Hey, wasn’t this supposed to be a monumental day? Remember when Donald Trump told us to circle Dec. 15 on our calendars?
Indeed he did. Sixteen days ago His Lordship decreed: “I will be holding a major news conference in New York City with my children on Dec. 15 to discuss the fact that I will be leaving my great business in total in order to make America great again!”
Yeah, right. The 53.9 percent of Americans who didn’t vote for Trump knew instinctively that his grand promise was just another episode in his perpetual shell game — and, sure enough, earlier this week, Trump said there would not be a major news conference on Dec. 15, and that instead he would erase his massive conflicts of interest with some kind of major announcement down the road. On an unspecified date in January.
I doubt that de facto Republican strategist Vladimir Putin is personally directing this particular con. Nah, Trump can pull this one off all by himself. He said earlier this week, on “Fox News Sunday,” that if and when his big announcement ever comes, it will be clear that his kids will run the business (“my executives will run it with my children”), that he himself will have “nothing to do with management,” that he himself will not be “doing deals at all.”
Perhaps Trump’s suckers can convince themselves that ceding the business to his executives and his kids is the same thing as “leaving my business in total,” but the rest of us are not willfully fooled.
During the past 40 years, post-Watergate, all presidents with financial entanglements have separated themselves “in total” by liquidating their business assets and placing them in blind trusts. Indeed, earlier this week, the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, a federal watchdog entity, officially warned that “transferring operational control of a company to one’s children would not constitute the establishment of a qualified blind trust, nor would it eliminate conflicts of interest.”
As I have already written, the Founding Fathers were so concerned about conflicts of interest — fearing that business ties abroad would make presidents more suspectible to foreign payoffs — that they barred such payoffs (“emoluments”) in Article I Section 9 of the Constitution. And Richard Painter, the chief ethics officer in the George W. Bush administration, contends (along with other legal eagles) that the Electoral College electors, who meet next Monday, should reject Trump on that basis alone:
“I don’t think the Electoral College can vote for someone to become president if he’s going to be in violation of the Constitution on day one, and hasn’t assured us he’s not in violation.”
Well, apparently Trump figured that it would be better for the electors to remain in the dark — to rubber-stamp his ascent in the absence of any real information about his conflicts of interest. Because a “major news conference” four days before their meeting might have enlightened them about the business conflicts that he intends to keep.
But he’s been playing this shell game for weeks. By announcing on Nov. 30 that his big separation announcement would come on Dec. 15, he bought himself some time. His flaks were able to deflect the conflict-of-interest questions by essentially saying, “He’ll address those issues on Dec. 15.” But now that Dec. 15 has proved to be a mirage, his flaks are essentially saying: “He’ll address those issues some time in January.”
Look no further than the transcript of a conference call that his flacks conducted yesterday with members of the press (Trump himself hasn’t held a press conference since last July, when he invited Putin to hack more Democratic emails). Yesterday’s conference call was a master class in the art of the long con.
Right away, a reporter asked about the Trump Hotel in Washington, where foreign dignatories are renting rooms to curry favor with Trump. The hotel was built on federal property. The General Services Administration, which oversees the property, basically says that unless Trump divests himself of that hotel, he’ll be violating the contract on day one. The contract he signed states unequivocally: “No … elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”
Anyway, the reporter asked: “The GSA has told members of Congress that … his becoming president would be in violation of the lease. Is there any comment on that specifically?”
The Trump flack’s response: “This will be something that comes up at the press conference the president-elect will now he holding in January. This will be one of the business items that will be discussed.”
Later in the conference call, another reporter tried to follow up: “Are you guys just not gonna discuss any details with any of Trump’s potential conflicts of interest until the president-elect makes his own statement in January? And do we have any sense of a set date for that? And are you still guaranteeing a press conference, at this point?”
Trump flack: “I think we went through that in detail on the very first question. [When] we have additional details for when that press conference will be, we’ll certainly make those details available.”
Minutes later, another reporter tried again: “A couple questions on conflict of interest. One is, there’s been reports that we’ve confirmed that Don Junior and Eric Trump had involvement in … discussions over Interior Secretary and I believe Secretary of State. But they’re also supposedly going to be running Donald Trump’s businesses. So do you have any response to concerns about a conflict of interest there, whether it’s appropriate for them to be sitting in?
“And then also, when it comes to another conflict, the president-elect said I think last week that he had sold his stock portfolio during the summer. Can we expect that he’ll provide any documentation or proof showing that, maybe at this press conference that’s coming up in January?”
Trump flack: “Much of that will be discussed as we move into January and have the actual press conference.”
The clank you just heard is the sound of a can being kicked down the road — at least until the man’s small hand rests atop the inauguration bible. And if you listen a little harder, you can hear the crumbling of our democratic norms.