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As the Trump administration takes shape, one fact seems unassailable: We have an unprecedented situation in which, step by step, a president’s business interests—past, present, and future—are inseparable from the nation’s interests. Donald Trump has over 100 investments and other financial ties in at least 18 countries or territories, in many cases creating potential conflicts of interest with US national security concerns.
The Washington Post conducted an investigation, including an assessment of his foreign investments, which is based on Trump’s financial disclosure statements. As the article points out, there remains a good deal of missing information that Trump’s tax returns and other documents could provide. But he chooses not to provide them, and a fair assumption is that they would reveal still more compromising deals.
How much influence these financial interests would have over Trump’s and his appointees’ policy choices is anyone’s guess at this point. Trump himself has hinted that his business interests in Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia do have political import—for example when he expressed admiration for the crackdown engineered by Turkey’s president Erdogan after a failed coup attempt. Since Trump consistently applauds strong-armed rulers on one hand and is so far unwilling to create a true firewall between his family and his assets on the other, conflicts of interest involving authoritarian regimes are more than theoretical.
Trump gives no sign of separating personal business dealings from his upcoming job as president. Far from it, he says “only the crooked media makes this a big deal.” He recently entertained three Indian businessmen who are using the Trump brand to overcharge on apartment high-rises near Mumbai. In all, Trump may have as much as $1.5 billion invested in India, in “at least sixteen partnerships or corporations.” He allowed his daughter Ivanka, vice-president of acquisitions in the Trump Organization, to sit in on a meeting with the visiting Japanese prime minister, Abe Shinzo. He has urged Britain’s Brexit leaders to speak out in opposition to offshore wind farms near his Scottish golf course—because they obscure the view! And no sooner did he do that than Trump tweeted that Nigel Forage of the UK Independence Party would make a great UK ambassador to the US! Finally, as is well known, some of Trump’s top advisers—Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Flynn—have extensive overseas financial interests (Giuliani even worked for Qatar and others) that could also be compromising.
Trump’s spokespersons call his business meetings informal when in fact they are private and, according to the Indian businessmen, include talk of expanding the Trump business empire. This secretiveness is also worrisome: It walls off his business dealings (and much else besides) from public view. Thus has The Art of the Deal already become central to Trump’s policy process.
Does this incoming president have any constraints on his clearly unethical, if not outright illegal, behavior? Will the Republican leadership in Congress continue to wink and nod as Trump erases the line between public and private activity? Will Trump ever be compelled to open the books on his finances? Is the Trump interest equivalent to the national interest?
Back in the 1950s “Engine” Charlie Wilson, who went from head of General Motors to secretary of defense, said he thought that “what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” Trump has taken that idea one step further, into the troubling realm in which US policy toward a country’s repression of human rights, civil war, aggression, nuclear program, or violation of trade agreements will be weighed against the impact on the Trump Organization’s holdings.