'When the president does it, that means it is not illegal'

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Then-President Richard Nixon releases edited transcripts of the Watergate tapes in April 1974.

One of the most famous political lines of the 20th Century was uttered by disgraced former president Richard Nixon, who emerged from the shadows a few years after Watergate to tell his story (for money) to British journalist David Frost. Indeed, the line that Nixon used to defend his actions -- the bugging, spying and dirty tricks on political opponents and the massive cover-up -- became the centerpiece, the kind of "Perry Mason moment" of a play that then became a Hollywood movie, Frost/Nixon.

"When the president does it, that means it is not illegal," Nixon told his interviewer. Those words were largely seen by the American public -- which continued to hold the ex-president in low esteem -- as a symbol of his unbowed arrogance. Most citizens still wanted to believe that no American citizen, not even the president, is above the law. Folks clung to this idea even though the actual evidence was mixed: People boasted that "the system worked" when Nixon was forced to resign, on the brink of certain impeachment -- but the pardon that was issued to Nixon by then-president Gerald Ford weeks later suggested that presidential justice remains elusive.

Today, I suspect a more cynical nation wonders whether a president really is above the law. Donald Trump -- not yet the 45th president, but soon -- certainly played to that notion today, when the New York Times questioned why it's not a conflict of interest when he and his children are still running his global development firm at the same time that the world's leaders are looking to curry favor with the new chief.

“The law’s totally on my side," the president-elect told the Times. "The president can’t have a conflict of interest.” Translation: When this president does it, that means it is not illegal. Unlike Nixon, however, I'm starting to worry that Trump's going to get away with this.

Unfortunately, the law surrounding what presidents can and cannot do is, in fact, somewhat murky. A President Trump couldn't recuse himself from policy decisions involving Russia -- a country with which he may or may not have business interests -- at the (hopefully unlikely) moment that Russian warheads are soaring toward U.S. cities. He is constrained, supposedly, on his foreign business dealing by the now-already-famous "emoluments clause" of the U.S. Constitution...but who will determine any violation. The Republican-led -- and rabidly partisan -- Congress? That was the only avenue of justice with Nixon -- and that road is now closed.

This is important because Trump's tangled web of conflicts simply looks worse and worse each day. Just a few minutes after posting yesterday's column that detailed several of the president-elect's worst business conflicts, the Times reported that Trump had lobbied his right-wing pal Nigel Farage, a member of the European Parliament, to do something about the wind farm that would spoil the view from Trump's golf course in Scotland. Meanwhile, more disturbing details emerged about Trump's apparent lobbying campaign to get government officials in Argentina to approve his project in Buenos Aires. In in the category of "old business," the Trump Foundation -- an alleged charity that functions more like a money-laundering op -- admitted in a filing to the IRS that it's involved in so-called "self-dealing."

Given this ever-expanding web of conflicts, it seems clear that one of the biggest mistakes of 2016 was the lack of any kind of pressure -- from the public, the media, or Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party -- on Trump to promise either a real blind trust or, even better, to liquidate his business empire. There's no legal requirement to do so, and it seems certain he would have resisted such calls. But the enormity of Trump's ethics problem didn't really come into focus until the nation was stuck with him, for better or worse, for the next four years. This should have been vetted. Who knows?...maybe a handful of voters in Michigan or Wisconsin would have been swayed.

Here's what should happen in the next four years. It should be enacted -- by a constitutional amendment if necessary -- that presidential candidates will be required to release at least several years worth of federal income tax, or their election will be voided. No more "nice little tradition" that can be flouted by someone like Trump. What's more, an incoming president should be required to liquidate his assets and place them in a blind trust.

That's what should happen -- but won't happen, thanks to the blanket control that Trump's political party exercises over Congress and the majority of state legislatures. And it's becoming increasingly clear -- not in theory, but in actual practice -- that when Donald Trump does something, that means it is not illegal. Somewhere down there, Richard Nixon is looking up at us and laughing hysterically.