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Opinion Trump’s latest violation of the emoluments clause

President Trump at the Capitol on Tuesday. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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When President Trump tweeted on Sunday about ZTE, the Chinese telecom company, he initially left more than a few pundits and reporters puzzled.

The tweet seemingly demanded that the Commerce Department reverse — or substantially cut back — a ruling that U.S. firms could not do business with ZTE for seven years, as a result of findings that the company was selling goods to North Korea and Iran.

Was the president attempting to play nice with China prior to his planned summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in June? Was he really concerned about the Chinese jobs lost as a result of the ban, as he claimed on Twitter, and trying to dial down trade hostilities? Or was his real concern with American jobs, as he appeared to indicate on Monday; that is, the positions that could be lost after the firm no longer purchases parts from American companies for use in its products? Or something else entirely?

Ha. Ha. Ha. We should have known that there is another possible explanation — one involving Trump’s personal bottom line.

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As it turns out, the South China Morning Post reported last week that a real estate development project in Indonesia, containing a number of hotels, homes — and let’s not forget the golf course — bearing the Trump name, received $500 million in loans from the Chinese government.

President Trump tweeted on May 13 that he has asked the Commerce Department to help Chinese technology company ZTE Corp 'get back into business, fast.' (Video: Reuters)

At Monday’s White House news conference, reporters asked how, precisely, the involvement of China in the Indonesia resort project didn’t violate the emoluments clause of the Constitution, and how it squares with the president’s assurances that the Trump Organization wouldn’t get involved in “foreign deals” as long as he remained in the White House. Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah recommended contacting the Trump Organization for comment.

Really, you can’t make this stuff up.

Trump has refused to place all his holdings in a blind trust, something all other modern American presidents have done. This story shows exactly why we want our presidents to do this.

At best, this is an inadvertent violation of the emoluments clause, the constitutional provision banning presidents from accepting gifts or other payments from foreign governments. Making money from a development that is dependent on foreign-government money for financing almost certainly appears to veer into this territory.  As Norm Eisen, a former Obama administration ethics chief, tweeted out:

But good luck getting to the bottom of this. Sure, a few Republican members of Congress are expressing outrage:

But any action by Congress seems unlikely. It’s not as though congressional Republicans are holding Trump to account for all of the self-dealing we’ve already seen, so why would anyone think they will get more aggressive here?

It would be nice if the president of the United States were the sort of person we could give the benefit of the doubt to under these circumstances, that Trump was a businessman of such integrity and probity it would never cross our minds he was allowing his personal financial self-interest to overwhelm his sense of duty to office and country.

But Trump is not that man.

Never mind Trump’s shoddy business record prior to his becoming president, which included such highlights as lying about his net worth; refusing to pay small contractors who worked on his projects; ripping off people so desperate to get ahead that they paid upwards of $35,000 to Trump University, where sales brokers were told to “always assume our attendees need the program to succeed;” his longstanding ties to Russian oligarchs and other unsavory businessmen from the former Soviet Union; and his deals in such countries as Azerbaijan, where he partnered with the son of a former high-ranking government official who, as the New York Times ever-so-delicately described him, “had dealings with front companies for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and was corrupt.”

As president, Trump claimed the tax-reform package he signed would leave him a “big loser,” something that is almost certainly a lie.  Trump has turned his presidency into a seemingly nonstop marketing opportunity, including, among other things, doubling the initiation fee at his private Mar-a-Lago Club. As for his eponymous Washington hotel, it’s rolling in money, a seemingly required stop for almost anyone hoping to make a good impression on the president.

So why on earth would anyone believe an innocent explanation for the ZTE move, such as the one National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow offered to Mike Allen of Axios? Kudlow said there’s “a bromance” between Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and that Trump, forever a businessman, is willing to mix up economic and national-security interests in pursuit of a trade deal.

Please. Whatever Congress does — or, more likely, doesn’t do — Trump has provided no reason to give him the benefit of the doubt. The idea that he is motivated by pathos over the plight of any workers, whatever country they live in, or even a simple desire to make a deal on behalf of the United States, is a triumph of hope over experience. Don’t we know better by now?