Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Corruption and resistance in the time of Trump

Matthew Yglesias counsels Don’t let Donald Trump’s antics distract you from what’s really important. He’s paying fraud fines and collecting bribes — and distracting you with Hamilton tweets.

He’s also depending on an uninformed electorate giving him a pass on the massive conflicts of interest presented by his many businesses, his foreign associations, and his children as confidants and business managers.

Congress has the responsibility and authority for oversight of the executive branch, but will Congress do anything about the corruption juggernaut about to hit the capitol? Yglesias contemplates two answers.

The problem: “Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest are staggering”

The important thing to recognize, as I try to lay out in a longer piece on the risk of systematic corruption under Donald Trump, is that there is essentially no limit to the amount of corruption that can take place here. A foreign government can direct its diplomats to stay at Trump’s hotels. But a foreign government can also cut Trump sweetheart deals on acquiring land to build golf courses.

For that matter, Trump currently owes money to a bank that is owned by the Chinese government. That bank could renegotiate its loan on terms that are friendlier to Trump. Similarly, any bank in the United States can start offering loans to Trump-controlled businesses on generous terms. And indeed, I think any bank in the United States that was asked for a loan by a Trump-controlled business would be insane not to offer him a sweetheart deal. He wouldn’t need to explicitly threaten regulatory retaliation to make a prudent bank CEO decide that the balance of risks favors the sweetheart deal.

The solution: “Checks and balances are still in place — if congress cares”

It’s worth saying that on one level, the threat of abuse of regulatory discretion has always existed. But on another level, this is exactly the problem that America’s constitutional system is best-designed to solve. We have a system of multiple independently elected branches of government with shared powers. This system has a lot of problems, but in theory a corrupt executive is a problem it is well-designed to stop.

  • All of Donald Trump’s nominees need to be confirmed by the Senate.
  • Congressional committees have subpoena power and can oversee executive branch conduct.
  • Congress can pass new laws forcing the president to do more financial disclosure.

The problem is that in our current era of partisan polarization, most people simply assume that congress — which is controlled by Republicans — will choose not to do those things. Paul Ryan has an expansive legislative agenda that he would like to pass, heavily featuring tax cuts, reduced social services for the poor, deregulation of the banking industry, and possibly the privatization of Medicare. The calculation of Republican leaders in congress right now seems to be that they will agree to turn a blind eye to Trump’s corruption and in exchange he will sign their bills.

That’s one answer - Congress either does not care or is complicit in the corruption. The other answer is that Congress steps up and exercises its duty to implement the checks and balances.

But they could change their minds on this. House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz could announce tomorrow that he wants to do hearings on Trump’s financial conflicts of interest. It would only take two or three Republican senators to band together and put out a statement saying they need to see Trump’s conflicts of interest addressed before they can confirm key cabinet members, to bring the whole thing to a grinding halt.

These things probably won’t happen. But they could. And whether or not they happen is extremely important.

Greg Sargent (Washington Post/Plum Line) is equally pessimistic that Congress will act: Will Republicans rein in a corrupt Trump presidency? Don’t bet on it.

The overriding crux of the issue is that it will be impossible to fully evaluate whether these potential conflicts are happening — or creating corrupt outcomes — without a fuller picture of Trump’s business holdings. And that’s where congressional Republicans could make a difference. Here are some things they could do, suggested to me by Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington:

1) Republicans could demand that Trump and his family produce a full and complete accounting of what his business empire’s interests entail.

2) Codifying the tradition of presidential candidates — and presidents — releasing their tax returns.

“A Congress that was serious about getting more information could at least take into consideration those kinds of steps, if nothing else as a bargaining chip to get the president to take their demands for more information seriously,” Bookbinder says. Meanwhile, Jeff Hauser of the Revolving Door Project suggests Senate Republicans could conceivably withhold support for Trump’s nominees until he agrees to more transparency.

Now, there’s no reason to be optimistic that congressional Republicans will do any of these things, particularly if Trump doesn’t get too unpopular and signs their bills slashing taxes, regulations and the safety net. But if Trump’s eventual ethical arrangement is substandard, and if congressional Republicans cheerfully look the other way even as various Trump actions raise red flags warning of potential conflicts of interest or corruption, the latter group presents another target for media and public pressure.

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