A perfect sequel to last night’s post about the Wall Street Journal, a right-leaning newspaper, begging Trump to divest from his businesses and rid himself of a problem that’ll inevitably damage his presidency. The Trump International in Washington is a tiny corner of the family’s empire but what’s happening there already is an almost laboratory-quality experiment in conflicts of interest. Foreign governments are preparing to fork over cash to the hotel in hopes of buying some extra goodwill from the president-elect, whose policy decisions will have massive implications for their national economies and personal wealth. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Clinton Foundation ran a version of the same scheme. A foreign regime would cut a check to Hillary’s charity and expect that she’d remember their generosity once she was in a position to determine which countries abroad might be the lucky recipients of U.S. government business. Trump was going to end all of that by “draining the swamp.” And here we are, 11 days removed from his victory, talking about this.
A few days ago his transition team announced that executive employees will be made to sign agreements barring them from becoming lobbyists for five years after leaving government. Why? “It goes back to Trump’s goal to make sure people aren’t using government to enrich themselves,” said one spokesman. Uhhhhh…
“Believe me, all the delegations will go there,” said one Middle Eastern diplomat who recently toured the hotel and booked an overseas visitor. The diplomat said many stayed away from the hotel before the election for fear of a “Clinton backlash,” but that now it’s the place to be seen.
In interviews with a dozen diplomats, many of whom declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak about anything related to the next U.S. president, some said spending money at Trump’s hotel is an easy, friendly gesture to the new president.
“Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’ ” said one Asian diplomat.
Guests at the Trump hotel have begun parking themselves in the lobby, ordering expensive cocktails, hoping to see one of the Trump family members or the latest Cabinet pick. One foreign official hoped Trump, famous for the personal interest he takes in his businesses, might check the guest logs himself.
WaPo describes an event hosted at the hotel this week and attended by a hundred diplomats at which they were given a tour of the facility, sipped champagne, and walked away with goodie bags and even some raffle prizes. This isn’t even a passive conflict of interest, in other words, where foreign governments see the name “Trump” on the side of the building and start throwing money at it spontaneously. The business is actively encouraging them to stay there, knowing full well that their jobs depend in part on how successful they are at cultivating the friendship of the president of the United States. Trumpworld is rattling its tin cup, two months before he takes office. And if you’re still momentarily sold on the idea that this problem can be solved by letting Ivanka, Donald Jr, and Eric run the business, ask yourself: Are foreign governments really going to be any less inclined to shovel cash at the hotel because the president’s children, whom everyone understands are among his most trusted advisors, are nominally in charge of it instead of him? If Hillary had won last week and the Saudis suddenly decided to rent Chelsea Clinton’s home on Airbnb for $2 million a month, would that fly on the right?
Legally, there’s nothing that can be done about this. Conflict-of-interest laws that bar federal employees from engaging in government business where they stand to profit personally don’t apply to the president or vice president — at least for now. I’m surprised that congressional Democrats haven’t put more pressure on Republicans to close that loophole by passing something in the lame-duck session. Right, right, I know: The executive branch is co-equal and probably can’t be made to follow ethical rules laid down by the legislature, even if Obama signed them into law. The rules likely would be struck down as an infringement on separation of powers. There’s only way to find out, though, and the bad press from a court battle on that point would make Trump think twice about whether to continue with this course. Obama could ramp up the pressure too by signing an executive order before he leaves office banning conflicts of interest of this sort within the executive branch, with all the pomp and fanfare he wants. Trump can and will rescind the order in January, but the mere act of rescission will generate headlines like “Trump undoes Obama order barring presidential self-enrichment in government.” If the left wants to establish early, ahead of 2018, that congressional Republicans should be held responsible for Trump’s bad decisions, demanding action from Ryan and McConnell now is an obvious place to start.
The legal question is academic, though, because we all understand that Republicans in Congress won’t pass anything. They’ll go head-first into the tank for Trump on ethical questions, at least for now, irrespective of how much pandering wheezing they do in interviews about “draining the swamp.” But the more pressure that’s put on them, the more pressure they’ll put on Trump behind the scenes to make the conflict-of-interest problem go away, and that might eventually persuade him to do the right thing by divesting. Further to that point, read this synopsis of a bill introduced by Democratic Rep. Katherine Clark to eliminate the “loophole” I mentioned above that exempts the president and vice president from conflict-of-interest rules. Would that bill fly in court if it became a law? Doubtful. Is it good politics for the minority party, particularly given the likelihood of many more conflict-related scandals to come? Certainly.