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Opinion Welcome to the Trump kleptocracy

From left, Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. (Tasos Katopodis/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

“It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it,” Donald Trump said back in 2000 when he was contemplating a bid that he never followed through on. And while he didn’t actually turn a profit on his 2016 run, it’s looking more and more likely that being president is going to be very lucrative for Trump. By the time it’s over, he may even be worth as much as he has always claimed to be.

The words “conflict of interest” don’t begin to describe what the Trump administration is shaping up to look like — though there will be plenty of conflicts of interest with administration figures such as Rudy Giuliani, who made millions from foreign governments and corporations, some of which are hostile to the United States. But the real action is going to be in Trump’s own family.

Anti-nepotism laws prevent Trump from giving his family members jobs in the administration. But don’t think that’s going to stop them from being active participants in U.S. government decision-making, or using the fact that Trump is president to keep money flowing in. In fact, we could see the president enriching himself and his family on a scale that we normally associate with post-Soviet kleptocrats and Third World dictators.

Trump repeatedly vowed to "drain the swamp" in D.C. but seems to be doing the exact opposite. (Video: Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post, Photo: Molly Riley/The Washington Post)

For starters, Ivanka, Eric and Donald Trump Jr. are on the executive committee of Trump’s transition team, helping decide who gets hired for key positions and what the administration’s initial focus will be. We learned that someone on the transition team inquired about obtaining security clearances for the three so that they could see classified information (though the Trump team protested that the request did not come from Trump himself). Then there’s the matter of Ivanka Trump’s husband:

Donald Trump has taken the unprecedented step of requesting his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, receive top-secret clearance to join him for his Presidential Daily Briefings, which began Tuesday.
Multiple sources tell NBC News Trump received his first briefing on Tuesday and designated both Kushner and Ret. Gen. Michael Flynn as his staff-level companions for the briefings going forward.

Kushner — whose knowledge of government is so minimal that he was apparently surprised to learn that the Obama staffers in the White House wouldn’t be staying on to serve President Trump — is shaping up as perhaps his father-in-law’s closest adviser. He won’t have an official position, yet he’ll be privy to some of the most sensitive intelligence secrets the government possesses.

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Then he’ll go home at night to Ivanka Trump, who is already monetizing her father’s election; Ivanka Trump Fine Jewelry is promoting the bracelet she wore on last Sunday’s “60 Minutes” interview, which can be yours for $10,800.

But that’s peanuts compared with what the Trump children will be able to accomplish. During the Trump presidency, they will be running the Trump corporation on their father’s behalf, but the money it makes will still be his money. We don’t know exactly how the profits are divided, because it’s a private company and Trump won’t tell us. But it’s important to understand that Trump’s primary business is not building things; he actually does very little building anymore. His main business is brand licensing, and it’s a business that is particularly amenable to enriching himself while he’s president.

How would that work? Well, imagine this scenario. Ivanka and Donny Jr. go to some country — let’s say Russia, for no particular reason — and arrange a meeting with a developer. They suggest a deal that the Trump corporation has carried out in places all over the world, in which the local developer builds a hotel or resort, then slaps the Trump name on it and pays the Trumps millions of dollars in licensing fees for the privilege. And let’s say that developer just happens to have ties, publicly known or otherwise, to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin. And let’s say he offers the Trump corporation very favorable terms — which, being savvy businesspeople, Ivanka and Donny accept. You’d then have a situation in which the Russian dictator has, through a proxy, deposited millions or even tens of millions of dollars into the bank account of the president of the United States.

Or it wouldn’t even have to be as public as a hotel with a “Trump” sign on it. What if that same developer just hired the Trump children to be “consultants”? Since the money would flow through the company, it would mean that foreign governments or interests could be paying untold sums to the American president.

This could be repeated in countries all over the world. And since the Trump corporation is privately held, we might never know all the details. We might be able to figure them out if Trump released his tax returns, but he refused to do so, despite almost certainly having more potential financial conflicts of interest than any president in history. And forget about seeing them after his IRS audit is done, the lame excuse Trump gave for not releasing them during the campaign. I promise you this: Donald Trump is never going to make his tax returns public. Never.

So we’re going to have to rely on the Trump family’s strong ethical code to reassure ourselves that nothing problematic will go on when it comes to the entwining of Trump’s business interests and U.S. government policy. The problem is that absolutely nothing we have learned about Trump suggests that he will operate in a remotely ethical way when it comes to opportunities to enrich himself once he becomes president. We’re talking about a man who allegedly ran multiple grifts on gullible customers (Trump University, the Trump Institute, the Trump Network); who used the bankruptcy laws to escape the collapse of his casinos, leaving investors holding the bag while he made out like a bandit in a kind of Atlantic City version of “The Producers”; who ran a foundation that was essentially a scam from top to bottom; who regularly stiffed contractors when he knew they were too small to fight him; who used undocumented workers and reportedly had foreign models lie to customs officials so that they could work illegally in the United States, who once paid $750,000 to the Federal Trade Commission to settle an antitrust suit, and who was generally revealed to be, if not the most spectacularly corrupt businessman in the United States, then certainly a strong contender for that title.

The irony is that so many of Trump’s supporters believed his preposterous claim that he would be the one to banish corruption from Washington, that he’d “drain the swamp” and send that crooked establishment packing. He’ll do nothing of the sort, of course; his transition team is drowning in corporate lobbyists, and among his first priorities are cutting taxes for the wealthy and removing oversight from Wall Street. But that’s standard Republican fare; what’s different and probably unprecedented is the way Trump will increase his fortune by hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars while he’s president.