We may look back on this week as the moment when Donald Trump effectively declared he does not care about his financial conflicts of interest and nor does he plan to meaningfully address them. He first canceled a scheduled press conference to address the matter. (“Busy times!” Trump tweeted, by way of explanation, though he did have time to host Kanye West, Anna Wintour, and Omarosa at Trump Tower since Monday).
Trump also tweeted that his two sons will be running the Trump Organization in his absence:
Presidency. Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them. No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2016
This leaves the public to guess what financial interest and legal authority Trump will continue keep in his company (presumably all of it), whether he intends to return to running his business, and enjoying its newfound profits, once he is no longer president, and how there will be any meaningful separation between the president and his corporation when two of his children make all the decisions. Only 24 hours later, Trump found a highly visible way to declare there will be no attempt to isolate his children from the business of the presidency. Trump hosted a roomful of Silicon Valley titans on Wednesday, whose companies are collectively worth $3.1 trillion. In that room were people who controlled a substantial chunk of the US economy, and who all have vital regulatory entanglements with the federal government. Also sitting at the table—Don and Eric Trump:
Those who Trump has said will be running his businesses are sitting in on meeting with business leaders and soon-to-be sr govt officials. pic.twitter.com/DauignTaE7 — Chris Geidner (@chrisgeidner) December 14, 2016
Don Jr. even tweeted that he was “Honored to have sat in on this meeting.” In the brief remarks the press pool was allowed to hear, Trump declared, “I’m here to help you folks do well. Anything we can do to help this go along, and we’re going to be there for you. And you’ll call my people, you’ll call me. It doesn’t make any difference. We have no formal chain of command around here.” He also made an oblique joke about how Twitter was not invited to the meeting—reportedly because it refused to make a “#CrookedHillary” emoji for him during the campaign.
There are several inescapable conclusions from this meeting. The Trump children are part of the White House decision matrix and power structure. Trump wants to do anything he can as president to improve the fortunes of those executives and their businesses. And personal slights or disfavors to Trump might disqualify a company from receiving that assistance.
The embers of a five-alarm corruption fire are in plain view. Any company that crosses Trump—say, by taking an action unfavorable to the Trump Organization’s myriad businesses, which remain closely linked to Trump—may find itself an enemy of the White House.
What’s also clear is that Trump comfortable enough with this setup to flaunt it in public view, and that he won’t change unless someone makes him.
Enter Elizabeth Warren and several Senate Democrats, announced legislation Thursday morning that would force the president to divest from his businesses. The bills would require “the President, Vice President, their spouses, and minor or dependent children to divest all interests that create financial conflicts of interest by selling these assets and placing the proceeds in a true blind trust.”
The bill would also adopt a “sense of Congress” that if the president were to violate financial conflict of interest laws that apply to other executive branch employees, it would “constitute a high crime or misdemeanor under the impeachment clause of the U.S. Constitution.”
“The American people deserve to know that the President of the United States is working to do what’s best for the country—not using his office to do what’s best for himself and his businesses,” said Warren.“The only way for President-elect Trump to truly eliminate conflicts-of-interest is to divest his financial interests and place them in a blind trust. This has been the standard for previous presidents, and our bill makes clear the continuing expectation that President-elect Trump do the same.”
Warren was joined by Senators Ben Cardin, Chris Coons, Dick Durbin, and Jeff Merkley. “President-elect Trump’s financial entanglements are unprecedented in American history,” Durbin noted.
For now this is a Democratic messaging bill. But one must genuinely wonder: At what point will congressional Republicans be tempted to join this effort in order to prevent a massive conflict-of-interest scandal from engulfing the White House and the party? Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, as we reported last week, said “there is an undercurrent of anxiety among the Senate Republicans, not all of them but many of them, about how this all ends.” He added that “I think the folks who are feeling that way are going to take their time and let problems develop into something more public and more acute before they take their steps.”
This legislation could be that step. It’s clear at this point Trump plans to serve as both president and de facto head of the Trump Organization until someone makes him do otherwise.