Trump family's worst scandal may be China, not Russia

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FILE - In this Thursday, April 6, 2017, file photo, Ivanka Trump, second from right, the daughter and assistant to President Donald Trump, is seated with her husband White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, right, during a dinner with President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, at Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, Fla. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang on Wednesday defended the handling of the applications of the trademarks won by U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her company, saying that all such requests are handled fairly.

The big story this afternoon is the end of Bill O'Reilly's 20-year reign of terror at 8 p.m. on the Fox News Channel. But when word came down that an escalating series of sexual harassment claims against the cable-TV ratings king had finally led to his ouster, there was just one thing I couldn't stop thinking: Is there anything that President Trump can't get away with?

After all, O'Reilly and Trump are both powerful men who've been accused of sex-related misconduct over their career -- each with a slew of new accusations in recent months. In the O'Reilly case, the end game began when the "failing"* New York Times reported on $13 million that his bosses had paid out to settle a variety of claims over the TV star's creepy (or worse) behavior. In the Trump matter, more than a dozen women have come forward to accuse the man who then became America's 45th president of groping or other sexually inappropriate conduct. I know what you're saying, that there's a big difference here -- and you're right. Unlike O'Reilly, Trump has actually admitted on tape that he assaults women.

People voted in both cases. With O'Reilly, "the system" (capitalism!) worked as regular people told advertisers they wouldn't buy their products if they stuck with the embattled Fox host. With Trump, some 3 million more people voted for his opponent...but not in the right states. The Electoral College winner who took the oath on January 20 seemed to conclude one thing from his 2016 experience: That none of the rules of ethics, morality or even gravity seem to apply to Donald Trump, or his palace court.

The president, his children and their spouses, and his inner circle have overwhelmed our already weakened body politic with far more ethical abuses than it can handle. Trump's ascent has, if nothing else, exposed the shocking weakness of our conflict-of-interest laws. And with a Congress where the GOP majority desperately needs for Trump to somehow succeed to save their own jobs, with a conservative judiciary and an economically diminished news media, who is powerful enough to stop him?

One quick example from the news this week: The turmoil in Turkey. The presidential family's Trump Organization has a substantial investment in Istanbul, including dealings with Turkey's increasingly autocratic leader, Recip Tayyep Erdogan, who attended the grand opening of the Trump Tower project there. "I have a little conflict of interest," Trump himself told a radio host named Steve Bannon (whatever happened to him?) in December 2015. This week, when Erdogan claimed 51 percent of a vote (amid cries of "fraud") that essentially gave him dictatorial powers, the U.S. State Department voiced caution yet Trump called to congratulate the strongman. Shrewd diplomacy? -- or was that our president's "little conflict of interest" in Istanbul talking? The answer is a matter of vital importance.

That was two days and a seeming 100 years ago. This afternoon, the New York Times reported that the world's largest oil company, ExxonMobil, is continuing to press the U.S. Treasury Department to be exempted from U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia after it seized Crimea, in order to conclude a lucrative deal with the Russian energy giant Rosneft. The man who was the oil company's CEO when that effort was launched is now President Trump's secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Approval for  this deal in Washington would confirm a lot of people's worst fears about too much coziness between Team Trump and Mother Russia.

Of all the many, many Trump scandals -- real or apparent -- it is this tangled web between all the president's men and women and Vladimir Putin's Russia that has received the lion's share of attention, from the resistance to Trump's president out in the streets and from left-leaning media. And as I've noted repeatedly, Trump critics aren't wrong to pursue it. During the short time I've been writing today's column, Reuters is reporting that a Russian think tank (who knew they had these?) close to Putin came up with a written plan to undermine America's 2016 election -- not realizing we were perfectly capable of (bleep)ing it up on our own, thank you very much. But there's a lot of smoke with Trump and Russia, and it turns blacker every day.

Still, I can't help but wonder why more attention isn't being paid to the Trump administration's unseemly dealings with an even bigger world power, and an even more lucrative market for both the Trump Organization, and his daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. That would be China.

On the campaign trail in 2015 and 2016, Trump talked about China less like a candidate for the Oval Office and more like the boss of a Brooklyn extortion racket. In his first fall 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton, he accused the world's most populous nation of "using our country as a piggy bank." In pre-01-20-2017 Trumpworld, China was our trading enemy, the world's worst currency manipulator, and the perpetrators of an elaborate hoax on climate change. The talk got even tougher after Trump's November election, when he spoke on the phone to Beijing's bête noire, the head of Taiwan, and threatened to abandon the "One China" policy that has governed U.S.-Sino relations for decades.

But since last fall, some very odd things have happened:

-- Around the same time Trump said that son-in-law Kushner would be his point man on dealing with China (and on pretty much everything else), it emerged that Kushner had also been neck deep in negotiations for a joint venture to rescue the troubled jewel of his own family's real estate empire, the skyscraper at 666 (heh) 5th Avenue, involving a powerful and mysterious Chinese firm. The would-be investor, the giant Anbang Insurance Group, is closely tied to top Chinese officials; the company's chief is related by marriage to the legendary, late Communist leader Deng Xiaoping. Those negotiations, which began around the time Trump clinched the GOP presidential nomination, collapsed only after the glare of scrutiny in the New York Times and elsewhere.

-- Less than a month after Trump took office, Chinese officials reversed course and granted the Trump Organization a trademark that the president's company had been seeking for roughly a decade. There's some dispute over the value of the trademark, but what's not disputed is that nothing like this had ever happened before: an American president continuing to own his share in a large multinational business (allegedly run in a "blind trust" by his two oldest sons...but not really) at the same time he's making huge policy decisions involving countries where that business operates.

-- This week came the kicker: The Associated Press reported that "Ivanka Trump's company won provisional approval from the Chinese government for three new trademarks, giving it monopoly rights to sell Ivanka brand jewelry, bags and spa services in the world's second-largest economy. That night, the first daughter and her husband sat next to the president of China and his wife for a steak and Dover sole dinner at Mar-a-Lago."

The AP noted that sales of Ivanka Trump's merchandise -- much of the product is also made in China -- are skyrocketing since her dad became the so-called leader of the free world. This is all happening as the president's daughter takes an office in the West Wing and becomes an increasingly influential adviser. Did I mention that there's no precedent for any of this?

Some (not me, but some) would argue that even though the appearances here are not good, the Trump family dealings on China aren't corruption because there's no quid pro quo? Really?...because it seems like quids and quos are going back and forth faster than a Wimbledon title match.  In early February, Trump called Chinese president Xi Jinping to say that, despite December's headfake, his administration would support the "One China" policy after all. Early this month, Trump told the Wall Street Journal that China is actually not a currency manipulator and wouldn't be sanctioned after all -- a complete reversal from his over-the-top campaign threats.

You could certainly make the case that the flip-flops on Taiwan and currency were sound moves -- but it's hard to mentally divorce them from the knowledge that the Trumps and Kushner are wedded to their lucrative China dealings, which depend upon the good will of Beijing. The whole thing is crazy. Here in Philadelphia, we're indicting some of our top politicians for things like getting a freebie trip to the islands -- penny ante stuff when compared to the RICO enterprise at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I'm here scratching my bald head how this doesn't violate the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents a president from enriching himself in dealing with foreign governments -- the blatant violation of which would seem to be an impeachable offense. The media has done a good job digging up and promulgating the many, many conflicts of interest in this administration -- and the China dealings seem especially egregious. Yet it never seems to go beyond an indignant headline. Who will have the courage to actually investigate these conflicts -- which definitely violate the norms of a functioning democracy and may well violate the law as well?

It's especially important to sort out the Trump-China mess as tensions escalate on the Korean Peninsula, with China perhaps the only nation that can influence the rogue, nuclear-armed government of North Korea. I don't think we want a trademark for Ivanka's handbags to be the hangup standing between peace and a potential World War III.

* Actually not failing.


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