The stench of corruption arising from President Donald Trump’s refusal to disclose his tax returns and relinquish his ownership in both domestic and foreign businesses remains a feature of this presidency. His conflicts of interest and self-enrichment would be unacceptable under any circumstances, but in the context of the Russia investigation, they represent the potential for a foreign foe to leverage influence over U.S. policy and/or to blackmail the president.
USA Today reports:
“President Trump’s companies sold more than $35 million in real estate in 2017, mostly to secretive shell companies that obscure buyers’ identities, continuing a dramatic shift in his customers’ behavior that began during the election, a USA TODAY review found.
“In Las Vegas alone, Trump sold 41 luxury condo units in 2017, a majority of which used limited liability companies - corporate entities that allow people to purchase property without revealing all of the owners’ names.
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“The trend toward Trump’s real estate buyers obscuring their identities began around the time he won the Republican nomination, midway through 2016, according to USA TODAY’s analysis of every domestic real estate sale by one of his companies. In the two years before the nomination, 4% of Trump buyers utilized the tactic. In the year after, the rate skyrocketed to about 70%. USA TODAY’s tracking of sales shows the trend held firm through Trump’s first year in office.”
Are these buyers Russian oligarchs? Organized-crime figures? Lobbyists? We don’t know. What we do know is that an increasing share of purchasers who put money in the pocket of the U.S. president don’t want their identities known.
Having his own lawyer “sign off” on these deals is no protection at all, and of no constitutional weight if these are foreign buyers. If, for example, foreign companies or actors are overpaying for properties as a way of greasing the skids for favorable treatment, these would be classic cases of foreign emoluments — which are barred under the Constitution unless Congress signs off on them.
We don’t know whether the buyers have business with the U.S. government, get special treatment (e.g. regulatory relief for businesses they may own) or use their standing to secure access not available to others (as Clinton Foundation donors were accused of getting with then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton).
In a properly functioning Congress intent on upholding its constitutional responsibilities, legislators would demand that Trump divest himself of businesses, put proceeds in a truly blind trust and reveal tax records and real estate sales in the years leading up to his candidacy. Frankly, no executive branch employee should be allowed to conduct business with shell companies whose identities are hidden.
Congress could surely pass a law to that effect — or ban use of shell-company purchases for any real estate sale over a certain amount. (Britain has tried to curtail such sales in an effort to stop foreign kleptocrats from buying up their country.)
It’s mind-boggling that not a single Republican lawmaker has raised a serious complaint, held a single hearing or suggested legislation to require transparency in such transactions. Republicans have enabled the president to operate with an unprecedented degree of secrecy, making way for potential corruption — and certainly the appearance of it — on a scale we’ve never seen. When the midterms roll around, the GOP needs to explain why it has been expanding opportunities for corruption rather than eliminating them.