(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last week, President Donald Trump, while inveighing against Robert Mueller, Democrats, and “the swamp,” assured the public that “I have been the most transparent president and administration in the history of our country.”
On Monday, in a lawsuit that Trump, his three eldest children, and his company filed in a federal court in Manhattan against Deutsche Bank AG and Capital One Financial Corporation, he made clear that when it comes to his wallet and his business history he’s actually not all that interested in transparency.
Instead, he argued, Democrats in the House of Representatives were violating his financial privacy and exceeding their constitutional mandate by asking Deutsche and Capital One to comply with subpoenas from the House’s Financial Services and Intelligence Committees. Democratic lawmakers are seeking information about years of the Trumps’ business dealings and finances at home and abroad.
“The subpoenas were issued to harass President Donald J. Trump, to rummage through every aspect of his personal finances, his businesses and the private information of the president and his family, and to ferret about for any material that might be used to cause him political damage,” the lawsuit contends. “No grounds exist to establish any purpose other than a political one.”
Welcome to the first salvos of the post-Mueller battle between the White House and Congress over the separation of powers, executive authority and the Pandora’s box of thorny, troubling problems stemming from the fact that Trump is the most financially conflicted president of the modern era.
Of course, politics are at work here. But principles are at stake as well. How this plays out will inform whether non-partisan and non-ideological values such as good government, ethical management, and, yes, transparency have institutional protection in the future regardless of which president and which party controls the White House.
In the here and now, we’re also seeing Washington’s gladiators move beyond what inspired Mueller’s investigation — the possibility that Trump and his team cooperated in a criminal conspiracy involving electoral sabotage and obstruction of justice — and into equally, if not even more crucial, questions about whether the Oval Office and policy-making are captives of Trump’s own greed and business relationships. In that context, what’s taking shape isn’t about voyeurism and improper peeking into the Trump Organization’s vaults. It’s about getting a clear grasp of whether Trump is financially compromised and if he is putting the presidency and the public interest at risk because of it.
Trump claims to be transparent, but unlike every president since 1973 he still hasn’t released his tax returns and hasn’t complied with Congressional requests to do so. Trump claims to be transparent, but shortly after taking office didn’t bother fully insulating his business from his presidency and instead set up a opaque trust overseen by his two eldest sons and his bookkeeper to supposedly do that for him. Trump claims to be transparent, but he’s now suing Congress to prevent it from exercising oversight powers that would offer a fuller picture of his possible business and financial conflicts. The suit specifically cites “transparency” three times as an apparently bogus reason for the House’s interest in Trump’s finances.
Trump’s lawyers argue in their lawsuit that Congress doesn’t have constitutional authority to engage in oversight or investigations of the presidency, and can only take action tied to existing legislation. And they use that argument as a foundation for saying the House’s requests of Trump are overly sweeping and intrusive and therefore Deutsche and Capital One shouldn’t hand over records. Ironically, one of the parties suing the two companies is the trust set up by Trump to ostensibly check his financial conflicts as president. And while the suit makes much of the fact that meanies in Congress have gone so far as to ensnare Trump’s kids in this mess, it conveniently glosses over the reality that his three eldest children are his longstanding business partners and one of them, Ivanka, is a senior adviser in the White House.
The lawsuit also argues that Congress is somehow reaching back improperly into the years before Trump became president in its request for financial records. But Trump has had years of dealings with organized crime figures and has had substantial amounts of murky, overseas funds coursing through his business. All of that has yet to get serious investigative scrutiny and, of necessity, involves looking at the president’s business history.
Mueller and his investigators themselves spent a substantial amount of time examining at least one of Trump’s pre-presidential business forays — the exploration of a possible real estate transaction in Russia dubbed Trump Tower Moscow — to see if it was linked to any illicit campaign dealings. Why? For obvious reasons: If Trump had an interest in landing possibly multi-million dollar projects overseas prior to and during his presidential campaign, that might have shaded the promises he made to foreign governments or entities during that period. It obviously also would have influenced life and policy in the Oval Office once he was elected.
Trump himself has already provided good reasons for why taking a deeper, transparent look at his finances matters.
“When I run for president, that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to do business,” Trump said last November, forced to acknowledge that the Trump Tower Moscow project existed after he repeatedly told reporters he had no financial interests in Russia. “I often joke about the fact that I was the only person that campaigned and simultaneously ran a business.”
“But Mr. President, you said you had no deals with Russia,” a reporter asked. “You said you had no deals with Russia.”
“To my way of thinking, it was an option that I decided not to do,” Trump responded. “I was running my business while I was campaigning. 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?”
The president clearly has issues with ethical and financial boundaries and, despite his lawsuit’s protests that his privacy is being violated, he’s not just your average American businessman or citizen; he’s someone clothed in immense power who, quite properly, needs to be held to a higher standard. In the years prior to the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations, Trump went on a spending spree that included golf course developments, the Trump SoHo Hotel and other projects funded in mysterious ways. Deutsche Bank, in particular, has been party to a substantial portion of decades of the president’s ventures and, as I’ve noted before, the bank has some important stories to tell.
Congress understands this.
“As a private businessman, Trump routinely used his well-known litigiousness and the threat of lawsuits to intimidate others, but he will find that Congress will not be deterred from carrying out its constitutional responsibilities,” Adam Schiff and Maxine Waters, the two Democrats overseeing respectively the House Intelligence and Financial Services Committees, said of the court case filed by Trump on Monday. “This lawsuit is not designed to succeed; it is only designed to put off meaningful accountability as long as possible.”
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Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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