What makes the series of events on Friday especially remarkable is that some of them are crises (or at least events) of Trump’s own making, while other are external crises. The transgender ban, the Arpaio pardon, and Gorka’s departure were all under White House control. But they occur amid an impending natural disaster in Texas, one of the biggest hurricanes to strike the mainland U.S. in years, and further missile tests by North Korea, part of a spree that has brought the U.S. and North Korea closer to a hot war than they have been in years.
The Friday news dump is an old and venerable technique adopted by politicians who hope to bury a news event by announcing it at the end of the week, ostensibly when the public is less likely to pay attention. The transgender ban and Arpaio pardon bear all the hallmarks of the news dump. And it’s likely to work—at least in the immediate—as a massive hurricane commands national attention.
The question, then, is whether the administration will be able to retain its own focus. Trump himself has a tendency to become fixated on certain things, often to his own disadvantage. He knew that the Arpaio firing would be a political hot potato, and at a rally in Phoenix on Tuesday, he did not announce the pardon—saying he didn’t want to cause controversy—though he all but promised it would come. (Drawn-out drama is also a classic Trump move, a teaser strategy from his years as a successful reality-TV host.) It is difficult to imagine even the most smoothly operating White House juggling so many crises at once, and this White House is nowhere near smooth operation.
The frantic stretch of news began after 6 p.m., with the news that Trump had signed the directive on transgender servicemembers. The move was long telegraphed. The president had announced his intention to bar transgender members from the armed services in a tweet almost a month ago, but he had not actually delivered any guidance on how to do that to the Defense Department until Friday. That left generals in the uncomfortable position of not knowing how or whether to implement an order. The end product is somewhat watered down: It prevents new enlistments by transgender people and reverses a decision to pay for gender reassignment surgery, but it grants Defense Secretary James Mattis latitude to allow currently serving members to remain in the armed forces. Top Pentagon and branch officials had not greeted Trump’s initial order with enthusiasm.
Next came the Arpaio pardon. That move is legitimate as a matter of law, but as my colleague Matt Ford writes, it does break with various norms. The pardon comes far sooner in Trump’s term than other presidents’ first pardons. Typically, an offender must wait at least five years after conviction to apply for a pardon. (CNN reported that Arpaio’s pardon did not move through standard Department of Justice procedures but emanated from the White House.) And while the president has the authority to pardon whomever he wants, it is a dubious move to pardon Arpaio, who was convicted for contempt of court by a federal judge—especially for a man who claims to be a “law and order” president. In pardoning Arpaio, he is also implicitly endorsing racial profiling—at a time when racial tensions in America are causing intense and sometimes violent clashes across the country.