Democracy & Government

The Other Special Prosecutor We Need

Trump and his inner circle cashing in on the White House is its own growing scandal.

The Other Special Prosecutor We Need

President-elect Donald Trump and his attorney Sheri Dillon at a press conference in New York on Jan. 11, 2017, where they discussed how Trump would handle his business affairs while in office. (Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s been one revelation after the other these days about President Trump’s attempts to shut down the FBI’s Russiagate investigation. Turn on the news and you’re bound to hear comparisons to Nixon’s Watergate scandal and phrases like “obstruction of justice,” “intimidating a witness” and “cover-up” being hotly debated.

And then last Wednesday, the Department of Justice finally bowed to reality and appointed a special prosecutor, former FBI Director Robert Mueller. “Based upon the unique circumstances the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command,” wrote Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Progress.

Meanwhile, another scandal is brewing in the White House that demands equal attention — Trump, his family and his inner circle cashing in on the presidency for personal profit.

Let’s face it, Trump and his close associates have turned their backs on ethical norms and the anti-corruption protections written into the US Constitution and federal law in a way we haven’t seen in modern times.

The list of unethical and illegal behavior by President Trump & Co. is long and getting longer. Honestly, it’s hard to know where to begin.

The first big red flag came nine days before Trump had even been sworn into office. Trump and his lawyer, Sheri Dillon, stepped up to the mic at a press conference and announced that Trump was not covered by federal ethics laws, would not be releasing his tax returns and would not place his massive business holding in a blind trust — shattering 40-plus years of ethics and transparency practices.

Instead of divesting from his international real estate holdings and ventures, Trump turned the day-to-day operations over to his sons Don and Eric.

Bottom line? Trump gets to keep racking up the profits — and the conflicts — while serving as president, and then step right back into the business the day after he leaves the White House.

In spite of this, Trump moved quickly to bolster his efforts to have the public blindly trust him.

“Over the weekend, I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai with a very, very, very amazing man,” Trump announced at the same presser. “And I turned it down. I didn’t have to turn it down, because as you know, I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president, which is … a nice thing to have.”

It was a nice try, but ethical and legal dilemmas created by Trump’s decision have cropped up on a regular basis ever since:

  • Trump’s continued ownership and operation of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC has prompted charges — and a lawsuit — that he is using his office to gain an unfair competitive advantage, as well as violating the express terms of his government lease. Foreign dignitaries and agents have flocked to the hotel since Election Day to curry favor with the president.
  • Another lawsuit claims that Trump’s continued ownership of both the DC hotel and his Manhattan hotel violates the US Constitution’s “Emoluments Clause.”
  • Trump’s estate on St. Martin Island in the Caribbean has been put on the market for a stunning $28 million, “presenting an enticing new way for a wealthy interest to get the president’s attention,” according to the Associated Press.
  • The value of having Trump’s name on his business holdings has jumped 30 percent since the election, and increases “every time he shows up at one of these locations,” says a research firm that has tracked his business for more than 20 years.
The conflicts of interest don’t stop at the door of the Oval Office; they permeate Trump’s White House.

But the conflicts of interest don’t stop at the door of the Oval Office; they permeate Trump’s White House. For example:

  • China approved three trademarks for Ivanka Trump’s fashion lines and spas on the same day she had dinner with President Trump and the Chinese president at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
  • Trump has designated his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as his lead adviser on Middle Eastern affairs at the same time that Kushner is building a real estate empire with the financial backing of a controversial Israeli billionaire family. The family’s leading figure, Reny Steinmetz, is under scrutiny for alleged bribery and money laundering by the United States and three other governments. The potential conflicts of interest are great, both in terms of Kushner’s role and the Steinmetz investigation now that the DOJ is led by Trump appointees.
  • Carl Icahn, appointed by Trump to be “a special adviser to the president on issues relating to regulatory reform,” has used his position to push a change in biofuel regulations that would save his oil refining business, CVR Energy, hundreds of millions per year. Meanwhile, Icahn’s holdings in CVR Energy have increased more than $500 million in value since Trump’s election. Icahn’s actions raise alleged violations of federal conflict of interest law, ethics regulations and the STOCK Act’s prohibition on insider trading.

Just this week, news broke — while Trump and his family were in Saudi Arabia for an official visit — that the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates will donate $100 million to Ivanka Trump’s charity for women entrepreneurs, and that Jared Kushner will not divest himself of 90 percent of his real estate assets, held by a myriad of shell companies that make monitoring conflicts nearly impossible.

And what about that “very, very, very amazing” Dubai developer Trump mentioned at his January press conference? Trump may not have taken that mysterious $2 billion deal, but the founder and chairman of Damac Properties — who has paid Trump millions for two luxury golf resort licensing deals — is a very happy man. “Since the election of Donald Trump,” Jussain Sajwani said, “[our] brand name has got better publicity and become stronger.”

So far, Trump and his family and friends have been allowed to enjoy the personal profits of their government service with impunity, and it would appear that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has no appetite or inclination to do anything about it.

The same grounds for Sessions’ recusal from Russiagate (which he brazenly ignored) and the appointment of Mueller as special counsel apply to how DOJ handles political profiteering in the White House. As a close friend and key adviser to Trump, Sessions must recuse himself from all legal investigations involving the president and his inner circle under the Department of Justice’s own rules.

DOJ regulations require recusal when an employee has a “personal or political relationship” with “any person or organization” that is either “the subject of an investigation or prosecution” or “has a specific and substantial interest that would be directly affected by the outcome of the investigation or prosecution.”

Sessions’ personal and political relationship with the president is well established at this point, and it is clear that an indictment of a member of the president’s family, a close adviser or even a Cabinet-level appointee would have a significant adverse impact on the president’s public image, political fortunes and ability to conduct government business.

But that’s something that people are going to have to demand loudly and clearly; Sessions is not likely to recuse himself without a fight.

During his confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked repeatedly if he would recuse himself from a host of thorny legal issues surrounding Trump, his conflicts of interest and the Emoluments Clause. In each instance, he demurred, claiming: “I am not aware of a basis to recuse myself from such matters.”

Congress should insist on the appointment of another special counsel to handle a whole host of White House corruption issues. American democracy is too precious to be cheapened by those who cannot — and will not — separate their personal fortunes from the fortunes of the nation.

Arn Pearson

Arn Pearson serves as a senior fellow at People for the American Way, focusing on anti-corruption efforts and campaigns to reduce the influence of big money in politics. He has worked for more than 20 years developing federal and state policy and legal strategies around campaign finance reform, government ethics, corporate accountability, and tax reform. His expertise has been drawn upon in outlets such as NBC, Politico and state and local outlets across the country. Pearson also serves as general counsel and policy adviser for the Center for Media and Democracy. Follow him on Twitter: @apearson15.

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