Trump on business ethics: "The president can't have a conflict of interest"

We’ve seen a few examples today of “weird but good” Trump. Here’s a grim instance from the NYT interview of “weird and very bad” Trump.

Trump himself tweeted the following early this morning, before the Times interview. HuffPo translates it, not really wrongly, as “Trump Says Any Conflicts Of Interest Were Priced Into Your Vote”:

The attitude you’re hoping to see here if you want his presidency to succeed, which everyone should, is “When I said I would ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington, I meant it — and will lead by example.” Leading by example would mean handing over his business to independent trustees or, even better, liquidating his holdings and letting someone unrelated manage the money for him in a blind trust. He actually complained elsewhere during today’s meeting that if people insisted on rigid separation between him and the stewards overseeing his business, it would mean he’d never get to see his daughter Ivanka. Which is true, but only because Trump insists on having his kids as those stewards. The whole point of a blind trust is that you can’t let family members manage your assets because you’re going to see them regularly and business will eventually come up. Separate the kids from the business, as is standard protocol with a blind trust, and there’s no problem.

The attitude you’re emphatically not hoping to see here is the one you see, namely, “the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” That’s true legally, not ethically — federal conflict-of-interests don’t apply to the president and vice president — but one reason we have a “swamp” in Washington to begin with is that many people take full advantage of the law without concerning themselves with ethics. The revolving door between government and lobbying is legal but not so ethical. This guy is actually crowing to the editors of a major paper that he’s not bound by a law that applies to many thousands of less influential federal officials in the interest of keeping corruption out of government. Imagine Hillary Clinton saying “The president can’t have a conflict of interest” about the Clinton Foundation. He even goes so far as to boast how “hot” his hotel in Washington is at the moment, which is true. It’s hot because there’s a gigantic conflict of interest. Foreign diplomats are throwing money at the hotel because they hope and expect President Trump will hear about it and throw some of your taxpayer money right back at them and their home countries. Patronizing the Trump International if your job involves drumming up U.S. government business is essentially a form of bribing the White House. And Trump is excited about it. Openly.

And it’s not strictly true, by the way, that the law is “totally” on his side. The laws that deal with conflicts of interest are “on his side” in carving out exemptions for the president and vice president. But there are other laws that may trip him up. He’s not immune from statutes prohibiting outright bribery and fraud. Another provision that poses a problem for him is part of the Constitution itself, the Emoluments Clause:

“Emolument” means compensation for labor or services. And the clause says that “no person holding any office of profit or trust” shall “accept of any present, emolument, office or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince or foreign state” unless Congress consents…

Mr. Trump’s companies do business with entities controlled by foreign governments and people with ties to them. The ventures include multimillion-dollar real estate arrangements — with Mr. Trump’s companies either as a full owner or a “branding” partner — in Ireland and Uruguay. The Bank of China is a tenant in Trump Tower and a lender for another building in Midtown Manhattan where Mr. Trump has a significant partnership interest…

“Whenever Mr. Trump receives anything from a foreign sovereign, to the extent that it’s not an arm’s-length transaction,” [former White House ethics lawyer Norman] Eisen said, “every dollar in excess that they pay over the fair market price will be a dollar paid in violation of the Emoluments Clause and will be a present to Mr. Trump.”

If his private businesses end up receiving sweetheart deals from foreign government entities like the Bank of China in hopes of buttering up Trump for more favorable treatment from the White House, presumably that’s a violation of the Emoluments Clause. A WaPo report out today notes that Trump is currently involved in 16 different business partnerships in India alone, and was brazen enough to have met with some of his Indian business partners last week shortly after winning the election. Are there emoluments from a foreign government at stake there? Yep, potentially — and not just there:

“To sell the Trump name in a foreign country, that’s just an excellent way to have him receiving gifts from all over the world. They’ll say, ‘I’ll just pay you to get the name Trump on my building,’ as a way to curry favor,” said Richard Painter, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota who was the chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.

Painter said that if “foreign government money got in there through the back door,” that would be a violation of the constitutional ban on foreign gifts to U.S. officials, a potentially impeachable offense.

There’s the hitch. Even if you could prove an Emoluments Clause violation, what’s the remedy? There’s no criminal penalty on the books for the DOJ to enforce. The remedy is impeachment, and the cowering Republican Congress wouldn’t dare consider that unless Trump gets caught on tape accepting a fat envelope from the president of China. The Constitution assumes that Congress will police the president aggressively (and vice versa) for gross ethical breaches in the normal course of checks and balances. The public doesn’t like impeachment, though, and Republican leaders are already politically weak vis-a-vis Trump since the party’s rank-and-file voters are more loyal to him than to them. Richard Painter, the ethics lawyer quoted in the WaPo piece, told the NYT he recommends Congress pass a resolution emphasizing its power to withhold consent under the Emoluments Clause and insisting that Trump should have to affirmatively prove that each of his business dealings with foreign governments are arm’s-length transactions. Would Ryan and McConnell go even that far, though? Any serious ethics policing of Trump by Congress will probably require a Democratic takeover, and that looks unlikely before 2020 at the earliest. A lot of different political and cultural factors, starting with the electorate’s own general indifference to corruption, have conspired here to give Trump the freest possible hand to enrich himself during his first term.

In lieu of an exit question, click here and keep scrolling to read a fascinating Twitter thread with lots of interesting background about the Trump building project in Argentina that came up yesterday in that odd story about a phone call between Trump and Argentina’s president. The author cites various Spanish-language media as sources, but the long and short of it is that the building project had apparently stalled — until Trump won the election. At that point Argentina’s government reached out to Trump’s business partner inside the country, who in turn put them in touch with Trump’s son, Eric. A few days later Trump and the president chatted on the phone, and immediately thereafter the permit for the building project was approved. Go figure. It sure sounds like the Argentine government took it upon itself to cut the red tape that was holding back Trump’s project in order to curry favor with him, even going so far as to use his partner on the project as a go-between with the president-elect. (That supports a point I made in yesterday’s post: Trump won’t have to affirmatively ask for financial favors from foreign interests. They’ll be freely, even enthusiastically, offered in order to earn goodwill.) How much bank will Trump and his family make from the newly approved building? Is that an Emoluments Clause violation? Expect to spend a lot of time over the next four years wading through questions like this because Trump refuses to do the obviously ethically correct thing and divest.