WASHINGTON ― In the absence of a clear plan to address the unprecedented conflicts of interest facing Donald Trump’s presidency, you might think congressional Republicans would be planning aggressive oversight of the incoming president’s financial entanglements and looking to establish clear firewalls between Trump and his business dealings.
Or you might think that Republicans don’t really care about Trump’s conflicts of interest.
In interviews with The Huffington Post over the last two weeks, congressional Republicans gave the impression of the latter.
“I don’t think that Mr. Trump has as big of a problem as people would like him to have with it, so, no, I have no problem,” Rep. Michael Kelly (R-Pa.) told HuffPost this week.
When pressed for clarification, Kelly asked who we worked for. We then asked about Bahrain renting out Trump Hotel on Wednesday, a potential opportunity for the Middle Eastern kingdom to influence the incoming president by directing money to him. Instead of answering that, Kelly attacked HuffPost.
“I think you folks are going to have a great four years,” he said.
Asked what that meant, Kelly shut down. “Well, it just means exactly what I said. I mean, listen, how about call my office if you want to and give me a list of what you want to talk about?”
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) ― famous for shouting “You lie!” during one of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses ― repeatedly said he wasn’t concerned at all with foreign or business interests using the open pipeline into Trump’s pocket to try to influence him.
“Hey, my view is I voted for Mr. Trump because I knew ― and I was really sold by my wife, all right, she was the one who identified ― he’s such a good businessperson, he surrounds himself by very talented people and would make a good president,” Wilson said.
Pressed again on potential conflicts of interest, though, Wilson said Trump was turning over his businesses to his children. And asked if that was sufficient, given the role that Trump’s children seem apt to play in the presidency, Wilson stressed once more that he wasn’t concerned.
“I’m sure that they’ll adjust for that too,” he said.
Even Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the top watchdog in Congress who had vowed vigorous oversight of Hillary Clinton when he expected her to win the presidency, has taken a decidedly less aggressive tone with Trump.
“It’s sort of ridiculous to go after him when his financial disclosure is already online,” Chaffetz told HuffPost recently.
While he didn’t rule out eventual investigations, Chaffetz made it clear he had no intention to hold any hearings before Trump takes office, even though the second Trump assumes the presidency, he will be in violation of the lease agreement he signed for Trump Hotel in the historic Old Post Office in Washington, D.C.
That lease states that no elected official “shall be admitted to any share or part of this lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom,” meaning elected officials aren’t supposed to make money from the Trump Hotel, which Trump, an elected official, will obviously do.
And this is just the beginning of the incoming president’s conflicts of interest.
Trump has hundreds of businesses with his name on them that could be used by foreign governments and other individuals or organizations to potentially influence him; hundreds of millions he owes to foreign banks that could complicate U.S. relations; and seemingly endless executive rulemaking opportunities that could affect his wallet. (Trump gets to decide, for instance, whether people making less than $47,476 a year, many of whom work in his hotels, will get overtime pay.)
The issues are real and immediate, but Republicans are treating them as if they’re theoretical and far down the road.
It wasn’t always this way. For the last eight years, Republicans have forcefully gone after the Obama administration, from the Benghazi investigation and Fast and Furious to ACORN and the supposed political targeting at the IRS.
Republicans have also spoken out about alleged self-dealing at the Clinton Foundation and the need to ensure elected officials aren’t enriching themselves.
In 2012, the GOP overwhelmingly supported legislation meant to prevent members of Congress and executive branch employees from using insider information to profit. It was Republicans, in fact, who insisted the president be included in the legislation, the STOCK Act.
Then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), that, “‘If we’re going to play by these rules, then President Obama is going to play by these rules,’” Walz recounted this week. “It was smart.”
All but four Republicans in Congress supported the STOCK Act ― Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia and John Campbell of California voted against it in the House, and Richard Burr of North Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma opposed it in the Senate ― and Republicans made impassioned speeches on the floor, railing against elected officials using their offices to make money.
“One of the great causes that impels the separation from Great Britain was the common practice of public officials using their office to increase their personal wealth,” Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) said at the time.
But now, Ross told HuffPost, Congress should “wait and see” how Trump separates himself from his business dealings before lawmakers go after him.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House science committee, said in 2012 that government exists to promote the public good, not to enrich elected officials and government employees. “Those who are entrusted with public office are called public servants because their work should always serve the public rather than themselves,” Smith said on the House floor. “No one should violate the sacred trust of government office by turning public service into self-service.”
And now that Trump is going to be president? Smith referred us to his office for questions about the STOCK Act and the incoming president.
Of course, some Republicans have suggested there might be some issues with Trump’s finances. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) has consistently said Trump’s explanations of his conflicts of interests are insufficient. Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), one of Trump’s earliest supporters, said he wanted to see Trump follow the law. “He shouldn’t be making money off being the president for his personal interests, so I definitely think that needs to be looked into, and I think he agrees,” DesJarlais said. Even Ross and Chaffetz have indicated they may support investigations at some point.
But for those Republicans who are concerned, the “wait and see” approach seems to be the norm ― if Republicans are concerned at all.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) aggressively went after Clinton in July. “No one should be above the rules, no one should be above the law, and that’s what we’re looking for, equality,” Ryan said on CNN. “So that people should be held to the same set of standards. That’s the problem with Washington, is people think there’s self-dealing and they think that everybody is being held to different standards. And the problem is that that’s true!”
And yet when Ryan was asked on Wednesday how Trump should handle his conflicts of interest, Ryan’s answer was “however he wants to.”
“This is not what I’m concerned about in Congress,” Ryan told CNBC. “I have every bit of confidence he’s going to get himself right with moving from being the business guy that he is to the president he’s going to become.”
He’s not alone in that assessment. He just has no evidence that it’s true. And he doesn’t seem interested in getting proof.
Christina Wilkie and Paul Blumenthal contributed reporting. Video produced by J.M. Rieger.