Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Trumpian conflicts of interest and culture wars. And, making up with Mitt.
With the potential conflicts of interest surrounding Donald Trump (and his family) inciting calls for everything from a congressional investigation to an Oval Office “corporate monitor,” Trump has announced that next month he’ll hold a press conference to explain how he’ll be “leaving” his “great business in total.” Do you expect to see any distance put between a Trump administration and the Trump Organization by Inauguration Day?
Are you kidding? Not by Inauguration Day, and not ever. Trump may reverse his stand on any issue in any given hour depending on whom he last talked to or which talking head he last caught on cable. But he does have one ideological imperative that has been and always will be sacrosanct: making money any way he can without regard for ethics, propriety, the suckers on the other end of his “deals,” or the rule of law. Trump University was merely a preview of the Trump White House’s coming attractions. He’ll leave his “great business in total” on that same day he releases his tax returns.
The Trump administration promises to be a kleptocracy that will make Harding’s look like an object lesson in good government by comparison. After all, Harding only countenanced the Teapot Dome scandal — in which the secretary of Interior took bribes from oil companies eager to plunder Navy petroleum reserves — rather than masterminding it. Trump, by contrast, arrives in office as the leader of a family syndicate with international financial interests and decades of training in buck-grubbing chicanery. We’re still almost two months away from Inauguration Day, and already the president-elect is formulating foreign policy predicated on promoting his foreign real-estate holdings. His daughter has used her new First Family status to hawk a cheesy product line, and his son-in-law has no interest in deaccessioning his own real-estate empire, which, per The Wall Street Journal, “has hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from domestic and foreign financial institutions” and also “markets condominiums to wealthy U.S. and foreign buyers.”
And let’s not even talk about the financial conflicts of interests of the billionaires and financiers soon to take roles throughout the Trump administration, as exemplified by the presumptive secretaries of Commerce and Treasury, Wilbur Ross and Steven Mnuchin. Even leaving aside the conflicts of interest with their own holdings, they will dismantle scores of regulations that have been enacted to protect consumers, mortgage holders, shareholders, and bank customers. The result will be an orgy of newly legalized larceny that will stagger the imaginations (and pocketbooks) of those generations of Americans too young to remember the Reagan era.
What’s almost poignant is the still-flickering hope that the press might play an effective watchdog role in policing any of this. Investigative journalism about Trump’s sordid business history didn’t turn the tide before Election Day, so why should it now? The voters rewarded him for his bad behavior. He has gotten away with keeping his tax returns secret. There’s no incentive for him or his family to alter their rapacious behavior. The Journal, in its excellent report on Jared Kushner’s business conflicts, writes that there could be legal issues if the son-in-law should rise to “a staff position in the Trump administration.” So what? The workaround is simple enough: Kushner is not named to a staff position and instead serves as an unofficial adviser. He will be free to do whatever he wants with impunity. God knows that Jeff Sessions’s Department of Justice will look the other way if Kushner, like his father before him, crosses any legal line.
Equally ineffectual, if well-meaning, is this week’s Andrew Ross Sorkin “Dear President-elect Trump” column in the Times proposing in all earnestness that Trump solve his conflict-of-interest problem by hiring a “corporate monitor” to report to the public on any conflicts that arise during his presidency. A capital idea, and, what’s more, Sorkin recruited an unimpeachable volunteer for that job, Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who administered the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Yet all one can imagine is Trump and his family reading this proposal and laughing hysterically at Sorkin’s naïveté.
The only way Trump can be policed is by a Republican Congress that has the power to hold hearings, conduct inquiries, and, if need be, impeach. That’s not happening. In the short time since Trump’s victory, most #NeverTrump Republicans in Congress and elsewhere in the GOP hierarchy have been falling over themselves to collaborate with the new regime.
Last night Trump met with Mitt Romney once again, this time over frogs’ legs at the Manhattan restaurant Jean-Georges. What would choosing Romney as secretary of State tell us about Trump’s leadership?
Trump’s prolonged torturing of Romney has been a priceless spectacle, worthy, as many have said, of Celebrity Apprentice — though minus Omarosa (at least so far). If Romney now fails to get the job, we have to wonder if that was the intention all along: to exact the most excruciating and humiliating revenge that Trump and Steve Bannon could possibly devise. Romney had already exposed himself as a hypocrite by his groveling campaign to be hired by Trump in the first place. Now he is falling over himself to praise the antagonist he once denigrated as a “con man” and “fraud” as “the very man” who can lead America to a “better future.” It’s impossible not to think of Romney’s father, George, who destroyed his 1968 presidential campaign by declaring that he had been “brainwashed” about Vietnam. A susceptibility to brainwashing is clearly in the family DNA.
A similar susceptibility to brainwashing can also be found in certain segments of the news media, where some commentators are already preparing to normalize a potential Romney pick as a team-of-rivals move bordering on the Lincolnesque. But if Romney does get the State Department job, he’ll still be humiliated, if in slo-mo. His views have zero in common with the Putin-philic agenda of the president-elect, and he’ll inexorably be brought to heel by both Trump and his Strangelovian national security adviser, the retired General Mike Flynn. By the time Romney is photographed in smiling supplication on an official visit to the Kremlin, he’s going to wish he were back being captured on candid camera berating the 47 percent.
In his second week as president-elect, Trump sparked a debate about theater’s role as a home for (or distraction from) politics. In his third, he’s called for revoking the citizenship of protesters who burn the flag. What should we learn from how the lines in the nascent Trump-era culture wars are being drawn?
What we should learn from both the Hamilton fracas and Trump’s latest assault on the First Amendment is that this continuous culture war is a strategy, to rile up the base and retain its loyalty should he fail, say, to deliver on other promises, like reviving the coal industry. In this sense, I think some liberals didn’t quite get the cynicism and intent of Mike Pence’s visit to Broadway’s biggest hit. Sure, Pence may have wanted to see the show — after all, it has great word of mouth from Dick and Lynne Cheney — but it certainly wasn’t lost on Bannon that the vice-president-elect’s presence was likely to cause some kind of incident, booing at the very least, at that musical in particular in the immediate aftermath of the election.
It’s possible that much of that base previously knew little or nothing about Hamilton, but thanks to Pence’s visit, it would soon learn in even the briefest news accounts that the show is everything that base despises: a multi-cultural-ethnic-racial reclamation of “white” American history with a ticket price that can soar into four digits — in other words, a virtual monument to the supposedly politically correct “elites” that Trump, Bannon, and their wrecking crew found great political profit in deriding throughout the campaign. Pence’s visit to Hamilton was a surefire political victory for Trump even without the added value of a perfectly legitimate and respectful curtain speech that he could trash-tweet to further rouse his culture-war storm troopers. The kind of political theater that Trump and Bannon fomented around Hamilton is likely to be revived routinely in the Trump era.