You could call it "The Art of the Dump."
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In Washington, D.C., Friday afternoons are known as a time when public officials may take controversial actions for which they want to draw little notice.
Last night, with the ferocious Hurricane Harvey heading toward the Texas coast, the public may have been paying even less attention to politics than usual for the end of a work week.
Then it came -- a pair of controversial moves by the administration and the departure of a divisive figure in the White House, all over the span of three hours.
First, at 6 p.m. ET, came the announcement that President Trump had sent a much-anticipated memo to the Pentagon codifying his seemingly impromptu Twitter announcement last month to ban transgender people from the armed services.
Exactly two hours later came the second story. The White House sent a press release announcing Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, the highly controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who is reviled and admired for his harsh treatment of undocumented immigrants. The press release and a subsequent tweet by the president lauding Arpaio for “admirable service” made no mention of the fact that the pardon was for the sheriff's conviction on criminal contempt for violating a federal court order that he stop detaining people solely for immigration offenses.
The pardon, Trump’s first as president, appears to distinguish him from other recent presidents who waited to issue their most controversial pardons or commutations until the end of their terms.
The news on Friday night didn’t stop there. Just minutes after word came of the Arpaio pardon, the conservative news site The Federalist posted what it called a “resignation letter” from Sebastian Gorka, a special assistant to Trump who had drawn scrutiny for his alleged ties to a far-right Hungarian nationalist group and questions over his national security expertise.
The news site quoted the letter from Gorka to Trump as saying, “Regrettably, outside of yourself, the individuals who most embodied and represented the policies that will ‘Make America Great Again,’ have been internally countered, systematically removed, or undermined in recent months.”
A White House official later confirmed that Gorka was no longer working there but said he had not resigned, spurring speculation that he may have been forced out.
Gorka’s White House tenure was largely defined by his appearances on cable news and his presenting himself as a warrior against bias in mainstream media. Just a week before violence broke out amid a white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, Gorka in an interview with Breitbart criticized for focusing on white supremacists in the context of covering domestic terrorism.
The timing of Trump's actions on Arpaio and transgender people in the armed services draw a harsh rebuke from the Senate's top Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, who accused the president of deliberately taking controversial moves at a time when the nation was focused on Hurricane Harvey.
As millions of people in TX and LA are prepping for the hurricane, the President is using the cover of the storm to 1/— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) August 26, 2017
Pardon a man who violated a court's order to stop discriminating against Latinos and 2/— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) August 26, 2017
Ban courageous transgender men and women from serving our nation's Armed Forces. 3/— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) August 26, 2017
Then he ran to Camp David.— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) August 26, 2017
The only reason to do these right now is to use the cover of Hurricane Harvey to avoid scrutiny 4/
So sad, so weak. 5/5— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) August 26, 2017
White House officials have not yet responded to requests for comment on Schumer’s accusation, or whether there was any deliberate strategy behind the timing of the Friday press releases.
Earlier, on Friday afternoon, the president and his family left Washington for Camp David following a White House press briefing featuring comments by three top administration officials: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, national security adviser HR McMaster and Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders also took the podium and rushed through questions, cutting off some reporters as they sought to ask follow-ups or press for fuller answers.
“Sorry, we're really tight on time,” Sanders said repeatedly.
There was no mention or suggestion in the press briefing of the news to come.