Trump’s Washington: Drowning In Conflicts of Interest?
A version of this article was first published on theGlobalist on March 27, 2018 -- updated on April 7, 2018. By Frank Vogl.
Not a single Congressional Committee is looking into the abuse and utter mockery that is being made of official U.S. government ethics rules.
The New York Times recently highlighted the activities of Elliott Broidy, the deputy finance chairman of the Republican Party National Committee and a wealthy old friend of Donald Trump.
Broidy seems to have taken some lucrative payments - amounting to tens of millions of dollars for companies he controls - for helping friends associated with the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to see that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is fired (he was), to influence U.S. foreign policy against Qatar, and to strengthen personal ties for the Saudi and UAE rulers with Trump.
When it comes to lobbying and the expense accounts of government officials, not to mention conflicts of interest, U.S. law — which is generally described as very tough in many other domains — is often as flexible as a rubber band.
Unified by questionable ethics
At a minimum, the Trump team is unified by questionable ethics – small, big and sometimes ridiculous.
The Veterans Affairs Administration runs U.S.-based hospitals. Nevertheless, its chief, David Shulkin, needed to go on business to London and Copenhagen last summer with his wife. One of the highlights was a day watching tennis at Wimbledon.
The entire trip was billed to the Veterans Administration at a cost of over $100,000. When the details leaked, Shulkin first claimed that there were misunderstandings. Then he agreed to make a reimbursement. Finally, Shulkin learned from a Tweet by the president that he had been fired.
Several of his cabinet colleagues, arguably with worse indulgencies, remain in office - at least as of this writing. Efforts at excuses or repayments are not the style of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Environmental Protection Agency chief Administrator Scott Pruitt. They just feel entitled.
Zinke is a regular on private plane trips to national parks in the U.S. and, for example, billed the government $12,375 for a private helicopter trip from a meeting in Las Vegas to his ranch in Montana.
But, he is also in hot water for purchasing beautiful doors for the Interior Department at a cost of $129,000. He said the staff made the purchase.
Dangerous coffee tables
That sounds a bit better than Housing Secretary Ben Carson. When it emerged that he ordered a new dining table and chairs for his office at a cost of $31,000, he declared that the choice of the furniture and the decisions were all taken by his wife – and besides the old table, he said, “was actually dangerous.”
Pruitt, who has a penchant for flying first class, for example, spent over $120,000 in public funds visiting Italy, including a private tour of the Vatican. Pruitt reshuffled his security staff when they balked at using the official car sirens to get Pruitt through heavy traffic in Washington's rush-hour when he was on his way to a restaurant for dinner. His latest, perhaps biggest problem, is that it has been found that he found a luxurious bedroom in a posh apartment for just $50 a night - he would pay only when he used the residence (can you find a $50 lodging anywhere?). No real surprise, the apartment is owned by an energy industry lobbyist who happens to have business with Pruitt's department!
Still closer to the president are the advocates for protecting U.S. steel companies by imposing 25% tariffs on imported steel. Leading the charge is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross who became a billionaire by investing over in bankrupt U.S. steel companies, merging them and selling them off. It also appears that Ross only very recently divested himself of his business investment in a Chinese(!) shipping company called Diamond S. Shipping.
Of course, there are also the Trump children. The Trump organization has major deals in India, where White House Advisor Ivanka Trump made an official visit (exact purpose unknown) in January just before her brother Donald made a business trip there.
The Trumps generated huge and positive press in India, all the more so after both met individually with Prime Minister Modi. Business partners ran prominent advertisements offering dinner with Donald to people who would put down cash to buy apartments in Trump-licensed buildings.
Neither Ivanka Trump, nor her husband Jared Kushner, who is also an official White House advisor, have totally separated themselves from their business interests and, of course, neither has the president. Some of Kushner’s property dealings are now said to be part of the investigations being pursued by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Kushner's largest property, 666 Fifth Avenue in New York, which his family firm paid $1.4 billion a few years ago, is said to have substantial financial challenges and a vast mortgage coming due in early 2019. Kushner's father, Charles, is said to be hunting for investors and it would be no surprise if some targets happen to be folks with aims of visiting the White House and seeing the president.
CREW vs. Trump
No single group has been more concerned to expose the conflicts of interest and ensure that there is justice than Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Government (CREW) whose board is chaired by president Obama’s former White House chief ethics officer Norman Eisen. CREW is suing Trump for violations of the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution.
At the same time, it has undertaken an exhaustive investigation into every instance in which government and special interests interacted with the president’s private businesses. The 2017 results at Trump Inc.: A Chronicle of Presidential Conflicts recorded more than 500 entries related to potential conflicts of interest.
The Trump International Hotel, formerly the "Old Post office Pavilion"on Pennsylvania Avenue is a Federal government property that is leased to the Trump corporation. There are now court challenges, which a federal judge has allowed to proceed, over the legality of a public official (Trump) profiting from property on federal land (the hotel).
So many of the activities of Trump, his family and his associates are secret – they may take place on the private planes that the government is paying for, or just on all the Trump-named golf courses that they have a penchant of visiting. All manner of campaigning and political events are now staged at Trump hotels, with expenses finding their way into the Trump family coffers.
The Republican Senators and Congressmen abuse their majority status by making sure that none of the oversight committees are pressing any of the cases, big or small. In fact, not a single Congressional Committee is looking into the abuse and utter mockery that is being made of official U.S. government ethics rules.