The much anticipated constitutional crisis many feared would come about under President Trump’s bombastic style of leadership took only one week into his administration to be realized. Trump’s Executive Order banning visitors, including U.S. permanent resident “green card” holders and those with valid U.S. visas, was one of the most poorly planned and implemented White House regulation in recent memory.
At airports across the world and at immigration checkpoints at airports across the United States, permanent U.S. residents were held in detention and some were put on planes back to their points of travel origination. When five federal judges issued temporary stays on the implementation of Trump’s executive order, the White House balked. For some reason, the Trump administration believes the judiciary is subservient to the executive branch. It took one federal judge, John Sirica, the chief judge for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and a Republican nominated by Dwight Eisenhower, to show President Richard Nixon that his “imperial presidency” stopped with the federal judiciary. Sirica, who was a close personal friend of former heavyweight boxing star Jack Dempsey, went several rounds in court with the Nixon administration over the Watergate scandal. In the end, Sirica delivered a knockout punch to several of Nixon’s closest advisers and, eventually, Nixon resigned in disgrace.
The difference between Nixon and Trump is that Nixon, a lawyer and a former member of the U.S. House and Senate, understood the brinkmanship in which he was engaging with the courts and the independent special prosecutor. Trump, a pampered real estate mogul who was handed his wealth from his Nazi- and Ku Klux Klan-supporting father, Fred Trump, has not the first idea of what kind of constitutional fire he is playing with by ignoring the orders of five federal judges.
Certain pro-Trump media outlets—the “usual suspects”—are claiming the five judges are all Democrats. That is one of Trump’s “alternate facts.” The first judge to issue a stay on Trump’s visa ban executive order was Ann Donnelly, a former New York state prosecutor, who was nominated by Barack Obama to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn. A native of Michigan and a graduate of Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law, nothing suggests that Donnelly is a rank-and-file Democrat. In fact, the Republican Senate voted in 2015 to confirm Donnelly in a 95–2 vote.
When a number of New York City area politicians showed up at JFK International Airport with a copy of Judge Donnelly’s order and demanded the release of detainees, clueless Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents feigned ignorance because their ultimate boss, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, had not been briefed beforehand about Trump’s cockamamie and ill-prepared executive order.
The next judge to issue a temporary restraining order was Leonie Brinkema, a no-nonsense judge sitting on the bench of the national security “Rocket docket” of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria. So named the “rocket docket” court because it often sides with the government in national security-related cases, it would normally be the last court where a national security matter would be ruled against. However, Brinkema, who sentenced the “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui to life imprisonment in the Colorado “Supermax” prison, ruled that Trump’s executive order was stayed and that removal of green card holders from Dulles International Airport was suspended for seven days.
Brinkema also ordered lawyers be given access to those being detained at Dulles. That order was immediately ignored when lawyers and three U.S. House members, Virginia Representatives Don Beyer and Gerry Connolly, and Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin, as well as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, were denied access to the detained passengers at the airport by members of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) police. The airport cops are answerable not to the DHS or CPB but to the independent MWAA commission, members of which are appointed by the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor of DC, with only three appointed by the president. The fact that glorified airport rent-a-cops disregarded a federal court order and those of three members of the House and one U.S. senator is a definite troubling bellwether of things to come.
The third judge to issue a stay on the White House order was Thomas Zilly of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle. Zilly, who ordered all deportations stopped by Trump, was nominated by President Ronald Reagan. So much for the brain dead meme by Trump supporters that the order was nullified by “Democrat judges,” a major “alternate fact” in Zilly’s case.
The fourth and fifth judges who temporarily stayed Trump’s deportation order were U.S. magistrate judge Judith Dein and District Court judge Allison Burroughs, both of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in Boston. Dein was nominated by Bill Clinton and Burroughs by Obama. Both were confirmed by Republican-controlled Senates, Dein in 2000 and Burroughs in 2014.
There are comments on a number of dubious pro-Trump websites that are calling for “action” against the five judges. This is where certain Internet keyboard jocks should be very careful. Violence against federal judges by purveyors of the same neo-Nazi hatred advanced by Fred Trump in the 1920s and ’30s and by Trump counsel Steve Bannon today is not unknown in the United States. In 1989, U.S. Eleventh Circuit of Appeals Judge Robert Vance was assassinated by a mail bomb delivered to his Alabama home. Moody was also convicted for the assassination of civil rights lawyer Robbie Robinson in a mail bomb explosion at his home in Savannah, Georgia. The convicted assassin, Walter Leroy Moody, Jr., was a habitué of Klan meetings throughout the South. In 1979, Judge John Wood, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, was assassinated by Charles Harrison, a reputed member of the right-wing kill squad that assassinated President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. In 1988, Judge Richard Daronco of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York in Manhattan was assassinated by retired New York police officer Charles Koster, who then killed himself. The FBI revealed there were several “loose ends” in the case. In 2005, the husband and mother of U.S. Judge Joan Lefkow of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago were murdered at the judge’s Chicago home. Neo-Nazi Matthew Hale had previously been convicted of soliciting a contract hit man to assassinate Judge Lefkow.
The second Trump executive order that has turned the White House upside down is his diktat to demote the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence from members of the “Principals Committee” of the National Security Council. The Principals Committee, which normally include both the JCS chair and DNI, normally meetss once a week. In fact, JCS chairman, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, and DNI-designate Dan Coats, have been relegated to the rank of NSC “deputies.” The NSC “Deputies Committee” meets more often than the principals but they carry much less clout. Former CIA director and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told NBC News: “My biggest concern is there are actually, under the law, only two statutory advisers to the National Security Council and that’s the director of Central Intelligence, or the DNI, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I think pushing them out of the National Security Council meetings, except when their specific issues are at stake, is a big mistake.” In other words, Trump’s order removed the two NSC members whose membership is based on the law. It is strike two for Trump, as far as his ignorance of the law is concerned.
There are reports that two of Trump’s closest advisers—chief of staff Reince Priebus and press secretary Sean Spicer—have come close to resigning from a White House they believe is operating by the seat of its pants.
In what might be considered strike three, Trump elevated his political counselor Bannon to the Principles Committee of the NSC. George W. Bush’s counselor Karl Rove and Obama’s counselor David Axelrod sat in on a few NSC meetings but they were not members nor were they permitted to speak.
The NSC decision by Trump did not sit well with General Dunford’s old Marine Corps colleague, retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis. There are rumblings in the Pentagon that Mattis is not at all pleased that his four-star Marine colleague has essentially been replaced on the NSC by Bannon, whose highest rank in the Navy was lieutenant. At the Washington elite Alfalfa Club dinner on the evening of January 29, Mattis’s unhappiness over the treatment of Dunford was the talk of the gossip circuit as was General John Kelly’s irate reaction to the implementation of a visa ban order at Homeland Security over which he had zero input. White House sources at the dinner told The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons that the visa ban was ordered not to be discussed with anyone outside the White House or, as was the case with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), even within the White House.
Spicer and Priebus, both of whom attended the Alfalfa Club dinner with Trump taking a pass, may have been using the absence of their vitriolic boss to vent their spleens to other attendees over drinks and dinner. Spicer, who, as a former press secretary for the U.S. Trade Representative under George W. Bush, should know what the satirical Onion is, retweeted one of their spoofs concerning himself:
The last president who shut the JCS out from the White House’s decision-making process was Nixon. That did not work out too well for him in the long run.
There were early concerns about Trump placing so many generals in the Cabinet. So far, the generals—Mattis and Kelly, with the addition of Dunford at JCS—may be the only people standing between a would-be dictator and the U.S. Constitution. The clock had longer to tick out on Nixon. Trump’s fast-moving clock toward impeachment is now at September 1973 in Nixonian terms.
Previously published in the Wayne Madsen Report.
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Wayne Madsen is a Washington, DC-based investigative journalist and nationally-distributed columnist. He is the editor and publisher of the Wayne Madsen Report (subscription required).