On the campaign trail, Donald Trump refused to disclose his taxes, and now Public Citizen’s Craig Holman says the Trump administration is a scandal in waiting because of the vast number of conflicts of interest he brings. “If steps are not taken to manage these conflicts, the Trump administration is likely to become one of the most scandal-ridden in memory,” Holman argues.
AMY GOODMAN: Craig Holman, you wrote an op-ed where you said, “No administration in history has been as fraught with financial conflicts of interest as the incoming Trump administration, from the president-elect on down. If steps are not taken to manage these conflicts, the Trump administration is likely to become one of the most scandal-ridden in memory.” Now, last week, we spoke to Richard Painter, who is professor of corporate law at University of Minnesota. He was the chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush. He described a key conflict of interest under President-elect Trump.
RICHARD PAINTER: Well, there are several laws. I think the most important, for purposes of President-elect Trump, is the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which is one of the most critical conflict of interest provisions for all U.S. government officials. Nobody holding a position of trust with the United States government can receive payments from foreign governments, whether gifts or a salary or profits. And that’s what emoluments are, profits or benefits. It comes from the Latin root emolumentum, which refers to profits and benefits.
And so, if you have somebody who’s making profits from dealing with foreign governments or companies controlled by foreign governments, that person must dispense with those profits, cannot receive that money, while holding any position of trust with the United States government. That applies to every U.S. government employee, including the president. And so, what this means is that, for Donald Trump, if he’s going to hold onto these business enterprises, which present a whole range of other conflict of interest problems, to satisfy the Constitution, at a bare minimum, what he’s going to have to do is get the foreign government money and money from foreign government-controlled corporations out of his business enterprise. And this includes foreign diplomats staying at the hotels at government expense, foreign governments having big parties in his hotels and canceling reservations at the Four Seasons, going over to the Trump Hotel, to curry favor. All of that is unconstitutional. Also, he has bank loans outstanding, I believe, from the Bank of China, which is controlled by the government of China. And some foreign government-owned banks are leasing space in Trump office buildings. All that has to be dealt with before January 20, or we could have a violation of the Constitution.
AMY GOODMAN: So that is Richard Painter, professor of law at University of Minnesota who was President George W. Bush’s ethics lawyer. And so, if, Craig Holman, you can talk, put this move, this midnight hour move to—by the House Republican Conference to gut the House ethics office, into this larger context of what Donald Trump brings to the presidency on January 20th.
CRAIG HOLMAN: Donald Trump is setting the tone on this. You know, when I wrote about the Trump administration is likely to be the most scandal-ridden administration in history from top down, I was talking just about the executive branch. Now it looks like it’s spreading into Congress, as well. Donald Trump has shirked his ethics responsibilities. He has decided not to disclose his taxes. He is waffling on whether or not he’s going to set up a genuine blind trust and divest himself of the conflicts of interest that Richard Painter was just talking about. He is basically shunning his responsibility of complying with the ethics rules. And that tone has now reached into Congress.
You know, part of the reason why I’m so surprised that the Republican Conference in the House of Representatives repealed or have neutered the OCE is because they are going to receive a great deal of negative publicity on this. But clearly, they are looking at Donald Trump shirking his ethics responsibility, and thinking, if he can get away with it, they can get away with it. So, yes, we are likely to see the most scandal-ridden federal government, not just Trump administration, that we’ve seen, you know—the most scandal-ridden we’ve seen in history. This does not bode well for the next few years.
AMY GOODMAN: Craig Holman, in our headlines at the top of the show, we talked about the Trump Organization’s ongoing business in the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia and other countries continuing to raise concerns about conflicts of interest. Last month, Trump pledged his businesses would make no new deals during his time in office. However, a series of high-profile business deals are currently underway, including the construction of two luxury golf courses in Dubai. The first, the Trump International Golf Course there, is slated to open in February, only weeks after the inauguration. Trump is developing the golf courses with Dubai billionaire Hussain Sajwani, who attended Trump’s New Year’s Eve party at Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Trump called Sajwani and his family “the most beautiful people” during his speech, his toast at the party. Can you talk about the significance of this?
CRAIG HOLMAN: Sure. Pledging to have no new deals is meaningless. The conflicts of interest exist now, and they’re widespread. You know, as far as we can determine, even though Trump won’t be honest and reveal his actual, you know, tax filings so we can confirm where the conflicts spread, so far we’ve been able to track conflicts of interest from the Trump Organization spanning 23 different countries. These business enterprises exist. They’re operating. And the foreign governments and foreign special interests and foreign business interests understand this, and they are doing everything they can to find ways to throw money at the feet of Donald Trump in order to buy access and, in their minds, influence over the Trump administration. We’ve just seen two foreign governments had set up their national celebration days that were scheduled at the Four Seasons Hotel, for instance, and once Trump became president, they canceled that and moved it to the Trump Hotel. Clearly, the whole purpose of this is to make use of Trump’s business organization for buying influence over President-elect Donald Trump. That’s the conflict of interest.
You know, every president for the last 40 years has understood the danger of those types of conflicts of interest and have placed their wealth and their business enterprises into a blind trust or divested them entirely. Donald Trump is the first president we’re seeing in recent history who is just ignoring the problems that his vast empire is going to bring to this administration. This is going to be the most scandal-ridden administration we’ve seen in history.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, many are expecting Donald Trump to give his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, official positions within the White House, a move that may violate anti-nepotism laws. Or does it?
CRAIG HOLMAN: It would if they’re being paid. That would be a violation of the anti-nepotism law. It’s rather easy to get around the anti-nepotism law by bringing them in as, say, informal consultants. You know, these are—these are people who don’t need to be paid. They are, you know, wealthy as is. It isn’t as if they need a $100,000 salary to be a consultant to the president. So, as long as they’re not paid, it gets around the anti-nepotism law.
But it certainly bodes poorly for conflicts of interest. You know, Trump is talking about turning his empire over to his kids to run. Well, that is the same thing as the Trump family. You know, Trump was very critical of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation because foreign governments were throwing money into the Clinton Foundation, even though Hillary was not directly running that foundation. The purpose of those types of investments by foreign governments and foreign interests clearly was they understood that by supporting the Clinton family, they were going to get an inside track to Hillary Clinton. That’s what Donald Trump was so critical about Hillary Clinton of. And this is exactly what Donald Trump is now going ahead and doing as president of the United States. He’s keeping his family in control of his vast empire, and it provides a huge window of opportunity for wealthy special interests who want to buy favors from Donald Trump.
AMY GOODMAN: And choosing his company’s top lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, to fill the newly created position of special representative for international negotiations? Greenblatt is an expert in real estate law?
CRAIG HOLMAN: Yes, exactly. I mean, he is appointing people into his administration who are going to try to finesse ways around the laws, around the restrictions, and try to minimize the bad publicity that’s going to come with the conflicts of interest. He is not appointing people who are going to be attentive to the conflicts of interest and abiding by the laws. These are people who specialize in getting around the laws.
You know, I want to add, too, I mean, his White House counsel, Don McGahn, is someone who’s been a dead-set opponent against any sort of restrictions on money in politics. And he is now going to become Donald Trump’s key lawyer when it comes to domestic as well as international affairs. These are people who specialize in making sure that Donald Trump can evade the laws.
AMY GOODMAN: Craig Holman, I want to thank you for being with us, Public Citizen’s government affairs lobbyist on campaign finance and governmental ethics. He helped set up the Office of Congressional Ethics in 2008 that has just been gutted by the House Republican Conference, will be voted on today by the House.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, massacre in a Turkish nightclub. We’ll go directly to Istanbul. Stay with us.