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