Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–November 2017 Update

Last May, we launched our project to track credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.Just as President Trump’s son Eric will be providing President Trump with “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization’s business affairs, we will do our best to provide readers with regular updates on credible allegations of presidential profiteering. Our November update is now available here. A few highlights from the most recent update:

 

  • The Republican tax plan, strongly supported by President Trump, would result in enormous benefits to President Trump, his businesses, and his family. While it is difficult to assess the degree to which President Trump’s personal financial interests–as opposed to a general ideological/policy preference for cutting taxes on the super-rich–may have influenced the tax plan, the concern (which, as Jacob recently pointed out, is exacerbated by President Trump’s lack of transparency regarding his past tax returns) is a real one.
  • A relatively minor but nonetheless troubling report involves the Chinese government’s attempts to get the United States to return billionaire Guo Wengui, who has applied for asylum in the U.S. After Trump supporter Steve Wynn, who relies on Chinese government permits to operate his casinos in Macau, delivered (and apparently endorsed) a message from the Chinese government asking for Guo’s return, Trump initially agreed that he should be sent back, but changed his mind after aides informed him that Guo was a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. In this case, improper financial interests seem to have played a role in both sides of the debate within the U.S. government on Guo’s case.
  • The recent “Paradise Papers” revelations, reported by the International Consortium of Investigative journalists, have suggested that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s conflict of interest may go beyond what had already been reported: The leaks from the Appleby law firm indicate that Secretary Ross maintained an interest in a shipping company that received significant revenue from a Russian company co-owned by Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law.
  • As has been widely-reported, Puerto Rico initially granted a substantial no-bid contract for the repair of the island’s power grid to a tiny firm located in the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, despite the firm’s lack of capacity and experience. While Secretary Zinke insists that he had nothing to do with the contract, the governor of Puerto Rico has called for cancellation of the contract, and several federal agencies are investigating.
  • President Trump is breaking with past practice by personally interviewing candidates for U.S. Attorney positions in New York and Washington, D.C., which has raised concerns given that these offices would have jurisdiction over substantial portions of the Trump Organization.

We will continue to monitor and report on allegations that Trump, or his family and close associates, are seeking to profit from the presidency. As we are always careful to note, while we try to sift through the media reports to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations discussed are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.

3 thoughts on “Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–November 2017 Update

  1. Free flights, meals, free housing are always perks of being the president. Under the tax code, these would merely be “fringe benefits” under § 132. If the assertion that President Trump is corrupt and is using the presidency to benefit himself and his family’s financial interests is to hold any water, however, it must be based on facts beyond what other presidents have done.

    A lot of emphasis was placed on the fact President Trump did not place his personal investments into a blind trust. This practice only became common practice in the last 40 years. Additionally, disclosing tax returns started with Nixon. This too is a recent trend.

    President Trump is not required by law to create a blind trust. President Jimmy Carter ran a peanut empire—the last president to enter the White House directly owning and operating a business of any kind. It would seem then, that the upper-class elites are dissuaded from running for public office if they have a burden of disclosing too much whilst simultaneously turning over control of their wealth management. Accusations of a tax plan promulgated to benefit President Trump make hardly any sense. This was a proposal created by legislators who are elected as well—i.e., they felt that they were doing what was best for their constituents and the economy writ large.

    The real concern for future politicians (and President Trump currently) is the foreign investment and business. The issue isn’t about corruption as much as it is about the look of corruption. If President Trump via the U.S. government bailout or prop up any foreign government or bank, it will look as though Trump himself benefitted financially—even if it was the objectively “right” move. That begs the broader question, is modern political office now meant for just the “middle class”? A glance at the Emoluments Clause makes it seem as though any politician (or candidate) could not accept payments from foreign governments… But how practical is that nowadays in our globalized economy? Conversely, is it time to put faith in the legal system and assume that decisions are made for the national interest (unless objectively and substantially proven otherwise)?

    • Thank you for your comments. A few quick replies:

      1. You are correct that flights, meals, and housing are “fringe benefits” of the presidency. Nothing in the Tracker suggests otherwise, and sorts of benefits are not mentioned as raising any concerns. The more problematic gray-area cases involve situations where the President or his family members in such a way that the U.S. government is obliged to purchase substantially quantities of goods or services from business entities controlled by the Trump Organization.

      2. You are correct that President Trump is not legally obligated to place his assets in a blind trust, and nothing in the Tracker suggests otherwise. Nonetheless, the use of a blind trust has become standard practice for the past 40 years as a prophylactic measure designed to avoid the reality or appearance of conflicts of interest. In the absence of the use of a blind trust, it is all the more important to carefully scrutinize the business affairs of the President and his family, to see whether/where such conflicts may arise. That is the purpose of the Tracker and the monthly updates.

      3. You are correct that the tax plan is the product of work by legislators, not the unilateral creation of President Trump. Reasonable people could disagree as to whether or to what extent President Trump’s personal financial interests had any impact on the design of the plan. But just as it would be inappropriate to state unequivocally that key features of the tax plan were specifically requested by the President in order to benefit his family, it would also be naive to ignore the possibility that his financial interests might have played a role. There’s simply no way to know for sure, so the best we have to go on is suggestive, circumstantial evidence.

      4. I’ve heard the claim that insisting (politically, if not legally) that the President divest and place assets in a blind trust means that “upper class elites” will be dissuaded from running, and the presidency will be an office only for the “middle class.” Respectfully, this assertion seems to be refuted by the last 40 years of history, a time during which the practice of placing assets in a blind trust, though not legally required, was standard practice. During that period, major party nominees have been overwhelmingly “upper class elites.” Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, John McCain, and John Kerry were all extremely wealthy when they ran for President. (I’m less sure about Barack Obama.) Now, all of these people, in addition to being quite wealthy, also held public office prior to running for president. But that strikes me as a good thing rather than a bad thing.

      5. I don’t actually think it’s that hard to comply with the Foreign Emoluments Clause (even in our “modern, globalized economy”). Just don’t take payments from foreign governments while serving in public office. Just about every other public official, and every other President in the modern period, has managed to comply with it.

      6. Perhaps most importantly, I respectfully but strenuously disagree with the notion that we, as citizens, should “put faith in the legal system and assume that decisions are made for the national interest, unless objectively and substantively proven otherwise.” That sort of extreme deference to political leadership strikes me as neither wise nor warranted. It sounds more consistent with the attitude cultivated in autocratic states like China or Russia than what with the spirit of citizen engagement that is necessary to sustain a liberal democracy. In a criminal case, all parties are entitled to a presumption of innocence. But in the metaphorical public square, we can and should carefully scrutinize how our leaders behave, and cultivate a healthy skepticism (though not, I hope, a nihilistic cynicism) about their motivations and explanations.

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