“I’m also very much of a germaphobe, by the way, believe me.” —President-elect Donald J. Trump
Try not to think too much about the story that led to this comment from the President-Elect of the United States. It’s not easy, I know. We’re only human, after all, and that story is so … so out there. It’s hard to turn away.
It’s also hard to turn away from Trump’s abusive treatment of the press, or his poor grasp of national security, or those long periods when his rambling turns to near-incoherence. All of those qualities were on conspicuous display in Wednesday’s press conference.
"If [Trump's] plan doesn’t amount to premeditated corruption, it certainly paves the way for it."
So was the brush-off he gave when concerns were raised about Putin’s role in the election: “Well, if Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability.”
About that unconfirmed hotel story, the salacious one that led to the “germaphobe” remark, the one for which no evidence has been presented: The very fact that people think it might be true tells us that we’re in a new and different historical moment. It suggests sordid chaos at the highest levels. It feels like end-state, social decay, late-stage-empire stuff. It’s Caligula-in-the-corner-office stuff.
But there’s something more important going on, and you don’t need unsourced reports to see it. It was hiding in plain sight when, in a bizarre intermezzo, Trump interrupted his own press conference for a legal presentation from the law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.
People joked about attorney Sheri Dillon’s flat affect and boring speaking style. But it was Dillon, not Trump, who provided the day’s biggest shock. If her dullness of tone helped camouflage it, that may not have been an accident. It was Dillon who outlined Trump’s plan for managing his businesses while he’s in the Oval Office.
If that plan doesn’t amount to premeditated corruption, it certainly paves the way for it.
Dillon made it clear that Trump won’t be selling his assets to avoid conflicts of interest. Nor will he be establishing a blind trust, a form of distancing that’s far from adequate (no less an authority than Mitt Romney once called blind trusts “an age-old ruse“) but at least provides a minimal distance between an officeholder and his or her assets.
Instead, Trump intends to turn leadership of his organization to his two sons. “It would be impossible to find an institutional trustee that would be competent to run the Trump Organization,” said Dillon. (Apparently, nobody in the entire universe of experienced business people has that special blend of insight and experience that is so self-evidently present in Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr.)
Dillon insisted that Trump would not accept any revenue from foreign governments and would instead “voluntarily donate all profits from foreign government payments made to his hotel to the United States Treasury.”
That from someone who reportedly hasn’t paid any taxes to the United States Treasury for years.
Leaving aside the more obvious questions – such as, who determines what is and isn’t a “foreign government payment,” and, who determines the amount of profit received? – that leaves an even more fundamental conflict in place: What will Trump do if, as president, his national security team proposes a course of action that will affect travel to a country where he has extensive hotel holdings?
Remember, Trump will still know exactly what he owns, and where. Decisions of war and peace could be influenced by how they might affect his own bottom line.
As for Donald Jr. and Eric: Are we to believe that there will be an iron wall of silence between Trump and his two sons? The man doesn’t seem to be a big respecter of boundaries, even with his own children.
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And as for Russia: Donald Trump Jr. reportedly told attendees at a 2008 real estate conference that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” He added: “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Like father, like son: “Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment,” the elder Trump stated in a 2007 deposition, according to the Washington Post, adding: “We will be in Moscow at some point.”
But it’s wrong to fixate exclusively on Russia. Trump Jr. also expressed enthusiasm for investment in China, and the trade publication that covered his talk noted that the Trump organization has a joint-venture agreement covering 19 Middle Eastern countries.
But he and little brother won’t talk about such things with Dad. No, never.
Expert observers promptly rejected Trump’s plan. Zephyr Teachout is a law professor who wrote an entire book on political corruption. After the press conference, Teachout stated flatly that Trump “will be violating the foreign bribery/emoluments clause of the constitution.”
Norman Eisen, President Obama’s ethics advisor, agreed that Trump’s plan fails to meet the requirements of the emoluments clause. “Mr. Trump’s ill-advised course will precipitate scandal and corruption,” he flatly told The Atlantic, adding:
“Mr. Trump did not make a clean break with his business ownership interests as his predecessors for four decades have done … and offered an inadequate and scantily-detailed ethics wall.”
Walter Schaub Jr., Director of the Government Ethics Office, noted today that the calls for Trump to divest have been bipartisan, coming from “President Bush’s ethics counsel … the conservative Wall Street Journal … (and) conservative columnist Peggy Noonan.”
“It’s important to understand that the President is now entering the world of public service. He’s going to be asking his own appointees to make sacrifices. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world … I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the President of the United States of America.”
Many Trump opponents continue to believe he’ll be undone by revelations about Russia or sex. They’re probably wrong. Trump is rewriting the rules of scandal, as his comeback about Putin showed. What outrages people in Washington doesn’t seem to offend voters in West Virginia or boost Democratic turnout in Milwaukee. But everyone understands greed, and graft, and selfishness.
Here’s a prediction: Barring some unforeseen revelation, people will remember that a President of the United States profited from his presidency long after they’ve forgotten those hotel sex stories.
They’ll also remember who stood up to him and said that what he was doing was wrong – and who didn’t.