THE MORNING PLUM:
Donald Trump vowed to “drain the swamp” of corruption in Washington. But experts on governmental ethics are increasingly worried that Trump’s presidency, and his refusal to place his global business empire in a blind trust, risk producing a conflicts-of-interest cesspool that is far more dense and rancid than anything we’ve seen before.
Whether they prove right about this or not, one thing is inarguable: There are specific steps congressional Republicans can take at the outset to make such an outcome less likely — and to force the sort of transparency that could make it easier to evaluate the Trump presidency on ethical terms. If they are so inclined, that is, which they probably won’t be.
This morning, The Post published an ambitious effort to gauge the full scope of that business empire and the potential for conflicts it creates. The story concludes: “At least 111 Trump companies have done business in 18 countries and territories across South America, Asia and the Middle East.” Included in this are deals that were launched during Trump’s candidacy that are tied to a hotel project in Saudi Arabia, which Trump has vowed to protect militarily.
This comes after the New York Times reported that Indian businessmen who want to expand their partnership with Trump met with the president-elect last week in an effort to elevate the visibility of their joint ventures in India. The Times concluded that the meeting “shows that Mr. Trump has not fully disengaged from his business ventures even as he leads his presidential transition” and “highlights the potential conflicts he will face going forward if he does not separate himself from a brand that has been constructed around his persona.” And The Post reported that foreign diplomats may be ingratiating themselves with the new president by booking rooms at Trump’s hotel in Washington, D.C.
Governmental ethics experts believe all of this creates the potential for a variety of conflicts of interest. Trump has said he is turning his empire over to his children. But this doesn’t eliminate the potential problems here. Government policies, both domestic and foreign, could still impact his family’s holdings. Foreign governments or foreign companies controlled by foreign governments could still do business with Trump entities on terms favorable to the latter in an effort to curry favor with the new administration. One can even envision domestic businesses doing the same, in an effort to ensure against policies that run counter to their interests.
The overriding crux of the issue is that it will be impossible to fully evaluate whether these potential conflicts are happening — or creating corrupt outcomes — without a fuller picture of Trump’s business holdings. And that’s where congressional Republicans could make a difference. Here are some things they could do, suggested to me by Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington:
1) Republicans could demand that Trump and his family produce a full and complete accounting of what his business empire’s interests entail. Bookbinder suggests that if Trump does not put his business empire in a blind trust, congressional Republicans can use their stature to demand full disclosure. This need not be accomplished through investigations or subpoenas (though it presumably could).
“Influential members of Congress,” Bookbinder says, can simply “demand things,” and the failure to comply with them can carry a “political cost” that makes such demands meaningful to some degree.
When it looked as if Hillary Clinton would win, congressional Republicans were already talking about investigating the Clinton Foundation well in advance of the election. So Bookbinder suggests that perhaps they might consider showing similar zeal toward the new president: “Writing letters saying that we need to know this information — there’s no reason they couldn’t do that today.”
2) Codifying the tradition of presidential candidates — and presidents — releasing their tax returns. “That would give you a whole lot of information about the financial interests of a president,” Bookbinder says. Trump refused to release his returns during the campaign and has suggested he will eventually release them once an ongoing audit of them is complete.
But that audit excuse is nonsense, and regardless, guess what — he won’t do this voluntarily, even though he’s already been elected president. Bookbinder notes that Congress could force the issue in Trump’s case. Conservative writer David Frum offers a similar suggestion. This would also ensure that Trump’s shattering of this norm does not encourage future candidates to withhold their returns.
“A Congress that was serious about getting more information could at least take into consideration those kinds of steps, if nothing else as a bargaining chip to get the president to take their demands for more information seriously,” Bookbinder says. Meanwhile, Jeff Hauser of the Revolving Door Project suggests Senate Republicans could conceivably withhold support for Trump’s nominees until he agrees to more transparency.
Now, there’s no reason to be optimistic that congressional Republicans will do any of these things, particularly if Trump doesn’t get too unpopular and signs their bills slashing taxes, regulations and the safety net. But if Trump’s eventual ethical arrangement is substandard, and if congressional Republicans cheerfully look the other way even as various Trump actions raise red flags warning of potential conflicts of interest or corruption, the latter group presents another target for media and public pressure.
* REINCE WON’T RULE OUT MUSLIM REGISTRY: Asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” if the Trump administration would go through with a Muslim registry, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus replied:
“I’m not going to rule out anything. But we’re not going to have a registry based on a religion. But…there are some people that have to be prevented from coming into this country….President Trump’s position is…if you want to come from a place or an area around the world that harbors and trains terrorists, we have to temporarily suspend that operation until a better vetting system is put in place.”
One of these days, Trump will have to finalize which “places” or “areas” are on this list and specify what “better vetting system” will be sufficient to ending this suspension of immigration.
* REPUBLICANS SUDDENLY AREN’T WORRIED ABOUT DEFICIT: The Post finds that Republicans suddenly aren’t too fazed by the possibility that Trump’s tax and spending policies might blow up the deficit:
In interviews with more than a dozen congressional Republicans this week…most dismissed concerns about potential deficits in a big-spending Trump administration….Several Republican lawmakers who call themselves deficit hawks simply expressed faith that implementing GOP policies would unleash levels of economic growth the nation hasn’t seen in more than 15 years, boosting government revenue to compensate for any new spending.
One interesting question will be whether a principled conservative opposition to Trump deficits meaningfully emerges.
* GOP REPEAL PLAN COULD CREATE ‘CHAOS’: Republicans might repeal Obamacare but delay implementation for two years to soften the blow. But Politico reports that delaying won’t work:
Repealing the law without a replacement is likely to spook health insurers, who might bolt from the markets prematurely to avoid losses as some people stop paying their premiums, while others rush to have expensive medical procedures before losing coverage. Insurers would have little incentive to stick around without knowing know what to expect at the end of the transition. And that could spell chaos for consumers.
No worries — Republicans can just blame all the chaos on Obama.
* TRUMP INFRASTRUCTURE PLAN WILL BREED CORRUPTION: Paul Krugman points out that Trump’s infrastructure plan’s tax-credit scheme will not produce most needed but unprofitable repairs but will reward investors with sweetheart privatization deals:
All of this is unnecessary. If you want to build infrastructure, build infrastructure. It’s hard to see any reason for a roundabout, indirect method that would offer a few people extremely sweet deals, and would therefore provide both the means and the motive for large-scale corruption. Or maybe I should say, it’s hard to see any reason for this scheme unless the inevitable corruption is a feature, not a bug.
While some Dems were too quick to promise cooperation with this idea, it seems likely that they will oppose it if it remains in this form.
* DEMS MUST WAGE TOTAL WAR AGAINST TRUMPISM: E.J. Dionne tells Democrats they must not give an inch in opposing a substandard infrastructure plan, Trump’s pick of Jeff Sessions as attorney general and all of Trump’s general flouting of democratic norms:
If Democrats do not issue very clear warnings and lay out very bright lines against the most odious and alarming aspects of Trumpism, they will be abdicating their central obligation as the party of opposition. This is not a time for ideological and factional positioning…Democrats and all other friends of freedom must make clear that if Trump abandons the basic norms of our democracy, all the roads in the world won’t pave over his transgressions.
Good luck getting Republican “friends of freedom” to go along with this.
* WHITE NATIONALISTS SEE THEIR MOMENT: The New York Times reports that white nationalists and the “alt-right” movement believe Trump’s victory means their moment is at hand. One leader, Richard Spencer, says this:
Mr. Spencer said that while he did not think the president-elect should be considered alt-right, “I do think we have a psychic connection, or you can say a deeper connection, with Donald Trump in a way that we simply do not have with most Republicans.” White identity, he said, is at the core of both the alt-right movement and the Trump movement, even if most voters for Mr. Trump “aren’t willing to articulate it as such.”
But above all, don’t call this “deplorable,” because it’s insensitive and intolerant and will hurt people’s feelings.