THE MORNING PLUM:
If you want to understand why the conflicts-of-interest involving Donald Trump’s business holdings and presidency could matter enormously in the months and years to come, read this single sentence buried in today’s big Wall Street Journal piece about those holdings:
It’s not clear how much Mr. Trump’s businesses would benefit from his proposal to cut business tax rates.
The key part of that sentence is the phrase, “it’s not clear.” The Journal piece reports that Trump has employed a “web” of limited liability companies to house assets accounting for over $300 million of the revenues he reported in disclosure forms last year. The crucial revelation in the piece is that these entities are a key reason why many of the specific details of Trump’s holdings remain shrouded in “opacity.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports this morning: “Trump is considering formally turning over the operational responsibility for his real estate company to his two adult sons, but he intends to keep a stake in the business and resist calls to divest, according to several people briefed on the discussions.”
As I’ve reported, if Trump merely turns his businesses over to family members (never mind whether he keeps a stake), it will not remove the potential for conflicts or even corruption. His family could stand to benefit from his policy decisions, or alternatively, other entities could seek to curry favor with the new president through deals that benefit his businesses, and by extension, his family (or himself, if he keeps a stake). Ethics experts believe only putting his interests into a genuine blind trust, via the liquidation of his assets, would truly remove the possibility of conflicts.
But, now that this looks unlikely to happen, what needs to be emphasized is not simply that such conflicts are very real possibilities, though that’s important. It also matters greatly that our lack of knowledge of the full range and scope of his interests makes it hard to evaluate whether these conflicts are taking place in any given situation, and if so, what they truly mean. And that’s where the new Journal story comes in. Here is the rub of the matter:
None of the 96 LLCs examined by the Journal appear to regularly release audited financial statements. That opacity — compounded by Mr. Trump’s decision to break with decades of precedent by declining to release his tax returns — makes it impossible to gauge the full extent of potential conflicts between his business interests and presidential role.
The scope and complexity of Mr. Trump’s private business holdings is unprecedented for incoming presidents, said Norman Eisen, President Barack Obama’s former White House ethics lawyer. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.
It’s not clear how much Mr. Trump’s businesses would benefit from his proposal to cut business tax rates.…
Mr. Trump’s wealth is impossible to measure with precision. His financial disclosure form isn’t externally audited and — following government rules — often uses bands, such as more than $50 million, rather than exact amounts to report assets and revenue or income. Only a handful of the hundreds of entities listed in Mr. Trump’s financial disclosure publish audited financial statements — and those figures don’t necessarily illuminate Mr. Trump’s financial situation.
Trump has called for huge tax cuts, including for top earners and businesses, and Congressional Republicans are all but certain to go forward with the same. But, as the Journal points out, we cannot know what impact these policies will have on Trump’s own businesses — or his family’s. Noah Bookbinder, the executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, tells me that this captures a key aspect of the broader problem here. Bookbinder says:
“We still have not seen his tax returns or a comprehensive account of his business interests. So we don’t fully know what effect his policy proposals — including his tax policy proposals — will have on his financial interests or his family’s bottom line. The fact that the Trump family would profit at all is a huge problem. But we can’t know the scope of those profits unless we get a full accounting of what these interests are.
“In evaluating the policies that a president is pushing, it’s important for the public to understand what his motivations are — whether his motivations are self-interest or the public interest. Until we know what the effect will be on his own bottom line — or his family’s — we can’t really determine that.”
And this underscores again that Congressional Republicans could be taking specific steps to try to compel Trump to show more transparency about the full scope and range of his interests — if they wanted to. If Trump does fail to do anything more than transfer his businesses to his family — or, worse, does so while retaining an interest himself — the likely abdication of Congressional Republicans in trying to compel more transparency should be seen as a big part of this story.
* TRUMP’S PREFERENCE FOR GENERALS STIRS CONCERNS: The Post reports that Trump has now picked three generals for top slots in his administration, raising worries among critics, such as this one from Dem Senator Chris Murphy:
“Each of these individuals may have great merit in their own right, but what we’ve learned over the past 15 years is that when we view problems in the world through a military lens, we make big mistakes.”
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly cast disdain on generals, claiming to understand military matters better than they, but maybe that’s all out the window now.
* TRUMP WILL PROBABLY DISMANTLE THE EPA: Trump has picked climate change denier and fossil fuel ally Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, and the New York Times reports that environmental advocates believe this means it will soon be reduced to smoking, toxic wreckage. As one puts it:
“During the campaign, Mr. Trump regularly threatened to dismantle the E.P.A. and roll back many of the gains made to reduce Americans’ exposures to industrial pollution, and with Pruitt, the president-elect would make good on those threats. It’s a safe assumption that Pruitt could be the most hostile E.P.A. administrator toward clean air and safe drinking water in history.”
And, of course, Pruitt will do a great deal to weaken Obama’s executive actions designed to reduce carbon emissions. Remember when Trump claimed to have an “open mind” about climate change?
* TRUMP’S PICKS BREAK WITH AGENCY MISSIONS: This is a fascinating point from the Post write-up of Trump’s choice of Pruitt:
He is the third of Trump’s nominees who have key philosophical differences with the missions of the agencies they have been tapped to run. Ben Carson, named to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has expressed a deep aversion to the social safety net programs and fair housing initiatives that have been central to that agency’s activities. Betsy DeVos, named education secretary, has a passion for private school vouchers that critics say undercut the public school systems at the core of the government’s mission.
As this blog has tried to warn you, we’re now looking at the possibility of radical, disruptive change that could impact millions.
* LIBERALS PLAN BIG CAMPAIGN TO SAVE OBAMACARE: Politico reports that outside groups are gearing up to defend the law from repeal. This is part of the game plan:
The campaign will detail how many people in each state would lose coverage if the law is repealed, as well as the negative impact on hospitals and other health care organizations….The groups also hope to put pressure on Republicans to simultaneously offer an effective proposal to replace Obamacare to ensure that the 20 million people who’ve gained coverage under the law don’t lose their benefits, if the repeal efforts move forward.
Remember, there are huge numbers of such people in states with GOP senators and Members of Congress. The question is whether they’ll be moved by the specter of many of their own constituents losing health care. Don’t bet on it.
* AMERICANS SEE ROLE GOVERNMENT ROLE IN HEALTH CARE: With Obamacare repeal high on the agenda, a new Gallup poll finds that a majority of Americans — 52 percent — say government has a “responsibility” to “make sure all Americans have health care coverage,” while 45 percent say it doesn’t.
Of course, 72 percent of Republicans say government doesn’t have any such role, so majority views on this are unlikely to matter in the least.
* AND THE TRUMP TWEET OF THE DAY, MORE-POWER-TO-WORKERS EDITION: Chuck Jones, the head of the union that represents the Carrier workers, criticized Trump because more than half of the jobs Trump “saved” are still going to Mexico. To which Trump replied:
It’s good to see that Trump has identified the lack of worker power as a key part of the problem workers face!