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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"It's a nice thing to have no conflict of interest provision"

by digby

My Salon column today is about that strange couple of tweets about China and the ZTE company:

Back in January of 2017, President-elect Trump gave a wide-ranging press conference (one of very few, to date) to announce that he would turn over management of the Trump Organization to his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric.

He revealed that he had just been offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai with a man named Hussain Sajwani of DAMAC Properties but hadn't taken it:

I didn’t have to turn it down, because as you know, I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president, which is — I didn’t know about that until about three months ago, but it’s a nice thing to have. But I don’t want to take advantage of something. I have something that others don’t have, Vice President Pence also has it. I don’t think he’ll need it, I have a feeling he’s not going to need it. But I have a "no conflict of interest" provision as president. It was many, many years old, this is for presidents. Because they don’t want presidents getting — I understand they don’t want presidents getting tangled up in minutia; they want a president to run the country. So I could actually run my business, I could actually run my business and run government at the same time.
I don’t like the way that looks, but I would be able to do that if I wanted to. I would be the only one to be able to do that. You can’t do that in any other capacity. But as president, I could run the Trump Organization, great, great company, and I could run the company — the country. I’d do a very good job, but I don’t want to do that.

In the words of Richard Nixon, he believes that if the president does it, it's not illegal. Or more specifically, he believes that if he does a business deal for personal profit it cannot be a conflict.

Trump didn't divest himself of his businesses, but there was an understanding that his sons would not enter into any new foreign deals. In fact, the boys have been all over the world touting foreign projects, from a recent high-profile sales trip and/or government mission to India to the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Dubai and Canada. The company recently was reported to have appealed to the government of Panama to interject itself on its behalf in a business dispute with the Trump-branded resort.

Donald Trump himself has made a fetish of making personal appearances at his foreign properties and commonly promotes them in his speeches overseas. He's planning yet another promotional visit to one of his golf courses in Scotland when he visits the U.K. in July.

There is, in other words, every reason to be concerned that Trump and his family might be selling favors to foreign governments for personal gain. They certainly have made almost no attempt to reassure the public that they won't do it. Trump said in that very first press conference that foreign interests were offering him large sums of money as president-elect, which he believed he was legally entitled to take.

Among the cascade of news stories about the Russia investigation over the past year, there have been intermittent questions about Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner seeking loans from various players in the Middle East. There have also been some bizarre turns in foreign policy associated with them that have not been adequately explained. Just this week, Stormy Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti, pushed out a story implicating Trump's fixer Michael Cohen in some sort of pay-to-play arrangement with representatives of the government of Qatar, which has long been on the radar as a possible intermediary between Russian money and the Trumps and Kushner. (Law professor Jed Shugerman has created a helpful timeline showing all the Qatari events that lead to this speculation.)

It is assumed the Mueller team is following that thread, since it has a possible direct connection to Russia. But this past weekend we got evidence of something else that may be a blatant conflict of interest relating to China.

As Bob Cesca wrote for Salon on Monday, that was an extremely strange tweet. First of all, Trump spent the entire presidential campaign bashing China for stealing American jobs. So this sudden concern for Chinese workers is inconsistent, to say the least. Nobody knew what to make of it. It seemed to come out of the blue, and experts from across the political spectrum were puzzled as to what Trump's motives might be.

On Monday, Trump followed up with this:

That tweet doesn't sound as if Trump personally wrote it. If it is "reflective" of his own thinking, it's a big change. Trump has shown almost no concern for American exporters in all of his bellicose trade talk. The most he has ever said to the farmers who voted for him is that he assumes they are patriots who are willing to make sacrifices for the good of the country.

Moreover, while the Chinese government may want this to be part of the larger "trade deal" Trump is allegedly negotiating, the issue with ZTE wasn't unfair trading practices. It was punished for violating sanctions against North Korea and Iran, and was accused by the intelligence community of using its technology to spy on Americans on behalf of the Chinese government. What possible reason could Trump have for deciding to unilaterally reverse this decision without explaining it to anyone?

Well, there may be an obvious explanation. It turns out that three days before Trump sent that tweet, a Chinese company with strong ties to the government had agreed to invest $500 million in a major Trump-branded development in Indonesia. The deal is a big one, with a high up side for Trump and his Indonesian partners, whom he invited to the inauguration and met with at Trump Tower during the presidential transition.

Could this be a coincidence? Sure. Maybe Trump has just developed a sense of solidarity with manufacturing workers in China and wanted to help them out. Perhaps he's just a terrible negotiator and precipitously gave China something it badly wanted -- without getting any assurances in return -- because he really likes Xi Jinping.

But the fact is that the Trump and Kushner families are so steeped in conflicts of interest that selling out the national interest to line their pockets is the most logical explanation for any situation where their business interests are involved. There can be no benefit of the doubt for a president who says out loud that "it's a nice thing to have" a "'no conflict of interest' provision."