The nonstop bombshell stories regarding President Trump’s collapsing presidency tend to blot out smaller events, which at any other time might be seen as significant breaches of ethics rules and constitutional restrictions on the president. This week we saw two cases in this category.
WAMU radio reported that on Thursday night press secretary Sean Spicer was the star attraction at “a fundraiser for the Republican Party of Virginia at Trump National Golf Course in Sterling — a property that President Donald Trump owns and frequents on weekends when he is in town. The appearance is raising eyebrows for some government ethics observers primarily for the location, but also because of Spicer’s celebrity.” For one thing, White House staff usually avoid overt political appearances of this type. But that’s not the only problem:
Norm Eisen, co-founder of the government watchdog group CREW or Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the top ethics advisor to President Barack Obama, says if he were counseling this administration, he would encourage Spicer to skip the event.
“There’s something very unique here, and that is the property. The Republicans are having this event at a property that is owned by Donald Trump. And they’re throwing in the presence of a senior White House staffer almost as a party favor,” Eisen said.
At issue is that Trump owns the golf course, Spicer works for Trump and, theoretically, the funds the Virginia GOP is spending to rent the facility will go directly back to Trump.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have already been scolded for allegedly using their offices to promote financial gain, but the message clearly has not sunk in. The rule technically does not cover the president, but the noxious appearance of self-interest now permeates the administration. Everything from doubling the new-membership fee and renting golf carts to Secret Service agents at Mar-a-Lago to sweeping up 38 trademarks in China on a single day has turned the White House into an imitation of foreign kleptomaniac regimes.
Virginia has its off-year gubernatorial and other state races this year. Ed Gillespie, who ran an excellent race barely losing to Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) in 2014, is the favorite to win the GOP nomination. But how is he going to deal with Trump’s corruption? Will he disallow these kinds of events that put money in the president’s pockets? Is he even going to appear with Trump in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016? A promising candidate is going to have Trump wrapped around his neck for months.
Inside the Beltway, Republicans sit idly by, as Trump’s indefensible financial self-dealings go virtually unremarked upon. On Thursday, a flock of Democratic senators led by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote to the Trump Organization and Trump’s Revocable Trust. The letter asserted that Trump is failing “to take proper actions to ensure he is not in violation of the Constitution.” The letter continues:
For example, a recent Forbes article, entitled “Trump’s Vegas Partner Says Business Is Not Dividing Profits From Foreign Governments As Promised,” reported that President Trump may still receive considerable profits from foreign officials through his Las Vegas hotel. There are also reports that government agencies have been forced to pay significant amounts of money to the Trump Organization. . . .
Perhaps most troubling, however, is the status of President Trump’s proposed trust. On January 11, President Trump announced to the American public that he was placing his businesses in a trust and, according to his lawyer, was “completely isolating himself from his business interests.” Ethics experts warned that even that structure, if properly executed, is insufficient to guard against conflicts of interest. Yet President Trump’s proposed trust and his pledge to “completely isolat[e] himself from his business interests” ring hollow given Eric Trump’s statement that he will provide business updates to President Trump “probably quarterly.”6 The press has further reported that the trust agreement allows President Trump to request and receive any “net income or principal” from the trust- at any time and for whatever reason.
If accurate, the President will receive regular updates on the ongoing affairs of his businesses and will be able to regularly access profits. It defies common sense to believe that this type of arrangement resolves the President’s conflicts of interest. It also raises serious questions regarding how such an arrangement could credibly insulate the President from unending Emoluments Clause violations.
The senators then request some detailed information, including how monies derived from foreign governments are segregated and accounted for and the value of foreign trademarks. Detailing $23 million in condo sales, much of it to shell companies, the senators ask: “What steps has the Trump Organization taken to ensure that none of the LLCs to which it has sold these properties are linked to foreign governments or instrumentalities thereof?”
All of this presents a clear opportunity for the GOP House and Senate to stop facilitating corruption and enabling possible violations of the emoluments clause. Is there a single committee in either House with just one or two members willing to join Democrats in issuing a subpoena for this kind of information? Is there any Republican in either body willing to demand strict enforcement of federal rules on private enrichment?
Don’t hold your breath. In refusing to give up partisan gamesmanship, Republicans prove their unfitness to govern every day. Voters need to hold them accountable in 2018.