administration to take action, and so far the White House has dismissed criticism, saying only that Conway has “been counseled on that subject.”
Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by Melania Trump described her position as “one of the most photographed women in the world” as a “unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to make millions of dollars. The lawsuit seeks $150 million from a British tabloid that published now-retracted allegations that she’d worked as an “elite escort” in the “sex business,” arguing that the allegations hurt her brand. Though the lawsuit doesn’t specifically cite her role as first lady, it certainly suggests that Melania Trump intended to capitalize on it to establish “multi-million dollar business relationships for a multi-year term.”
Supporting drug testing for recipients of unemployment benefits. The White House issued a statement of support for legislation in the House that would make it easier for states to require people seeking unemployment benefits to be tested for drugs.
That “immediate” Obamacare repeal-and-replace is going to take a little longer. On the campaign trail Trump promised that if elected, he would roll out an Obamacare replacement “immediately. Fast. Quick.” But in an interview this week he admitted, “it’ll take until some time into next year.” David Dayen writes that while it’s tempting to assume the right’s hunger for repeal has died out, “the battle over health care really only began at 2:11 [Friday] morning, when the Senate cast the final vote confirming Tom Price as health and human services secretary.” Now that Price has been confirmed, he is likely to provide the blueprint for congressional Republicans to coalesce around.