He warned us this would happen. "I have a conflict of interest," Donald Trump said when asked about D.C. statehood in 2015, "because I'm building the greatest — you know, I'm building at the old post office I think what will be maybe one of the great hotels in the world." More than a year later, several foreign diplomats gave the Washington Post evidence that the hotel could be a boarding house for conflicts over the next four years. "Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, 'I love your new hotel!'" one Asian diplomat said. "Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, 'I am staying at your competitor?'" A month earlier, the soon-to-be president-elect tweeted accusations that Hillary Clinton's aides were "mired in conflict of interest at the State Department" for similar reasons — those donating money to the Clinton Foundation also met with the federal government from time to time. Those donations and accusations of pay-to-play politics featured in one of the Trump campaign's last ads of the election cycle. "After decades of lies and scandal," it concluded, "... corruption is closing in."
Trump's tangles with foreign countries are multitudinous and murky, thanks to the fact that his tax returns are still lurking in some cupboard like an Oscar Wildean watercolor. Trump’s recent global business associates include, per The Wall Street Journal, "the family of a developer in India who is a ruling-party politician, an Azerbaijani government minister’s son and a media company that became the Turkish president’s outlet of choice during the July 15 coup attempt." His companies owe at least $650 million to lenders like the Bank of China and Deutsche Bank. In 2008, Donald Jr. told a conference, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Add to that the fact that many economic decisions made by the executive branch might influence his businesses domestically, and the conflicts of interest turn into the ethical equivalent of a daylong trip to a Golden Corral with a bad health rating.
Those worried by this game of financial Connect Four are apparently missing the gooey Hallmark movie at the center: that Trump's entire life has been a Homeric epic of sacrifice. As campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told Fox News on Monday, “It’s a unique situation to have such a successful businessman that has so many holdings ascend to the Oval Office. But I also want people to see what a sacrifice it is. He has invested tens of millions of dollars and other deals have had to wait, because he’s doing this." The logic is as similar and unconvincing as the line that Trump emitted when asked to respond to Khizr Khan's claim that Trump knows nothing of sacrificing for his country. "I think I've made a lot of sacrifices," Trump argued. "I work very, very hard." He cited the fact that he "built great structures." Making money or losing it are the only offerings of this sacrifice on his radar.
If you don't buy the sacrifice defense, what if … Trump's money is also the reason he can't be bought? So argues Rudy Giuliani, who told CNN, “This man didn’t want to run for president to try to get rich. He’s rich already."
It seems almost inevitable at this point that discussions of conflicts of interest would dominate the moment after Trump's victory, as the two words that animate the phrase have separately been pillars of his campaign: the constant clashes — the ammunition fired at all those who would oppose him on Twitter, the volley of "wrongs" echoing in living rooms across the country during the debates — and the self-interest that kept campaign rents high at Trump Tower, turned press conferences into hotel infomercials or steak sales pitches, and made complaints plentiful. This is a man whose charity used donors’ money to buy paintings of himself, and said, "If I don’t win, this will be the greatest waste of time, money and energy in my lifetime, by a factor of 100.” But he won, and now everyone is left trying to figure out if his presidency could be the best investment of his lifetime, by a factor of 100.
But he did tell us this could happen. In February, Trump brought up insurance companies during a conversation about Obamacare at a debate. "I shouldn't tell you guys, you'll say it's terrible," he said, "I have a conflict of interest. They're friends of mine, there's some right in the audience. One of them was just waving to me, he was laughing and smiling. He's not laughing so much anymore." It was a moment meant to show he was willing to stick it to those close to him for the good of the people. Trump only reveals these ties in a jokey manner, rendering conflicts into a neutered hug where the interests, like all interests concerning Trump, are self-interests gold-plated with a harmless, populist sheen. "I would have such a conflict of interest ... and I joke," he said when talking about declining to nominate his sister to the Supreme Court. "You know, I'm laughing and having fun. But I would never do a thing like that."
And now that he's about to be president, there's no way to stop him. Conflicts of interest have come up in a presidential context before, but most candidates usually try to do the ethics equivalent of spraying their portfolio with Febreze before taking office. Jimmy Carter, who owned a peanut warehouse, divested himself of much of his holdings and diverted the rest into foundations or trusts. Last January, when Trump was asked about the future of his business at a debate, he said, “If I become President, I couldn’t care less about my company. It’s peanuts.” Forty years ago, peanuts were worth freaking out about, at least when it came to conflicts of interest. Other presidential candidates have obeyed precedent, putting their assets into blind trusts, diverting the proceeds elsewhere, or making sure that there was no way that they could knowingly increase their self-worth with some creative policymaking. When Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York, he resigned from all positions at his eponymous company, but still stuck around for the huge decisions. Mayors, however, aren't presidents. Other presidential candidates leaving behind huge companies — like Wendell Willkie or Ross Perot — never became president. Like most things concerning the Trump presidency, this territory is unexplored.
All that our country has at the moment to prevent financial concerns from infecting presidential decisions is this fuzzy-wuzzy cushion of political norms, a pillow of precedent that Trump has already shown he's willing to sell at a yard sale out on the White House lawn (see: the nonexistent tax returns). There are no laws curbing conflicts of interest when it comes to the commander-in-chief except for a broad reading of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prevents federal employees from accepting travel or gifts from foreign governments unless authorized by Congress (and was designed by revolutionaries worried about kings bribing a baby democracy, the same founders who made sure to include an amendment that would keep British soldiers out of the homes of decent Americans). Back in 2009, the Emoluments Clause came up when Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and it could become a buzzword again over the next few months if Trump lets his children be the eyes and ears of his company's "blind" trust. This month, a Democratic legislator introduced a bill to make the statutes that keep other officials in the executive branch from having business ties apply to the Oval Office. It seems unlikely that it will gain much support, since Trump's party happens to dominate the legislative branch.
But right now, no one can stop Trump from letting his children run his businesses and sit in on talks with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. Back in September, Trump promised that when it comes to business and his kids, "I won’t discuss it with them." The same self-imposed barrier does not seem to extend to politics, since Ivanka, Don Jr., and Eric are all on the presidential transition team, helping design the federal government before they're set to run a business whose chief selling point is its name — a name that will soon be synonymous with the president of the United States. The future president is planning on spending a significant portion of his presidency in buildings with his name on them. Ivanka's husband, Jared Kushner, is so removed from the presidential side of Trump World that he is being considered for a White House job. Anyway, there is little need for Trump to discuss business with his children, since he is still doing that business himself for the time being. Three associates from India stopped by Trump Tower last week to discuss a luxury apartment building in Mumbai. On a picture posted on Twitter, all four businessmen are smiling and doing Trumpian thumbs-ups. In the background, there are several framed magazine profiles about the man in the center of the photo. One headline reads, "The New Dynasty."
In a USA Today op-ed published the day before the election, Donald Trump argued that "We must fix a rigged system in which … government officials put special interests above the national interest. If we want to make America great again, we must clean up this corruption."