It is our duty to demand ethical integrity from our presidents, and Donald Trump cannot be allowed to make himself an exception.
He is already trying hard to do so.
Amid the hustle and bustle of his transition, according to The New York Times, President-elect Trump found time last week for a visit from the Indian partners with whom he is developing a pair of residential towers in Pune, a sprawling city not far from Mumbai. And Trump received a congratulatory phone call from Argentine President Mauricio Macri, with whose father Trump had business dealings in the past. Trump and Macri denied published reports that Trump lobbied for an office building project he and a group of partners want to build in Buenos Aires.
Also, when Trump met last week with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump’s daughter Ivanka was present. That raised eyebrows because Ivanka Trump, along with her brothers Donald Jr. and Eric, apparently will manage Trump’s business empire while he is in office. Trump’s lawyer called this arrangement a “blind” trust, but it is no such thing. Rather, it’s a way to use the presidency for the Trump family’s further enrichment.
The real and potential conflicts of interest are legion. The Washington Post reported that “at least 111 Trump companies have done business in 18 countries and territories across South America, Asia and the Middle East” and also places such as Canada, Scotland and Ireland.
We know that much – but very little more – from the financial disclosure documents Trump filed in May. We would know more had he not broken his promise to release his tax returns.
Some of Trump’s overseas developments are brick-and-mortar projects financed by big loans, often from foreign banks. Trump’s biggest lender, Germany’s Deutsche Bank, is negotiating a multibillion-dollar settlement with the Justice Department over abuses that contributed to the 2008 financial crash. Trump will soon be in charge of the Justice Department.
Some other foreign business dealings are basically licensing agreements for the use of the Trump brand. According to the Post, Trump’s company has been paid “up to $10 million” since 2014 for the right to put the Trump name atop a luxury apartment complex in Istanbul. The owner is an oil and media conglomerate closely allied with the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is conducting a brutal campaign of repression against his critics, including the independent Turkish media.
So when dealing with countries where he does business, will Trump put his own financial interests aside and do what is best for the United States? “We shall see” is a far too generous answer. Based on what we have seen in the two weeks since the election, the answer is a simple no.
I might feel differently if Trump put his many businesses into a genuine blind trust – which would mean liquidating as many assets as possible and having the cash managed by an independent trustee. This is probably not practical; his many partners in real estate deals would surely object, since the buildings would lose value once the Trump name was removed. But at the very least, Trump should have his empire managed by some eminent outsider who does not happen to be one of his children.
What does the law require? Almost nothing.
As president, Trump is exempt from conflict-of-interest statutes. He must file an annual disclosure document listing assets and income but is not compelled to release his tax returns, though recent presidents have done so. There is no law that would keep Trump from continuing to run the Trump Organization while in office. (Arguably, it might be better for him to spend time doing that than trying to deport 11 million undocumented migrants, take away health insurance from 20 million people, ban Muslims from entering the country and reinstitute torture for terrorism suspects.)
He does have to reckon with the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bars public officials from receiving gifts from foreign governments without the consent of Congress. If stalled overseas projects suddenly get moving again after Trump is sworn in, that could be a problem.
Primarily, though, it is going to take public pressure to hold Trump accountable. Trump’s supporters should recall how he claimed the system was rigged and promised to “drain the swamp.” So far, he seems to intend to deepen the muck and make his fabulously wealthy family even wealthier.
How Trump handles his business interests must be seen as a simple test of his sincerity. So far he is failing miserably.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.