It’s becoming clearer with each passing day of this presidential transition that like so much of what he said during the campaign, Donald Trump’s promise to separate himself from his business during his presidency was simply a lie. The convenient fiction that Trump offered up is that his children would run the corporation on his behalf as a “blind trust,” which is like referring to a plate of steamed kale as a “hamburger.”
Now, as Trump works to monetize the presidency for his own financial gain like some post-Soviet kleptocrat, we have to look back to the campaign to understand why he’s doing this.
There’s a simple explanation: Donald Trump thinks he can get away with anything.
Yes, his limitless greed plays a part, as does his contempt for the rules and norms of the American system of government. But if the election had not gone the way it did, Trump would not feel so free to cash in, and in such a public and obvious way.
And it is obvious. In a matter of days, he’s invited his daughter Ivanka, who will be leading the Trump Organization, to sit in on a meeting with the Prime Minister of Japan. Hw held a meeting with Indian businessmen developing a Trump-branded apartment complex. He had his Washington hotel encourage foreign diplomats to stay there while they’re in the nation’s capital. He pressed British party leader Nigel Farage to fight against a proposed wind farm Trump believes mars the view from a golf course he owns in Scotland.
In response to criticism of these actions, Trump tweeted:
Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world. Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!
This made it clear that he sees no problem with having ongoing business interests in foreign countries as president, and if it becomes an issue he will simply blame the media.
We have to see this as the culmination of what Trump went through and learned during the campaign, and I’d like to point to one particular thing he said almost a year ago. In January, Trump said: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?”
This turned out to be an accurate assessment of the loyalty he inspired in his supporters. His white nationalist message was so powerful for them that no matter what he did or said, up to and including bragging about sexually assaulting women, they would stick with him and wave away his sins. It also revealed how Trump himself was coming to see his campaign, even at that early stage.
At that point, the Iowa caucuses were still a week away. Not a single primary vote had been counted. And Trump stood up in front of an audience and TV cameras and said, in effect, I can get away with anything. And he was right.
So let’s imagine a conversation today between Trump and one of his aides, who says, “Sir, you’re taking a lot of heat for the business stuff. We have to draw a bright line to assure people that you won’t be using the presidency to enrich yourself. This needs to be addressed.” How would Trump respond? I’m guessing he’d say something like this:
“I hear you. But you know what? I got the same advice advice — we need to address this, you’ve gone too far, blah blah blah — when I called Mexicans rapists and criminals. And when I said John McCain wasn’t a hero. And when I went after Megyn Kelly. And when I mocked a disabled reporter. And when I refused to release my tax returns like every other presidential candidate. And when I said we should ban Muslims. And when I got in a fight with a Gold Star family. And when I made fun of Ted Cruz’s wife and said his father may have killed JFK. And when I talked about the size of my penis in a debate. And when I encouraged my fans to knock the hell out of protesters. And when I went after Judge Curiel’s Mexican heritage. And when I invited Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. And when I said Barack Obama founded ISIS. And when I said a former Miss Universe was fat. And when I said that Clinton started the birther controversy but I finished it. And when everyone found out I didn’t pay federal taxes. And when everyone found out my foundation (which has now admitted to the IRS that it violated the law on ‘self-dealing’) is basically a scam. And when everyone heard me brag about groping women, and then I threatened to sue the women who said I groped them. And when I said I wouldn’t accept the results of the election unless I won.
“And guess what: I got away with all of it. I got the Republican nomination, and then I won the presidency despite the fact that my opponent got a couple of million more votes. I won. And now you’re telling me that I’m going to be in big trouble if I take the opportunities I’m presented with to make my beautiful, successful company even more beautiful and successful? Don’t make me laugh. Who’s going to stop me?”
Let’s not forget that even if tomorrow Trump decided to really not be involved in his businesses, there would still be copious opportunities for foreign interests and foreign governments to line his pockets, since they’ll just be able to do it by working with his children. And if you’re hoping that the web of his connections and arrangements at home and abroad will become clear once his IRS audit ends and he finally releases his tax returns as he promised, don’t get your hopes up. He’ll find another excuse for keeping them secret. We’re never going to see them.
Trump surely believes that he’ll get away with that, too. Everything that has happened since he first rode down that escalator last June has served to convince him that he can do whatever he wants, and when everyone around him is telling him he can’t, that’s just proof that he’s right and they’re wrong.
The question Trump asks at the end of my imagined conversation is one without a clear answer at this point. Republicans in Congress sure aren’t going to be investigating his conflicts of interest. Democrats have no institutional power to do so. The performance of the most of the news media (with some important exceptions) when it comes to holding Trump accountable has been less than encouraging.
So who’s going to stop him?