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Trump shows the perils of a businessman-president

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

As of Dec. 6, 2018, there’s no public evidence President Trump has broken the law in his dealings with Russia. But there’s plenty of evidence that his interests as a business owner conflict with his duties as president, and also with the interests of the United States and its citizens.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaks during the grand opening of Trump International Hotel in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

We now know that Trump was pursuing a real-estate deal in Moscow up to the point he had secured the Republican nomination for president in 2016—while taking public positions on Russia far more favorable than any other candidate. Trump called Russian dictator Vladimir Putin a “strong leader” and said he saw no need for sanctions the United States had imposed on Russia following its forceful annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Russia has lobbied aggressively for the removal of those sanctions ever since they went into effect, and Trump was one of the most sympathetic listeners.

Trump never told voters he was trying to trying to land a business deal in Russia—which would have required Putin’s approval—while running for president. In fact, he said in 2017, “I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years.” We only know he was seeking a deal just a year earlier because of a recent plea deal between Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, and special counsel Robert Mueller.

Once that news got out, Trump changed his story, arguing that it made sense for him to go after the Moscow deal in 2016 because he might have lost the presidential race and needed the business. “I was running my business while I was campaigning,” Trump told reporters on Nov. 29, 2018. “There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business. And why should I lose lots of opportunities?”

Defending Russia

Trump’s explanation might be legitimate if he had been fully transparent about pursuing a business deal in Moscow while he was running for president. That would have allowed voters to judge for themselves whether Trump’s views toward Putin and Russia were influenced by his desire to get permits to make money there. The fact that Trump kept this information secret suggests his positions as president are compromised by his business interests. It may also suggest he hopes to do business with Russia after he leaves office, after currying favor and making connections in his current role.

As president, Trump has not gone as lightly on Putin and Russia as his comments as a candidate suggested he would. But there’s one glaring exception to that: Trump’s recurring attacks on the Mueller investigation, which is meant to determine the full extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump is obviously worried that Mueller will incriminate him and his family, which is why he has been trying to discredit the investigation since it began. In that sense, Trump is doing a better job defending Russia than Russia could ever do itself—and it all stems from his business interests in Moscow.

Similar questions now hang over Trump’s coddling of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who probably ordered the October murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. Trump says the evidence implicating Salman is inconclusive, even though Republican senators briefed by the CIA say available evidence directly links Salman to Khashoggi’s death. Why is Trump alone going so soft on Saudi Arabia and its 33-year-old leader?

Trump says it’s because he wants to keep oil prices low and arms deal with U.S. contractors intact. But his business connections might be a more plausible explanation. In an October tweet, Trump said, “I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia.” But at a rally in 2015, Trump himself said he earns “hundreds of millions” of dollars from Saudis who buy his properties and other products. “I like the Saudis,” Trump said at the rally. “I make a lot of money with them. They buy all sorts of my stuff.”

In this photo released by Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman addresses the Future Investment Initiative conference, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. The Crown Prince addressed the summit on Wednesday, his first such comments since the killing earlier this month of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Trump now expects us to believe his uniquely soft stance on the murder of a journalist who lived in the United States at the time of his death has nothing to do with Saudi money flowing directly into his pocket—or his possible interest in future deals with billionaire Saudis he’s protecting today.

Hotel conflict

Yet another conflict involves Trump’s new hotel in Washington, D.C., which lawyers for Maryland and the District of Columbia say robs local businesses of revenue because foreign officials seeking to curry favor with Trump sleep and eat at his hotel instead of patronizing other businesses. A clause in the Constitution forbids the president from accepting improper payments from foreigners, and the lawyers are suing Trump, saying he is violating that provision. Among the big spenders at the Trump property five blocks from the White House: Saudi Arabian officials. Trump has tried to have the case thrown out of court, but a judge said it can proceed. Maryland and D.C. attorneys general are now issuing subpoenas to Trump businesses, to learn how much revenue the hotel has earned from foreign officials and their governments.

With Trump mixing personal business and the nation’s business, other members of his administration seem to be doing the same. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, a key White House adviser, has reportedly sought financing for his family’s real-estate firm from Russian, Chinese and Saudi investors, while also influencing national policy involving the same nations. His wife Ivanka, Trump’s daughter—another White House adviser with broad portfolio—still owns a namesake business that received key patents from China last May, around the same time her president father lifted sanctions on Chinese telecom firm ZTE. It may not have been a quid pro quo, but it looked like it.

The profit motive seems to run throughout the Trump administration. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, got paid $530,000 from the government of Turkey while advising Trump’s campaign on national security issues in 2016. Then, after Trump gave him the senior White House job, Flynn pushed for changes in U.S. policy his client Turkey desperately wanted. And he lied about his connections to Turkey on financial-disclosure forms meant to illuminate such conflicts of interest. Flynn later pled guilty to lying to the FBI and ended up cooperating with the Mueller probe, providing information on matters still not publicly known.

There have been many other grifters, profiteers and power abusers in the Trump administration, which probably explains, at least in part, why Trump’s approval rating is among the lowest on record for a president blessed with a strong economy. Trump promised to drain the swamp but instead has replaced one breed of reptile—Washington careerists feeding off taxpayers—with slimier creatures serving in government just long enough to exploit public authority for personal profit.

Trump proved that a businessman not beholden to the usual political overlords can get elected president, an important precedent that may draw future candidates from the business world and other realms outside politics. But Trump is also proving that various conflicts and corruptions that worried the nation’s founders are alive and well today. His presidency is testing whether the Constitution’s checks and balances actually work, and may ultimately force the nation to adopt stricter safeguards against profiteers in the White House.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman