Donald Trump just wrapped up a meeting with editors and reporters of the New York Times. Reporter Maggie Haberman relays that this happened:
"I might have brought it up," Trump says of Farage meeting and wind farms.
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
In saying this, Trump may have flatly and openly admitted to a conflict of interest, according to Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Trump’s admission that he “might have brought up” wind farms in his meeting with Nigel Farage is a reference to today’s New York Times story reporting this:
When President-elect Donald J. Trump met with the British politician Nigel Farage in recent days, he encouraged Mr. Farage and his entourage to oppose the kind of offshore wind farms that Mr. Trump believes will mar the pristine view from one of his two Scottish golf courses, according to one person present.
The meeting, held shortly after the presidential election, raises new questions about Mr. Trump’s willingness to use the power of the presidency to advance his business interests. Mr. Trump has long opposed a wind farm planned near his course in Aberdeenshire, and he previously fought unsuccessfully all the way to Britain’s highest court to block it….
“He did not say he hated wind farms as a concept; he just did not like them spoiling the views,” said Andy Wigmore, the media consultant who was present at the meeting and was photographed with Mr. Trump.
A Trump spokesperson initially told the Times that this didn’t happen, but then declined to comment on the fact that a witness had claimed it had:
Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump’s transition office, at first disputed that Mr. Trump had raised the subject of wind farms with Mr. Farage, suggesting that participants in the conversation “denied this took place.” However, when pressed with the fact that one of the meeting’s attendees, Mr. Wigmore, had described the conversation in detail, she declined repeated requests to comment.
Now Trump is acknowledging that this “might” have happened.
I asked CREW’s Bookbinder what this might mean in ethical terms, and he said it could be significant.
“If what Trump is saying is true, it looks like he’s admitting to a conflict of interest — a clear mixing of presidential duties and conversations with business interests,” Bookbinder said. But Bookbinder added that this would not be illegal, even if true, because “conflict of interest laws don’t apply to the president.”
Trump appears very cognizant of that latter point. Indeed, he appears to have said the very same thing himself today during his meeting at the Times:
Trump on his businesses/conflict q's: "The law's totally on my side, the president can't have a conflict of interest."
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
Nonetheless, Bookbinder noted, Trump may have admitted to something noteworthy. Bookbinder said this looks like an admission of a possible “conflict of interest where you had a meeting that was of political and international significance in terms of working out issues important to the U.S., and in the course of that meeting, the president-elect appears to be talking about his business interests.”
Bookbinder added: “We don’t know if those incentives were underlying the rest of the conversation for him or for the person he was talking to.”
It’s also worth noting that Trump tweeted out his praise of Farage last night, some time after this meeting took place:
Many people would like to see @Nigel_Farage represent Great Britain as their Ambassador to the United States. He would do a great job!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 22, 2016
All of this raises additional questions.
“Is the president-elect inserting himself into wold affairs and into the affairs of another country to benefit his business interests?” Bookbinder asked. “He appears to be praising a public official who he just asked for a favor. That seems to raise a lot of questions about what his motives are when he says nice things about foreign officials or even domestic officials. We don’t know about all the conversations he’s had.”
That last point is critical. We don’t have any real way of evaluating the full scope of what Trump is really doing here. And this isn’t only because we don’t know about all of Trump’s private conversations. It’s also because we don’t have a clear and detailed enough picture of the full range of Trump’s business interests, which will still be the Trump family’s business interests, even after he transfers control of them to his children.
All of which points back to what I argued yesterday: Congressional Republicans could take active steps to make such conflicts of interest — and even outright corruption — less likely to occur during a Trump presidency, by trying to push Trump to show more transparency right away. They could publicly pressure Trump to produce a detailed accounting of all of his business empire’s interests. They could prod him to release his tax returns, which would provide some of that information.
But they aren’t likely to do any of these things anytime soon.