Donald Trump is trying to keep separate the two biggest controversies swirling around him — business conflicts of interest and the Russia connection. But they’re inextricably intertwined. Even so, he moves adroitly between them as a distraction device.
Roll the tape and follow the ball, as it bounces from conflicts to Russia and back again.
The conflicts between Trump’s worldwide business interests and his Presidential responsibilities have been news for months. He refused to release his tax returns that would reveal all of them, but intrepid journalists have persevered. From the federal government landlord owning the site of his new hotel in Washington, D.C. to his Trump Tower developments around the world, the sun never sets on the empire creating his conflicts.
November 18: Even the conservative stalwart editorial board of The Wall Street Journal says that liquidation of Trump’s businesses is the only way to solve those conflicts.
The same day, Trump diverts attention to his pick for National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, who has appeared on Russian-owned television and sat with Putin at the network’s celebratory dinner in December 2015. (Flynn’s selection itself is a distraction that makes his other two picks of the day — Jeff Sessions (Attorney General) and Mike Pompeo (CIA Director) — look good, which they aren’t. That’s how the Trump process of normalizing the abnormal works.)
Saturday, December 10: The Washington Post reports that the CIA has reached a new stage in its investigation of Russian efforts to disrupt the presidential election. Russia had a specific goal: Trump’s victory over Clinton.
Over the weekend, bipartisan support grows for an investigation into Russia’s role in manipulating the election. On Sunday morning talk shows, two of Trump’s attorney-enablers, Kellyanne Conway (George Washington, JD, ’92) and Reince Priebus (U of Miami, JD, ’98), parse, deflect, and dissemble in lawyerly fashion the serious questions that the Russia issue raises.
Simultaneously, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson — with long and deep ties to Vladimir Putin — emerges as the leading candidate to become Trump’s secretary of state.
Monday morning, December 12: Ten electors send an open letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Quoting from Alexander Hamilton, they emphasize their constitutional role to prevent a “desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” The electors want to fulfill Hamilton’s charge that they elect a President “endowed with the requisite qualifications.”
The electors request a briefing on all investigations relating to connections between Trump (and his current and former aides) and the Russian government. Later in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announces his support for Senate hearings on Russia’s interference with the election.
December 12, 3:30 p.m.: University of Chicago Law School Professor Geoffrey R. Stone publishes a powerful editorial calling for the Electoral College to do the job that the U.S. Constitution envisioned for precisely the situation that Donald Trump presents: deliberate over the legitimate question of whether Trump should be President. The Electoral College meets on December 19.
As of Tuesday morning, December 13, another 30 electors have added their names to the Clapper letter — and the number grows by the hour.
Late on December 12: Trump postpones his December 15 press conference on his conflicts plan. Meanwhile, he offers this meaningless assurance:
“Even though I am not mandated by law to do so, I will be leaving my businesses before January 20th so that I can focus full time on the Presidency. Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them.”
Trump adds a sentence that he assumes no one will remember, but everyone should: “No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office.”
Tuesday, December 13: Trump announces his pick for secretary of state: Rex Tillerson, which takes us back to Russia.
Flashback: During the presidential campaign, Trump praised Vladimir Putin. He rejected the intelligence community’s consensus that Russia was responsible for hacking into Democratic National Committee computers. And he surrounded himself with advisers whose Russian connections should have raised more red flags than they generated — Paul Manafort, Boris Ephsteyn, Carter Page.
A day after the election that Trump lost by almost 3 million popular votes, Russia’s deputy foreign minister admitted to the Kremlin’s continuing communications with Trump’s entourage during the campaign.
Then came Lt. Gen. Flynn as NSA.
Secretary of State Tillerson
In Moscow, Carter Page cheered Tillerson’s selection. Page, formerly a Trump foreign policy adviser, was in Russia to meet with “business leaders and thought leaders.”
As for Tillerson, The Wall Street Journal reports his long and deep relationship with Putin that began in 1999:
“He has had more interactive time with Vladimir Putin than probably any other American with the exception of Henry Kissinger,” John Hamre, a deputy defense secretary during the Clinton administration and president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank where Tillerson is a board member.”
In 2012, Putin awarded Tillerson the country’s Order of Friendship, one of Russia’s highest civilian honors. Tillerson favors removing sanctions that the United States imposed after Putin annexed the Crimea. Those sanctions have halted some of Exxon Mobil’s big projects in Russia. If Trump/Tillerson get those sanctions lifted, the company could reap billions of dollars.
Perhaps Trump is running out the clock on his conflict of interest problems until after the Electoral College meets on December 19. Or maybe his Russia problems are now so huge that he can’t weather another round of criticism over plainly inadequate steps to deal with his business conflicts. Or maybe Trump’s actions are best viewed through the prism of distraction from the biggest issue: the hair on the head of American democracy is on fire from a match that Putin lit.
By the way, if you wonder what the Romney/Trump date night interview for secretary of state was all about, the answer comes from a line in the movie, Superman II: “Kneel before Zod.”
The line applies to other prominent Republicans whom Trump ridiculed repeatedly and who now grovel at the feet of their new emperor who still lacks clothes. Yes, I’m looking at you, Carly Fiorina. After Trump publicly degraded you and all women, you called him out. But you now call his moves “brilliant,” as you audition to become his director of national intelligence.
And you, Rick Perry. You called Trump a “cancer on conservatism.” But now seek to be his energy secretary — a department you promised to abolish if you’d won the presidency.
And you, Paul Ryan. Throughout Trump’s campaign, you admonished him and distanced yourself from his vile words and deeds. He retaliated by calling you a weak and ineffective leader. But now you grin while giving Trump another do-over: “We’re fine. We’re not looking back…That’s behind us, we’re way beyond that.”
We’re not way beyond anything. The battle for America’s soul has barely begun.