Many activists joined protests last weekend over President Donald Trump’s continuing refusal to share his tax returns with the public. Their concern over taxes is valid, and the traditional IRS deadline for filing taxes on April 15 was a nice touch for demonstrations.
As protests go, activities in six Washington communities, including Seattle and Olympia, were modest, with no more than 1,000 appearing at the state Capitol. The group taxmarch.org claimed 125,000 participated at some 200 sites around the world to highlight the lack of tax disclosure.
Trump does still need to release his taxes as other presidents have done. But advocates would be wrong to zero in on IRS returns as the principal financial risk with the Trump administration. The better target is the utter failure by Trump’s White House to disclose all of its financial stakes and potential conflicts of interest.
It’s likely that Trump and his cabinet of billionaires and multimillionaires are going to face hundreds of decisions that affect the greater good, but which put them in conflict with their own financial interests.
Tax reform, which the president says he wants to achieve later this year, is such a place. Sharing tax returns lays out clearly what self-interest there might be. And if there is no conflict, disclosure puts that to rest.
But don’t stop there. It’s better that Trump completely divorce himself from any and all financial connections to his business empire. His family members should curb their personal businesses connections as they overlap the government.
Unfortunately, Trump saying in January that he’d signed over management of business interests to his adult sons was more of a theatrical touch. It did not remove the chance that foreign and domestic interests that are hoping to influence administration decisions could be plumping up revenues for Trump-owned enterprises, such as resorts and hotels. A blind trust walling off Trump from any details of the businesses is a better answer.
Trump’s use of his prized Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida as a winter White House is turning into a dirty mess. Trump has mingled his presidential business — including hosting two foreign leaders — with his personal for-profit holdings. In the process, he has granted unofficial access to influential people who have paid up to $200,000 to belong to his resort club.
The Associated Press reported that the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband Jared Kushner sat down to dinner with Chinese President Xi Jingping at Mar-A-Lago on the same day Ivanka’s businesses earned three trademark approvals from the Chinese government.
Then there is the taxpayer cost for security and travel for Trump’s various visits to his properties, which if estimates from critics of ex-President Obama’s trips were valid, could be in the millions of dollars.
What exactly is the public interest in these trips?
Just as importantly, Trump’s team needs to peel the fresh coats of whitewash it applied to windows at the White House itself. The public should be able to see easily who visits the White House. There is no principled reason to bar public access to visitor logs at the White House.
We made the same argument last week that Washington state legislative leaders should make their business calendars public.
Similarly there was no reasonable or principled defense for White House special aide Kellyanne Conway going public to pitch the product lines of Ivanka Trump. That occurred a few months back after sagging sales of the Trump line led major retailers such as Nordstrom to stop displaying the Ivanka style.
Conway’s work crossed ethics lines. The administration said Conway was “counseled,” but it’s unclear if there was a reprimand. Perhaps Trump is so loyal to Conway that ethics do not apply.
Similarly the administration was slow to get rid of national security adviser Michael Flynn after his deceptions about meeting with Russian emissaries came to light. It was Flynn’s actions to mislead the vice president that finally led to his ouster, not his potential conflicts as a one-time paid foreign agent.
It’s not just Russian influence during the election that poses a danger to our democracy. The public must keep up pressuring the White House for real disclosure.
The way to avoid influence-peddling scandals at the White House is not to build an information wall around the actors. The answer is full disclosure and divestment of the financial interests that create conflicts.