Foon Rhee

Which will be the bigger Trump scandal: Russia or conflicts?

President Donald Trump stands with his children, Eric Trump, far left, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., far right, at a Jan. 11 press conference where he announced his plan to separate his presidency from the family businesses.
President Donald Trump stands with his children, Eric Trump, far left, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., far right, at a Jan. 11 press conference where he announced his plan to separate his presidency from the family businesses. The Washington Post

I’m starting to look at President Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest kind of like the deluge that swamped Northern California this winter.

We may not know when or where, but sooner or later a levee will break and this presidency will be in crisis.

While it’s way too early to talk impeachment – especially with a Republican Congress more than willing to look the other way – when enough of the ugly greediness is exposed, he’ll be severely wounded, a president without the public’s trust.

So far, it’s another brewing scandal – the Trump team’s ties to Russia – that’s in the headlines more often, and for good reasons. It’s bad enough that Russian agents interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump; if anyone in the Trump orbit colluded with them, then it could be treason. There will be more breaking news alerts on Monday, when FBI Director James Comey is scheduled to testify publicly before Congress about the Russia investigation for the first time.

Still, I’m with Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, who says Trump’s conflicts are as disturbing and important as Russian meddling in the election.

“The threats are just as fundamental,” Bookbinder told me, “but we and others have not convinced people at a gut level that his conflicts are a threat to our democracy.”

His watchdog group is suing Trump, claiming he is flouting the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bans officials – even the president – from accepting payments from foreign governments. CREW is hoping a federal judge declares that Trump is violating the Constitution and orders him to divest his foreign assets. Short of that, it hopes to get into the open more facts about Trump’s business interests and potential conflicts abroad.

This issue has been brewing since the campaign. Just after Trump was elected, The Bee ran an editorial that asked: Will the White House be an outpost of Trump, Inc.?

After nearly two months in office, the answer is unequivocally yes. It’s also clear that Trump’s much-promoted plan to divorce his companies from his presidency is a complete sham, as worthless as a degree from Trump University.

He put his sprawling business empire into a trust run by his sons and close aides, and said he wouldn’t be involved in daily decisions. But since it’s not a blind trust, Trump knows exactly what his assets are and how their value might be affected by his decisions. Unlike previous presidents, he refused to sell his holdings and put them into a trust run by an independent trustee – the only real way for Trump to avoid conflicts of interest.

There’s a lot we don’t know about his finances, in part because he refuses to release his tax returns, as every other recent presidential candidate did. Last week, the White House grudgingly confirmed the basics of his 2005 return, but only to preempt a scoop by MSNBC.

Some Democrats in Congress are putting up a fight, introducing bills to make Trump disclose his tax returns, require him to comply with conflict-of-interest laws that cover Cabinet members, and force him to divest or face impeachment. But Republicans aren’t going to let those bills pass.

And without laws to restrain them, you don’t have to look very far to find example after example of how Trump and his family are busy advancing their business while he’s president:

▪ Bloomberg reports that a company owned by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior adviser, stands to reap more than $400 million from a $4 billion deal on a Manhattan office tower with a Chinese company that has ties with that nation’s leaders.

▪ Mother Jones says a Chinese American businesswoman with ties to China’s ruling elite recently bought a $15.8 million penthouse in an apartment building owned by a Trump company. The Chinese government just granted preliminary approval for 35 Trump-related trademarks to his company. Trump plans to host Chinese President Xi Jinping in April at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, and we’re supposed to trust that private business never comes up.

▪ Mar-a-Lago, which Trump likes to call the Winter White House, doubled its initiation fee for membership to $200,000 after the election. When Trump flies Air Force One down for the weekend at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $3 million, what do the well-heeled club members bend his ear about when he mingles?

▪ The new Trump hotel just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House is an obvious conflict, since the federal government is the landlord. But other Trump-branded properties around the world – such as an unopened Trump hotel in Azerbaijan – pose even murkier issues because some business partners are corrupt.

Some media organizations and advocacy groups are trying to keep a running tally of potential conflicts; the Atlantic’s list is up to 36.

It’s understandable why these disclosures are flying below the radar for most Americans. It takes a lot just to keep track of Trump’s cruel budget, his absurd personnel appointments and the sweeping policy changes he and the Republican Congress are seeking on health care, immigration, the environment and more, much less Trump’s Twitter tirades or completely baseless accusations that President Barack Obama wiretapped him.

But if Americans can’t be confident that their president is looking out for them and not his private business, all his major decisions will be suspect. For instance, the GOP plan to repeal Obamacare could cut costs for Trump’s businesses and corporate tax changes could boost their bottom line. “You can’t help but see them through that lens,” Bookbinder says.

I have a lot of faults, but I’m a stickler on ethics. I’ve never taken freebies; in my days covering the City Council in Charlotte, N.C., it became a running joke that I wouldn’t even eat a cookie at dinner meetings.

So I find it really difficult to fathom that Trump and his family could get away with using the White House to enrich themselves. That’s why I pay as much attention to these financial dealings as the growing evidence on Russia. It’s not out of the question that Trump has business conflicts in Russia, which Bookbinder says would be “particularly potent.”

Just maybe, it’s when the two potential scandals combine into one unstoppable flow that the dam finally breaks. And if that happens, it could wash away Trump’s presidency.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee

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