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Norms, Rules, and Tradition

December 15, 2020

As journalists, historians, and political commentators reflect on the administration of outgoing President Donald Trump, one word keeps coming up: norms. To his critics, this is cause for concern. But President Trump’s supporters sometimes see his norm-breaking actions as efforts to change the political culture of Washington. Here, we will offer definitions and examples of political norms, rules, and traditions that President Trump has broken, consider the possible consequences, and ask what, if anything, should be done to reaffirm those norms.

First Norm: The Relationship Between Private Interests and Governing

Some commentators and political rivals have pointed to President Trump’s connection to his personal business empire as a violation of the spirit of the Constitution, even if it that relationship does not violate the letter of the law. The Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, sometimes cited by those who question President Trump’s actions, states, “No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”1 Critics point to the president’s use of Trump-owned properties, which have cost taxpayers at least $2.5 million, and to his encouraging of foreign governments to spend money at his properties, as evidence of the type of corruption that the founders feared. Because of the way in which the Emoluments Clause has been interpreted, it is not clear how enforcement works, so there have been no successful legal challenges.2 This has left some constitutional lawyers and scholars arguing that the law must be made clearer in the future.3


Second Norm: Family Involvement in the Administration

A second political norm that some Americans point to is the role that members of President Trump’s family played in his administration, both formally and informally. His two adult sons and oldest daughter were all visible spokespeople for his administration, although they did not have formal roles.4 Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, also played a significant role in many of the administration’s policy priorities. Kushner was tasked with developing a response to the opioid crisis, negotiating peace in the Middle East, taking the lead on diplomacy with Mexico and China, and several other high-profile initiatives.5 It is unusual to have family so closely intertwined with the administration, but it does not clearly violate any laws.6 Trump supporters note that President Bill Clinton, for example, appointed his wife, first lady Hillary Clinton, to head the Task Force on National Health Care, a centerpiece of his legislative agenda. But the actions of the Trump family raised questions about security clearances, as the administration overrode security clearance denials to grant clearance to Kushner, among others.7

Third Norm: Refusing to Concede

Since it became clear that President-elect Joe Biden won the 2020 election, President Trump’s team has filed several dozen lawsuits to overturn the results.8 As of December 14, these suits have not amounted to anything.9 In a significant departure from political tradition, many Republicans in Congress have refused to acknowledge President-elect Biden’s victory and are instead supporting President Trump’s lawsuits. They argue that election officials made unwarranted changes to electoral procedures without the approval of state legislatures, and that the integrity of signature vetting on mail-in ballots is questionable.10

Evelyn Hockstein/Washington PostMost Republicans in the House of Representatives signed letters of support for a lawsuit brought by the state of Texas, although Senate Republicans did not.11 Some Trump supporters have latched on to the president’s defiance as well. They note that in the 2000 presidential election, Vice President Al Gore waited to concede to Governor George W. Bush until December 13, the day after the Supreme Court ordered a stop to the recount in Florida. On December 12, groups supporting President Trump, including the male chauvinist organization Proud Boys, clashed with protesters in Washington, D.C.; at least four people were stabbed (the political allegiances of both the stabbing suspect and the victims is presently unknown).12 Several Black churches were also targeted and vandalized.13

WATCH: “Supreme Court Denies Texas Attempt to Overturn the Election Results,” from PBS NewsHour


Some observers are concerned about the long-term impacts of President Trump’s norm-breaking behavior. Two former governors, Jennifer Granholm, D-Mich., and Christine Todd Whitman, R-N.J., have argued that the attempts to overturn the election may have significant impacts in the future. “He is setting a precedent, suggesting that it is OK to violate these norms that have made our country great,” said Granholm.14 Activist and author Amy Siskind, creator of The Weekly List, wrote: “Experts in authoritarianism advise keeping a list of things changing, subtly, around you, so you’ll remember. Days after the 2016 presidential election, I started a list. Each week, I chronicle the ways Donald Trump has changed our country.”15

Further Reading

Discussion Questions 

  • How important are the norms mentioned in this post? Which is most important? Least?
  • Are there norms and conventions that you think no longer matter?
  • Do you think the Trump administration will change the way future administrations use executive power? If so, in what ways?
  • How do you think policymakers should respond to the changes brought in by the Trump administration? Are new laws needed?



Featured Image Credit:  Al Drago/Getty Images
[1] Connecticut Mirror: https://ctmirror.org/2020/10/13/supreme-court-rejects-blumenthal-appeal-in-trump-emoluments-case/; Congressional Research Service: https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45992
[2] Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/joewalsh/2020/10/27/report-us-government-paid-over-25-million-to-trumps-businesses/?sh=54f526751a62; Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/capitalbusiness/2016/11/18/9da9c572-ad18-11e6-977a-1030f822fc35_story.html; Congressional Research Service: https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45992
[3] Vanity Fair: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2020/12/massachusetts-ag-maura-healey-on-prosecuting-a-president
[4] Slate: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/11/goodbye-donald-trump-jr.html; Politico: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/10/21/ivanka-suburban-women-11th-hour-430784; Salon: https://www.salon.com/2020/12/11/eric-trump-mocked-for-begging-people-to-praise-his-dad-on-a-record-day-for-covid-deaths-_partner/
[5] Think Progress: https://archive.thinkprogress.org/7-jobs-jared-kushner-is-now-doing-for-the-united-states-of-america-6f0a799462ed/; Time: https://time.com/5766186/jared-kushner-interview/
[6] American Oversight: https://www.americanoversight.org/investigation/ivanka-trumps-role-in-the-administration
[7] Fox News: https://www.foxnews.com/us/official-trump-team-overruled-25-security-clearance-denials
[8] Time: https://time.com/5908505/trump-lawsuits-biden-wins/
[9] ABC News: https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/wisconsin-supreme-court-tosses-trump-election-lawsuit-74717684
[10] USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/12/11/more-house-republicans-sign-on-to-lawsuit-aimed-at-overturning-election/6510763002/
[11] Politico: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/12/11/republicans-lawsuit-overturn-election-444601
[12] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trump-dc-rally-maga/2020/12/11/8b5af818-3bdb-11eb-bc68-96af0daae728_story.html
[13] PBS NewsHour: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics
[14] KPRC2 News: https://www.click2houston.com/news/politics/2020/12/06/trump-tactics-to-overturn-election-could-have-staying-power/
[15] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/outlook/siskind-list-trump-norms/


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