In just over a week, down the rabbit hole we go.
A lot of people are still clinging to the hope that the Donald Trump of the campaign trail, the thin-skinned insult machine who relishes conflict and reeks of conflict of interest, will disappear on January 20, Inauguration Day, to be magically replaced by someone more… conventional.
Wednesday’s frequently surreal press conference, his first since July, is one more reason to put those hopes to rest. The Trump Americans elected is the Trump who will occupy the White House bully pulpit for the next four years. He answered questions from reporters, but in doing so raised more concerns than he put to rest.
For example, the president-elect finally unveiled a plan that he said would insulate the presidency from his corporate holdings, and ensure that he neither uses public office to enrich The Trump Organization, nor offers opportunities to influence him.
At New York’s Trump Tower, the documents giving effect to this were proudly piled high, apparently representing all the carefully lawyered paperwork that Mr. Trump would be signing. What does it add up to? Window dressing.
Mr. Trump is not selling his investments in real estate, hotels, golf courses, casinos and who knows what else. Nor is he placing his assets in a blind trust. Instead, he is putting day-to-day management of the Trump Organization in the hands of his sons, and promising that he won’t talk to them about how they are running things. An employee of his will give them ethics advice. That’s it.
It’s an unprecedented situation for the presidency. And the issue is not Mr. Trump’s wealth. It’s the nature of his wealth, resting on an opaque collection of businesses that span the globe – along with the largely undisclosed collection of financial relationships and obligations supporting those businesses.
If Mr. Trump were a billionaire with a vanilla investment portfolio of stocks and bonds in a blind trust, all would be kosher. Instead, Mr. Trump and his family remain the owners of a set of global businesses supported by mostly unknown webs of borrowing, lending, contracts and lawsuits. The opportunities for conflict of interest are essentially unlimited, as are those for personal and family enrichment.
Mr. Trump once promised that he’d come to Washington to “drain the swamp” of corruption – and a swamp it is. American politics is awash in money, from billions of dollars in campaign donations to lucrative employment offers for departing public officials. The town is a revolving door of lobbyists and the lobbied, and it runs on political favours traded for money.
In fact, many Republican voters backed Mr. Trump, against the advice of the party establishment, because they were furious with a GOP whose policies often appeared driven by moneyed special interests.
He promised to change that. Instead, there is a very real danger that he and his family’s businesses will end up as America’s most special, special interest.
Remember Ronald Reagan’s “trust, but verify”? Mr. Trump is demanding trust but rejecting verification. On Wednesday, he again refused to release his tax returns. He also mocked those worrying about his conflicts of interest, saying that under his read of U.S. law, a president cannot be accused of such a thing, no matter what he does.
He bragged about a $2-billion business opportunity in the Middle East he had turned down only days earlier. He also claimed that he had both the ability and the legal right to simultaneously run the Trump Organization and the executive branch of the U.S. government, but was choosing to step away from the former as a sort of favour to American voters.
And that wasn’t the worst of his press conference. The worst was the realization that, if former KGB agent Vladimir Putin has a long term plan to not just sink Hillary Clinton, but to discredit all sides in the U.S. political process, he’s making progress.
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump angrily refused to take a question from a CNN reporter, because “your organization is terrible” and “you are fake news.” This came after CNN and other news organizations reported that the president-elect had received an intelligence briefing about unverified claims that Russian intelligence has collected information with which to blackmail Mr. Trump.
And so once again, rumours from Russia– whether real or fanciful, products of a hack, a leak, fertile imagination or calculated disinformation – are powering American political discourse. It’s further pushing Americans into two violently estranged tribes, incapable of believing anything the other says. It’s undermining belief in democracy, objective reporting, and even objective truth itself.
What’s left is power: Who has it, and who doesn’t. Unless you reside in the Kremlin, this is not a positive development.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly said Mr. Trump’s last press conference was two months ago. In fact, it was in July.
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