Though he campaigned as the scourge of the “elite” who would come to Washington and “drain the swamp,” even before he takes office Donald Trump is establishing a new low when it comes to financial entanglements and the exploitation of government for personal financial gain. And he has sent a clear signal to those coming to work for him: Don’t worry about ethics.
I want to point to a couple of stories out this morning that show us how resistant to transparency about its financial conflicts of interest the Trump administration is shaping up to be. First, from Josh Gerstein, we learn that the president-elect is considering an arrangement that can be labeled a “trust” but still allows him to use the presidency to increase his wealth:
Donald Trump’s aides are considering a business arrangement that critics say would allow him or his appointees to sidestep conflict-of-interest laws governing the incoming administration and large investments in private-sector business.
Aides responsible for setting up ethics firewalls have held discussions with officials at the Office of Government Ethics about establishing what’s known as a “discretionary trust,” according to two sources briefed on the talks.
Such an arrangement could allow Trump or his family members to reap some of the legal benefits of a blind trust, but could also give them some insight into how the Trump businesses are faring while also allowing Trump and his family to continue to make money from those investments.
It sounds a lot like what Trump has proposed before — letting his kids run the business for him (yes, the kids who just got caught trying to sell access to themselves and their father) while Trump still reaps the financial benefit, and according to Gerstein the OGE is unlikely to approve it — though as Trump himself has noted, many of the relevant rules don’t apply to the president, so he can do what he wants. The key point is that there will still be ways for people — governments, private interests — to funnel money to Trump while he’s president, and there will no shortage of actors eager to do so.
I may sound like a broken record on this point, but the public absolutely needs to see Trump’s tax returns if we’re ever to understand the full scope of his conflicts of interest. And make no mistake: He has no intention of letting us see them. Ever. His line about not being able to release them while he’s being audited by the IRS was bogus the first time he said it and remains bogus today. When that audit is over, he’ll come up with an equally bogus excuse, or perhaps not bother coming up with one at all.
Is there anything Democrats can do about it? Without control of Congress, their options are limited, so for the moment, as Karoun Demirjian reports, they’re going to focus at least some of their energy on Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson:
Democrats do not believe they stand much chance of stopping Tillerson from being confirmed. But they plan to press the top diplomat-designate to commit to full divestiture from Exxon and detail how he would pursue a different approach to the world as secretary of state, in what one Senate Democratic aide who requested anonymity to candidly discuss strategy called a “very thorough, tough vetting.” As they have with Trump, Democrats plan to focus sharply on potential conflicts of interests deriving from Tillerson’s finances, as well as his unorthodox views on critical foreign policy matters.
It’s a grilling they would happily serve Trump, if only they had reason to drag him before a congressional committee.
Already, the minority party is railing against Republicans for refusing to demand Tillerson produce his tax returns. Their frustration stems from Tillerson’s response to a routine question about tax returns on the Foreign Relations Committee’s pre-confirmation hearing questionnaire. According to a Senate Democratic aide and a Trump transition team spokesman, Tillerson said he stood ready to provide only “tax return information” for his wife and himself for the previous three years. That means it’s possible Tillerson isn’t willing to provide complete returns.
Just to clarify, while there isn’t a firm legal requirement for Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials to release their tax returns, Senate committees routinely demand them during the confirmation process, particularly for officials in departments such as the Treasury whose decisions could bear on their personal finances.
If Tillerson were a lifelong diplomat with limited wealth and a simple portfolio of mutual funds, then things would be straightforward. But he isn’t, and they aren’t. For starters, he owns about 2.6 million shares of ExxonMobil stock, which at its price yesterday of $90 a share is worth more than $230 million. There are complications with portions of the stock that are not yet vested, but in order to avoid a massive conflict of interest he’ll have to sell it all off and turn the proceeds over to a blind trust.
Is he going to do that? Or will he continue to have a huge financial interest in the fortunes of one particular oil company as he shapes U.S. foreign policy?
One of the reasons Democrats plan to make such a big deal about Tillerson’s potential conflicts of interest is that unlike Trump, he’ll have to answer questions about them. Confirmation hearings are an opportunity for Democrats to face future Cabinet officials and question them (for the cameras, of course), something they’ll never get to do with the president.
Even reporters may never get to do it with this president; Trump hasn’t held a press conference since July, and we shouldn’t be surprised if he never holds one in the entire four years of his presidency. Before you say, “Of course he will; all presidents do,” think about how often Trump has decided not to do something all candidates or presidents have done, just because he didn’t want to. He already canceled the press conference he was supposed to have to explain and answer questions about how he’ll deal with his business interests while he’s president, and if you think that press conference is ever going to happen, you haven’t been paying enough attention.
This is particularly important now because Trump has gone to such great lengths to stock his Cabinet with extremely rich people who have no government experience. So far his Cabinet picks include three billionaires and six other people who count their wealth in the tens or hundreds of millions. Most or all of them will serve in Trump’s administration, then return to the private sector, where they’ll continue devoting their efforts to amassing as much wealth as they can.
This administration, like every other one, will reflect the values of the person at the top. There was never even a suggestion of personal misdeeds around President Obama, and it’s probably not a coincidence that his administration as a whole was remarkably free of scandal. Trump, on the other hand, is communicating quite explicitly to those who serve under him that there’s no need to be all that concerned about ethics, that self-dealing is not too much of a problem and that you don’t have to put aside your personal financial interests when you join the government. That message is going to be heard loud and clear.