One of the odder events of 2016's very odd presidential campaign was Donald Trump's pilgrimage to an event held by the Republican Hindu Coalition in Edison, New Jersey, during the last weeks of the presidential campaign. It's not as if he made other forms of outreach to small ethnic or religious minorities, and this event seemed like a particularly obscure one for a campaign concentrated on big rallies in battleground states.
Well, we may know the primary reason now: It was revealed over the weekend that the president-elect has been holding Trump Organization business meetings during the transition, and one of his meetings was with Indian developers with whom he has some luxury apartment deals cooking in Mumbai. The New York Times reported:
“We will see a tremendous jump in valuation in terms of the second tower,” said Pranav R. Bhakta, a consultant who helped Mr. Trump’s organization make inroads into the Indian market five years ago. “To say, ‘I have a Trump flat or residence’ — it’s president-elect branded. It’s that recall value. If they didn’t know Trump before, they definitely know him now.”
Somebody close to Trump must understand this isn't a good look:
— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) Nov. 20, 2016
Now perhaps people think that simply because Trump has business interests in India or any of the other countries in which the Trump Organization is involved, that this won't factor into his official decision-making as president. But at least until now our elected officials have been held to a higher standard. They put companies or investments in a blind trust or sold their businesses and converted their holdings into cash or generic financial investments. The reasons are obvious. Presidents normally strive to be seen as honest by the people who elected them and also to make it clear to foreign governments that they are not putting their own interests above their country.
Trump has said in the past that he "couldn't care less" about his business once he's making America great again, so he will undoubtedly announce at some point that he's stepping away from his company and letting his children take the reins — as if that would make a difference. After this past week, every foreign visitor will know whom to talk to about "president-branded" properties: Trump's kids.
Last week, you'll recall, Trump was said to request top-secret clearances for Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. (Trump later denied this, but the word was already out that the kids are in the inner circle.) They were already official members of the transition team, and Kushner is, according to news reports, being considered for an official role in the White House.
Meetings such as the one Ivanka Trump attended with Japan's prime minister last week would be noteworthy simply for the inappropriateness of such high-level contact without any formal preparation or supervision. But Ivanka is also an executive vice president of the Trump Organization. Her presence says clearly to all foreign business interests that she is involved at the highest levels, trusted by her father with both the business of the family and business of the United States.
Just as those pictures of Indian businessmen meeting with Trump and the three Trump scions were published and then withdrawn, so too was the picture of Ivanka at the meeting with the Japanese premier. If one were a cynic, one might even think they meant for them to be seen around the world, which they were, before the family was forced to take this operation behind closed doors.
It was also revealed that people who want to work with Trump both as a businessman and a president are staying at his new Washington hotel, spending money freely in an apparent attempt to curry favor with the new president. This story in The Washington Post sounds like something written about a tin-pot dictator in a developing country:
Guests at the Trump hotel have begun parking themselves in the lobby, ordering expensive cocktails, hoping to see one of the Trump family members or the latest Cabinet pick. One foreign official hoped Trump, famous for the personal interest he takes in his businesses, might check the guest logs himself. But several expressed concern that spending thousands of dollars on a Trump property could look like an attempt to buy access or favors.
Trump apparently has no such concerns. He's been holding his transition meetings at the Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey, in what The New York Times called a "Trump-branded, made-for-television spectacle." All that's missing is an 800 number at the bottom of the screen so that foreign dignitaries and business interests can make their reservations.
The Trump brand is clearly worth a lot more money than it was worth two weeks ago. It's now the "President of the United States" brand, and Trump and his family are poised to cash in handsomely along with their foreign partners. There are no laws against a president running his international business from the Oval Office, mainly because nobody ever thought a president would so blatantly use the office for personal gain.
The Times quoted ethics lawyers on the subject, who sounded stunned by what they are seeing: “It is unprecedented in modern history,” said Andrew D. Herman, a lawyer who has represented more than a dozen members of Congress in ethics cases. “But this is the new normal.”
I wrote quite a bit during the campaign about Trump's obvious conflicts of interest and was surprised that members of the press never seemed very interested in the subject, particularly since they reported obsessively on Hillary Clinton's past association with her family's global charitable foundation while she served as secretary of state.
Since Trump is making absolutely no effort to hide his intentions, mainstream media outlets are finally paying some attention to this unprecedented transgression of ethical norms. The problem is there's nothing to be done about it now, not really. The press can keep the spotlight on apparent efforts to influence other people, but Trump goes his own way and there's little reason to believe he will recognize that he's committing an ethical breach of massive proportions — or that he would care if he did.
We can't say he didn't warn us. In 2000, Trump told Fortune, “It's very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” We don't know how rich Trump really is right now, of course, but we can be pretty sure that he and his family will be a whole lot richer at the end of his term.