Speculation runs high — will Mueller’s “Russian investigation” find evidence the Trump campaign cooperated with Russian operatives’ campaign to undermine and disrupt an American election? Judging from Trump’s attempts to undermine citizens’ environmental and personal health safeguards in order to repay his obligations to fossil-fuel and big-business elites, he is more than willing to sacrifice the general good to serve his own interests. If he didn’t proactively participate in orchestrating the Russians’ comprehensive attacks, he certainly knew about them, and failed to report repeated contacts with their agents. Once key meetings were publicly revealed, he shrugged them off because they were ultimately unproductive (not for lack of trying) — or because they only concerned adoption of lo, the poor Russian orphans. As if.
Trump’s greatest worries might arise from his past dealings with Russian oligarchs and others who provided him financial support through illegal or unethical channels. A focus on his finances, rather than his politics, could expose ongoing misconduct, and his abuse of presidential privilege to enrich his personal wealth.
For a president to retain a stake in such a sprawling business empire is unprecedented. Before his inauguration, ethical observers noted failing to establish a blind trust creates enormous conflicts of interest. Instead, he claims that day-to-day operations of the family business are left to — the family, of which he is patriarch.
Control of Trump’s assets has been delegated to his two adult sons and a longtime associate. Daughter Ivanka enjoys her status as White House “volunteer” (effectively exempting her from the ethics rules paid employees face). She is to serve as her father’s “eyes and ears,” moving seamlessly from Daddy’s meetings with foreign officials, to Daddy’s dealings with foreign business partners.
Despite their proximity to the president, we are to believe they won’t discuss any aspects of his/their business with him. Though he’s not “involved” in daily operations of Trump Organization (TO), he still owns and profits from them. Son Eric confirms that Trump receives “periodic updates;” shall we assume he listens attentively (a novelty in itself), but doesn’t offer any input relating to company activities?
Whether or not Trump is nominally in charge, he will continue to profit from his business empire. This creates the potential for foreign actors to leverage TO’s financial interests toward influencing his policies.
Examples abound: Here’s a tip-of-the-iceberg. Trump and his lawyer, Sheri Dillon, proclaimed the TO would cease pursuing new foreign investments while Trump is president. But TO continued multimillion-dollar plans to expand its existing resort in Aberdeen, Scotland, which had been losing money.
Dillon then argued that “implementing future phasing of existing properties does not constitute a new transaction, so we intend to proceed.” Who is “we?” Does that term include her boss, who ostensibly has nothing to do with deciding whether or not to proceed?
Clearly Trump will simply enlarge around various holdings, and as they expand, so will his conflicts of interest. Businessman Trump foreshadowed President Trump, and the two remain entangled.
But wait — there’s more. Large real-estate ventures like resorts, hotels and office buildings are subject to all sorts of regulations. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency put the Aberdeen expansion on hold, concerned with the golf course’s management of groundwater conservation and sewage pollution. The Scottish government’s ability to delay or deny Trump’s investment could compromise his policies toward that country as it pursues independence from the UK.
The Scots’ regulatory decision provides a template for any less scrupulous government wishing to use our president’s business interests to influence his behavior. Officials in countries where TO operates, or plans to do business, could easily exploit such regulations to strike political deals, explicitly or implicitly, with the president. It’s quid pro quo all over again.
The former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, observed, “I don’t think divestiture is too high of a price to pay to be the president of the United States.” Apparently Trump doesn’t $hare that opinion.
When Trump’s relationships with foreign entities involve U.S. foreign policy issues, his decisions could be colored by his expectations of what a given policy might do to his property values, or whether wealthy movers and shakers will pay to stay in a TO venue in order to court his favor. Unless he actually divests himself of his financial stake in TO, every Trump property distorts his incentives when it comes to making policy.
President George W. Bush’s chief White House ethics lawyer, Richard Painter, said, “There are so many diplomatic, political, even national security risks in having the president own a whole bunch of properties all over the world. If we’ve got to talk to a foreign government about its behavior, or negotiate a treaty, or some county asks us to send our troops in to defend someone else, we’ve got to make a decision. And the question becomes: Are we going in out of our national interest or because there’s a Trump casino around?”
We don’t have to look overseas to see it happening. Trump bragged that his victory makes the Trump brand “hotter.” He uses the conspicuous Trump Tower as a prop. As wealthy visitors curry his favor by lodging, and being seen, at the president’s hotel, TO makes big bucks. And so does T.
The scope of Trump’s conflicted interests is broad indeed, exhibiting multiple manifestations of mingled opportunism and cynicism. More next time.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired
family physician who grew up in Stockton and lives outside Hays.