By Barbara Slavin
In between Twitter outbursts at the Broadway hit Hamilton, President-elect Donald Trump has been interviewing Cabinet picks — and meeting investors in his far-flung business empire.
A week after his upset win over Hillary Clinton, Trump greeted Indian partners Atul Chordia, Sagar Chordia and Kalpesh Mehta at Trump Tower in New York. According to the Indian newspaper, The Economic Times, Trump has five luxury projects in India including a Trump Tower near Mumbai. Even if, as Trump spokespeople asserted, the meeting was a mere courtesy call, how can the president-elect guarantee that his commercial ventures will not influence him as he guides foreign policy toward India and at least 17 other countries where Trump-branded projects exist? Among those countries, according to a Washington Post investigation, are Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Indonesia and Turkey.
For a candidate who vowed to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate his rival for accepting contributions from foreign governments to her family’s charitable foundation, the conflict-of-interest and pay-to-play potential of the Trump administration are gob-smacking.
In Washington, foreign diplomats eager to curry favor with the incoming administration are patronizing the new Trump hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Before the election, when Clinton was favored to win, the glitzy redo of the old Post Office building was having to discount rooms.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the new Philippines special envoy to the United States is in charge of a company that is building a $150 million, 57-story Trump Tower apartment building in Manila. When making ambassadorial appointments, what other governments may seek candidates with business ties to Trump Inc.?
Trump has said he will delegate responsibility for his enterprises to his adult children, but that is hardly a near-sighted trust let alone a blind one; those children continue to advise him on other matters and even to sit in on sensitive transition meetings such as the one Trump held last week with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.
Appearing Sunday on the CBS program Face the Nation, Vice President-elect Mike Pence expressed confidence that the Trumps would “create the proper separation from their business enterprise” while Trump is in the White House, but gave no details.
The ethical solution would be for the president-elect to sell his companies and put the proceeds in a real blind trust. But the president – unlike all other federal employees – is not required to do so and Trump has given no indication that he will.
He has, however, paid $25 million to settle lawsuits related to Trump University, described as a “scam” by New York’s attorney general. Trump had claimed he would have won if litigated, but now says he needs to focus on being president.
I settled the Trump University lawsuit for a small fraction of the potential award because as President I have to focus on our country.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
The ONLY bad thing about winning the Presidency is that I did not have the time to go through a long but winning trial on Trump U. Too bad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
Ethics problems also dog others in the Trump orbit including his top foreign policy pick, retired Gen. Mike Flynn.
Flynn, who Trump announced last week would be his national security adviser, took money from RT, the Russian English-language propaganda channel, and sat with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a gala dinner in Moscow. Flynn’s consulting company also represented a prominent Turkish businessman who is close to the Turkish government even after Flynn began to attend intelligence briefings with candidate Trump in August.
On Election Day, The Hill newspaper published an op-ed by Flynn calling for the United States to extradite Fethullah Gulen to Turkey. Gulen is a Turkish spiritual leader who now lives in Pennsylvania and has been blamed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a coup attempt last summer. In the op-ed, which did not mention his lobbying connections to Turkey, Flynn compared Gulen to militant Islamic thinkers and also repeated absurd and false insinuations that Huma Abedin, a close aide to Clinton, is a closet Islamic extremist.
Since national security adviser is not a position that needs to be confirmed by the Senate, there is no way of blocking Flynn’s appointment unless he is convicted of a crime. But the Flynn choice is especially worrisome because of Islamophobic statements the retired general has made and concerns about his lack of management skills. President Barack Obama fired Flynn from his post as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 in part because of complaints that Flynn did not listen to subordinates and propagated what co-workers called “Flynn facts” that had no basis in truth. As national security adviser, Flynn is supposed to adjudicate disputes among Trump’s other foreign policy principals and to help the president construct a broad security strategy.
So many precedents have been shattered during this campaign – especially in terms of the low level of political discourse — that the ethical challenges of a Trump presidency risk being normalized. Trump could help dispel this cloud by finally releasing his tax returns before taking office and putting out a complete list of all his holdings both domestically and overseas — before divesting himself of them.
The campaign has left half of America demoralized and terrified of what the next four years may bring in terms of rolling back the Obama legacy and encouraging racism and xenophobia. Trump still has the ability to begin to calm those fears and to show that his presidency will put American interests above his personal concerns. Unfortunately, so far, he appears to be conflating them.