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Michael A. Cohen

From the White House to Harvard, America’s norms are being shredded

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.Win McNamee/Getty Images

If there is one defining characteristic of the sinfulness of the Trump administration, it’s the daily and calamitous shredding of America’s unwritten political and institutional norms. It began during the campaign when Trump refused to hand over his taxes and talked about putting his opponent, Hillary Clinton, in jail. It continued in January when Trump refused to fully divest himself from his business interests, thus ensuring that he would personally profit from being president. Since then, in ways both small and large, this process has continued unabated.

These norm violations are so pervasive that they hardly seem to get much attention. For example, this week, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested the Department of Justice should consider prosecuting former FBI Director James Comey for leaking information and committing perjury. Let’s put aside the fact that Sanders is attempting to discredit a potential witness against the president for obstruction of justice. It’s inappropriate for the White House to be applying political pressure on the Justice Department regarding prosecutorial decisions, and this is a clear violation of a long-standing norm regarding the DoJ’s prosecutorial independence. But considering the president has publicly criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not protecting him from the Russia investigation and has publicly admitted that he sought to obstruct justice in firing Comey, none of this should come as a real surprise.


At the same press briefing, Sanders also said that Jemele Hill, an ESPN journalist, should be fired for calling Trump a racist and “white supremacist.” Her remarks come from a White House that has called the free press the “enemy of the American people” and termed it “fake news.” It’s yet another extraordinary defilement of a once sacrosanct political norm regarding a free press and how the White House handles criticism. In Trump’s America, however, those norms seemingly no longer exist. And it’s not just happening in Washington.

Consider the decision by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government to grant fellowships to former White House spokesperson Sean Spicer and convicted felon, Chelsea Manning. The latter selection has created the greatest controversy, and for good reason. Whatever one might think of Manning’s rationale for leaking 750,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks, there is no question that she broke the law and potentially put the lives of Americans and those who worked with the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq at risk. While personally I supported President Obama’s decision to commute Manning’s sentence, and I’m inclined to chalk up her crimes more to youthful naiveté than traitorous intentions, there’s little question that Manning’s leak undermined US national security and had the potential to do enormous harm. It is not something to be celebrated.


And yet Manning (and that other leaker extraordinaire, Edward Snowden) have been hailed as heroes on the left for taking it upon themselves to arbitrarily release millions of documents that detailed — and risked undermining — the legitimate and legal workings of the US foreign policy and intelligence communities. Manning’s leak made it more difficult for US diplomats overseas to do their jobs and in particular reach out to political activists and dissidents, who because of Manning’s leak now had to contemplate having their conversations exposed. There is no reason for Harvard to aid and abet this normalization of law-breaking. The Kennedy School’s Dean Doug Elmendorf announced Thursday night that it was reversing course and rescinding Manning’s fellowship, which was the right move.


It should now do the same with Sean Spicer. Since his resignation from the White House, Spicer has become an almost sympathetic figure. But lest we forget, he spent seven months repeatedly lying to the American people. Indeed, in his first briefing on the job he falsely declared that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,” and it was all downhill from there.

Here again, Harvard is normalizing precisely the kind of behavior that should be discouraged in public service. The Kennedy School is a training ground for the next generation of governmental leaders. What kind of message is being sent to them by granting this honor to a serial fabulist like Spicer?

Harvard has unfortunately chosen the path of notoriety and buzz over academic rigor. Indeed, the Institute also picked former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a fellow, who was charged with assaulting a reporter during the presidential campaign and was unceremoniously fired by Trump.

I suppose even academic institutions need to prime the pump when it comes to getting attention. But in selecting Spicer and Manning (and to a lesser extent Lewandowski) they’re contributing to Trump’s daily rampage through the political norms that once held our democracy together. I expect that from this White House. The rest of us should strive to do better.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.