A few days ago, I got an email from an old friend, asking me whether I’d seen the article about Trump’s myriad conflicts of interest in the most recent Forbes. I hadn’t.
He very thoughtfully brought me a copy.
After I had read it, I sat for awhile thinking about how diminished our expectations of presidential behavior have become. If any other President in my lifetime had simply ignored long-settled legal and ethical constraints in pursuit of personal gain, bipartisan outrage would have already triggered impeachment proceedings. (We wouldn’t need Robert Muller.)
The article is titled “Trump’s Towering Tenant Conflicts,” and it begins with the Bank of China.
The largest American office of China’s largest bank sits on the 20th floor of Trump Tower, six levels below the desk where Donald Trump built an empire and wrested a presidency. It’s hard to get a glimpse inside. There do not appear to be any public photos of the office, the bank doesn’t welcome visitors, and a man guards the elevators downstairs–one of the perks of forking over an estimated $2 million a year for the space.
Trump Tower officially lists the tenant as the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, but make no mistake who’s paying the rent: the Chinese government, which owns a majority of the company. And while the landlord is technically the Trump Organization, make no mistake who’s cashing those millions: the president of the United States, who has placed day-to-day management with his sons but retains 100% ownership. This lease expires in October 2019, according to a debt prospectus obtained by Forbes. So if you assume that the Trumps want to keep this lucrative tenant, then Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. could well be negotiating right now over how many millions the Chinese government will pay the sitting president. Unless he has already taken care of it: In September 2015 then-candidate Trump boasted to Forbes that he had “just renewed” the lease, around the time he was gearing up his campaign.
The meticulously sourced article is accompanied by lists of tenants at a number of Trump’s signature properties, the rents those tenants pay, and the conflicts of interest they represent.
The numbers are significant: $21 million here, $12 million there. The names even more so: At least 36 of Trump’s tenants have meaningful relationships with the federal government, from contractors to lobbying firms to regulatory targets.
Those “regulatory targets” are the most worrisome. Trump’s other “meaningful relationships” are simply corrupt, but these landlord-tenant relationships facilitate highly sophisticated bribery that undermines the federal regulatory process.
How, then, to consider the backroom discussions between federal officials and Walgreens Boots Alliance, one of the largest pharmacies in the world? Through its brand Duane Reade, it is the highest-paying tenant in Trump’s skyscraper at 40 Wall Street in New York, with $3.2 million in annual rent, according to a 2015 prospectus. In October 2015, Walgreens Boots Alliance announced a $9.4 billion merger with rival Rite Aid, requiring a sign-off from antimonopoly regulators. After the deal failed to secure approval under President Obama, it then fell to the Trump administration, which arrived in Washington during the first quarter of 2017. According to federal disclosures, that was the same quarter Walgreens Boots Alliance began directly lobbying the White House on “competition policy issues.” In September, despite objections by one of the two commissioners at the Federal Trade Commission, Trump’s tenant got the green light for a slimmed-down, $4.4 billion version of the deal. In January, Trump announced he would nominate the commissioner who supported the deal, Maureen Ohlhausen, to be a federal judge.
This was anything but an isolated case. Capital One, for example, pays an estimated $1 million for space in Trump’s Park Avenue condo building while it is being investigated by the Justice and Treasury departments for alleged money-laundering.
In December, Trump tenants UBS, Barclays and JPMorgan, plus Trump lender Deutsche Bank, got waiver extensions from the Department of Labor that allow them to avoid part of their punishment for illegally manipulating interest rates and foreign exchange rates.
The article cites numerous similar “coincidences” –at best, they raise the appearance of impropriety; more likely, they really do represent the sort of graft engaged in by a blowhard who has always believed the rules are for other people.
Whether these unprecedented conflicts violate the Emoluments Clause will eventually be decided by a court–two cases raising the issue are pending. Of course, those who drafted the Emoluments Clause language would never have anticipated that the new country they were establishing–their “Shining City on the Hill”– would elect someone as unfit for public office–or for that matter, as unfit for polite society–as Donald Trump.