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Oh Yeah, That Conflict-of-Interest Thing

One of the many peculiar things we noticed about this past crazy election year was the conspicuous lack of serious discussion about the potential conflicts of interest that Republican nominee Donald Trump and his vast business empire might face if he became president. Now that he’s the president-elect it’s suddenly a hot topic in all the big papers, and we suppose better late than never.
The question did come up in one of the early Republican primary debates moderated by Fox News’ business section, and Trump answered that if he became president “I couldn’t care less about my business,” which he described as “peanuts,” promised that he only cared about making America great again, then explained that he would turn over control of his various holdings to his adult children. “Is that a blind trust?” he asked, adding that ain’t-I-a-rascal smirk his fans seem to love, then answering his question by saying “I don’t know.” Of course the crowd went nuts for it, awed that Trump would make such a selfless and patriotic gesture as turning over control of his businesses to his children, but as we watched at home and slapped our old-school Republican forehead we fully expected that at some point somebody would effectively make the glaringly obviously argument that no, what Trump describes is not at all a blind trust, and it invites all sorts of serious problems.
Some of the media did take note of the issue, but by that point Trump’s growing number of fans were able to dismiss it as something the hated media was making an issue of, and the news quickly moved on to coverage of Trump’s latest “Tweet” or insult or some old locker room talk he shared with the shock jock Howard Stern’s nationally-broadcast radio show. We kept waiting for one of the Republican rivals to bring up the conflict of interests inherent in Trump’s proposal, but they were too afraid of offending Trump’s fans or just reluctant to remind them that he was a semi-successful business who was thumbing his nose on their behalf at all those old-fashioned rules of political propriety that everyone suddenly hated. Surely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would make hay of it, we thought, but given her phony-baloney and scandal-plagued family foundation and all the various conflicts of interest that entailed she apparently decided to steer the conversation elsewhere.
Now that the Clinton family no longer has any influence to peddle, and their voluminous scandals can be left to the historians, the press is free to focus on Trump’s peculiar situation, and so far they’re having a grand old time of it. They’re noting a wide range of Trump family interests that might well be at odds with the broader public interest, and belatedly wondering if Trump is truly so patriotically disinterested as he promised. There’s that fancy new hotel Trump built in the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., where business hasn’t been great since its grand opening and a grand re-opening during a much publicized campaign stop, and since the building was leased from the federal government the co-author of “The Art of the Deal” is now both the landlord and lessee, and it will be interesting to see how those negotiations turn out. Should the unions representing the workers at Trump’s many other hotels find themselves before the National Labor Relations Board, an executive agency overseen by the president, and that will also prove interesting. Trump is also scheduled to be deposed in a class action lawsuit against his phony-baloney and scandal-plagued Trump University, presided over by a judge Trump has publicly denounced as a Mexican, and we expect that much attention will be paid to that.
The proudly nationalist and anti-globalist president-elect has a proudly globalist business empire, so there’s also concern how that might affect foreign policy. Although Trump has refused to release his tax records so that the public might know just how entangled he is with foreign entities, he has been forced to release enough financial information to reveal that he owes hundreds of million of dollars to Germany’s Deutsche Bank, which is currently haggling with the the executive branch Justice Department over how many billions they will pay for promoting dubious mortgage-backed securities in the run-up to the 2008 recession. One of the biggest tenants at his Trump Tower is the Bank of China, which has also complicated dealings with the federal government. During a campaign stop in Scotland to get some free publicity for a golf course he’s built there, where business also hasn’t been great lately, Trump told the assembled media that a devalued British pound would draw more tourists there, which was widely noted by the already-hostile Fleet Street press. Donald Trump Jr. has publicly admitted that the family business is also indebted to Russian interests, and his father’s campaign has been strikingly Russia-friendly for a Republican nominee, and any conspiracy theories about that will be at least as plausible as the ones Trump promoted about Sen. Ted Cruz’s dad killing JFK or President Barack Obama being born in Kenya.
There are numerous other examples that the press has already seized on, with more surely to come, and the only way for Trump to avert the problem is to put all his holdings into an actual, honest-to-God, not-run-by-his-children blind trust. That’s what every other president in the history of the Republic has done, even the ones you couldn’t stand, and every ethics expert from either party agrees it is the only way to assure the public of honest governance. Trump has thus far stuck with his campaign position, which we must admit didn’t keep him from winning, and he apparently figures that his fans will see any personal enrichment he might derive as further proof of that brilliant business acumen the country needs. Former New York City mayor and prominent Trump spokesman Rudy Giuliani argues that it would be unfair to Trump’s children to “put them out of work,” promises that Trump would never discuss business with his children, and argues that people will just have to trust their president.
Giuliani was a darned good mayor at one point but now has his own conflicts of interest to worry about, and we can’t remember him saying much about how people should trust their president over the past eight years or so, and we’re sure he wouldn’t be talking that nonsense if Clinton had won and her own conflict-of-interest problems were the story of the moment. Trump’s so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters will probably always trust he’s only concerned with making America great again, and won’t mind if the Trump family profits as well, but a lot of the people who reluctantly voted for him and the vast majority that didn’t will be more skeptical. Let us hope that Trump proves as patriotic he claims to be, and that his kids find something do while he’s making America great again.

— Bud Norman

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The Latest from a Desultory Campaign Trail

Has there even been a more awful presidential race in the history of the American republic? Every day seems to bring a fresh batch of headlines reminding us why we don’t want either of the likely winners anywhere near the White House.
Thanks to the efforts of the last honorable men and women left at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as the dogged right-wing watchdogs at Judicial Watch, the public now has access to some 15,000 e-mails that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton tried to keep from outside scrutiny, which is a scandal in itself, and they reveal that big-money contributors to her family foundation had a better than 50 percent chance of getting some sit-down time with her while she was Secretary of State. Even such polite media as the Associated Press and The New York Times and The Washington Post felt obliged to give it front page prominence, and to concede that it looks very, very bad for the Democratic nominee. To our more historically informed eyes, it looks even worse than that.
We’re old enough to vaguely recall a time before all the political scandals had the word “Gate” affixed to them, in honor of the gold standard “Watergate Scandal” of the Nixon-era 70’s, and instead they’d include the word “Dome,” a reference to the previous champion “Teapot Dome Scandal” of the Harding-era ’20s. Our long-ago public schooling taught us that “Teapot Dome” resulted in a Secretary of the Interior going to prison for peddling some influence on the sale of a Navy petroleum reserve at someplace in Wyoming improbably called Teapot Dome, and the philandering and gambling and foul-mouth Harding forever being consigned to the bottom ranks of presidents in all those historian polls, and yet that suddenly seems small beer compared to a Secretary of State doing the same sort of wheeling and dealing on a geo-political level. By one of those odd historical coincidences a young Clinton was a newly-fledged lawyer on the staff of the Democratic committee investigating Watergate, before she got she fired for overzealous incompetence, but after nearly 30 years of Cattle Futures-gate and Whitewater-gate and Travel-gate and File-gate and Monica-gate and the many other -Gates we can’t quite recall at the moment, along with all of this more recent and even damning e-mail-gate and family foundation-gate stuff, she by now surely deserves her own suffix.
Still, she’s leading in the average of national polls, things look even better for her in the average of the polls in the swing states and the rest of the suddenly convoluted electoral map, and the only explanation for such a strange phenomenon is that she’s running against Republican nominee Donald J. Trump. The self-described billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-and-strip-club-and-professional-wrestling-and-reality-show mogul is entirely blameless of peddling favors for contributions as a public official, never having held any public office in his 70-year-long life, but he openly bragged on Republican debate stages about buying influence from both Republican and Democratic officials during his varied careers. He even contributed to Clinton’s family foundation, and all the great deal-maker seems to have gotten out of it was her attendance at his third marriage to that foreign-born naked woman in the sapphic poses on the front page of the Trump-endorsing New York Post, so he’s got his own problems winning the public’s trust.
Trump won the Republican nomination largely because he was more full-throated in his opposition to illegal immigration than the rest of the vasty more qualified 16 challengers, but he went column-inch-to-column-inch on the front pages of the polite press by seem to stake a noticeably more squishy position on his signature issue. After rising to the Republican nomination with vows and assurances of “believe me” that he was going to build a big beautiful wall along the Mexican border that Mexico would pay for and that all 11 million or so illegal immigrants in the country would be rounded up and deported, and that any of those RINO Republican squishes who thought this fanciful were all for amnesty and “open borders” just like Obama and Clinton and the rest of the “establishment,” Trump has lately been taking a more establishmentarian tack. After hiring a pollster as his new campaign manager he had a meeting with some of the Hispanics he’s been horribly polling with, and he announced a major speech on immigration that was later postponed, and in an interview on Monday with the Fox News Network’s Bill O’Reilly he wound up saying that he’d keep doing what President Barack Obama has been doing “perhaps with a lot more energy.” Trump’s scant ad buys have both time for a spot alleging that Obama has opened the borders, but in the interview he noted that both Obama and President George W. Bush had enforced many deportations, basically agreed with their “felons not families” priorities, dismissed any notion of mass deportations, and couldn’t quite explain how his current stand on amnesty differed from all those squishy Republicans he’d vanquished in the primaries.
This might well moderate Trump’s image to that pesky majority of the country that regards him as an extremist xenophobe, especially those who have noticed what an historically corrupt harridan the Democratic nominee is, but it might also dim the enthusiasm of the extremist xenophobes who have comprised a certain essential percentage of his support. In any case we can’t see it helping his reputation for intellectual or moral integrity, nor find any reason to believe this isn’t the most awful presidential election in the history of the American Republic.

— Bud Norman

Deuling Scandals

The most likely and by now almost certain upcoming American presidential election will surely be a mud-slinging contest, but at least it won’t be the asymmetric sort of warfare that all those terrorists keep waging. Both sides will have plenty of the kind of the mud that sticks, neither side has ever shown any unwillingness to sling it, and there’s a conspicuous symmetry to their charges.

While the presumptive Democratic nominee stands credibly accused of selling favors for contributions to her campaigns and dubious “family foundation,” the presumptive Republican nominee has publicly bragged about buying favors from politicians and was once a six-figure donor to that dubious “family foundation.” The presumptive Democratic nominee has stuck by her former President husband throughout his numerous tawdry sexual scandals, but the presumptive Republican nominee trades in his wives every decade or so for a newer model and brags about all the married babes he’s done. That former president has been found on the flight logs of a convicted sex offender with an island full of underage women, but the presumptive Republican nominee once bragged about his friendship with the same fellow “who likes ’em even younger than I do” to New York Magazine. The presumptive Republican nominee stands credibly accused of snookering some poor suckers into disastrous debt to pay for a worthless degree from “Trump University,” but now we learn that the presumptive Democratic nominee’s husband was even more handsomely paid by a similarly shady for-profit higher education outfit.

For the moment you won’t find it on the more mainstream news outlets, but an admirably independent journalist has reported that the presumptive Democratic nominee’s ex-president husband has pulled down a far more impressive haul than even the presumptive Republican nominee and self-described business genius by acting as the “honorary chancellor” for an arguably equally dubious for-profit educational institution called “Laureate Education,” which ran an unaccredited on-line campus called “Walden University.” He cites the usually reliably Inside Higher Education’s report that the presumptive Democratic nominee’s ex-president pocketed $16.5 million for allowing his name on the pamphlets, and makes a convincing case that it was alsoa  case of suckering poor saps into disastrous debt for a dubious education, and he doesn’t end on a happier note than we can muster.

— Bud Norman