Donald Trump ran for office as a candidate so deeply enmeshed in his family business that just about any remedy short of selling the Trump Organization would lead to conflicts of interest for his presidency. Two months later, that’s exactly what we’ve got: conflicts galore.
Trump made a big pre-inaugural show of separating himself from active participation in the Trump Organization by turning control over to his children. Yet he retains a financial stake in the enterprise, so any profits that accrue to the Trump Organization accrue to him too. But since Trump has broken with four decades of tradition and a campaign promise by refusing to make his tax returns public (an outrage that he still should rectify), the nation doesn’t even know where all his conflicts might be. And as Trump has repeatedly noted, the president is exempt from federal conflict-of-interest laws that his appointees must follow.
The problems exist at two levels. First is the clear potential for self-dealing. But benefits also could fall to President Trump through unbidden acts by others, such as foreign governments granting advantages to his overseas properties hoping to win favor with the administration. In fact, China recently approved three dozen Trump-related trademarks in what some experts say was an expedited process. And with Trump as the top executive of the U.S. government, his private business holdings will routinely put underlings in fraught situations. If they roll back a regulation, was it because it needed to be changed or because it might help the boss?
So where are Trump’s conflicts? Pretty much everywhere. Since the inauguration, Trump has spent four weekends at Mar-A-Lago, his private Palm Beach resort that on Jan. 1 — three weeks before Trump’s inauguration — doubled its initiation fee to $200,000. Trump’s backers argued that it was overdue — the fee had been cut from that to $100,000 in the aftermath of the Bernie Madoff fraud scandal, which hit Palm Beach hard. Yet the timing is, at the least, suspect, as though the resort was capitalizing on the desire of the well-heeled to hobnob with the new president.
And when Trump is in Florida, he plays golf at one of two nearby Trump courses, among the 17 owned or controlled by Trump Golf (one in Rancho Palos Verdes), five of which are in foreign countries. Son Eric Trump, who oversees the golf portfolio, said recently that “the stars have all aligned … I think our brand is the hottest it has ever been.” What aligned those stars? Trump’s election, which added value to Trump’s brand.
And among the first regulations Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency targeted for repeal is known as the Waters of the United States rule. That rule added costly restrictions on runoff from, you guessed it, golf courses.
The Trump Organization also lists 14 hotels, six overseas and eight in the U.S., including the new Trump International in the renovated and government-owned Old Post Office building a few blocks from the White House. The lease for that building bars elected officials from receiving benefits from it, and although it appears Trump is now in violation, it is up to his government employees to enforce or re-negotiate. Foreign diplomats have thrown business to the hotel because the president’s name is on it, revenues that ethics experts say violate the emoluments clause in the U.S. Constitution barring the president from receiving money from foreign governments. And last week, the owners of a nearby wine bar sued, complaining that competitors operating in Trump International had an unfair advantage because the president’s name is on the building.
The list goes on. Trump says he is under audit by the Internal Revenue Service, which now works for him, raising questions about its independence. Trump will be appointing a majority of the National Labor Relations Board, which lists 47 active cases involving Trump businesses. Trump’s been renting space to the Secret Service in his Trump Tower to provide security for his wife and son, who remain in New York City.
Trump will not resolve these conflicts on his own — he’s shown that he intends to bull ahead, the interests of the nation be damned. Among those who could force the issue are congressional Republican leaders — but they seem content to let it simmer. That is unacceptable. The system of checks and balances requires action, not quiet acquiescence, and Congress should be ensuring that the executive does not violate the Constitution.