As I know a number of us are, I’m concerned not only by the lack of media coverage of the Newsweek story, “How the Trump Organization’s Foreign Business Ties Could Upend U.S. National Security,” but also by how little interest I’m seeing about it in my feed and among some friends. A link to the story is here.
Generally, I see a lot of battle weariness, which is of course no surprise, but even for those who’ve read the Newsweek story, I get the sense that many don’t really know what to make of it and jump on to other stories that are easier to grasp (for example, there seemed to be a lot of preoccupation recently with Dr. Oz). That’s why I’m writing today. My take on the story is below.
(To those who share news fatigue, which, BTW, I also do, I’ve found the single most useful compendium of articles from a variety of sources to be the Washington Post’s “The Daily 202.” Anyone scanning it, even briefly, could have picked up, for example, a link to the Newsweek story.)
MY STIPULATIONS AND ASSUMPTIONS
- Trump is a serial liar.
- Trump will make no voluntary disclosures; as we know, he has refused to disclose even his personal tax returns, let alone the tax returns of his companies.
- His personal and corporate tax returns are likely only the tip of the documentary iceberg that would be needed to get to the bottom of the Newsweek story, and many, probably most, of them are not currently available by means other than Trump’s voluntary disclosure.
- A criminal investigation would likely be needed to compel production of necessary documents, and in such a case they would not be made public unless and until an indictment issued, which could take years.
- Given the wide latitude and shield of secrecy allowed private corporations (as opposed to charitable organizations), it is possible, and indeed probable, that no basis for a criminal investigation would be found.
- Given all of the above, it is essential that the case is litigated in the court of public opinion, and for that we need a dedicated, properly motivated, resourced, and staffed media.
- As we have seen in the coverage of the Clinton Foundation, the media has not hesitated to report out any claimed appearance of conflict of interest, even if the claimed appearance of conflict is only minimally credible, at best, and even where no actual conflict of interest has been or can be proved.
- There can be no excuse, therefore, for media failure to cover in-depth each and every claimed appearance of conflict in the case of the Trump Organization and to demand that Trump take all necessary steps to sever any and all relationships that give rise to such claims of appearance of conflict of interest. This is so whether or not any actual conflict of interest has been proved or could be proved.
- Among other things, reports have indicated that the media is over-assigning to potential Clinton stories and not assigning staff sufficient to investigate leads on Trump stories. (I’m not here going to address possible and probable motivation(s); there has been plenty of persuasive information made available on those.) As one vivid example of the staffing issue, in “How Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia flap shows everything wrong with the press in 2016,” Paul Waldman reports:
Let’s stipulate that Hillary Clinton should before now have given us more information on her medical history (though she had already given more than Trump). But consider that at around the same time, some people were trying to call more attention to the topic of the Trump Foundation, an extraordinary story of deception, possible illegal contributions, and tax evasion, and morally despicable double-dealing. And yet The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold is almost the only reporter assigned to that story on an ongoing basis. But when Clinton gets faint at a memorial service, news organizations mobilize like it’s D-Day, assigning multiple reporters to investigate every aspect of the story. Tuesday’s New York Times, for instance, included four separate stories in the news section about this momentous event, two of which were on the front page. The liberal group Media Matters for America reported that on that day, the three cable networks spent a combined 51 minutes and 51 seconds talking about the Trump Foundation, but over 13.5 hours talking about Clinton’s fainting and pneumonia.
EICHENWALD’S BASIC PREMISES AND APPROACH IN THE NEWSWEEK STORY
Eichenwald went as far as he could, given the paucity of Trump disclosures. Indeed, it’s a miracle (and testament to a lot of careful digging and assessment) that he got as far as he did. (He’s noted in interview that, given staff resources available and the arduous nature of uncovering even the detail he’s disclosed, he’s been able to examine only 15 or so of dozens of business arrangements that merit examination.) Here’s what I think he’s achieved, and I hope it will be clear why everyone should read it, and why it provides such a compelling roadmap for further investigation and commentary.
- “Throughout this campaign, the Trump Organization, which pumps potentially hundreds of millions of dollars into the Trump family’s bank accounts each year, has been largely ignored. As a private enterprise, its businesses, partners and investors are hidden from public view, even though they are the very people who could be enriched by—or will further enrich—Trump and his family if he wins the presidency.”
- “[The Trump Organization is] an enterprise with deep ties to global financiers, foreign politicians and even criminals, although there is no evidence the Trump Organization has engaged in any illegal activities.”
- “It also reveals a web of contractual entanglements that could not be just canceled. If Trump moves into the White House and his family continues to receive any benefit from the company, during or even after his presidency, almost every foreign policy decision he makes will raise serious conflicts of interest and ethical quagmires.”
Central to understanding the thrust of Eichenwald’s article and assessment of the evidence is to understand the change in Trump’s business model in recent years:
The problem of overseas conflicts emerges from the nature of Trump’s business in recent years. Much of the public believes Trump is a hugely successful developer, a television personality and a failed casino operator. But his primary business deals for almost a decade have been a quite different endeavor. The GOP nominee is essentially a licensor who leverages his celebrity into streams of cash from partners from all over the world. The business model for Trump’s company started to change around 2007, after he became the star of NBC’s The Apprentice, which boosted his national and international fame. Rather than constructing Trump’s own hotels, office towers and other buildings, much of his business involved striking deals with overseas developers who pay his company for the right to slap his name on their buildings. (The last building constructed by Trump with his name on it is the Trump-SoHo hotel and condominium project, completed in 2007.)
Eichenwald then offered several examples of business ventures under the “Trump branding” business model (my shorthand) and laid out the following (I include, to illustrate each bullet, the pertinent information on the first business venture Eichenwald discusses):
The business connections and how the deal developed
. . . two executives from Daewoo Engineering and Construction met with Trump at his Manhattan offices to propose paying him for the right to use his name on a new complex under development, according to former executives from the South Korean company. Daewoo had already worked with the Trump Organization to build the Trump World Tower, which is close to the Manhattan headquarters of the United Nations. The former Daewoo executives said Trump was at first skeptical, but in 1999 construction began on the South Korean version of Trump World, six condominium properties in Seoul and two neighboring cities. According to the two former executives, the Trump Organization received an annual fee of approximately $8 million a year.
What is known about the parties involved
Shortly after the deal was signed, the parent company of Daewoo Engineering and Construction, the Daewoo Group, collapsed into bankruptcy amid allegations of what proved to be a $43 billion accounting fraud. The chairman of the Daewoo Group, Kim Woo Choong, fled to North Korea; he returned in 2005, was arrested and convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to 10 years in prison. According to the two former Daewoo executives, a reorganization of Daewoo after its bankruptcy required revisions in the Trump contract, but the Trump Organization still remain allied with Daewoo Engineering and Construction.
Facts in context, including the significance in the event of a Trump presidency
This relationship puts Trump’s foreign policies in conflict with his financial interests. Earlier this year, he said South Korea should plan to shoulder its own military defense rather than relying on the United States, including the development of nuclear weapons. (He later denied making that statement, which was video-recorded.) One of the primary South Korean companies involved in nuclear energy, a key component in weapons development, is Trump’s partner—Daewoo Engineering and Construction. It would potentially get an economic windfall if the United States adopted policies advocated by Trump.
WHAT HAS TO HAPPEN NEXT
The Trump campaign’s strategy is to create a state of perpetual distraction. We must not take the bait. We cannot let our focus on substantive matters be deflected, but rather must keep them in view as best we can and demand the same of the media. Yet, at the time I write, only Hillary Clinton, in a series of tweets she apparently wrote herself, has even proposed follow-up questions that need to be asked. Here are four of them:
Will you sever ties with your company linked to foreign leaders, questionable organizations, and criminals if you become president?
How will you handle non-cancelable contractual obligations with parties whose interests conflict with those of the United States?
While refusing to release your tax returns, how will you confirm that you do not have dangerous financial ties to bad actors abroad?
To what extent would your foreign policy be dictated by potential financial benefits for your business partners?
The remainder of her questions may be found at this link. Not for the first time, Clinton is doing the heavy lifting, almost entirely without media aid or support, and often with the media hurricane in her face.
Just this morning, my 94+ year-old neighbor said, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime.”
The future of our democracy depends not only on the media getting to the bottom of the clear and present danger Trump presents, but also on voters obtaining accurate information, grasping the enormity of the stakes, and, above all, recognizing that Clinton and the Democrats and aligned independents are forces for the good.
Beyond the presidential election itself, and the currently alarming narrowing in the poll aggregates, we need to be concerned about depressed voter turn-out and the attendant negative impact down-ballot, even with a Clinton win. I believe a good bit of this risk is attributable to a persistent, and misinformed, view that Clinton is nothing more than the “lesser of two evils.”
Another contributing factor is a sense of resignation, expressed in statements like “Everyone I know is voting for Clinton already. I have no one left to persuade.” Here’s the thing: even if that’s true, each of us is no more than six degrees of separation, if that, from a Republican who is looking for an alternative to Trump or a Sanders supporter who is planning not to vote or to vote for a third-party candidate. We need every one of these votes we can get. There are no safe states. The popular vote nationwide has the capacity to send a powerful message, too.
So what can we, as individuals, do to affect this psychology?
What I have come to realize, even though it feels like a finger in the dike, is that any information you can share, any media misrepresentation you can set straight, even among friends, has a ripple effect.
I believe this to be true because I’ve discovered that, just when I think I’m speaking into a void and am about to give up, I get a private note or a public comment that indicates people are hungry for accurate information and positive things they can say and do, no matter how small. Taken together, these small contributions have a multiplier effect.