From the early days of the 2016 primary fight for the Republican presidential nomination, we made our opposition to Donald J. Trump’s candidacy clear: He is unfit to run the country. So far, he has done little to persuade us otherwise. His shoot-from-the-lip approach to politics and public policy reveals a challenging lack of knowledge of how government works, the gravitas the presidency requires (Tweets have consequences), or the laws he will have to follow as the nation’s chief executive.
One specific area of concern centers on potential conflicts of interest between Trump’s business investments and his job as president. This isn’t hypothetical — problems have already emerged. A week after the election, the president-elect’s new Trump International Hotel, just four blocks from the White House, held a party for 100 foreign diplomats to tout the benefits of booking events and rooms there. It worked like a time-share pitch for White House influence. “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’” one unidentified diplomat told the Washington Post. “Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’” Separately, Bahrain recently moved an event initially planned for another Washington hotel to the Trump International. Though the reason has not been spelled out, it doesn’t take a cynic to suspect a diplomatic effort to curry favor.
The conflicts also emerge more subtly. Before the election, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has threatened to cool his nation’s long relationship with the U.S. for closer ties with China, appointed businessman Jose Antonio as his special trade envoy to Washington. Antonio just happens to be a Trump business partner, building a $150-million, 57-story Trump Tower apartment complex in Manila — with more projects on the drawing board. Both countries now have cause to wonder where either man’s loyalties lie.
So Trump hasn’t even been sworn in yet, and already the conflicts are accumulating.
Federal ethics laws do not require the president to adhere to the same standards as his administrative appointees, so Trump can continue to run his business empire from the Oval Office without violating those statutes. Yet that is not what Americans voted for him to do — they elected him to run the government. And while he might be free of the ethics laws, thanks to an exemption Congress ought to consider removing, Trump is not free of the Constitution’s “emoluments clause,” which says the president cannot “without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” Some scholars argue that foreign governments sending business to Trump’s properties would violate that clause, which could create a constitutional showdown. At the very least, it creates a “pay to play” perception — an accusation Trump lodged against Hillary Clinton over donations to the Clinton Foundation.
Trump postponed until January a press conference in which he promised to detail how he’ll extricate himself from his conflicts. He’s already said he plans to close his controversial foundation, which is under investigation by the New York’s attorney general, and reportedly has backed out of some business deals and is contemplating appointing an outside monitor of his business concerns. He also has looked at creating a “discretionary trust” that would put the business under the control of someone else (probably a relative), letting Trump keep tabs on his business affairs and income — an arrangement that’s clearly insufficient to avert conflicts. Under the more stringent and traditional blind trust, an independent trustee would control the assets and would liquidate, without Trump’s knowledge, holdings that might present a conflict.
Trump is due the courtesy of the nation’s ears, which will be tuned to whatever announcement he ultimately makes about his business conundrum. But skepticism is warranted. If Trump fails to adequately separate himself from his financial affairs, even his fellow Republican supporters in Congress must hold him accountable. Trump sought this job, and while he has made a show of breaking with traditions, he cannot break faith with the American people.
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