President-elect Donald Trump’s sycophants have been promising that once elected Trump would demonstrate seriousness on foreign policy and come to appreciate the dangers facing the United States when he learns about the latest threats in his daily briefing. Umm, that’s not happening, as we learned from a stunning Fox News interview, which revealed Trump to be dangerously arrogant and dismissive of the entire intelligence community.
Among his frightful comments, Trump told us he doesn’t believe the unanimous view of our intelligence community that Russia hacked the Democrats. “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it. I don’t know why, and I think it’s just — you know, they talked about all sorts of things. Every week, it’s another excuse.” He sees this not as a national security threat but as a personal insult, an attempt to diminish his victory. (“We had a massive landslide victory, as you know, in the Electoral College,” he said, ignoring that his total was only the 46th biggest electoral total out of 58 elections and that he lost the popular vote.) Indeed, his entire mind-set seemed to be that the facts are irrelevant, only his reputation as the “winner” in 2016 matters. He went so far as to suggest the CIA is helping the Democrats undermine him.
Trump also let on that he takes an intelligence briefing only once a week (!). Maybe if he took the briefings every day he would begin to understand the Russian threat better. (He of course used to slam President Obama for missing some briefings.) He couldn’t really come up with any rationale for picking Rex W. Tillerson for secretary of state (although he denies making a final choice, perhaps in recognition of the firestorm of criticism) other than he is a businessman. (A “world class player” is just a euphemism for a businessman.)
He sounded incoherent when talking about his call with Taiwan’s president, but let slip that any change in China policy was not a well-thought-out strategy he had signed onto after understanding his options: “I took a call. I heard the call was coming probably an hour or two before. I fully understand the One-China policy. But I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” What?!
He sounded like a petulant autocrat dismissing the operation of the free market:
WALLACE: What happen to the free market, sir?
TRUMP: That is — that’s not free market when they go out and move and sell back into our country.
WALLACE: But that’s the free market. They’ve made a decision that makes —
TRUMP: No, that’s the dumb market, OK? That’s the dumb market.
I’m a big free trader. But it has to be fair. . . .
But when a company wants to move to Mexico or another company — or another country and they want to build a nice, beautiful factory and they want to sell their product through our border, no tax, and the people that all got fired, so we end up with unemployment and debt, and they end up with jobs and factories and all of the other things, not going to happen that way. And the way you stop it is by imposing a tax.
Now, I’ve come up with a number of 35 percent. There is no tax if you don’t leave. There is no tax at all. You know, people are saying, they don’t understand, really, what I’m doing. I read The Wall Street Journal the other day. Honestly, their editorial board doesn’t get it. I don’t think they understand business. I don’t think The Wall Street Journal editorial board — and I know some of them. They’re really nice. I don’t think they understand business. They don’t understand what I’m saying.
There’s a 35 percent tax, but there is no tax if you don’t move. But if you move your plant or factory and you want to sell back into our country, you fire all your people, there are going to be consequences for that. There are going to be consequences. You know what’s going to happen?
TRUMP: I’ll tell you.
TRUMP: Nobody’s going to move. They’re not going to move. They’re not going to leave. They’re going to stay here.
We will see if Republicans in Congress go along with that.
Worst of all, he reaffirmed he is not selling his businesses. He insisted this is “different” than conflicts he accused Hillary Clinton of allowing as secretary of state. Massive conflicts of interest will continue so long as Trump owns the businesses and his close relatives manage them. Moreover, he said flat out he will be accepting, for example, payments in hotels from foreign governments. This would be a blatant violation of the emoluments clause. But he assures us he is turning down big deals — meaning he is still involved in foreign business discussions.
As Jordan Libowitz of the good government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington told me, “There are two equally incredible possibilities about Trump’s comments. Either he admitted that as President-elect, he’s discussing billions in deals with ‘big players’ whom he won’t name or he just made up a serious conflict of interest.” He continued, “If he’s telling the truth, he just made the case for disclosure and divestment. What deal would be so much of a conflict of interest that he’d turn down ten figures? Is it with the Russians?”
Others reiterate that what matters is Trump’s ongoing ownership of his businesses. ” To be certain, removing himself from management of the Trump Organization is important, but it does absolutely nothing to eliminate conflicts of interest,” says Paul Seamus Ryan of Common Cause. “His conflicts of interest arise from his personal financial interest in the Trump Organization, not simply from his management of the company. So long as President-elect Trump retains ownership of the Trump Organization, his businesses will be magnets for foreign influences and others wanting to curry favor with him.” He reminds us, ” This is why every President for the past four decades has put his assets into a blind trust or the equivalent. If President-elect Trump still owns the Trump Organization when he’s sworn into office next month, his conflicts of interest will be unprecedented and our great nation will suffer.”
The interview was horrifying, to be blunt. Here’s a man who thinks he is above the law, above reproach and without need of first-rate intelligence. The risks to the country are grave. But he is also setting himself and the GOP up for disaster. If a terror attack happens how will he explain his refusal to take regular briefings? When Trump and other administration officials take meetings or extend favors to countries involved in business dealings with his children the stench of corruption will hover over his presidency. The level of contempt for facts and for the rule of law does not shock those who opposed Trump throughout the campaign. It nevertheless should panic Republicans who lacked the nerve to oppose him.
We still do not have anything as basic as a listing of all his foreign businesses and debt held by foreign banks. “We have no idea about his potential conflicts, and will not, until he decides that the American people have a right to know who he’s doing business with,” Libowitz said. “Of course, none of these potential issues would exist if he followed the example of previous presidents and sold his assets outside the family and placed the profits in a blind trust.”
Unfortunately, an abysmal lack of leadership from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (whose office would not comment on Trump’s remarks concerning conflicts) has given him the green light to do whatever he likes, conflicts of interest and the Constitution be damned. The electors should take all of this into consideration as they cast their votes on December 19. Voting for someone who announces his indifference to evidence of a foreign cyberattack and to compliance with the Constitution — who effectively disqualifies himself from upholding the oath of office — would be irresponsible.
Democrats are being handed a lifeline to recover from the 2016 defeat: Run in 2018 on draining the swamp and defending America’s interests from Russian (and other) foes whom Trump is unwilling to confront. That sounds like a national theme that could catch fire — especially if the Republicans also decide to take away Obamacare without a ready replacement. Nah, they couldn’t be that politically stupid, could they?