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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump took to Twitter early Sunday morning, elated: “So great to see our Country starting to open up again!”
He shared that sentiment with nearly 80 million followers and attached it to a tweet from one of his golf clubs, Trump National, in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. “Game on! We are thrilled to announce the reopening of @trumpgolfla beginning Saturday May 9th!,” the club tweeted. “We look forward to welcoming you back. Book your tee time now!”
Sometimes a tweet is just a tweet. And sometimes it’s an advertisement for your business. And sometimes, when the president of the United States promotes his business on Twitter while overseeing the federal response to a pandemic gutting the economy, it’s a financial conflict of interest.
Is Trump pushing businesses to reopen despite ongoing perils attached to the coronavirus because it’s best for the country? Or is it because Covid-19 has battered his family’s fortunes? Or is it simply because he has the upcoming presidential election in mind? Who knows. But we are more than three years into this presidency and the same questions that have hung over Trump from the moment he launched his bid for the White House still linger: What are the contours of his personal finances and how do they inform his actions and policies?
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will help shape our understanding of some of this when it hears arguments involving efforts by Congress and a New York prosecutor to get access to Trump’s tax returns, bank documents and bookkeeping records. Trump’s lawyers and the Justice Department contend that the president shouldn’t have to comply with subpoenas — or can block his financial advisers from complying — because the requests are overly intrusive or undermine the sweeping immunity from criminal investigations he should enjoy while in office.
Congress says it wants Trump’s tax returns so it can craft legislation modernizing federal ethics and disclosure laws and protecting the 2020 election from foreign interference. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. is conducting a probe into the Trump Organization’s efforts to mask hush money paid to two women who said they had sexual encounters with Trump. He wants to explore whether Trump’s team falsified business records as part of those maneuvers.
While the Supreme Court’s decision will likely touch on crucial Constitutional matters such as the separation of powers and the legislative branch’s ability to monitor the executive branch, the animating force guiding the court in this matter may be even more basic: whether or not any president is above the rule of law. If the court’s decision pivots off of that, then you’d do well to read George Conway’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post. “The Constitution is concerned with protecting the presidency, not the person who happens to be the president,” Conway writes. “That’s because no one in this country is above the law.”
The Constitution also makes it clear that presidents can’t use the most powerful office in the land to line their wallets. Articles I and II forbid presidents from accepting what the 18th century called “emoluments” and what the 21st century calls “bribes” from foreign or domestic sources. The Constitution’s ban on emoluments in and of itself requires presidents to be transparent about their finances and circumspect about their business dealings.
While federal conflict-of-interest laws dating from the Civil War era and updated in 1978 in the wake of the Watergate scandal also require presidents to disclose assets and business interests – and to have potential conflicts monitored by a federal ethics watchdog — much of the disclosure remains voluntary. Presidents remain exempt from federal conflict-of-interest statutes, so practices like placing assets in a blind trust (which Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, both of the Bushes and Bill Clinton did) or releasing personal income tax returns (which every president since Carter has done) is essentially voluntary. Financial transparency in the White House is a tradition but not a requirement.
Trump chose to buck tradition, of course. He hasn’t released his tax returns and the trust controlling his business interests is anything but blind — it’s overseen by his two eldest sons and his longtime accountant. Litigants typically aren’t hesitant to release information or documents that reflect well on themselves, so the natural question arising from Trump’s stonewalling in the matters the Supreme Court will hear is, “What’s he hiding?”
Trump sued me for libel in 2006 for a biography I wrote, “TrumpNation,” claiming the book unfairly and intentionally misrepresented his track record as a businessman and lowballed the size of his fortune. The suit was dismissed in 2011.
During the course of the litigation, Trump resisted releasing his tax returns and other financial records. My lawyers got the returns, and while I can’t disclose specifics, I imagine that Trump is hesitant to release them now because they would reveal how robust his businesses actually are and shine a light on some of his foreign sources of income.
Deutsche Bank AG, one of the firms Trump’s lawyers are trying to stifle in their arguments before the Supreme Court, also turned over documents in my case — including its own assessment of Trump’s wealth that pegged his fortune at $788 million in 2004, well below the $3 billion he told them he had at the time. Deutsche is the only major global bank to have continued doing business with Trump since the early 1990s and is conversant with his financial comings and goings since then.
Mazars USA is Trump’s outside accounting firm. Trump’s lawyers will argue before the Supreme Court that it too shouldn’t comply with subpoena requests for documents. Mazars, which boasts a history ProPublica recently described as “colorful,” turned over documents in my litigation with Trump as well (through a predecessor company with which Mazars later merged). That trove included a financial statement Trump routinely used to substantiate his claims to fabulous wealth. The document, it turned out, was drafted without regard for standard accounting practices or other factors that might have diminished the future president’s claims.
If all of this information from Trump’s taxes, bankers and accountants was good enough for me over a decade ago, it’s certainly good enough for Congress and the Manhattan district attorney today. It’s also good enough for the American people. If we’ve learned one thing from the Trump presidency it’s that it’s no longer enough to rely on tradition when it comes to the Oval Office and financial transparency. Financial transparency should be a requirement for all presidents going forward — and the Supreme Court would do well to help pave the way.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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