So much of President Trump’s behavior and that of his aides falls between the news cracks, as attention is paid to the outrage du jour, and we lose track of the daily scandals, falsehoods, and overall bizarre behavior emanating from the White House. This week, however, the two most glaring Trump scandals came roaring back, and neither bodes well for the president nor for the country.
Thursday night, new revelations emerged in The Washington Post that National Security Adviser Mike Flynn discussed US sanctions against Russia with Sergey Kislyak, that country’s ambassador to the United States, before Trump took office.
Not only is such communication highly inappropriate and potentially illegal, it contradicts statements from Flynn, White House press secretary Sean Spicer, and even Vice President Mike Pence. When this issue first came up, back in January, Trump officials, including Pence, publicly denied that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed the sanctions imposed by President Obama on Russia, in late December, over Moscow’s interference in the presidential election. Now Flynn says he doesn’t recollect talking about sanctions, he “couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.” In related news, Flynn has a beautiful bridge in lower Manhattan that he’s making available to the highest bidder.
The revelation also suggests that even though Flynn previously ran an intelligence agency, he may not have the keenest grasp of how US intelligence-gathering works.How could he not know that the telephone calls of the Russian Ambassador to the United States might be under surveillance?
Even more remarkable is that the Post story, which relies on nine sources within the intelligence community, reports that Flynn was talking to Kislyak before the Nov. 8 election. Remember, Trump himself denied that there was any contact between his campaign aides and Russian leaders. The Post report suggests that’s not true, and it raises more questions about the level and nature of contact between Trump, his aides, and Moscow during the campaign. Were the two sides working together? We still don’t know the answer to that question, but evidence that Flynn was communicating with top-level Russian officials contradicts a key defense of the Trump camp.
One might think that illegal acts and potential charges of treason would be enough of a bombshell, but this week saw another major Trump scandal. On Wednesday, Trump found time, 20 minutes after his daily intelligence briefing, to tweet out an attack against the department store Nordstrom for dropping his daughter Ivanka’s fashion line.
The next day, Trump’s aide, Kellyanne Conway, encouraged people to buy Ivanka Trump branded items. This is a clear violation of federal ethics rules, which ban any federal employee from endorsing a product or the “personal activities” of another person.
It was a reminder of something that seems to have been brushed aside: Trump continues to be closely tied to — and is profiting directly from — his business interests. While Trump has resigned from his various companies and created a trust, the latter exists solely for his benefit and is not a blind trust. It’s also revocable at any time.
All this means that Trump can make decisions as president, criticize or curry favor with foreign governments, even tweet attacks on businesses, that will directly aid him monetarily.
On Thursday it was revealed that a lobbying firm working for the government of Saudi Arabia booked rooms at Trump’s DC hotel. This is in direct violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prohibits any US official from accepting gifts or payments from a foreign entity. Only three weeks into his presidency, and we have clear evidence that Trump is in violation of the Constitution, which could constitute an impeachable offense.
Republicans complained constantly (and misleadingly) that Hillary Clinton was running a pay-for-play operation with the Clinton Foundation while secretary of state. Now Trump is doing exactly that as president. He is acting brazenly and without regard for the appearance of a direct conflict of interest, and the Republican Congress is silent.
Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz, who is charge of the congressional committee tasked with oversight of the executive branch, has made clear that he has no intention of looking into Trump’s business dealings. Even by the low standards of congressional Republicans, the cowardice being shown by Chaffetz in not confronting the president is astounding.
We now have strong evidence of high-level members of the president’s staff, and perhaps the president himself, engaging in unethical and potentially illegal actions. It’s easy to get distracted by Trump’s tweets or by the avalanche of leaks about his bizarre behavior, but Trump’s Russia connection and his abundant business conflicts cannot be ignored. Until they are addressed, they will remain — to harken back to a phrase used to describe White House behavior of another era — a cancer on the Trump presidency.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.