If you listen to President-elect Donald Trump’s spinners, such as aide Sean Spicer, you would think Americans voted for corruption. Spicer, confronted with the massive conflicts enveloping Trump, declares that this was all known to voters. (“The American people have understood exactly what they’re getting and they voted overwhelmingly for him. He has been very clear about what he owns, the role of his family and everything else since he announced that he was running for president, and they overwhelmingly elected him with all of that on the table.”)
Hmm. We seem to remember Trump promising to drain the swamp, not fill it. We think he won with a “Crooked Hillary” message, not a “Let Donald Be a Crook” message. And the Constitution, in any case, does not allow a vote to override the emoluments clause. Moreover, Trump aides’ claim that Trump has been excessively transparent is nonsense. We still don’t know what is in his taxes, whether he is in debt to banks owned by foreign governments and what properties he owns in what countries. Moreover, a hotel tower with his name on it overseas could well make it — and the people in it — terrorist targets. Will taxpayers be footing the bill for additional security so Trump can keep his name on foreign buildings?
There are no conflict-of-interest laws that would force the president to sell off his business interests. But the president must still abide by laws against bribery, fraud and corruption, as well as a constitutional ban against accepting payments from a foreign power, upheld by threat of impeachment.
Trump tweeted late last month that it was “visually important” that the president show no business conflicts. In a series of late-night tweets Monday, Trump said he would leave his businesses before the Jan. 20 inauguration to be managed by executives and his two adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric. “No new deals,” he added, would be done during his time in office.
But those stipulations may not solve the core problem. If Trump gives his children corporate management responsibilities but still partially owns the businesses, he will have a financial stake that could influence his presidential decision-making, former White House ethics advisers said.
Today Trump was supposed to announce his scheme for removing conflicts of interest, but his announcement was “delayed.” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who has led a spirited crusade against Trump’s ethics-free transition, put out a statement that said: “I’m deeply disappointed by this delay. The further President-elect Trump kicks the can down the road, the closer he lurches toward a Constitutional crisis that we want him to avoid. The American public deserves complete transparency. On January 20th, Mr. Trump will take an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. It is imperative that before that day, President Trump detail the legal and moral steps he will be taking to completely sever his relationship with his business.”
In any event, Trump may have overestimated the public’s indulgence. According to a Fox News poll, 52 percent of registered voters are very or somewhat concerned Trump will put his business interests above the country’s interests, including a plurality of independent voters. That’s astonishing. A majority of the country already thinks Trump is corrupt. By a 53 percent to 43 percent majority, voters think Trump will not reduce corruption. (More than 60 percent also say he doesn’t think before he tweets and that he sues Twitter inappropriately. He’s also losing on the Russia issue, with 50 percent saying he’s too accommodating and 29 percent saying he’s about right or too confrontational. By a 67 percent to 28 percent margin, voters say they have confidence in the CIA).
Likewise, in a just-released CBS poll, 60 percent of Americans think he needs to release his taxes and 59 percent (61 percent of independents) think his businesses create a conflict of interest.
Republicans and Democrats alike may have underestimated the potency of the issue. This was, after all, a change election, in which voters were enraged at the political class. If Trump turns out to be as bad or even worse as professional pols who enrich themselves — and Republicans play interference for him — the bottom may fall out of his and their support. In 2018, the Democrats will then be able to run on a “Crooked Republicans” message meant to undercut his support with the people most angry about self-dealing.