Some potential conflicts of interest for President-elect Donald Trump are obvious.
His new $212 million hotel near the White House is in a building leased for $3 million a year from the federal government. He says his tax returns are being audited by the Internal Revenue Service – the excuse he used to not make them public before the election. His companies owe more than $300 million to Deutsche Bank, against whom the Justice Department is seeking a $14 billion fine to settle claims from the mortgage meltdown.
These are worrisome enough. More alarming are the conflicts that aren’t known because Trump’s financial dealings are so murky.
One of the many, many ways Trump is different than any president before him is the extent of his business empire of hotels, golf courses and licensing deals around the world. His financial disclosure filing lists involvement in more than 500 business entities, but it’s not clear who his partners are – and critics say they could be a way to seek favors and funnel money to the Trump family in secret.
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How will Americans know that decisions by President Trump are made purely in the national interest and not at least partly to further his business interests? What guarantees will there be that there’s a wall between Trump Inc. and the White House?
The president-elect has yet to enlighten us.
There is a clause in the Constitution that ethics lawyers say will limit Trump because it bans any government official, without the consent of Congress, from receiving gifts from a foreign government or affiliated companies.
But presidents aren’t covered by the ethics rules and laws that cover federal officials and lawmakers and were passed after the Watergate scandal.
To minimize even the appearance of conflict, recent presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, have put their assets into blind trusts run by an independent third party who makes all investment decisions. President Barack Obama put his money into Treasury bills and index funds – broad investments not affected as much by individual decisions.
Before his inauguration on Jan. 20, Trump plans to put the Trump Organization into what he claims will also be a blind trust. It’s anything but, since it will be run by his adult children, who are trusted advisers.
Trump has already put Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, on his transition executive committee, helping to decide key appointees. There were reports this week that Trump’s transition team was inquiring about giving them top-secret security clearance, which if it happened could make them privy to information that Wall Street traders – much less average investors – won’t know. It defies common sense and human nature that having the inside scoop wouldn’t influence how they run Trump’s companies.
Yes, it’s small change, but Ivanka Trump did not show that she knows where the ethical lines are when one of her brands sent email alerts hawking the $10,800 gold-and-diamond bracelet she wore during the “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday.
During the campaign, Trump accused “Crooked Hillary” Clinton of “pay to play,” without much evidence, and egged on supporters who chanted “lock her up.” Even now, he refuses to say whether he will urge his Justice Department to investigate her, a Nixonian step befitting a banana republic dictator, not the leader of the Free World.
If Trump wants to reassure Americans that there won’t be self-dealing in his presidency, he must be far more transparent about his business holdings and do far more to wall them off from the White House.