Donald Trump ran, and won, on a promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. But so far, he seems intent on deepening it. The president-elect owns or has stakes in around 500 companies,at least 111 of which do business overseas. This creates a massive and unprecedented conflict of interest.
One of Trump’s biggest lenders, for example, is Germany’s Deutsche Bank, currently negotiating a multibillion-dollar settlement with the Justice Department over abuses that contributed to the 2008 market crash. Trump will soon preside over that same Justice Department. The potential for self-dealing is obvious, yet the billionaire president-elect has made only vague promises about fire walling himself off from his business empire. His favored solution is to let his children run it, while he retains ownership. Yet his children also appear to be a key part of his White House transition team, judging from the way he recently invited his daughter Ivanka to sit in on a meeting with the Japanese prime minister.
Clearly, Trump intends to turn the presidency into an arm of his family business. Such an arrangement is common in the developing world, said Jonathan Chait in New York magazine, but we’ve never seen anything like it in the US. The influence-buying has already begun, with a number of foreign diplomats saying they would make a point of patronizing Trump’s recently opened hotel in Washington. “I can tell the new president: ‘I love your new hotel!’” explained one Asian diplomat. “Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say: ‘I am staying at your competitor’?” Trump is right about one thing, said Eric Levitz in the same magazine: none of this is illegal. Presidents are exempt from the conflict-of interest statutes that apply to other officials. Some experts say Trump risks violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which bars officeholders from accepting gifts “from any king, prince or foreign state”. But the law has rarely been enforced, and there’s “no binding precedent for its interpretation”. Unless Congress or the courts step in, said Josh Voorhees on Slate, the only hope is that Trump voluntarily follows the accepted “norms” of ethical behavior. Alas, he has little respect for those – witness his refusal to publish his tax returns.
But Trump will offer the Democrats a big fat target if he doesn’t address this problem, said The Wall Street Journal. To avoid serious “political damage”, he has to liquidate his stake in the Trump Organisation and put the proceeds in a “true blind trust” run by an independent manager. The sale would be “painful and perhaps costly”. But millions of Americans have put their trust in him to improve their lives, not treat the presidency as a brief hiatus from his business. If Trump is serious about cleaning up Washington, “he’s going to have to make a sacrifice and lead by example”.