Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–May 2020 Update

Over three years ago, in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most significant updates this month (as was also the case last month) concern the ways in which the financial interests of the Trump Organization may intersect with the Trump Administration’s response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. Although the main criticisms of the Trump Administration’s response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic have focused on the administration’s delays, misinformation, and general incompetence, some critics have highlighted suggestive evidence that the personal business interests of President Trump, his family, and their close associates may be influencing the administration’s approach to the pandemic. Critics have pointed to the following concerns:

    • Resistance to stay-at-home orders: There is some suspicion that the Trump administration’s slow and equivocal response to the pandemic may have been influenced by President Trump’s desire to avoid hurting the hospitality industry, one of the Trump Organization’s major lines of business. Media reports suggest that President Trump pushed for an end to social distancing by mid-April in part because of the adverse effect social distancing has had on his own hotels and resorts, and although President Trump ultimately relented and extended the social distancing guidelines through at least the end of April, he renewed his push for states to lift their stay-at-home orders in mid-May, despite the fact that states had not hit any of the targets laid out in the federal government’s own guidance on when it would be safe to reopen the economy. The potential conflict of interest was highlighted by the fact that on May 10, President Trump retweeted an announcement from the Trump Organization’s golf club in LA that it would be re-opening, accompanied by President Trump’s declaration that it’s “great to see our Country starting to open up again.” Former hear of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub characterized this tweet as “shameless, corrupt, and repugnant.”
    • Scope of travel ban: Critics highlighted the fact that the 30-day ban on travel from Europe that President Trump announced on March 11 initially excluded the United Kingdom and Ireland, where Trump owns hotels and golf courses, though a few days later the Administration extended the travel restrictions to cover both countries.
    • Access to economic relief funds: President Trump’s financial interests may have influenced the administration’s response to the pandemic’s economic costs. In early March 2020, President Trump mentioned the possibility of a bailout for the hotel industry, and later that month, as Congress and the administration were negotiating an economic relief package, President Trump refused to rule out the possibility that his personal properties would accept relief funds under this package. However, the bill that ultimately passed, known as the CARES Act, however, banned President Trump’s properties from receiving government support. Nevertheless, when signing the legislation, President Trump issued a statement that suggested his administration would not treat the portion of the legislation that requires the newly-created Inspector General to report to Congress without presidential approval as legally binding, a move that raises concerns about both transparency and compliance. Furthermore, despite the fact that the CARES Act bars businesses owned by President Trump or other government officials from receiving stimulus funding, the Trump administration has funneled COVID-19 small business loans to companies connected to Trump and his allies. Separately from CARES Act relief, the Trump Organization, which leases the Old Post Office Building in Washington D.C. from the General Services Administration (GSA) for the Trump International Hotel, has reportedly asked the GSA for relief from its rent payments, a request that highlights the inherent conflict of interest in the President’s family company renting a building from the federal government.
    • Promotion of particular COVID-19 tests and treatments. For several weeks, President Trump aggressively promoted hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for COVID-19. Hydroxychloroquine is produced by Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical company. Three Trump family trusts have small investments in Sanofi, major Republican donor Ken Fisher owns a majority stake, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross used to run a fund that invested in Sanofi. Rick Bright, the former head of the U.S. Government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that he was pressured to give government contracts to political cronies, including to Aeolus Pharmaceuticals, a pharmaceutical company that produced hydroxychloroquine, because the company’s CEO was friends with President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Another troubling example is the Trump Administration’s selection of a firm called OSCAR Health—a company founded by Jared Kushner’s brother and formerly partially owned by Jared Kushner—to develop a website to facilitate coronavirus testing. (The website was developed but quickly scrapped, and in the end OSCAR Health was not paid for its efforts.)

 

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss 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.)

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–March 2018 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 (despite the fact that Eric Trump seems to think this is a violation of his family’s First Amendment rights). Our March 2018 update is now available here.

The most notable new developments over the last month include:

  • New reports concerning the financial entanglements of Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and senior advisor, in particular an allegation that multiple foreign governments may have already attempted to use Kushner’s business interests as a form of leverage to influence U.S. policy.
  • The controversy surrounding Donald Trump Jr.’s visit to India, which he ostensibly took in a solely private capacity, but which critics pointed to as exactly the sort of blending of public and private rolls that is of such great concern in this administration.
  • Additional troubling financial conflict-of-interest reports involving senior administration officials outside of the Trump family circle, including former CDC director Brenda Fitzgerald, who resigned after it was revealed that she had purchased stock in tobacco and health care companies while director, and HUD Secretary Ben Carson, whose “listening tour” appears to have been organized in such a way as to benefit his son’s business interests.

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations that we discuss 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.

Jared Kushner May Have Violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

Recent media reports – which would be even more sensational if we weren’t getting so desensitized to Trump-related scandals – indicate that prior to Trump’s inauguration, his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner had private meetings with Russian government officials, including both Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Sergey Gorkov, the head of a Russian state-owned bank (and a close associate of Vladamir Putin). We still don’t know (and may never know) the precise contents of the meeting, but based on circumstantial evidence, several of the media reports discuss speculations Kushner and his Russian government contacts discussed the possibility of extending financing to business ventures owned by Kushner or his family (including, most notably, a financially struggling office building at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan), if Kushner would help to persuade his father-in-law, the President-Elect of the United States, to lift the sanctions that the U.S. had imposed on Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine.

Again, we don’t yet know whether this is true. But let’s suppose for a moment that some version of that story is approximately correct: that during conversations with Russian government officials, Jared Kushner proposed or endorsed the idea that he would try to persuade his father-in-law to lift the Russia sanctions, and that Kushner did so because he believed (or was told) that if he did, a Russian state-owned development bank would provide valuable financing for his family’s business.

If that’s what occurred, then even nothing further came of these discussions, then there’s a very good argument that Jared Kushner committed a criminal violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Though there’s been quite a bit of discussion in the reports so far about various federal laws that Kushner may or may not have been broken in connection with these meetings (such as the little-used Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from interfering with U.S. diplomacy). But I haven’t seem much discussion of the FCPA angle. So even though it might still seem unrealistic to imagine that FCPA charges will be brought, let me elaborate a bit on why I think there’s a plausible case for an FCPA violation here, if the evidence supports the characterization of the meetings sketched above: Continue reading

Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Anti-Nepotism, and Conflicts of Interest

On the same day as President Trump’s swearing in, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) released a memorandum elaborating upon why President Trump’s appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a Senior White House Advisor did not violate the federal anti-nepotism statute (5 U.S.C. § 3110). That statute prohibits a public official (including the President) from appointing or employing a relative (which the statute defines as including a son-in-law or daughter-in-law). The OLC reasoned that despite the seemingly clear prohibition in 5 U.S.C § 3110, another federal statute, 3 U.S.C. § 105(a), exempted positions in the White House Office from the anti-nepotism law. The OLC recognized this conclusion was a departure from its own precedent, but with the aid of some selective reading of legislative history, the OLC argued that lawmakers intended to allow the president “total discretion” in employment matters when it passed 3 U.S.C. § 105(a). (For non-specialists, see this primer for an explanation of these and other federal laws and regulations which could be relevant for addressing corruption in the Trump Administration.)

Somewhat predictably, the OLC memo generated debate among legal commentators (see here, here, here, and here). Yet even if the legal arguments were not entirely convincing, the OLC ended with a practical point that was echoed by many of the commentaries: given that President Trump will seek Mr. Kushner’s advice, regardless of whether he is a formal employee, it would be better for Mr. Kushner to be formally employed as a White House advisor, and thus subject to the applicable conflict-of-interest (COI) and financial disclosure rules. The same argument applies to Ivanka Trump, who also recently became an employee of the White House.

Some anticorruption advocates, myself included, were persuaded at the time by the OLC’s practical point. It would be best if the President did not make major policy decisions on the advice of radically unqualified relatives. But unfortunately, he is going to turn to them for advice. Given that baseline, we should prefer those family members occupy formal appointments, where at least they will be constrained by the COI statute and disclosure rules. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we should never have been persuaded. The COI statute and the disclosure rules turn out to be ineffective devices for preventing corruption in the Trump era. While the disclosure rules did encourage Mr. Kushner to make some divestments, they do not contain enough details to identify potential conflicts. And when there are conflicts, the COI statute is unlikely to be enforced, either because Attorney General Jeff Sessions will choose not to, or because the White House will grant a waiver.

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Anticorruption Tools in the Anti-Trump Toolkit: A Primer

[Kaitlin Beach provided helpful research and thoughtful contributions to this post.]

Since Donald Trump’s election, critics have asserted that his presidency presents unprecedented risks of corruption, cronyism, and conflict of interest. Many argue that President Trump and members of his administration are already engaging in conduct that is not only unethical, but also illegal. Because it can be hard for non-specialists to keep track of the myriad rules that have been referenced in the context, this post provides a brief, non-technical overview of the most important federal laws and regulations that are designed to prevent corruption, conflict-of-interest, and self-dealing in the U.S. government, focusing on those that have been most widely or most creatively discussed in relation to fighting a purportedly corrupt Trump administration.

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