The for-profit pres­i­dency

Our view: Don­ald Trump’s fail­ure to di­vest his hold­ings is rais­ing con­flict-of-in­ter­est prob­lems that will only get worse

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

As tempt­ing as it may be to once again be hor­ri­fied by Don­ald Trump’s Twit­ter ram­blings — the most re­cent hav­ing demon­strated that the pres­i­dent-elect likes his Broadway per­form­ers to sing and dance but not par­tic­i­pate in democ­racy, and the rapt at­ten­tion he pays to Alec Bald­win, his “Sat­ur­day Night Live” dop­pel­ganger — the man’s week­end tweets were hardly his worst trans­gres­sions of late. In­deed, it’s got­ten to the point where these “SNL”-wor­thy mo­ments of out­ra­geous­ness seem more cal­cu­lated show­man­ship than mis­step, per­haps even a chance to dis­tract his crit­ics from his far more trou­bling, if less overt, mis­be­hav­ior.

We’re not talk­ing about the jaw-drop­ping nom­i­na­tion of Jef­fer­son Beau­re­gard Ses­sions III as at­tor­ney gen­eral, the 69-year-old Alabama se­na­tor deemed too racist dur­ing the Rea­gan era to be a fed­eral judge. Yes, Amer­ica, that’s the man who could be en­forc­ing vot­ing rights and civil rights for the next four years. (Or not en­forc­ing them.)

Nope. The real doozy of the week­end es­caped most pub­lic no­tice. It seems that while we were all de­bat­ing whether it breaks deco­rum to cau­tion au­di­ence mem­bers at “Hamil­ton” to stop boo­ing and then po­litely ask Vice Pres­i­dent-elect Mike Pence to be kind to mi­nori­ties, The New York Times was re­port­ing that Mr. Trump met last week with de­vel­op­ers of Trump Tow­ers Pune, a high-pro­file pair of 23-story tow­ers con­tain­ing $2 mil­lion con­dos in which the Trump or­ga­ni­za­tion has in­vested its name.

In other words, the soon-to-be leader of the free world is mak­ing de­ci­sions about his in­vest­ments in In­dia — not just Trump Tow­ers Pune but a planned 75-story Trump-branded tower in Mum­bai and per­haps other fu­ture real es­tate deals as well — be­tween meet­ings with po­ten­tial Cab­i­net mem­bers. Ac­cord­ing to the Times re­port, these projects are worth in the neigh­bor­hood of $1.5 bil­lion, Mr. Trump’s largest in­vest­ments out­side North Amer­ica.

Such col­lab­o­ra­tions of­fer a dizzy­ing num­ber of op­por­tu­ni­ties for con­flicts of in­ter­est. A U.S. pres­i­dent is in an ex­tra­or­di­nary po­si­tion to pro­vide spe­cial fa­vors to for­eign coun­tries or busi­ness own­ers or even to af­fect global mar­kets in a man­ner from which he or she could profit. What for­eign gov­ern­ment wouldn’t want to sink its claws into the Trump em­pire and make the na­tion’s chief ex­ec­u­tive ul­ti­mately be­holden to it? Can any­one say Vladimir Putin?

What makes this de­vel­op­ment all the more stun­ning is that Mr. Trump crit­i­cized Hil­lary Clin­ton for not fully dis­tanc­ing her­self from the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion — a non­profit char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tion — when she served as sec­re­tary of state. There is even spec­u­la­tion that an At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ses­sions will pur­sue a crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion of Ms. Clin­ton. Mr. Trump once called the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion a “crim­i­nal en­ter­prise.” What should he call his own busi­ness in­ter­ests, which have al­ready been far more com­pro­mised Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump hasn’t con­vinc­ingly an­swered how he will sep­a­rate his busi­ness and pub­lic in­ter­ests. and where the stakes are so much higher?

Make no mis­take, fed­eral law doesn’t specif­i­cally call for a pres­i­dent to di­vest his hold­ings. But for some­one who vowed to “drain the swamp” of Wash­ing­ton, Mr. Trump is cer­tainly do­ing a fair im­pres­sion of a swamp crea­ture him­self. It was bad enough that, as a can­di­date, he failed to dis­close his tax re­turns, ig­nor­ing decades of prece­dent. Now he is mak­ing busi­ness de­ci­sions in which, as pres­i­dent, he could di­rectly profit.

Has this na­tion re­ally sunk so low that we are com­fort­able with a pres­i­dent with his own profit-driven agenda, like he was roy­alty or maybe a Third World despot? The only work­able so­lu­tion would be for Mr. Trump to put his hold­ings in a blind trust — al­though he clearly doesn’t quite get what that means, as he’s been talk­ing about hav­ing his chil­dren run his busi­ness em­pire in his place. The whole point of “blind­ness” is to not know where one’s money is in­vested or have any in­flu­ence on its trustees. If his kids’ names are sim­ply put on Trump Tower’s ti­tle, he’s ac­com­plished nei­ther.

If Mr. Trump doesn’t some­how re­cuse him­self from any­thing to do with his hold­ings, for­eign or do­mes­tic, the is­sue will haunt his pres­i­dency like Mar­ley’s ghost. Ne­go­ti­at­ing an­titer­ror­ism strate­gies with Pak­istan? Howmight the gov­ern­ment in In­dia re­spond? Want to make changes to Dodd-Frank bank­ing laws? Mr. Trump’s real es­tate lenders may have some­thing to say. Even the most in­no­cent con­ver­sa­tions may be seen as grossly com­pro­mised if one party has ties to Trump in­vest­ments or any kind. Re­mem­ber that “con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis” in­volv­ing the next pres­i­dent that Mr. Trump warned about dur­ing the cam­paign? He may have got­ten the tar­get wrong but be proved pre­scient yet.

DON EM­MERT/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

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