Reince Priebus, who has been named President-elect Donald Trump’s chief of staff, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence toured the Sunday talk shows. Asked about the problem of Trump’s massive conflicts of interest — owning and managing an international business, which among other things is indebted to foreign banks — both Priebus and Pence resorted to “The lawyers will figure it out.” Priebus tried assuring Chuck Todd on NBC it would all be worked out, although he wouldn’t say how. (“We’re going to make sure that no matter what decisions are made, that they’re going to be run through counsel. And as you know, there’s a White House Counsel’s office that will be there, that will be issuing opinions and these matters will all be dealt with, they’ll all be dealt with accordingly.”) Pence appearing on Fox News Sunday likewise assured us, “I’m very confident working with the best legal minds in the country, that the president-elect and his family will create the proper separation from his business as he goes forward.” On CBS, Pence again insisted that “I can assure you and all of your viewers is that all of the laws pertaining to his business dealings and his service as president of the United States will be strictly adhered to.”
This is misleading. The statutory law here is virtually nonexistent because every modern president has voluntarily ceased direct business dealings and put passive investments in an actual blind trust — controlled by an unrelated third party. Lawyers could report that there is no specific statute to violate here — unless and until someone violates bribery or other public corruption laws.
The only applicable law here is the Constitution. On Fox News Sunday, there was this interesting exchange:
CHRIS WALLACE: Well, Bob, this is a growing concern about the left and the right. If President Trump turns his business over to his children, who have been running it with him already, as he says he’s going to do, he’s going to know what’s going on, and it certainly raises the real possibility that foreign countries may try to do business with the Trump Organization to curry favor with him. As I discussed with Vice President-elect Pence, some people are calling this the Clinton Foundation on steroids.
THE POST’S BOB WOODWARD: Well, it’s a serious problem, and Trump has to deal with it. And the idea that his kids are going to do this and that makes it a blind trust is not true. And Pence was saying the lawyers will figure this out. But this is a case where Trump’s going to then have to cede some authority to somebody else beyond his kids and to lawyers because, you know, the — as we look for themes in all of this, the power of the presidency has grown. It is giant. And he’s going to be watched every step of the way. And you don’t want to have — I suspect he’s not going to want to have a weekly or monthly story about this deal going down and asking that ancient question, when did he know about it and what did he know.
WALLACE: Or what did he know and when did he know it, to quote Watergate properly.
WALLACE: … There’s a [constitutional] clause, the Emoluments Clause, which bans public officials from accepting any gifts, any money, any presents from foreign countries. And one could argue if the Trump Organization is doing business, let’s say, with India, that you’re breaking that clause.
Given Trump’s sprawling overseas operations and investments, think about the hundreds or thousands of times this could be violated — when a bank owned by a foreign government renegotiates a loan or there is a regulatory or tax dispute with a foreign government. Maybe a foreign government negotiates with Trump companies for a tax break or builds a road to facilitate traffic to one of his properties. Even worse, each time a foreign government’s representative stays in a Trump hotel, money changes hands. After Trump becomes president all these arguably would be a direct constitutional violation. What would Congress do about it?
Too much focus has been place on who manages Trump’s holdings. The real conflict is in Trump’s ownership and receipt of financial benefits from continuing to hold these very public assets. His ongoing refusal to release his taxes makes the problem all that more knotty. We don’t even know what properties and businesses he owns, what foreign revenue and assets he has and from which financial institutions he has borrowed.
In pretending this is all a legal matter and that real restrictions exist Pence and Priebus seem not to grasp, or pretend not to grasp, the real issue here is Trump’s own promise to “drain the swamp” — to eliminate the culture of self-dealing, conflicts of interest and pay-to-play that has infested government. There was no issue more central to Trump’s campaign or to his attacks on (“Crooked”) Hillary Clinton. To allow his children to run his businesses would be the most egregious conflict of them all. Every decision by an agency of the federal government and every administration policy would be scrutinized for the benefits it bestowed on a Trump property or business. Every diplomatic move would be examined to see if there were a financial quid pro quo, perhaps a favorable renegotiation of a foreign bank loan or resolution of regulatory issues involving Trump’s foreign properties. Any bill, be it tax reform or regulatory reform, likely would have some impact on one of his businesses. Inevitably, there will be instance after instance in which Trump or someone working for Trump or legislation Trump favored wound up enriching Trump. That is the essence of corruption. The presidency would become the biggest swamp of them all.
Here is the first real test for Congress. If Trump refuses to liquidate his holdings, Congress must do something. It can pass legislation requiring him to provide an accounting of all his earnings and assets. It could pass a law requiring his assets be managed by a true third party. He could veto such legislation but it would be up to Congress to carry out its constitutional duties and prevent corruption on a massive scale. If Trump then refuses to abide by whatever requirement Congress imposes we could readily find ourselves at a constitutional impasse. Likewise, if he continued violating the Emoluments Clause, would Congress even hold hearings?
If Republicans, in their continued spinelessness, refuse to act to check Trump, Democrats should refuse to move forward on business until the issue is resolved. They would be right on the ethics and right on the politics. That’s right — embarrass Republicans in Congress if they become enablers of Trump’s corruption. The media and the public should be relentless in holding Trump to account for his “drain the swamp” promise. It was the premise of his campaign, and it is up to Congress to prevent Trump from pulling off his greatest scam of all.