February 09, 2017

The Huckster President: Trump's flagrant conflicts of interest

After the American Century

Donald Trump likes to be a moving target, constantly drawing attention away from what he did yesterday with something entirely different today. The media seem endlessly willing to shift their attention, and as a result many of the questions or problems that Mr. Trump raises are never dealt with thoroughly. What is necessary, in this situation, is that journalists and citizens keep their attention on major problems, rather than hop from one topic to another.

So what is an example of a major problem?  Mr. Trump has not properly separated his businesses (and those of his family) from the office of president. There was some attention to this matter before he assumed office, but the matter has not been properly dealt with. This is not a trivial issue. At the moment Mr. Trump is in constant danger of violating one or another laws because he has not separated himself (and his financial interests) from his duties as president. In Washington itself he has leased a building from the Federal government and remodeled it into a hotel. This was legal for him to do as a private citizen, but it is not legal for an elected official to lease a Federal building. At present, foreign governments (notably through their embassies) hold receptions and make payments to Mr. Trump for the use space in this hotel. It is illegal for him to receive payments from foreign governments, yet he is doing so. The Constitution is quite clear about this: the president may not “accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” This question alone ought to be raised every day by the media until it is dealt with.  The Atlantic, to its credit, is pushing on this issue, and notes that the "president himself is now making money off of routine governmental functions."

Yesterday, Mr Trump attacked a major department store chain because they have decided not to sell (anymore) the clothing line produced by his daughter, Ivanka.  Mr. Trump does not understand that it is improper for him to say anything about this, and it is even worse that he proclaims that Nordstrom's decision was "political."  The point is that his businesses and those of his daughter cannot be conducted with their active involvement so long as he is president. For him to attack a company because they do not want to sell her product is a violation of his role and his responsibility as president. He stands forth not as a statesman but a money-grubbing huckster.  

As Robert Casey, the Senator from Pennsylvania put it, with regard to his attack on Nordstrom, "it is unethical and inappropriate for the president to lash out at a private company for refusing to enrich his family."  It is unacceptable that Congress and the Courts do not pressure the president to create a real blind trust so that the public can feel confident he is acting in the national interest, rather than in his own financial interest.

Nor is this all. Mr. Trump's wife has begun a lawsuit against a New York newspaper, claiming that her "brand" was harmed by a story they ran about her, and that she will lose over $100 million because of the story. She clearly sees her role as First Lady in a commercial light, as an opportunity to make money based on the fame and attention that comes with the position. This is fundamentally and absolutely unacceptable.

There are other examples. Mr. Trump has pushed for the completion of that Dakota pipeline through Native American lands, yet before the election he had investments that were directly linked to that very pipeline.  I may have missed something, but I cannot find a story making clear that he has divested himself of financial interests in that pipeline.

Likewise, Mr. Trump has received a large loan froDeutsche Bank, a German bank, in one of his projects. That bank is currently negotiating a settlement with the US Justice Department, because it sold some low quality mortgage bonds to unsuspecting customers.  Trump is in a position to influence these negotiations. He needs to separate himself from any such possibility.

All previous presidents have put their businesses and assets in a blind trust. Mr. Trump has not. His businesses continue to be run by his children and close associates. This is a joke. Who can possibly believe that there is anything "blind" about this procedure?  Ideally, the president should not even know what his investments are, so that his decisions as president cannot be made for personal benefit.

Indeed, we do not even know what Mr. Trump's financial interests are, because he has refused to disclose that information. His taxes remain secret. No other president has done that, either.

In short, it is time for Congress, the Courts, the Media, and public opinion, to demand that Mr. Trump disclose his financial interests, put his businesses in a blind trust (i.e. not run by his children), and begin to create the appearance, at least, of an ethical presidency.  The people have a right to demand that as a bare minimum from any president.

What do we call it, when an elected official mixes their personal property with public property (the Trump hotel), accepts payments from foreign governments, and encourages his family to profit from the power and fame of his office? My friends, it is called corruption. Corruption of the office, corruption of the family, and corruption of the government. We expect this of tinpot dictators, but not of democratically elected officials. We have a president who is wide open to corruption, with no safeguards, and rather than chase after every new story he sets going, it is time to focus a laser beam of attention on his flagrant conflicts of interest and his misuse of the office of president.  He appears to be only a step or two away from impeachable offenses.  Already, one bipartisan lawsuit has been started against him. There will surely be more.