This week in his first press conference in months, besides continuing to belittle the interference by Russian intelligence in last years election, badgering and threatening to throw out a CNN Reporter for daring to ask a question after his network allegedly disseminated “fake news” — that was quickly shown to be completely accurate — Trump also outlined his plan to untie the ethical knot created by his vast corporate empire.
Generally speaking the reviews of his plan have been totally completely panned by the Director of Government Ethics Office.
According to a transcript of Shaub's prepared remarks posted on Brookings' website, he called Trump's plan to "limit direct communication" about the business "wholly inadequate."
“The plan the [President-elect] has announced doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the last four decades have met,” Shaub said. “We can’t risk the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for professional profit.”
Trump continues to claim he “doesn’t have an ethics problem” and that he could “continue operating his businesses while being President” without violating the current ethics law which includes an exception for the President and Vice President.
There is a technical loophole in the law that confirms this, but constitutionally he couldn’t be much more wrong.
More from Director Shaub’s statement on Trump’s “plan” for his businesses.
Mr. Tillerson is making a clean break from Exxon. He’s also forfeiting bonus payments worth millions. As a result of OGE’s work, he’s now free of financial conflicts of interest. His ethics agreement serves as a sterling model for what we’d like to see with other nominees. He clearly recognizes that public service sometimes comes at a cost. The greater the authority entrusted in a government official, the greater the potential for conflicts of interest. That’s why the cost is often greater the higher up you go.
We’ve had similar success with some of the President-elect’s other intended nominees. Some of them haven’t quite gotten there yet, as I explained in recent letters to the Senate. But with an example like Mr. Tillerson’s ethics agreement, I anticipate we’ll get them there, too. In connection with this work, it’s important to recognize that OGE is not the enforcement mechanism but the prevention mechanism. OGE is non- partisan and does its work independently. Our goal—our reason for existing—is to guard the executive branch against conflicts of interest.
We can’t risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for profit. That’s why I was glad in November when the President-elect tweeted that he wanted to, as he put it, “in no way have a conflict of interest” with his businesses. Unfortunately, his current plan cannot achieve that goal.
It’s easy to see that the current plan does not achieve anything like the clean break Rex Tillerson is making from Exxon. Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective. The Presidency is a full-time job and he would’ve had to step back anyway. The idea of setting up a trust to hold his operating businesses adds nothing to the equation. This is not a blind trust—it’s not even close.
I think Politico called this a “half-blind” trust, but it’s not even halfway blind. The only thing this has in common with a blind trust is the label, “trust.” His sons are still running the businesses, and, of course, he knows what he owns. His own attorney said today that he can’t “un-know” that he owns Trump tower. The same is true of his other holdings. The idea of limiting direct communication about the business is wholly inadequate. That’s not how a blind trust works. There’s not supposed to be any information at all.
The idea of making the trust “Blind” is there is no way for you to know if any decisions you make as a government official will have any positive or negative impact on your financial holdings, whether they are foreign or domestic. If you know anything at all, that alone is probably too much when you are supposed to be acting solely on behalf of the American people, not yourself.
If we were to put this in context lets remember that the core of the accusations of corruption by Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State were arguments that those who had given money to her husband’s charity foundation were gaining undue influence and access to her as Secretary.
People argued breathlessly that she shouldn’t have agreed to a meeting with the Crown Prince of Bahrain before he left town because his government gave money to the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation.
The crown prince of Bahrain, whose government gave more than $50,000 to the Clintons’ charity and who participated in its glitzy annual conference, wanted a last-minute meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And there were a couple other similar claims.
A sports executive who was a major donor to the Clinton Foundation and whose firm paid Bill Clinton millions of dollars in consulting fees wanted help getting a visa for a British soccer player with a criminal past.
U2 rocker and philanthropist Bono, also a regular at foundation events, wanted high-level help broadcasting a live link to the International Space Station during concerts.
All of this we were told was “bad, baddy bad bad.” Nobody who had given money to Bill Clinton either to his charity or in consulting fees should be getting a meeting with Hillary Clinton or special favors even though in many cases they got neither.
The emails show that, in these and similar cases, the donors did not always get what they wanted, particularly when they sought anything more than a meeting.
What the emails actually showed for those who bothered to read them was that just because a so-called “Friend of Bill” (FoB) might ask for something, they didn’t always get it. The Clinton State Dept didn’t help the former British Soccer star with a criminal record get a visa. The meeting that was asked for by a Lebanese Billionaire Foundation donor with the Ambassador to Lebanon never happened. The so-called “uranium deal” with Russia was approved by 9 other agencies besides the State Dept,, Clinton herself “never played any part” of the approval, and it appears the Russian stockholders in the purchasing company sold all their shares before the deal was complete. There was no evidence for example that a former Clinton Foundation staffer was helped in getting a job at the State Department. The meeting that was asked for with the Crown Prince of Bahrain was initially denied by Clinton herself because she “didn’t feel up to it” and wasn’t ultimately done “outside the normal system” — it was actually done through normal channels.
Abedin responded that the prince had already requested a meeting “through normal channels” but that Clinton had been hesitant to commit. Two days later, Abedin followed up with Band to let him know that a meeting with the prince had been set. “If u see him, let him know. We have reached out thru official channels,” she wrote to Band.
In fact when Doug Band at the Clinton Foundation asked for Bill and his staff to have their diplomatic passports temporarily reinstated for a trip to North Korea to negotiate the release of two American journalists, Lisa Ling and Eula Lee, who were being held in prison there — the Hillary Clinton State Department apparently said “No” because his request was outside of their guidelines.
“Diplomatic passports are issued to Foreign Service Officers or a person having diplomatic or comparable status because he or she is traveling abroad to carry out diplomatic duties on behalf of the U.S. Government,” the official said.
“Any individuals who do not have this status are not issued Diplomatic passports. Even when issued, Diplomatic passports are only given enough validity to facilitate a bearer’s travel while in such status. After that, the passport expires.
“The staff of former Presidents are not included among those eligible to be issued a Diplomatic passport.”
Hillary Clinton while Secretary of State signed a letter pledging she would honor the ethics rules and the Clinton Foundation simultaneously promised not to take new foreign donations while she was in the Adminstration and despite Doug Band’s emails to Huma Abedin they both seemed to have honored the spirit of those agreements — there was no fire under all that email smoke.
It is notable that Clinton's letter to the State Department specifically had to do with her own personal conduct. So far, the emails we've seen involve Clinton Foundation employees like Band dealing with State Department staff like Abedin.
Abedin is as close to Clinton as you can get, which is what makes Band's emails seeking assistance from her look bad; they suggest that Clinton Foundation and State Department business clearly weren't kept completely separate. But Abedin is not Clinton, and until we see evidence that Clinton herself intervened in any of these matters, there isn't a clear violation of anything in the letter.
Despite all these mitigating issues we were told that Hillary Clinton was rife with corruption. The argument was that Bill’s charity — which has helped save the lives of millions of people around the world, and which Hillary Clinton did not join until after the left the State Dept. in 2012 -— should be completely shut down and disbanded.
There was no middle ground. Even when Bill offered to step down from the Foundation if she won the Presidency — Hillary had already left when she started her run in 2015 — then again banned Foreign donations as they had before and have it operated by others, certain people said that wasn’t good enough, or fast enough. Those people included Donald Trump.
Donald Trump called on Monday for the Clinton Foundation to shut down "immediately" and return money that was donated by countries "they shouldn't be taking money from."
"The Clintons have spent decades as insiders lining their own pockets and taking care of donors instead of the American people," Trump said in a statement Monday morning. "It is now clear that the Clinton Foundation is the most corrupt enterprise in political history. What they were doing during Crooked Hillary’s time as Secretary of State was wrong then, and it is wrong now. It must be shut down immediately.”
Former president Bill Clinton announced Thursday that if his wife is elected president, the foundation will no longer accept donations from corporations or foreign entities — prompting some to ask why that change doesn't happen sooner. A Washington Post analysis found that under this new rule, more than half of the foundation's major donors would no longer be allowed to contribute. Last week, the Boston Globe editorial board called for the foundation to stop taking donations and, if Clinton is elected, shut down.
Ok, so even though the Foundation literally had the lives of millions depending on it at the time, they should either immediately cut those people off from life-saving low cost malaria and AIDs medicines and just shut down completely — then give the money that’s already been spent on that medicine back — because people didn’t like Doug Band sending emails to Huma Abedin which she may or may not have honored, or Hillary having meetings with Foreign heads of State or major players on the international stage she very likely would have met with anyway even if they hadn’t donated to Bill’s Foundation.
Question to the AP, how many of the people who donated to Bill’s Foundation and had meetings with Hillary also had meetings with Condoleesa Rice or Colin Powell? You think they would have turned down a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who had something to talk about about, or Bill and Melinda Gates? Nope, not a chance.
According to their reporting, Clinton spent a remarkably large share of her time as America’s chief diplomat talking to people who had donated money to the Clinton Foundation. She went out of her way to help these Clinton Foundation donors, and her decision to do so raises important concerns about the ethics of her conduct as secretary and potentially as president. It’s a striking piece of reporting that made immediate waves in my social media feed, as political journalists of all stripes retweeted the story’s headline conclusions.
Except it turns out not to be true. The nut fact that the AP uses to lead its coverage is wrong, and Braun and Sullivan’s reporting reveals absolutely no unethical conduct. In fact, they found so little unethical conduct that an enormous amount of space is taken up by a detailed recounting of the time Clinton tried to help a former Nobel Peace Prize winner who’s also the recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Here’s the bottom line: Serving as secretary of state while your husband raises millions of dollars for a charitable foundation that is also a vehicle for your family’s political ambitions really does create a lot of space for potential conflicts of interest. Journalists have, rightly, scrutinized the situation closely. And however many times they take a run at it, they don’t come up with anything more scandalous than the revelation that maybe billionaire philanthropists have an easier time getting the State Department to look into their visa problems than an ordinary person would.
So all of that, all of that noise about Klinton Korruption for all those months was really a great big fat nothing-burger Royale with cheese.
Flash forward to this week where we’re told by Trump’s lawyer — whose firm was designated “Russia Law Firm of the Year” in 2016 — that there’s just no possible way that Trump can fully divest himself of his own private business interests, because it’s just too much to ask.
Sheri Dillon, a lawyer assisting Trump with transferring his business to his children, said at Trump's press conference that selling off Trump's assets would result in a “fire sale,” or could lead to Trump being accused of receiving an improperly high sum for his properties.
Yeah that’s not how the head of the Government Ethics Office looks like it.
Shaub responded by saying that he didn’t think “divestiture is too high a price to be president of the United States of America.
Responding to Trump’s repeated comment during the press conference, and previously since his election, that presidents cannot have conflicts of interest, Shaub called the assertion “quite obviously not true."
“I think the most charitable way to understand such statements is that they are referring to a particular conflict-of-interest law that does not apply to the president,” he said, adding “common sense dictates that the president can of course have very real conflicts of interests.”
If Doug Band asking for meetings and favors and having half of those turned down is just too much, what about Trump doing things like some of what the Atlantic has compiled.
Unless Trump acts to put actual distance between himself and his business ventures—and today’s press conference seems to indicate that he won’t—these questions will likely continue throughout his time in the Oval Office. Already, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, has declared Trump’s plans insufficient, remarking, “I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the president of the United States,” and a number of Senate Democrats have introduced legislation that would force Trump to divest or face impeachment. Below is an attempt to catalogue the more clear-cut examples of conflicts of interest that have emerged so far; the most recent entries appear at the top.
Just a couple specifics. First there was the Mar-a-Lago Christmas party where Trump pocketed $400,000 — not for charity, not for a political pack or his campaign which was already over — for himself. [Emphasis their’s]
Though the biggest controversy over the New Year’s Eve celebration at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida estate, was apparently whether or not Joe Scarborough could accurately be described as having “partied” there, video footage taken by a guest and obtained by CNN the next day brought renewed scrutiny to President-elect Donald Trump’s own presence at the event. During a 10-minute speech given in front of the party’s 800-odd attendees, Trump praised his Emirati business partner Hussain Sajwani and Sajwani’s family, saying, “The most beautiful people from Dubai are here tonight, and they’re seeing it and they love it.” CNN identifies Sajwani as a “billionaire developer in Dubai” who has “paid Trump millions of dollars to license the Trump name for golf courses in Dubai.” Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, defended the remarks by clarifying that the president-elect and Sajwani “had no formal meetings of professional discussions. Their interactions were social.”
Whether or not Hicks’s statement was true, Trump’s commendation of Sajwani is part of a pattern in which the president-elect praises his business partners in ways that suggest he has little interest in extricating himself from his company’s interests. Previously, he has name-dropped business partners in Turkey and Argentina while on official calls with the countries’ leaders; he also met, and took photos, with associates from India shortly after the election. Moreover, as with several of the countries in which Trump-branded buildings are located, the United Arab Emirates has a questionable record on human rights; Human Rights Watch specifically states that the nation “uses its affluence to mask the government’s human-rights problems.”
By singling out Sajwani, Trump also runs headlong into accusations that he and his family are selling access to his administration through their organization and family foundations. According to Politico, tickets to celebrate with the president-elect at Mar-a-Lago, went for upwards of $500; the stated attendance of at least 800 people means that the Trump Organization made at least $400,000 off of ticket sales for the event. (There is no indication that the party was a fundraiser for any outside organization, such as a charity or campaign fund, as is often the case when politicians attend such an event.) Whether or not the president-elect sees it as such, the event offered attendees the opportunity to be in the same room as Trump and bend his ear for a price. This follows consternation regarding an auction for a face-to-face meeting with Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and a charity event that offered a reception with the president-elect and a hunting trip with his two sons, both of which have since been cancelled, as well as ongoing speculation that foreign entities will attempt to curry favor with Trump by booking rooms and events at his hotel in Washington, D.C. That Trump singled out Sajwani at the New Year’s Eve party lends credence to these concerns—it’s an instance of someone receiving the president-elect’s attention simply by buying a ticket to one of his events.
That’s called selling access.
In one of the email exchanges about Hillary’s campaign that was leaked there was the argument of whether Bill should do a previously scheduled paid speech after she had formally announced and begun her run for President. They argued back and forth, he ultimately didn’t do the speech. Are you seeing how this is different? Way back in 2015 Clinton’s people debated the ethical issue of Bill taking a big paycheck, then didn’t do it — Trump’s still doing it.
And remember we were told that Hillary took money from Saudi Arabia (although actually again, that was mostly money given to help build the Clinton Presidential Library back in 1998), a country that has a questionable record on human and women’s rights? Yeah, uh, so does the UAE. And Dubai.
Maybe Trump should “give back all the money he’s still getting from Countries he shouldn’t be”, eh?
Again, we aren’t talking about money being given to a spouses charity as it was with Clinton, we’re now talking about money going into both Trump’s pocket as well as his families pocket as the business continues to be run by his own sons. Trump’s own charity was so shoddily run — by him and his sons directly — that it’s been fined by the IRS for improper political payments, blocked from accepting new donations or being shutdown because it’s under investigation by the New York Attorney General.
Trump says he won’t make any new foreign deals, and that various pending foreign deals will be cancelled.
He still has hundreds of foreign and domestic deals in place. He still own his hotel in DC, and foreign diplomats still have every incentive to curry his favor by staying his hotel as opposed to others and especially staying in it’s hyper swanky $10,000 a night suites even if he does give all that money away “to the treasury”. And that’s not the worst of it, as of January 20th he becomes both the lessor and lease holder of that property which against GSA regulations and the terms of his lease.
First and foremost, Trump does not own the location outright; instead, he leases the building from the federal government’s General Services Administration, an agency whose next administrator Trump will soon be appointing. The GSA has explicit regulations prohibiting contracts with government employees to prevent conflicts “that might arise between the employees’ interests and their Government duties, and to avoid the appearance of favoritism or preferential treatment.” The Trump Organization’s 60-year lease on the property likewise states, “no ... elected official of the Government of the United States ... shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.” According to House Democrats, the GSA has ruled that Trump “will be in breach of the lease agreement the moment he takes office” and must divest from the property before he does so.
Meanwhile Congressional Republicans continue to ignore problems like this and have even threatened Director Shraub for criticizing Trump’s ethics plan.
House Republicans have found a subject for their opening review of conflicts of interest under Donald Trump: the federal official in charge of investigating conflicts of interest.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the head of the House Oversight Committee, criticized the director of the federal Office of Government Ethics on Thursday over his criticism of Donald Trump’s plan to address conflicts of interest. And he threatened to subpoena the official, Walter Shaub, if he refuses to participate in an official interview.
So in the near term the GOP Congress probably won’t be invoking the Emoluments clause to seek hearings and inquiries into whether Trump’s foreign business partners around the world are gaining special access to him — which they are — or whether they’ll be able to lobby him for special favors — because they probably will — or that he might be potentially blackmailed by countries such as Turkey who has jailed one of Trump’s major business partners.
Congress probably won’t do anything until the General Services Administration or Director Shaub go from having press conferences to sending letters to the DOJ and SEC to investigate Trump’s kids — who aren’t protected by the loophole in the ethics law — for their management and ownership of his DC hotel and simultaneous participation in his transition team where they could have gained access to inside information while continuing to operate his businesses.
It’s quite possible that Trump’s unwillingness or financial inability to divest without going into debt may just end up sending one or more of his children to prison, if it this and his alledged collusions with Russian Intelligence don’t get him impeached and removed.
Time will tell.
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