A quick reminder: when trying to figure out what Donald Trump is up to, it always pays to heed Deep Throat’s advice and follow the loot. The past few days have been busy ones on the Trump money beat. Although the latest developments aren’t particularly surprising, they add to the picture of a supposedly populist Administration that is actually the richest, most conflicted, and least transparent in living memory.
On Monday, ProPublica, the investigative news site, reported that someone had changed the terms of the trust that Trump established before he entered the White House. The trust controls the four hundred or so businesses that Trump owns, and a new clause says that its trustees—Trump’s two sons, Eric and Don, Jr., and a family lawyer, Allen Weisselberg—“shall distribute net income or principal to Donald J. Trump at his request, as the Trustees deem necessary for his maintenance, support or uninsured medical expenses, or as the Trustees otherwise deem appropriate.”
That language reads like a license for the President to extract as much money as he wants from his businesses, with no public disclosure, while he’s still in the White House. For example, it appears to suggest that the trustees could sell a Trump-owned asset anywhere in the world and forward the proceeds to Trump’s bank account without informing anybody.
Trump isn’t taking his annual Presidential salary of four hundred thousand dollars: on Monday, the White House announced that he would donate some of it to the National Park Service. So, he may need income to pay his personal bills and contribute to the upkeep of his family. But legal experts consulted by ProPublica said that the language in the trust was so broad that it was almost unheard of.
It’s been clear from the start that the arrangements Trump made to separate himself from his businesses, and to avoid conflicts of interest, fall woefully short of what is needed. After Trump announced his plans in January, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, Jr., called them “wholly inadequate,” saying that they failed to “meet the standards that … every President in the last four decades have met.” This latest revelation just confirms how flimsy the divide between Trump and his businesses really is.
On Monday, when Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, was asked about ProPublica’s report at his daily briefing, he dismissed the Pulitzer-prize winning organization as “some left-wing blog.” Spicer also said he wasn’t aware that Trump’s trust had been revised. But a copy of the trust document, which ProPublica posted online, shows that Donald, Jr., and Weisselberg signed it on February 10th, just a month after Trump unveiled the trust in its original form.
In a tweetstorm reacting to Spicer’s comments, ProPublica said that it had given the White House an opportunity to comment on the change to the trust before publication. “We told the Trump Org & WH what we knew and gave them time to explain. They didn’t.”
The story about Trump’s trust came out while journalists and public-interest groups were still digesting a slew of financial-disclosure documents, covering about a hundred and eighty Administration employees, that the White House released on Friday evening, the traditional spot in the weekly calendar for releasing negative news. We already knew that Trump’s Cabinet was stuffed with billionaires and multi-millionaires. The news in the financial-disclosure forms is that there are a lot of very rich people working in the White House, too.
In fact, a tally made by the Washington Post showed that twenty-seven of the wealthiest White House aides, at the time that they joined the Administration, together had financial assets worth at least $2.7 billion. Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs, who is head of the National Economic Council, reported assets worth at least two hundred and fifty million dollars. Reed S. Cordish, a Baltimore real-estate developer, had assets worth at least a hundred and ninety-seven million dollars. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, reported assets worth between $11.8 million and $53.8 million. Kellyanne Conway, a White House counsellor, said that she was worth between ten million and thirty-nine million dollars. Even Julia Hahn, a twenty-five-year-old aide to Bannon, reported that she had investments worth between $1.1 million and $2.5 million.
But the richest White House employees are members of Trump’s family: Ivanka Trump, his daughter, and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law. Together, according to the disclosure forms, the couple owns assets worth roughly seven hundred and forty million dollars. Kushner’s share in his family’s real-estate empire accounts for the bulk of that total, but not all of it. Ivanka reported that she had a stake in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., which is located not far from the White House, worth between five million and twenty-five million dollars. During the past fifteen months, she’s received between a million dollars and five million dollars in income from the hotel.
These figures don’t just make a mockery of the claims from Trump and Bannon that this is a populist Administration—they also have legal implications. Although the President is spared the burden of complying with federal conflicts-of-interest laws, White House aides aren’t. They are obliged to recuse themselves from areas where they might have a personal interest.
The disclosure forms showed that Kushner, who until recently ran his family’s business, has secured lines of credit through ten big banks, including Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, and Citigroup. These give him a clear interest in the fate of financial regulations. Ivanka’s ownership of clothing company, which does business around the world, means she potentially has a stake in trade issues. And since they have both been real-estate executives (Ivanka with her father’s company), they have an interest in any policy measures likely to affect that industry, which certainly includes tax reform. (Although they have taken steps to separate themselves from the day-to-day running of their businesses, they both retain ownership stakes.)
“Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have so many potential conflicts of interest that if they abide by ethics laws and past White House practices, they won’t be able to advise the president on three of his top priorities: Trade, tax reform and Wall Street deregulation,” Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, who served as senior ethics lawyers in the Bush and Obama Administration, respectively, wrote in USA Today on Monday. (The piece was co-authored by Virginia Canter, the head of the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.) “The situation is particularly worrying because ethics compliance in the Trump administration has been weak, as evidenced by the White House counsel’s inadequate response to apparent or actual lapses by several White House staffers.”
One of the incidents that Eisen, Painter, and Canter were referring to was Kellyanne Conway’s call earlier this year for people to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff”—an outburst that earned her a counselling session from White House lawyers. But the situation goes well beyond Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. As is evidenced by the popularity of Trump’s D.C. hotel among diplomats recently, many foreign governments have reached the conclusion that the best way to curry influence with the Administration is to patronize Trump businesses, and also, perhaps, to make it easier for them to operate overseas.
On Thursday and Friday, Trump will host Xi Jinping, the President of China, at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. After a strained start, relations between the Administration and Beijing appear to have improved in recent weeks. That may be partly because, in late February, China granted preliminary approval for thirty-eight trademarks that the Trump business empire had applied for in the country, opening the way for the company to develop a range of Trump-branded businesses, including hotels and condominiums.
Chinese foreign-ministry officials insisted that the granting of all these trademarks was routine. But intellectual-property lawyers who know China said that it was unusual, and noted that it came just a couple of weeks after Trump, in a telephone conversation with Xi, said he would honor Beijing’s “One China” policy regarding Taiwan—a key demand of the Chinese.
Doubtless, this was all a coincidence. Just as it is a coincidence that Trump has sold a lot of property to wealthy Russians, and that his revised trust places virtually no restrictions on his ability to take out money from his businesses. In kleptocratic regimes, coincidences of this sort tend to be common.