Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, along with nearly two dozen fellow Democrats, introduced a resolution on Tuesday urging President-elect Donald Trump to follow his campaign pledge to sever ties with his businesses. The resolution calls on Trump “to follow the precedents established by prior presidents and convert his assets to simple, conflict-free holdings; adopt blind trusts managed by truly independent trustees with no relationship to Mr. Trump or his businesses; or to take other, equivalent measures. ”
On the Senate floor, Cardin — the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — debunked the idea that Trump’s children can run a “blind trust” with the businesses intact:
A true blind trust, including ones established by past Presidents, is an arrangement where the official has no control over, will receive no communications about, and will have no knowledge of the identity of the specific assets held in the trust, and the trust’s manager operates independently of the owner. The arrangement described by Mr. Trump and his lawyers is not independent: Mr. Trump is well aware of the specific assets held and he can receive communications about and take actions to affect the value of such assets. And the idea that President-elect Trump’s children are or will be truly “independent managers” is not credible.
Cardin then explained that Trump risks running afoul of the Emoluments Clause, which bars the president from receiving items of value from a foreign government:
As a separate and co-equal branch of government, the Senate has a duty and obligation to safeguard our Constitution. It is to the Constitution, after all, not to a person or a position, that we each swear our oath of office, and to nourish the republican virtues that have allowed our Nation and our government to flourish. We must do so because following the election it appears that President-elect Trump may have changed his mind about the promises he made as he sought office. Mr. Trump’s lawyers announced that the Trump Organization would be placed into a quote “blind trust” end quote managed by Donald Trump’s older children, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, and Eric Trump. Let me be clear, as the gravity of this issue demands absolute clarity: the financial arrangements described by Mr. Trump and his lawyers is not a blind trust. It just isn’t. And we cannot allow Mr. Trump or his lawyers to trick us or the American people into thinking that it is just because they use that term.
Cardin went on to argue that “it’s not hard to imagine circumstances in which a foreign governmental actor will want to give President Trump gifts so they can curry favor with him and hope to influence his decisions in ways that benefit them, when the President’s decisions should benefit the American people — precisely the danger our Founding Fathers sought to protect against with the Emoluments Clause.” He said, “The American public has the right to know if President Trump will put our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in harm’s way to protect America’s national security, or to protect the latest Trump Tower in some far-off country. They have a right to know if the trade agreements negotiated by the new administration will benefit American businesses, farmers, workers and consumers, or whether they will benefit some Trump company or hotel.”
Cardin is right to call out Trump’s specious claim that the law is on his side and that he has no conflict of interest. “The Constitution is the ultimate law of the land, not the President,” he said. “Mr. Trump apparently doesn’t appreciate the reasons that the law on this issue is untested is because previous presidents have had the wisdom and personal forbearance not to seek to put this question to the test.”
He warned that “if Mr. Trump does not take appropriate action to sever his ties to his businesses, Congress will have no choice — given the oath to protect and defend the Constitution that each and every Member has taken — but to view any dealings that Mr. Trump has through his companies with foreign governments or entities owned or controlled by foreign governments as a potential violation of the Emoluments Clause.” The remedy for that (Cardin omitted saying) would be a political one: impeachment.
Where are the Republicans? “We circulated the resolution to Republican staff,” Cardin spokesman Sean Bartlett told me. “I would say that privately, many of them know this is an issue but publicly, likely for political reasons, won’t [join as sponsors].” He cheerfully added, “But there’s always time for them to join as this makes its way to Committee.” He explained that his boss’s position “is very much non-partisan and purely about the Constitution. He wants Mr. Trump to take care of this so that it’s not an issue once he becomes president.”
Republicans are in deep denial if they think facilitating Trump’s conflicts of interest won’t land them in hot water. Trump’s refusal to honor the central pledge of his campaign, to root out corruption and self-dealing, is fraught with peril for him and the GOP. They hand Democrats a club to hit them over the head in the next election, unless they head off the issue. The media shouldn’t fall for Trump’s non-offer of a non-blind trust in which he knows precisely what businesses are affected by his presidential decisions and he continues to receive financial benefits from foreign governments’ representatives and state-owned banks.
Republicans would be smart (we don’t imagine they will be) to join Cardin and force Trump’s hand on this one. It’s for the president-elect’s own good, for Republicans’ own political protection and for the sake of the Constitution, of which they usually seem so fiercely protective — unless it’s a president of their own party seeking to shred it.