Here are a few news stories that broke between the time I left work a little early on Friday afternoon and the time my toddler went down for his midday nap on Saturday:
- Foreign diplomats are booking rooms at Donald Trump’s hotel in Washington, DC because they believe that directly putting money in the pocket of the President-elect of the United States will serve as a bribe that helps them curry favor with him and influence foreign policy.
- Congress’s phones got jammed by citizens calling in and asking members to do something about Donald Trump’s financial conflicts of interest.
- Donald Trump paid $21 million to former students of his fake university who he allegedly defrauded.
- Donald Trump got into a Twitter war with the cast of Hamilton.
The Hamilton blow-up — because it’s easy to understand, bizarre, and connects with a pop culture phenomenon — has naturally ended up getting the bulk of the news pickup. One potential reason is that Trump’s tweets are public, whereas it took diligent reporting by the Washington Post to get the hotel story. The idea is that other prestigious outlets may be disinclined to pay attention to a story the Post “owns” and to give due credit to its significance.
Meanwhile, a second-order controversy even broke out among the people I follow on Twitter as to whether the Hamilton audience booing Mike Pence in some sense played into Trump’s hands.
But the truth is that nothing about the Hamilton story — not Pence’s decision to attend, not the crowd booing him, not the cast of the musical directing some respectful criticism in the direction of I his boss, not Trump’s tweets about what happened, and not the subsequent second-order controversy — is in any way important to how he runs the country.
By contrast, foreign governments directly putting money into Donald Trump’s pocket is very important. The fact that these attempted bribes are being paid to a man who is also paying out millions of dollars to avoid standing trial for his corrupt business practices is very important. The fact that citizens are calling members of congress to ask them to do something about this is also very important.
Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest are staggering
The important thing to recognize, as I try to lay out in a longer piece on the risk of systematic corruption under Donald Trump, is that there is essentially no limit to the amount of corruption that can take place here. A foreign government can direct its diplomats to stay at Trump’s hotels. But a foreign government can also cut Trump sweetheart deals on acquiring land to build golf courses.
For that matter, Trump currently owes money to a bank that is owned by the Chinese government. That bank could renegotiate its loan on terms that are friendlier to Trump. Similarly, any bank in the United States can start offering loans to Trump-controlled businesses on generous terms. And indeed, I think any bank in the United States that was asked for a loan by a Trump-controlled business would be insane not to offer him a sweetheart deal. He wouldn’t need to explicitly threaten regulatory retaliation to make a prudent bank CEO decide that the balance of risks favors the sweetheart deal.
And so it goes. Airbnb is a privately owned company that frequently finds itself in various kinds of regulatory trouble. Trump is in the hotel business and might benefit from shutting down Airbnb. But what if Eric Trump or Donald Trump, Jr. or Jared Kushner or a Trump-owned holding company were to find itself purchasing a large stake in Airbnb at a discount price? Nothing would need to be disclosed. And the odds of favorable regulatory treatment would go up.
Checks and balances are still in place — if congress cares
It’s worth saying that on one level, the threat of abuse of regulatory discretion has always existed. But on another level, this is exactly the problem that America’s constitutional system is best-designed to solve. We have a system of multiple independently elected branches of government with shared powers. This system has a lot of problems, but in theory a corrupt executive is a problem it is well-designed to stop.
- All of Donald Trump’s nominees need to be confirmed by the Senate.
- Congressional committees have subpoena power and can oversee executive branch conduct.
- Congress can pass new laws forcing the president to do more financial disclosure.
The problem is that in our current era of partisan polarization, most people simply assume that congress — which is controlled by Republicans — will choose not to do those things. Paul Ryan has an expansive legislative agenda that he would like to pass, heavily featuring tax cuts, reduced social services for the poor, deregulation of the banking industry, and possibly the privatization of Medicare. The calculation of Republican leaders in congress right now seems to be that they will agree to turn a blind eye to Trump’s corruption and in exchange he will sign their bills.
But they could change their minds on this. House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz could announce tomorrow that he wants to do hearings on Trump’s financial conflicts of interest. It would only take two or three Republican senators to band together and put out a statement saying they need to see Trump’s conflicts of interest addressed before they can confirm key cabinet members, to bring the whole thing to a grinding halt.
These things probably won’t happen. But they could. And whether or not they happen is extremely important.