Yes, there are two stories here wrapped into a single tale by events during the early part of this week. First there was an acrimonious meeting with TV anchors and new executives in which Trump unloaded on the press. Then there was an on-again-off-again-on-again meeting with the New York Times in which, among other positions, Trump defending his international business connections apparently brushing aside the idea that they represent the potential and reality of multiple global conflicts of interest. I’ll let John Cassidy of the New Yorker explain those conflicts, why they are so troubling, what consequences there might be for Trump the President and the nation, and what Trump might (not) do about them.
Trump takes shots at the press
Trump has had a contentious relationship with the press - to put it mildly. According to David Remnick at the New Yorker, there was a meeting at which Trump and his advisors were lined up against an array of New anchors and network executives. It resembled, according to one source, a “firing squad.”
“Sitting at a large conference table and flanked by his top aides, including Stephen Bannon, Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus, and Conway” Trump faced off against “around two dozen anchors and executives from CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, and ABC, including Lester Holt, Chuck Todd, Wolf Blitzer, Gayle King, David Muir, and Martha Raddatz.”
Remnick summarizes what he learned about that meeting.
The fantasy of the normalization of Donald Trump—the idea that a demagogic candidate would somehow be transformed into a statesman of poise and deliberation after his Election Day victory—should now be a distant memory, an illusion shattered.
First came the obsessive Twitter rants directed at “Hamilton” and “Saturday Night Live.” Then came Monday’s astonishing aria of invective and resentment aimed at the media, delivered in a conference room on the twenty-fifth floor of Trump Tower. In the presence of television executives and anchors, Trump whined about everything from NBC News reporter Katy Tur’s coverage of him to a photograph the news network has used that shows him with a double chin. Why didn’t they use “nicer” pictures?
For more than twenty minutes, Trump railed about “outrageous” and “dishonest” coverage. When he was asked about the sort of “fake news” that now clogs social media, Trump replied that it was the networks that were guilty of spreading fake news. The “worst,” he said, were CNN (“liars!”) and NBC.
This is where we are. The President-elect does not care who knows how unforgiving or vain or distracted he is. This is who he is, and this is who will be running the executive branch of the United States government for four years.
The over-all impression of the meeting from the attendees I spoke with was that Trump showed no signs of having been sobered or changed by his elevation to the country’s highest office. Rather, said one, “He is the same kind of blustering, bluffing blowhard as he was during the campaign.”
Our president-elect appears to need some help - lessons in anger management and civil discourse come to mind.
Trump talked to the NY Times about his positions
Then, after he had cancelled a meeting with the New York Times, Trump sat down with the Times publisher and reporters for a lengthy meeting.
President-elect Donald J. Trump on Tuesday tempered some of his most extreme campaign promises, dropping his vow to jail Hillary Clinton, expressing doubt about the value of torturing terrorism suspects and pledging to have an open mind about climate change.
He defended Stephen K. Bannon, his chief strategist, against charges of racism, calling him a “decent guy.” And he mocked Republicans who had failed to support him in his unorthodox presidential campaign.
Mr. Trump rejected the idea that he was bound by federal antinepotism laws from installing his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in a White House job. But he said he would want to avoid the appearance of a conflict and might instead seek to make Mr. Kushner a special envoy charged with brokering peace in the Middle East.
Trump embraces conflicts of interest
… in a wide-ranging hourlong interview with reporters and editors at The New York Times — which was scheduled, canceled and then reinstated after a dispute over the ground rules — Mr. Trump was unapologetic about flouting some of the traditional ethical and political conventions that have long shaped the American presidency.
He said he had no legal obligation to establish boundaries between his business empire and his White House, conceding that the Trump brand “is certainly a hotter brand than it was before.” Still, he said he would try to figure out a way to insulate himself from his businesses, which would be run by his children.
Pressed to respond to criticism … he was defiant. He declared that “the law’s totally on my side” when it comes to questions about conflict of interest and ethics laws. “The president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he said.
He said it would be extremely difficult to sell off his businesses because they are real estate holdings. He said that he would “like to do something” and create some kind of arrangement to separate his businesses from his work in government. He noted that he had turned over the management of his businesses to his children, which ethics lawyers say is not sufficient to prevent conflicts of interest.
He insisted that he could still invite business partners into the White House for grip-and-grin photographs. He said that critics were pressuring him to go beyond what he was willing to do, including distancing himself from his children while they run his businesses.
The scale of Trump’s conflicts of interest is mind-boggling
John Cassidy of the New Yorker shows us the international scope of Trump’s business empire and explains why service to “America, Inc.” is fundamentally in conflict with ownership of “Trump, Inc.”
… He evidently still intends to transfer managerial control (but not necessarily ownership) of his businesses to his kids. And rather than make any real break with his interests, he’ll leave things at that. Which means that every time President Trump deals with a country that contains a business with his name attached to it, there will be questions about whose interests he is really looking out for.
These questions will be incessant. According to an analysis of public financial filings that the Washington Post published over the weekend, “At least 111 Trump companies have done business in 18 countries and territories across South America, Asia and the Middle East.” Trump owns some of these enterprises, such as various golf courses in Scotland and Ireland, either by himself or with partners. Many of his other interests are licensing arrangements, in which local businessmen—real-estate developers, usually—have paid to use the Trump name. Along these lines, there is a Trump Tower Mumbai, a Trump Towers Istanbul, and a Trump Tower Punta del Este, on the coast of Uruguay.
And as my colleague Adam Davidson pointed out a few days ago, the Trump business empire is now expanding rapidly. “The firm added three new hotels, in Washington, D.C., Canada, and Panama, during the year and is looking at opportunities in the Dominican Republic, London, Frankfurt, Munich, Amsterdam, and Tel Aviv,” Davidson wrote. “In Asia, a hotel and residential complex in Bali, Indonesia, is under way. … Buildings with his name in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Istanbul have faced some problems, but the company is undaunted.”
Once you grasp the geographical spread of Trump’s interests, it is hard to see how the potential conflicts of interest could ever be resolved. Take the Middle East, a region of the world that every modern American President has had to focus on. According to the Post, in addition to the Trump-branded real-estate development in Turkey, Trump has business ties to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, two oil-rich countries that have funded radical Islamic movements. And, just last year, Trump registered eight companies named after Jeddah, the second-largest city in Saudi Arabia.
So what can Trump do?
As far as I can see, there are only two ways out of this conundrum. One would be for Trump to decide that he doesn’t want the job of President after all, and let Mike Pence do it. The other option is for Trump to sell off his businesses and put the money raised into a bank account, U.S. Treasury bonds, or a genuinely blind trust, which wouldn’t inform him about what investments it had made.
Late last week, a number of good-government groups and government-ethics lawyers issued a public letter that called on Trump to follow the latter course. “We understand that this arrangement would require you to sever your relationship with the businesses that bear your name and with which you have invested a life’s work,” the letter said. “But whatever the personal discomfort caused, there is no acceptable alternative—and your duties to the American people now must prevail over your personal ties to the Trump Organization businesses.” One of the letter’s signatories was Norm Eisen. Another was Common Cause, an organization whose vice-president of policy and litigation said, in a statement, “Turning your businesses over to your children is what leaders of Banana Republics do. Americans expect and deserve better from the Trump Administration.”
None other than the Wall Street Journal advises Trump to follow the second course and divest - completely.
Trump and his advisers will be tempted to shrug off these demands as the work of Democrats and other ill-wishers. They may have more difficulty in dismissing the views of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, a very influential voice in Republican circles. “Mr. Trump’s best option is to liquidate his stake in the company,” an editorial in the Journal said on Friday. And it went on: “If Mr. Trump doesn’t liquidate, he will be accused of a pecuniary motive any time he takes a policy position… . Along the way Mr. Trump could expose himself to charges, however unfair, that he is violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prohibits public officials from accepting gifts or payment from foreign governments.” In conclusion, the editorial said, “The presidential stakes are too high for Mr. Trump to let his family business become a daily political target.”
That will be the reality facing Trump if he ignores the advice to liquidate his holdings—and it will be a perfectly justified reality. The choice is his, and he seems determined to brazen it out. “Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world,” he said Monday night on Twitter. “Only the crooked media makes this a big deal.”
And so it goes. Round and round. Trump’s conflicts of interest are dissed by blaming the press. Try as he might, Trump the President-elect cannot distance himself from Trump the "blustering, bluffing blowhard as he was during the campaign.”