“The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
Donald J. Trump, shortly after his election, dismissing concerns about conflicts of interest.
Prior to January 20, 2017 the United States had endured two periods of political malfeasance that have served to define presidential corruption. Donald J. Trump, in fewer than 100 days in office, has given us a third era of presidential sleaze. In fact, in terms of personal and administration corruption and conflict of interest Trump may well have entered a zone that Ulysses S. Grant and Warren Harding never came close to inhabiting. (The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a conservative opinion columnist, made the same point recently.)
Grant and Harding have long been the presidential poster boys for corruption in high places. Grant’s two terms right after the Civil War were plagued with a cast of sleazy characters motivated by personal gain. Grant’s corrupt administration included his Secretary of War William Belknap who ran a scam that involved channeling huge kick backs to the secretary from a crook Belknap had appointed to operate a lucrative Indian trading post in Oklahoma. Belknap resigned hoping to avoid impeachment, but the Senate tried him anyway with a majority of members concluding he had accepted bribes.
Harding populated his administration in the early 1920s with a cast of his oddball political friends – the Ohio Gang – who fleeced government agencies, peddled influence and secretly sold federal oil concessions. Harding’s Secretary of the Interior went to jail. Harding famously remarked, “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies in a fight. But my friends, my goddamned friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!”
While both president’s were politically naïve – some might say stupid – about the vast trouble some of their closest associates caused, neither was man was truly a grifter. Grant’s and Harding’s encounters with corruption were more like accidentally brushing against a patch of poison ivy and coming away with a rash. Neither man purposely decided to get naked and wallow around in the poison.
Donald J. Trump, on the other hand, has willfully waded into a swamp of poisonous corruption during his first three months in office. Among all the norms and traditions Trump has trashed, making corruption great again may be the most serious offense of his startlingly disastrous presidency.
The potential and actual conflicts in Trumpland are so vast as to defy list making, but let’s give it a try. A brief survey of recent news coverage reveals a long list and these are just the issues we know about:
China: Trump is being “informally” advised on economic policy by Steve Schwartzman, the CEO of the Blackstone Group, a giant private equity firm with extensive holdings in China.
China is no longer “a currency manipulator,” Trump says, after repeatedly making that claim during the campaign. What has changed? He’s now being coached by Schwartzman who stands, by his own admission, to win or lose big depending on what policies Trump applies to China.
“Even if Schwarzman was acting in the capacity of an economic expert, those policy changes directly help Schwarzman’s bottom line as CEO of Blackstone, the private equity giant,” Politico reports. “And Blackstone has gone so far as to warn its investors about the stakes of Trump’s China policy. In a recent regulatory filing, Blackstone explicitly warned its investors that Trump’s tough talk on China threatened to hurt Blackstone’s portfolio.”
Is Trump making economic policy for the American people or a billionaire buddy?
And there is this: Ivanka Trump, the president’s “unpaid” White House advisor, recently received lucrative Chinese trademark licenses valuable to her clothing line. The First Daughter received the Chinese approval the same day she and her husband, Jared Kushner, sat next to the Chinese president at a dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Were Ivanka Trump’s extensive business interests in China “a factor leading Donald Trump to change his previously tough approach to Beijing,” asks columnist Walter Shapiro. Make an educated guess.
Speaking of Mar-a-Lago, every time the president visits his resort – and in the first 100 days Trump trips to Florida have been numerous – American taxpayers are in effect paying him for food and other services to support the White House entourage and foreign guests. Trump’s resort has charged the Secret Service thousands of dollars for the rental of golf carts apparently needed to protect the guy who owns the place and he pockets the rental fees. This arrangement is the very definition of a conflict.
Turkey: “Are President Trump’s business ties to Istanbul stopping him from reprimanding the Turkish president for his authoritarian power grab,” asks the right leaning website Conservative Review.
Trump’s business connections in Turkey involve “two massive buildings mixing residential and office known as the Trump Towers Istanbul.” Trump isn’t the owner, but licenses his name and had received between $1 million and $5 million since the beginning of 2015, according to financial disclosure documents.
“I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump said last year. “It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers—two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.” It is also a textbook example of a conflict of interest that apparently in his own less than self aware way even Trump recognizes.
Russia: Where to begin. The whole ball of wax is beginning to melt, but it will take time before the level of corruption by Trump associates, and likely the president himself, is fully exposed. I still think the corruption is mostly about money and one hopes the Republican controlled Congress is not slow rolling a serious investigation. But if the GOP stonewalls on a serious review of what has gone on and this house of cards begins to tumble, the post-Watergate era for the GOP will look like a mild setback in comparison.
The most recent Russian outrage involves, predictably, the former CEO of Exxon/Mobil Rex Tillerson, now serving as Secretary of Russian Oil Deals, but confirmed by a sleeping U.S. Senate as Secretary of State.
As the Wall Street Journal reported recently Exxon/Mobil has long sought U.S. permission to drill with the Russian state-owned oil company, Rosneft, in areas banned by the sanctions imposed against Vladimir Putin’s brutal regime. The oil company, the Journal notes, “renewed a push for approval in March, shortly after its most recent chief executive, Rex Tillerson, became secretary of state.”
Approving the waiver – at least at the moment – was apparently too big a leap even for the Trumpers since the administration quickly declined the Exxon request. But stay tuned. It will be back.
Greasy palms: It has now been reported that Dow Chemical has been lobbying the Trump administration to discard pesticide rules the company doesn’t like. The big push to thwart the rules began after Dow’s CEO was installed as a top outside advisor to the president. Oh, yes, and after the company wrote a $1 million check to the Trump Inaugural committee.
Stories are only now emerging that detail the massive level of corporate giving to the Trump inaugural. The total haul, a record, is about $107 million – for an inaugural.
As the Washington Post reports, “In all, more than 45 individuals and companies donated at least $1 million each to the effort as Trump broke with the practice of most recent inaugural committees and placed no limits on corporate or individual donors.” The Trump inaugural committee has reported contributions, but not how the money was spent or whether, as had been promised, any money has gone to charity.
Trump Inauguration committee. This whole episode is vaguely reminiscent of the U.S. dairy industry illegally funneling Richard Nixon’s campaign $2 million in exchange for a pledge that the Nixon Administration would increase federal milk price supports. That scandal eventually resulted in several plea bargain agreements that were struck by the Watergate special prosecutor. History does have a way of rhyming.
Hiding in plain sight here is that unlimited contributions to the Trump festivities is really thinly disguised “pay-to-play” money that curries favor with the new administration – read “Dow Chemical” – while avoiding any level of accountability. It is essentially legalized bribery of a type that every new administration has engaged in, but now the Trump crowd has taken the practice to an entirely new level of sleaze. Even to the point of accepting money from foreign sources.
Venezuela’s state run oil company, for example, gave a cool $500,000 to the Trump inaugural effort. As Fortune magazine noted “the donation came in December amid food and medicine shortages and a suffering economy in Venezuela.”
Foreign government money to the American president: As has been widely reported various lawsuits are moving forward based on the “emolument clause” of the U.S. Constitution that seems to provide – its never really been litigated – that the president cannot enrich himself through payments from foreign governments. But, of course, that is exactly what is happening when a foreign ambassador decamps to Trump’s Washington, DC hotel or one of Trump’s foreign properties benefits – and the president benefits, too – from an exchange of money. All of this could have been avoided had Trump done what every respected ethics expert says he must do and divested his foreign and domestic interests and created a true blind trust for his investments. His smoke and mirrors steps to date are woefully inadequate to the task of avoiding conflicts of interest.
A new USA Today investigation finds that Trump owns “at least $250 million of individual properties in the USA alone. Property records show Trump’s trust and his companies own at least 422 luxury condos and penthouses from New York City to Las Vegas, 12 mansion lots on bluffs overlooking his golf course on the Pacific Ocean and dozens more smaller pieces of real estate. The properties range in value from about $200,000 to $35 million each.
The USA Today report says since his election Trump has sold millions of dollars worth of real estate often to shell companies that make it impossible to track the real buyer. “Anyone seeking to influence the president could set up an anonymous company and purchase his property,” Heather Lowe, director of government affairs at Global Financial Integrity, a D.C.-based group aimed at curbing illicit financial transactions told the newspaper. “It’s a big black box, and the system is failing as a check for conflicts of interest.”
And, of course, “Unlike developments where Trump licenses his name to a separate developer for a flat fee,” USA Today reports, “profits from selling individual properties directly owned by his companies ultimately enrich him personally.”
Trump Tax returns: Certainly the greatest potential conflicts lurk in thousands of pages of Trump’s tax returns, the returns he once blithely promised to release and now vows will never see the disinfecting power of sunlight. The conflicts here are both staggering and unprecedented. The president of the United States may soon be pushing a tax reform proposal that will personally enrich his bottom line. His coziness with Russia may be due to existing or previous business loans with Russian banks or the Putin aligned Russian billionaires who operate like a Mafia enterprise. The tax returns would explain much about Trump’s conflicts of interest which is precisely why he will never, short of legal or Congressional command, release them.
I’m certain I left out a few other examples of actual or perceived corruption or conflicts of interest off this list, but you get the drift. Trump has succeeded in record time in trashing the ethical norms of American political behavior across the board, but no where has it been more striking than in his wonton disregard for basic ethical standards.
It is striking how quickly and completely it has happened and how little push back has ensued from political people who once would have found any one of the examples I’ve listed as a scandal of significant consequence. Or as the Post’s Jennifer Rubin puts it, “What is striking is the degree to which the Trump clan publicly flaunts its ethical laxity and disinterest in complying with norms that every other president and his family have managed to follow.”
Die-hard Trumpanista’s will continue to ignore the ethical swamp that their man has expanded rather than drained, so it will be up to the courts and few bipartisan voices of reason to try to hold this willful man to something approaching normal standards. Technically and narrowly the conflict law is on Trump’s side since, unbelievably, Congress has never made a president subject to the ethics statutes that apply to everyone else in government from a clerk at the Interior Department to a cabinet secretary. Morality and decency, however, are not on his side and the flaunting of long established ethical norms only makes the egregious list of conflicts more disgusting. Trump and his cronies, way more than a Grant or a Harding or a Nixon, have taken political ethics into as a place that increasingly resembles a third world dictatorship, or a kleptocracy more in keeping with Putin’s Russia or the weird blend of Communism and billionaires that rule China. What Trumpism is not is anything resembling American democracy.
The evidence of corruption – personal, family and by associates – threatens to become so widespread and persistent as to be considered, well, normal. And it is not normal.
And it has all happened so quickly. The ethical norms of American government and politics have been trashed by a man who ironically accused his opponent of being crooked and then pledged to drain the sleaze from our politics. It took the Watergate scandal and the resignation of a president to establish the broadly bipartisan standards that have applied to every president since.
It is hard to believe a real sense of ethics at the highest levels of government can be restored as quickly as the conman-in-chief has torn it all apart. In fact with this president it is increasingly difficult to believe that ethics as we once defined the term can be restored at all.