When will it all be too much? When will the preponderance of conflicts of interest by the Trump Family administration weigh so heavily that a Republican Congress supposedly duct-taped to the Constitution will be forced to say “Enough!” and then whisper the word “impeachment”?
Earlier this week on Morning Joe, Alan Lichtman, the American University history professor who correctly predicted Trump’s triumph last November (and every other presidential race in the past 30 years), offered a new prognostication: There is a strong possibility that the improbable president will be impeached.
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“Right now you could certainly write something up on conflicts of interest,” Lichtman said. “Trump just got all of these trademarks from China right after he seemed to have switched … his approach to Taiwan. “
And, he added, now daughter Ivanka has been awarded Chinese trademarks.
Lichtman, whose new book is The Case for Impeachment, pointed out that the “emoluments clause of the Constitution” says the president can’t receive anything of value from a foreign power -- “and it doesn’t require a quid pro quo.” He argued that “Trump’s huge mistake that makes him so vulnerable to impeachment on this ground was not fully divesting [from his businesses].”
In politics, it is often said, perception is everything. And the conflict-of-interest optics for Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner – the triumvirate that seems to be running the White House – could not be more troubling.
Among the mounting instances in which the business of state seems to be intermingled with the business of the Trumps (and Kushners) are these:
1. Ivanka merchandise.
Trump daughter Ivanka, now an official counselor to her father, has withdrawn from the management of her clothing and accessories business but she still owns it and stands to benefit from contacts she makes as a member of the president’s inner-inner circle. As the AP reported this week, “the commercial engine of the first daughter's brand is stronger than ever even as she builds a new political career from her West Wing office,” with sales surging this year despite boycotts and several stores dropping her lines.
When the Ivanka brand seemed to be under siege earlier this year, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who has since been muffled, got in trouble for going on TV and telling the public to buy Ivanka’s goods.
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That the Executive Office of the President will be a vehicle for Ivanka’s personal gain could not have been more breathtakingly apparent than on April 6 when, as the AP story said, her company “won provisional approval from the Chinese government for three new trademarks, giving it monopoly rights to sell Ivanka brand jewelry, bags and spa services in the world's second-largest economy.” That happened on the same day Ivanka and husband Jared Kusher were among the president’s guests at a dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife at Mar-a-Lago, President Trump’s Florida estate. In fact, they sat close to the leader of China. It’s unknown whether they discussed the three to five tons of Ivanka merchandise that arrived in the U.S. from Hong Kong and mainland China during the week of the U.S-China summit.
The AP said that Ivanka’s business “has more than 180 pending and registered trademarks in countries including Canada, India, Japan, Israel, Mexico, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as the U.S. and Europe.”
2. Trump hotels.
Earlier this week, after Trump called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on passage of a referendum that would greatly increase his power, stories surfaced about an interview the then-real estate developer gave in 2015 to then-Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon (now his chief strategist). In the interview on Bannon’s Sirius radio show, Trump said: "I have a little conflict of interest [in Turkey] 'cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul. It's a tremendously successful job. It's called Trump Towers — two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it's two.”
Since he became president, Trump has turned over management of the Trump Organization and other business interests to his two sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, and put his ownership in trusts. But as The Wall Street Journal pointed out Tuesday, he remains a beneficiary of those trusts.
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In the Journal story, Eric Trump suggested that the pace of deals by the Trump Organization had slowed since his father had been inaugurated because of efforts to put some distance between the business and the presidency. But Washington University law professor and ethics expert Kathleen Clark told the Journal that “the concern is [President Trump] could do favors for people in office with the expectation that he would receive a benefit sometime in the future.”
In addition, some see possible conflicts in Trump’s use of his Mar-a-Lago resort as a winter White House since it remains a going concern, with membership rates raised earlier this year to $200,000 per annum. And then there are the Trump hotels, including the Trump International down the street from the White House. Patronizing the hotels could be seen as a way of currying favor.
Information about the President’s businesses remains murky because he refuses to release his tax returns, and the protests last weekend seem unlikely to change that stance.
3. Kushner real estate.
Jared Kushner, who has emerged as Trump’s consigliore, has had conflicts of his own. In late March, a $4 billion deal between the family real estate business once controlled by Kushner (now being led again by his father, Charles) and the Chinese conglomerate Anbang Insurance Group fell through. The New York Times reported that the deal to develop a storied skyscraper at 666 Fifth Avenue – now renamed 660 Fifth Avenue to lose the Satanic undertones -- was terminated after Democratic members of Congress expressed concern that it would violate federal ethics laws.
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The deal “would have paired a company led by a man who married the granddaughter of China’s late paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, with the family company of Mr. Kushner, a principal White House adviser on foreign affairs, including China policy,” the Times story said.
On April 18, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group that includes ethics experts and legal scholars such as Laurence Tribe and Zephyr Teachout, announced the filing of an amended lawsuit alleging that Trump is in violation of the emoluments clause.
In a statement, Teachout said: “When we brought this lawsuit three days into the presidency, the constitutional violations were already pretty glaring. But now we’ve seen nearly 100 days of emoluments violations–and the violations are growing, not shrinking. Instead of backing off, [President Trump’s] actions have made the constitutional violations worse, and raise daily questions about whether he is working for his own interests or those of his foreign benefactors.”
The amended complaint includes Beijing’s granting of trademarks on real estate companies, spas, restaurants and bars.
“Despite denying Defendant trademark protections for over ten years, including in a ruling from an appellate court, and despite China’s law barring the use of foreign leaders’ names as trademarks, China gave Defendant the trademark he had requested and valued,” the amended complaint says, adding that the trademarks were granted “after [Trump] had been elected President, questioned the One China policy, was sworn in and re-affirmed the One China policy.”
While the conflicts mount, they may become a sideshow if investigations into Trump campaign connections to Russia reveal offenses that can be tied directly to the president. “The most likely ground for impeachment will be collusion with Russia depending on what comes out of these investigations,” Lichtman, the Washington University history professor, said.