The key development is that Trump, after promising for weeks that he’d hold a press conference on Thursday to explain how he plans to deal with the blatant conflicts of interest he will face as both the President and the owner of far-flung business interests, has postponed the event until the New Year.
The official explanation for this delay was a bit garbled. In an e-mail on Monday night, a Trump spokesman, Sean Spicer, told the Washington Post, “With so many iconic properties and successful entities, moving the announcement to January ensures the legal team has ample time to ensure the proper protocols are put in place so his sole focus will remain on the country and achieving his ambitious agenda.” In other words, Trump’s lawyers need more time.
The real reason for Trump’s stalling tactics may well be the political calendar. Next Monday, the five hundred and thirty-eight members of the Electoral College will vote to select the next President. Having accumulated three hundred and six votes to Hillary Clinton’s two hundred and thirty-two, it would take something unprecedented to deny Trump his victory. But why leave anything to chance?
Already, Trump is facing criticism for his erratic behavior since November 8th. Republicans have broken with him over his harsh criticisms of the C.I.A., which has concluded that Russia tried to tilt the election in his favor, and notable ethics lawyers are saying that he will be in violation of the Constitution if he doesn’t sell all of his properties and place the proceeds in a blind trust. At least one Republican member of the Electoral College has already said he won’t vote for Trump. If he had come out on Thursday and announced that, in spite of these warnings, he is going to retain ownership of his businesses, which is clearly what he intends to do, there could have been another political firestorm.
By postponing the event, Trump insured that the Electoral College will have already cast its votes when he announces that he intends to tell the ethics lawyers to go and jump in the Potomac. In a pair of tweets on Monday night, he confirmed that the most he is willing to do is hand day-to-day management of the Trump Organization over to his two eldest sons, Donald, Jr., and Eric, while still retaining ownership control. Which means, for example, that any foreign government that checks its diplomats into Trump’s fancy new hotel in Washington will be contributing directly to the President’s coffers.
Apart from himself, the other beneficiary of the postponement is the Republican leadership in Congress, which, so far, has been entirely unwilling to confront Trump about his conflicts of interest, or even to acknowledge that his cavalier attitude toward resolving them is a potential problem. Shortly after the election, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, said he didn’t have any advice to offer Trump on this issue, and that he’d wait to hear what Trump had to say “as we move towards Inauguration Day.” Was that a gentle hint to Trump to delay dealing with this issue until the last moment? It certainly wasn’t a warning, or an indication that McConnell intends to take seriously the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which bars a President from receiving any money or gifts from foreign governments.
Paul Ryan, who, as Speaker of the House, is the other leading Republican on Capitol Hill, has been equally craven, or perhaps more so. Appearing on CNBC last week, he said Trump should be allowed to address his conflicts of interest “however he wants to.” Ryan added, “This is not what I’m concerned about in Congress. . . . I’m focussed on getting this agenda passed so that we can turn around and tackle this country’s big problems before they tackle us.”
Could it be any clearer what is going on? As I wrote last week, Trump appears to have made a deal, at least an implicit one, with the Republican leaders in which they get their way on many of the big policy issues—taxes, education, the environment, regulation of finance and the labor market—and he gets to keep hold of his businesses, and his personal brand, the value of which, as he freely admitted a few weeks ago, has been greatly enhanced by his election victory.
This situation has the potential to turn the topmost echelons of the United States government into a kleptocracy. And Trump’s cabinet picks, a number of whom come with potentially serious conflicts of interests of their own, have only complicated matters.
According to the , the stock and pension rights that Tillerson accumulated at Exxon are worth about two hundred and ninety million dollars. And Bloomberg reckons that Gary Cohn, whom Trump has picked to head his National Economic Council, owns stock in Goldman Sachs, the investment bank where he is currently president and chief operating officer, worth more than two hundred million dollars.
Since federal conflict-of-interest laws apply to cabinet appointees, Tillerson and Cohn will be prohibited from participating in any matters in which they have a financial interest. But Exxon and Goldman have interests all over the place, which could be affected by many different types of policy decisions. That means the nominees will probably have to sell off their stock, just as Hank Paulson, another senior executive at Goldman, did when he joined the Bush Administration, in 2006. But, even if Tillerson and Cohn sever their financial ties to their companies, how independent will they really be?
One of Tillerson’s primary tasks, if he gets confirmed, will be to deal with Russia, where Exxon has a big joint venture that he helped put together. (In 2013, after he helped finalize the deal with Rosneft, a large Russian energy firm, the Russian government awarded him an Order of Friendship.) Would he be willing to put that business at risk, by, for example, recommending to Trump that the U.S. government maintain, or even strengthen, its sanctions on Russia? (In 2014, Tillerson gave a speech opposing these sanctions.)
Cohn, as Trump’s top economic adviser, will be tasked with, among other things, helping to decide which of the financial regulations that were introduced after the financial crash of 2008 should be cast onto the Republican bonfire. In anticipation of a big rollback in federal oversight, stock in Goldman and other Wall Street firms has risen sharply since the election. Can Cohn, a big beneficiary of that rise, provide objective advice on this issue?
If Trump had gone ahead with his press conference, these questions, and many others hanging over the new Administration, could have been put to him. Not that he’d have had any reassuring answers to offer. It’s been clear since the election that he intends to brazen it out and do what he likes. And, right now, it doesn’t look like anyone is going to stop him.