This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
They are the outposts of empire. They have been or are being built in countries across the world from Indonesia to Dubai, India to Uruguay, South Korea to Qatar, the Philippines to Turkey, and in the future possibly, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt. They represent a staggering imperial presence for the American commander-in-chief -- oh, and just in case you're confused, no, I'm not talking about the hundreds of U.S. military bases that dot the planet. I'm thinking about all the towers, elite golf courses, clubs, hotels, condos, and residences that already sport, or in the future will sport, those five gaudy, golden letters that spell TRUMP in countries that circle the globe. They, too, are indeed the outposts of empire, a business one that still belongs to the commander-in-chief. And keep in mind that, if you're thinking imperially in a truly twenty-first-century American fashion, you also need to include the businesses represented by Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, both now key White House advisers.
In our present moment, it's worth recalling what Charles Wilson, the CEO of General Motors (then the country's largest defense contractor), so classically said back in 1953 at his Senate confirmation hearings. President Dwight Eisenhower had nominated him for secretary of defense and various senators were challenging him for refusing to sell his GM stock. (After the president requested that he do so, and he did, he was immediately confirmed.) Asked about whether he would be capable of making a decision in the national interest as secretary of defense if it had "extremely adverse" consequences for the company, he responded, "Yes, sir, I could. I cannot conceive of [such a conflict, however,] because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa."
If once upon a time that was taken as a classic statement of corporate crassness, tell me that, in the shadow of the Trump White House and what are still politely referred to in the media as its "conflicts of interest," it doesn't now seem like a quaintly principled, almost patriotic thing to say. Or let me propose something else: read today's account by TomDispatch regular Nomi Prins, author of All the Presidents' Bankers, of what family time's like in the Trump Oval Office and then tell me whether Wilson's statement doesn't seem like the good old days to you. Tom
The Empire Expands
Not the American One, But Trump's
By Nomi Prins
President Trump, his children and their spouses, aren't just using the Oval Office to augment their political legacy or secure future riches. Okay, they certainly are doing that, but that's not the most useful way to think about what's happening at the moment. Everything will make more sense if you reimagine the White House as simply the newest branch of the Trump family business empire, its latest outpost.
It turns out that the voters who cast their ballots for Donald Trump, the patriarch, got a package deal for his whole clan. That would include, of course, first daughter Ivanka who, along with her husband, Jared Kushner, is now a key political adviser to the president of the United States. Both now have offices in the White House close to him. They have multiple security clearances, access to high-level leaders whenever they visit the Oval Office or Mar-a-Lago, and the perfect formula for the sort of brand-enhancement that now seems to come with such eminence. President Trump may have an exceedingly "flexible" attitude toward policymaking generally, but in one area count on him to be stalwart and immobile: his urge to run the White House like a business, a family business.- Advertisement -
The ways that Jared, "senior adviser to the president," and Ivanka, "assistan t to the president," have already benefited from their links to "Dad" in the first 100 days of his presidency stagger the imagination. Ivanka's company, for instance, won three new trademarks for its products from China on the very day she dined with President Xi Jinping at her father's Palm Beach club.
In a similar fashion, thanks to her chance to socialize with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, her company could be better positioned for deal negotiations in his country. One of those perks of family power includes nearing a licensing agreement with Japanese apparel giant Sanei International, whose parent company's largest stakeholder is the Development Bank of Japan -- an entity owned by the Japanese government. We are supposed to buy the notion that the concurrent private viewing of Ivanka's products in Tokyo was a coincidence of the scheduling fairy. Yet since her father became president, you won't be surprised to learn that global sales of her merchandise have more or less gone through the roof.
Here's where things get tricky. We can't pinpoint the exact gains generated from any one meeting of the next generation Trump. They rely on the idea that, because their brand was so huge to begin with, profits and deals would have come anyway. That's why we won't ever see their books or tax returns.
Conflicts of interest? They now permeate the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but none of this will affect or change one thing President Trump holds dear -- and believe it or not, it's not the wishes of his base in the American heartland. It's advancing his flesh and blood, and their flesh-and-blood-once-removed spouses and relatives.
Federal Regulations and Trump Family Interpretations
The Trumps and Kushners will behave in ways that will benefit their global businesses. There's just one catch. They have to get away with it, legally speaking. So the first law of family business in the Oval Office turns out to be: get stellar legal counsel. And they've done that. Their lawyers have by now successfully created trusts that theoretically -- but only theoretically -- separate Ivanka from her businesses and deflect any accusations over activities that may, now or in the future, violate federal rules. And there are two of those in particular to consider.- Advertisement -
The Code of Federal Regulations is a set of rules published by the executive departments and agencies of the government. Title 18 section 208 of that code deals with "acts affecting a personal financial interest." This criminal conflict of interest statute states "an officer or employee of the executive branch of the United States Government" can't have a "financial interest" in the result of their duties. What that should mean, legally speaking, for a family occupying the executive office is: Ivanka could not have dinner with the president of China while her business was applying for and receiving provisional approval of pending trademarks from his country, if one of those acts might impact the other. To an outsider, the connection between those acts seems obvious enough and it's bound to be typical of what's to come.
Meanwhile, there are real penalties for being convicted of violating this rule. These include fines or imprisonment or both as set forth in section 216 of Title 18.
Certain lawyers have argued that Ivanka's and Jared's appointments don't violate Rule 208 or other nepotism statutes because they are not paid advisers to the president. In other words, because Ivanka doesn't get a salary for her service to her... uh, country... conflicts automatically vanish. She's already done her Trumptilian best to demonstrate her affinity for ethical behavior by cordoning herself off from her business responsibilities (sort of). According to the New York Times, "Ivanka has transferred her brand's assets into a trust overseen by her brother-in-law, Josh Kushner, and sister-in-law, Nicole Meyer." Phew, no family connections there! Or maybe she just doesn't care for her siblings-in-law.