Does anyone know what Ivanka Trump was supposed to be doing as she sat in a meeting with her father, the president-elect of the United States, and Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan? Was she sharing her knowledge of Asian trade and security issues? Or was she trying to sell Mr. Abe the pretty $10,800 bracelet she wore a few days earlier on 60 Minutes, part of her fashion jewellery line, which her company then tried to hawk to the public, using her TV appearance as leverage?
It's all so complicated when you're one of the children running the monster-tentacled business empire of your not entirely transparent father, who will soon be the leader of the free world. No press were invited to the meeting with Mr. Abe, so we have no idea what was discussed, but a handout photo reveals the scene in Trump Tower in glittering detail: Gold leaf covering everything, New York twinkling in the background. Trump Tower was the scene of a reality TV show and now we have the beginning of another: The White House Shopping Network, it might be called, or Keeping Up With the Marcoses.
Of course, what the Marcos family did to the Philippines was completely illegal. Once they'd crushed all dissent and stolen billions in assets, Ferdinand and Imelda arrived in exile in disgrace, accompanied by their plunder, including bricks of gold engraved with the words, "To my husband on our 24th anniversary." Officials in the Philippines are still trying to recover the pilfered money. How much easier would it be to milk a country legally, while people are looking the other way?
This week has brought a deluge of alarming news coming from Mr. Trump's transition team: Japanese-American internment cited as a precedent for Muslim registry? Check. Appointment of an attorney-general who was considered too racist to be a federal judge? Check. So it's easy to forget that an equally alarming, totally legal precedent is being set where lines between personal enrichment and political power are blurred further every day. As Vanity Fair put it, "Donald Trump has officially reached peak conflict of interest."
For example, Mr. Trump has reportedly asked for security clearance for his political novice son-in-law Jared Kushner, and may bring him on board in some capacity, in possible contravention of a 1967 nepotism law. He has indicated that he plans to put his business empire – hotels, golf courses, merchandise – in a blind trust run by three of his children. He is close to, and takes advice from, those children. That is not a blind trust. That is not even a trust that needs reading glasses. As a Republican lawyer told The New York Times, "To say that his children running his businesses in his name is the equivalent of a blind trust – there is simply no credibility in that claim."
Presidents and vice-presidents are exempt from conflict-of-interest rules, but most have put their holdings in actual blind trusts, run by actual independent overseers (but then, they've all revealed their tax returns, too.) With Mr. Trump, and his vast, Byzantine holdings, we're truly in terra incognita, as Matthew Yglesias pointed out in Vox: "The current setup in which Trump owns a series of opaque holding companies operationally controlled by heirs who are also close political advisers is a looming corruption disaster. It allows Trump and his family to use their influence over the policy process to enrich themselves to an essentially unlimited degree with no public disclosure whatsoever."
But, as they say in infomercials (and perhaps soon in the West Wing), that's not all, folks! Much has been made of the fact that Mr. Trump will forego the president's $400,000 annual salary ($1.6-million over four years.) Far less has been made of the fact that he is already making money off this enterprise. During the election, he made stops to promote his hotels and golf courses, giving those properties buckets of free advertising, since the events were covered and broadcast as news. According to The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Trump spent $10-million of campaign money paying his own companies and reimbursing his children for travel. The Secret Service, legally obliged to protect the presidential candidate, was charged $1.6-million for travelling on Mr. Trump's plane. There are carnies all over the world nodding in admiration.
What happens when Mr. Trump's role as president is at odds with his role as vindictive wealth-amasser? Consider that his hotel in Las Vegas has launched a lawsuit challenging the National Labor Relations Board, which has ruled that the hotel must negotiate with its newly unionized staff. The president appoints members of the National Labor Relations Board. If that's not a conflict, I'm not sure what is.
You see where this is all going; or perhaps not. Perhaps those who elected Mr. Trump don't care in the least that in the past he's regularly sued contractors and suppliers and been sued in return, refused to reveal his tax returns and will face no investigation of his business dealings from a Republican-controlled Congress. Perhaps people don't care. Or perhaps they expect him to turn over a new leaf. If he does, you can bet it will be 18-karat gold.