With the president pulling the vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, both the media and health experts have correctly zeroed in what may be the crucial test for Trump and health care going forward: governing responsibly when it comes to the ACA or sabotage. If the president is seen as purposely seeking to destroy the ACA to try to make his claims come true, he will destroy the trust he needs for any chance at future bipartisan legislation.
Unfortunately, Trump’s initial comments after the failure of the Republican replacement bill gave the impression he was cheering for the ACA to fail and for Democrats to come back crawling to work with him. But the president cannot separate himself from health-care cost increases any more than he can separate himself from the economy. For good or ill, presidents tend to own both. And the least-effective way to bring Democrats to the table to help give the president a bipartisan legislative victory would be to give every impression that he is taking non-legislative and administrative actions to sabotage the ACA.
Democrats and most health-care experts agree with the Congressional Budget Office and S&P that the ACA is mostly stable—and as The New York Time’s Margot Sanger-Katz recently put it, “Obamacare is not on the verge of ‘explosion.’” Yet as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote Tuesday, some Republicans—beyond Trump—are worried about the optics of helping the ACA succeed. Concerned that any good governance would be a “concession that the law can be made to work if Republican officials want to participate in making that happen,” they are considering actions that would actually undermine the narrative that “the law is not inherently or inevitably destined to implode.”
Here are six non-legislative markers to watch to judge whether Trump is doing everything in his power to ensure that what Paul Ryan recently called the “the law of the land” will work as well as possible, or whether he chooses the cynical and even vindictive path of putting the health care of millions at risk to sabotage the ACA.
Will Trump sustain cost-sharing subsidies?
A common critique of the ACA is that its deductibles and co-pays are too high. Republicans have both argued for more patient-centered—or skin-in-the-game, or cost-conscious—models of insurance, and pushed for lower-actuarial value plans. Both of these moves would lead to even higher co-pays and deductibles. But at the same time the Republicans have sought to castigate ACA for higher deductibles they have been actively working through the courts and legislation to end cost-sharing subsidies in the ACA. As Politico’s Michael Grunwald has written, the “current Sword of Damocles hanging above Obamacare … has nothing to do with congressional legislation or Trump’s executive powers. It’s a lawsuit that now goes by the unlikely name of House v. Price, an ongoing effort by Republicans in the House of Representatives to block HHS (now run by one of those former House Republicans, Tom Price) from spending billions of dollars on ACA subsidies.” While it pushed for repeal-and-replace, the Trump administration—and the House—put the lawsuit on hold, so the subsidies remain in place. But if they re-start the lawsuit, and it is successful, it would severely weaken—not strengthen—the exchanges. The ACA subsidies at the center of the suit—otherwise known as cost-sharing reductions, which are different than the ACA tax credits for premiums—limit out-of-pocket costs for the 6 million people who both bought insurance through the ACA exchanges and who earn up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level. These subsidies are expected to total over $7 billion in 2017, and if insurers do not receive these funds, they may leave the exchanges altogether—ending coverage for customers.
Moreover, health plans priced their 2017 plan offerings based on the assumption that the cost-sharing subsidy would be available. If they stayed in the marketplace at all, they would likely have to increase premiums substantially and would fear more problems with adverse selection because those remaining in the market would probably be sicker; as the healthier populations would no longer believe the benefit was worth it. The critical test for the president will be whether he can work with the Congress to move to withdraw the House’s lawsuit and ensure ongoing funding for cost-sharing, and do so before the court-imposed deadline of May 22nd.
Will Trump fail to enforce the ACA’s individual mandate?
The individual mandate—a core part of Obamacare with heavy Republican and conservative roots—is designed to ensure healthier and therefore more stable insurance pools. Trump’s first executive order, though, asked for all parts of his government to “minimize the burdens” of the ACA, which many feared could result in a refusal to enforce the individual mandate. For this filing season, the Obama administration, for example, planned to reject returns from taxpayers who didn’t identify their health-insurance status, as a means to better enforce the mandate. The IRS recently reversed this policy. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities’ vice president for health policy, Edwin Park, argues that this serves to undermine the effectiveness of the individual mandate: if they don’t have to pick, they aren’t subject to the mandate, and that discourages them from enrolling, he told ThinkProgress. So while Trump’s executive order did not by itself weaken the mandate, it did send a message that the tax penalties used to incentivize mandatory health coverage are not likely to be strictly enforced. The second major test to determine whether the President is choosing sabotage over governing will be if he directs his administration not to enforce the current individual-mandate provisions within the ACA.
Will Trump encourage or discourage enrollment?
Stable health pools require robust outreach to enroll young and healthy citizens. The Obama administration conducted huge outreach efforts to boost enrollment, but when Trump came into office, one of his first big moves was cancelling a $5 million Healthcare.gov ad campaign that would have urged Americans to sign up for coverage before the January 31 deadline. (The move was later partially retracted due to backlash.) Going into the new year, 8.8 million Americans had enrolled in a ACA marketplace health plan through HealthCare.gov—about 200,000 more sign-ups than at the same point the previous year. But by the time the January 31st deadline arrived, enrollment (9.2 million) lagged behind the previous year by about 400,000 sign-ups. The difference was likely comprised largely of the young and healthy consumers who typically wait until the last minute to enroll, and who are needed to keep the exchange pools stable. If the Trump administration declines to match the effort and resources the Obama administration dedicated (and, instead, substantially reduces them), it will be a clear indication that it is choosing sabotage over governing.
Will Trump strengthen or undermine critical financing support for the insurance market?
Even before Trump took office, Senator Marco Rubio deeply undermined a key financing mechanism in the ACA. As The New York Times reported, in 2014 the senator slipped a provision into a large spending bill limiting risk corridors—a piece of the ACA designed to help health plans adjusting to new, unpredictable marketplaces. The Rubio provision led to the federal government paying only $362 million to insurance companies in 2015, as opposed to the $2.87 billion they were supposed to receive. This, along with ongoing problems related to adverse selection, contributed to insurers pulling out of marketplaces or raising prices to counteract their losses. Insurers have brought multiple cases questioning the validity of this provision, and recently courts have handed one a victory—though that ruling is likely to be appealed. Judging by the $100 billion state insurance market stability fund that was included in the recently-rejected American Health Care Act and a March 13th letter from Price, the Trump administration knows well that additional funding is critical to ensuring stability in these relatively new marketplaces. In fact, at the encouragement of HHS, Alaska has already applied for a Section 1332 waiver that may provide federal support for the state’s investment in its reinsurance program. Alaska makes the very credible argument that the program’s existence reduced the federal government’s liability in tax credit assistance by reducing overall premiums. The program also lowers premiums for even non-subsidized enrollees who have been exposed to the highest premium hikes. Whether the Trump administration supports or opposes efforts to stabilize insurance markets, then, offers another crucial test.
Does Trump use the bully pulpit to weaken the ACA?
Trump has used the megaphone his office provides in ways that some admire and others, like former Obama top official Brian Deese, call “coercive capitalism” or bullying. He seems to take pride in his ability to strike fear in or weak-kneed compliance from some of the nation’s top CEOs. The question is, will Trump’s signal to major players in the health industry be that they are on his good side or his punitive side if they work to participate in and strengthen the ACA? So whether Trump uses tweets, cell-phone calls, or White House meetings, investing time and political capital in to spur major health-care players to constructively participate in the ACA or conversely, to fear that if they do they will be on Trump’s black list, will be his fifth test.
Will he issue regulations that weaken insurance?
The hardest thing may be to detect an administration that avoids the most blatant acts of sabotage, but looks to kill the ACA with a thousand cuts. It is impossible to detail the full array of actions that could undermine the marketplace. But here is the test: If the overwhelming number of health experts and consumer groups like the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, Kaiser Family Foundation, the American Cancer Society, AARP, and the Georgetown University Center on Health Insurance Reforms conclude it is an attack on the stability of the ACA—it should raise red flag that it is indeed a concerted effort to weaken the ACA.
I’m going to confess an occasional habit of mine, which is petty, and which I would still enthusiastically recommend to anyone who frequently encounters trolls, Twitter eggs, or other unpleasant characters online.
Sometimes, instead of just ignoring a mean-spirited comment like I know I should, I type in the most cathartic response I can think of, take a screenshot, and then file that screenshot away in a little folder that I only revisit when I want to make my coworkers laugh.
I don’t actually send the response. I delete my silly comeback and move on with my life. For all the troll knows, I never saw the original message in the first place. The original message being something like the suggestion, in response to a piece I once wrote, that there should be a special holocaust just for women.
It’s bad out there, man!
We all know it by now. The internet, like the rest of the world, can be as gnarly as it is magical.
But there’s a sense lately that the lows have gotten lower, that the trolls who delight in chaos are newly invigorated and perhaps taking over all of the loveliest, most altruistic spaces on the web. There’s a real battle between good and evil going on. A new report by the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center suggests that technologists widely agree: The bad guys are winning.
Researchers surveyed more than 1,500 technologists and scholars about the forces shaping the way people interact with one another online. They asked: “In the next decade, will public discourse online become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls, and an overall tone of griping, distrust, and disgust?”
The vast majority of those surveyed—81 percent of them—said they expect the tone of online discourse will either stay the same or get worse in the next decade.
Not only that, but some of the spaces that will inevitably crop up to protect people from trolls may contribute to a new kind of “Potemkin internet,” pretty façades that hide the true lack of civility across the web, says Susan Etlinger, a technology industry analyst at the Altimeter Group, a market research firm.
“Cyberattacks, doxing, and trolling will continue, while social platforms, security experts, ethicists, and others will wrangle over the best ways to balance security and privacy, freedom of speech, and user protections. A great deal of this will happen in public view,” Etlinger told Pew. “The more worrisome possibility is that privacy and safety advocates, in an effort to create a more safe and equal internet, will push bad actors into more-hidden channels such as Tor.”
Tor is software that enables people to browse and communicate online anonymously—so it’s used by people who want to cover their tracks from government surveillance, those who want to access the dark web, trolls, whistleblowers, and others.
“Of course, this is already happening, just out of sight of most of us,” Etlinger said, referring to the use of hidden channels online. “The worst outcome is that we end up with a kind of Potemkin internet in which everything looks reasonably bright and sunny, which hides a more troubling and less transparent reality.”
The uncomfortable truth is that humans like trolling. It’s easy for people to stay anonymous while they harass, pester, and bully other people online—and it’s hard for platforms to design systems to stop them. Hard for two reasons: One, because of the “ever-expanding scale of internet discourse and its accelerating complexity,” as Pew puts it. And, two, because technology companies seem to have little incentive to solve this problem for people.
“Very often, hate, anxiety, and anger drive participation with the platform,” said Frank Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland, in the report. “Whatever behavior increases ad revenue will not only be permitted, but encouraged, excepting of course some egregious cases.”
News organizations, which once set the tone for civic discourse, have less cultural importance than they once did. The rise of formats like cable news—where so much programming involves people shouting at one another—and talk radio are clear departures from a once-higher standard of discourse in professional media. Few news organizations are stewards for civilized discourse in their own comment sections, which sends mixed messages to people about what’s considered acceptable. And then, of course, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter serve as the new public square.
“Facebook adjusts its algorithm to provide a kind of quality—relevance for individuals,” said Andrew Nachison, the founder of We Media, in his response to Pew. “But that’s really a ruse to optimize for quantity. The more we come back, the more money they make... So the shouting match goes on.”
The resounding message in the Pew report is this: There’s no way the problem in public discourse is going to solve itself. “Between troll attacks, chilling effects of government surveillance and censorship, etc., the internet is becoming narrower every day,” said Randy Bush, a research fellow at Internet Initiative Japan, in his response to Pew.
Many of those polled said that we’re now witnessing the emergence of “flame wars and strategic manipulation” that will only get worse. This goes beyond obnoxious comments, or Donald Trump’s tweets, or even targeted harassment. Instead, we’ve entered the realm of “weaponized narrative” as a 21st-century battle space, as the authors of a recent Defense One essay put it. And just like other battle spaces, humans will need to develop specialized technology for the fight ahead.
Researchers have already used technology to begin to understand what they’re up against. Earlier this month, a team of computer scientists from Stanford University and Cornell University wrote about how they used machine-learning algorithms to forecast whether a person was likely to start trolling. Using their algorithm to analyze a person’s mood and the context of the discussion they were in, the researchers got it right 80 percent of the time.
They learned that being in a bad mood makes a person more likely to troll, and that trolling is most frequent late at night (and least frequent in the morning). They also tracked the propensity for trolling behavior to spread. When the first comment in a thread is written by a troll—a nebulous term, but let’s go with it—then it’s twice as likely that additional trolls will chime in compared with a conversation that’s not led by a troll to start, the researchers found. On top of that, the more troll comments there are in a discussion, the more likely it is that participants will start trolling in other, unrelated threads.
“A single troll comment in a discussion—perhaps written by a person who woke up on the wrong side of the bed—can lead to worse moods among other participants, and even more troll comments elsewhere,” the Stanford and Cornell researchers wrote. “As this negative behavior continues to propagate, trolling can end up becoming the norm in communities if left unchecked.”
Using technology to understand when and why people troll is essential, but many people agree that the scale of the problem requires technological solutions. Stopping trolls isn’t as simple as creating spaces that prevent anonymity, many of those surveyed told Pew, because doing so also enables “governments and dominant institutions to even more freely employ surveillance tools to monitor citizens, suppress free speech, and shape social debate,” Pew wrote.
“One of the biggest challenges will be finding an appropriate balance between protecting anonymity and enforcing consequences for the abusive behavior that has been allowed to characterize online discussions for far too long,” Bailey Poland, the author of “Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online,” told Pew. Pseudonymity may be one useful approach—so that someone’s offline identity is concealed, but their behavior in a certain forum over time can be analyzed in response to allegations of harassment. Machines can help, too: Chatbots, filters, and other algorithmic tools can complement human efforts. But they’ll also complicate things.
“When chatbots start running amok—targeting individuals with hate speech—how will we define ‘speech’?” said Amy Webb, the CEO of the Future Today Institute, in her response to Pew. “At the moment, our legal system isn’t planning for a future in which we must consider the free speech infringements of bots.”
Another challenge is that no matter what solutions people devise to fight trolls, the trolls will fight back. Even among those who are optimistic that the trolls can be beaten back, and that civic discourse will prevail online, there are myriad unknowns ahead.
“Online discourse is new, relative to the history of communication,” said Ryan Sweeney, the director of analytics at Ignite Social Media, in his response to the survey. “Technological evolution has surpassed the evolution of civil discourse. We’ll catch up eventually. I hope. We are in a defining time.”
Triggering Brexit: British Prime Minister Theresa May sent European Council President Donald Tusk a hand-delivered letter notifying the European Union of the U.K.’s intention to leave the 60-year-old bloc. The move comes nine months after Britons stunned the European political establishment by voting 52 percent in favor of leaving the EU, and though it’s expected to be a two-year process, some warn the unprecedented negotiations could take much longer.
Presidential Privilege: President Trump’s lawyers are arguing that the president should be shielded from state-level civil lawsuits for the duration of his time in office. The immunity claim concerns a defamation lawsuit brought by former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos, but, if accepted by the courts, could be applied to other lawsuits facing the president. President Trump has made similar appeals for presidential exemption with regard to his numerous business interests, including his financial stake in the Trump Hotel—a Washington, D.C., property that could soon be joined by another.
Manafort’s Money: News reports suggest former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort may have engaged in money laundering. The allegations, which concern questionable property purchases and bank account transactions, come one week after the Associated Press reported that Manafort allegedly worked with Oleg Deripaska, a Kremlin-aligned Russian billionaire, in the mid-2000s to further Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interests. They also come against the backdrop of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the presidential election. As David Graham notes, testimony from Deripaska and Manafort could help determine if the allegations “point to truly nefarious behavior or … the stuff of conspiracy theory.”
Tony Rousmaniere, a therapist, considers what he doesn’t know:
Sure, we can ask our clients for feedback about what’s helping and what isn’t; most therapists do. However, asking only helps if clients are forthcoming with their answers. … Which leads to the other 20th-century development that spurred many professions forward, while largely bypassing psychotherapy: the use of metrics to forecast likely outcomes. The most famous application of metrics is the “moneyball” concept … : In the 1970s, a baseball fan named Bill James collected reams of performance data that had previously been ignored (or at least underappreciated) by professional teams, such as slugging percentage and on-base percentage. From this, he developed statistical tools for predicting the performance of baseball players. Ultimately, those tools transformed how baseball teams are managed. Could a similar approach—looking for statistical patterns among a vast array of psychotherapy outcomes—help therapists better predict our patients’ trajectories?
Keep reading here, as Rousmaniere explores how Big Data could help mental-health professionals help more patients.
1. Despite increased hours and climbing education levels, the wage gaps between black and white Americans are larger now than they were in ____________.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
2. Approximately ____________ percent of Republicans believe President Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
3. France’s Socialist presidential candidate Benoît Hamon wants to impose a ____________ tax.
Scroll down for the answer, or find it here.
On this day in 1973, the U.S. withdrew its troops from Vietnam. In our April 1985 issue, Vietnam veteran William Broyles looked back bitterly on the way the war ended:
In 1969, we could have negotiated a departure not unlike that of the French. We had many cards to play, many ways to protect those who had depended on us. But we chose to fight for four more years, which meant that Richard Nixon’s share of the war lasted longer than America’s share of the Second World War. And we left in ignominy anyway, the Marine helicopters churning on the roof of the embassy, the people who had depended on us left to the mercy of the victors.
Read Broyles’s full account of his return to Vietnam here.
The TAD group is discussing Alana Semuels’s piece on what happens when philanthropic gifts supplant some of the functions of government. One reader writes:
That is a good thing. Those who live in the community are much more qualified to determine a community’s need than some DC bureaucrats.
Another reader suggests philanthropists may not donate where the money’s needed most:
Elon Musk is kind of my go-to example (although I guess he’s not really philanthropy and more just business): spending money on pet projects and making promises that probably can’t be kept, but are undeniably “cool.” But there’s a lot of really un-sexy, boring research out there that is important and needs to be funded, and government bodies like the NIH or NSF are better equipped to judge how to allocate funds without just focusing on the cool projects.
Read the full discussion here. For more on the tricky intersections of philanthropy and government, here’s a tale of two Betsy DeVoses: the pragmatic and generous local donor, and the underprepared education secretary.
Ivanka Trump will become an official federal employee, serving as an unpaid adviser to the president. In a news conference, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said they have asked 20 people to be questioned as part of their investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Committee Chairman Richard Burr said the probe is “one of the biggest investigations the Hill has seen in my time here.” A judge sentenced Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, two former aides of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, to prison for their role in the 2013 “Bridgegate” scandal. The U.K. formally gave notice of its intention to leave the European Union.
In Hot Water: “Tuesday was not a good day for America’s hard-charging white men,” writes Alex Wagner. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was forced to apologize after dismissing Representative Maxine Waters’s comments and instead focusing on her looks, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer received backlash for scolding journalist April Ryan.
Above the Law?: President Trump is facing a defamation lawsuit from a former Apprentice contestant who accused him of sexual assault last year. Now, his private lawyers have asked for a special briefing to learn whether the president can be shielded from private lawsuits while in office. (Matt Ford)
How the U.S. Protects the Environment: During his time in office, President Richard Nixon passed laws to reduce air pollution, clean up rivers and streams, and establish the Environmental Protection Agency. Here is a guide to those regulations, and how they may change under President Trump. (Robinson Meyer)
Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.
The Wonky Populist: Tom Perriello is running for governor of Virginia, but most people still don’t know his name. Meet the Democrat whose brand of populism is “a more subdued, intellectualized of-the-people-ism” than that of Bernie Sanders. (Clare Malone, FiveThirtyEight)
A Sign of What’s to Come: President Trump’s supporters were quick to blame Speaker Paul Ryan for the failure of the health-care bill, writes Jonah Goldberg. But for skeptical conservatives, the debacle signaled that Trump “might be happier to work with Democrats than deal with” the hardline conservatives in Congress. (National Review)
Pence’s ‘Prayer Warrior’: The vice president and his wife, Karen, are virtually inseparable: Karen Pence is Mike Pence’s “gut check and shield” and a powerful “force behind her husband’s socially conservative stances.” (Ashley Parker, The Washington Post)
Can’t Be Saved: The House of Representatives voted Tuesday to allow internet service providers to sell browsing history to advertisers and other companies. While technology, like virtual private networks, can help shield users against this new privacy threat, writes Klint Finley, “it doesn’t take the place of having the law on your side.” (Wired)
Do Democrats Have a Shot?: Nate Cohn unpacks why a special election in Georgia serves as an example for how Democrats can capitalize on Donald Trump’s unpopularity to regain control in Republican-dominated states. (The New York Times)
Slashing the Budget: Donald Trump proposed to cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent and eliminate more than 50 programs. These graphics and images show the potential effects of cutting two programs dedicated to cleaning the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. (Denise Lu and Tim Meko, The Washington Post)
Republicans’ plan to repeal and replace Obamacare flopped last week, but President Trump is ready to move to the next item on his agenda—tax reform. What would you like to see the Trump administration focus on and why?
Send your answers to email@example.com and our favorites will be featured in Friday’s Politics & Policy Daily.
As Tolstoy would have written if he were a national-security reporter, all dysfunctional committees are dysfunctional in their own way, while all functional committees are frustratingly tight-lipped.
Or something like that. In any case, a Wednesday press conference by Senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner, the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, presented a glaring contrast to the House’s own intelligence committee, which seems to spin into greater chaos daily. The pair emphasized bipartisanship, process, and patience, offering little in the way of factual revelations while implicitly rebuking the House Intelligence Committee.
“It's not something that can be done quickly,” Burr said. “Let me remind you, the last public investigation that we did was the Senate investigation into Benghazi … it took one year, and in comparison to the public hearings that happened in the House, our report and findings were out much quicker than what they were.”
It was left to Warner to dramatize the stakes of the investigation. “It's important for us, at least, and I think all of us here, to remember to not lose sight about what the investigation is about,” the Virginian said. “An outside foreign adversary effectively sought to hijack our most critical democratic process, the election of a president, and in that process, decided to favor one candidate over another.”
Yet although Burr acknowledged his own vote for President Trump—and his endorsement of the president during the campaign—he pledged a thorough and impartial investigation. “Mark and I work hand in hand on this, and contrary to maybe popular belief, we're partners to see that this is completed and that we've got a product at the end of the day that we can have bipartisanship in supporting,” he said.
The contrast to the House couldn’t be clearer. On that side of the Capitol, the committee got out to a quick start, hosting a newsmaking hearing where FBI Director James Comey confirmed an investigation into collusion between Trump aides and Russia. But since then, the committee has spun out of control. Two days after that hearing, Chairman Devin Nunes announced a vague report of intelligence surveillance having swept up Trump transition-team members. Ranking Member Adam Schiff reacted angrily, then said that he had seen evidence that was “more than circumstantial” to support the idea of collusion. (Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, later specified that he felt the evidence he’d seen would be good enough for a grand jury but not a trial jury.)
Neither Nunes nor Schiff has provided evidence for their claims, which they may be unable to do because they are classified. Meanwhile, acrimony has led to the committee suspending its meetings, and Schiff and other Democrats have called on Nunes to recuse himself, as questions about whether he is coordinating with the White House or even acting as a Trump surrogate mount.
Burr and Warner, neither of whom is likely to win a charisma contest any time soon, had a message for observers of their panel: Don’t expect that kind of excitement over here. They refused to answer questions about the House committee, but some of their answers seemed targeted.
“It would be crazy to try to draw conclusions from where we are in the investigation,” Burr said. As for Nunes’s claims, Burr said, “We're not asking the House to play any role in our investigation. We don't plan to play any role in their investigation.”
Unlike Nunes, who has twice publicly rebuked the FBI for not being as fast to deliver documents as he’d like, Warner and Burr were careful to praise the intelligence community while still saying they’d like some things faster.
Still, the press conference was not entirely without new information. Burr said the committee was dealing with an “unprecedented” number of documents. Warner mentioned rumors of a group of more than 1,000 paid “trolls” working out of a Russian facility to influence the election. As the Senate investigation moves slowly forward, meanwhile, Burr noted that Russian meddling with elections did not end on November 9.
“I think it's safe by everybody's judgment that the Russians are actively involved in the French elections,” the North Carolinian said. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also funded the far-right National Front. As to the central question in the inquiry, whether Trump himself was involved in any Russian interference, the senators said they couldn’t say now but understood they were obligated to find out. Just don’t expect an answer any time soon.
The Census Bureau had to give Congress a list of proposed topics for its 2020 survey of America this week. Tucked in at the end of its 77-page report was an item that’s never been included in the census before: sexual orientation and gender identity, marked as “proposed.”
Shortly after the bureau released its report, a new version came out. This time, the line about sexual orientation and gender identity was missing. The bureau didn’t immediately post an update about what had changed to its website or explain what had happened at length. Its “proposal” to include questions about LGBT identity on its upcoming surveys had just disappeared.
LGBT advocates were outraged. The National LGBTQ Taskforce started circulating a graphic, later republished by several media outlets, comparing the two reports: “We’ve been ERASED!” it declared. High-profile political figures like Chelsea Clinton tweeted the link to an article on the website Out, which claimed in its headline, “Trump Administration Omits LGBTQ People from 2020 Census.”
For the record: The Trump administration has no plans exclude lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans from the 2020 census—they will be surveyed just like everyone else in the country. And though it’s true that the administration won’t include specific questions about gender identity and sexual orientation, that’s standard—those topics have never been listed on the census or the American Community Survey, known as the ACS, which is used to collect data in between decennial censuses.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the director of the bureau, John Thompson, clarified that sexual orientation and gender identity were never meant to be included on the proposed list of topics. A recent agency review also “concluded there was no federal data need to change the planned census and ACS subjects,” he wrote. While the bureau says it made a simple clerical error, the LBGT advocacy community has insisted this incident is evidence that the Trump administration is biased against LGBT Americans.
Advocates have been pushing the government to include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity on the census for a long time: Meghan Maury, the criminal and economic-justice project director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, said her organization ran a campaign on this issue back in 2010.
“Decision makers use the data collected in the long-form census ... to allocate resources and ensure that they’re enforcing laws appropriately,” she said—agencies might look at how LGBT people are affected by issues like domestic violence or homelessness. This kind of data has become even more important as new legislation has placed special obligations on the government to pay attention to LGBT issues: The Violence Against Women Act, for example, was updated in 2013 to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In 2015, the Obama administration put together an interagency task force to get a sense of how the federal government should collect data on LGBT people. Then, last spring, 102 Democrats and one Republican co-sponsored the LGBT Data Inclusion Act, which would have required federal agencies to collect survey data on Americans’ sexual orientation and gender identity.
“To go uncounted in our society is to be unseen by our policymakers,” wrote Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva, the bill’s main sponsor, in an emailed statement. “Enshrining in law the vital right of this demographic to be counted would have prevented future administrations, like this one, from pursuing policies that could harm the LGBTQ community.” Eventually, the bill got shelved.
Even without that legislation, some agencies have already started asking questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in surveys. The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, has included questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in its annual National Health Interview Survey, according to a letter sent to Maury. It has also included a question about sexual orientation in its survey of older Americans since 2014, according to the Associated Press.
But advocates have pressed for more consistent collection. The “gold standard,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the congressional committee that oversees the census, would be the ACS. That survey provides the government with its most comprehensive and widely used data each year, and it’s legally mandatory for subjects to participate. “The decennial survey would be the ultimate goal,” she added, “because it is the universal data-collection activity our nation undertakes.”
“We’re made invisible in a million ways every day of our lives.”
LGBT advocates thought they were making progress. Maury serves on an advisory committee at the Census Bureau, and she said at least three major agencies have submitted letters to the Bureau asking for census data on the LGBT community: the Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice.
Since the Trump administration took office, though, it has pulled back on including these questions. Last week, HHS released the latest version of its survey on older Americans—and the question about sexual orientation and gender identity had been removed. When the Census Bureau appeared to pull its LGBT questions this week, Maury said, it seemed like part of a pattern. “It doesn’t ring true to me that this was just a clerical error,” she said. “Someone added it to the list at some point, and someone removed it.”
Here’s how Thompson described what happened. Over the past several years, the agency has gone through a major review in preparation for the 2020 census. “In April 2016, more than 75 members of Congress wrote to the Census Bureau to request the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity as a subject for the American Community Survey,” he wrote. “We carefully considered this thoughtful request and again worked with federal agencies and the OMB Interagency Working Group on Measuring Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity to determine if there was a legislative mandate to collect this data.” But, he said, they concluded that there “was no federal data need” to ask questions about gender identity and sexual orientation on the census or ACS.
There are other plausible explanations for why the Census Bureau didn’t want to include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity on its 2019 ACS or 2020 decennial census, Lowenthal said. “Traditionally, the Census Bureau likes to have experience collecting data in the field, in a real survey environment, before it includes questions on the census,” she said. “It would not have been able to carry out the level of research and testing for that larger environment in time for the 2020 survey.”
While the Census Bureau has worked with several federal agencies to test questions, that work is still in early stages. Besides, the Bureau doesn’t need to include every question it’s interested in on the census, Lowenthal added—the ACS provides perfectly good data, gathered at much more frequent intervals, that lawmakers can use in policymaking.
But that won’t stop the incident from being politicized. “This isn’t just some accidental oversight or the omission of an unnecessary question,” wrote Grijalva. “This is a systematic effort to ensure members of the LGBTQ community remain invisible to policymakers, and that’s utterly unacceptable.”
For her part, Maury sees this as a fundamental issue of dignity—administrative error or no. “We’re made invisible in a million ways every day of our lives, and when decisions like this happen, which say, ‘We’re not counting you,’ that contributes to this stigma,” she said. “We really shouldn’t need to say in 2017 that LGBT people count.”
The latest development in the Wells Fargo saga has good news for some of its customers: The bank will pay $110 million to settle a class-action lawsuit for around 2 million accounts opened without customer permission.
The settlement, which is awaiting court approval in California, comes amid six months of continual fallout for Wells Fargo, the second-largest commercial bank in the United States. To recap: Amid intense pressure to meet impossible cross-sales targets from branch managers, employees opened some 1.5 million fake bank accounts and issued over half a million credit cards without customer approval. In September, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued the bank a $100 million penalty, the largest on record, for the illegal practice. The bank also paid an additional $85 million in fines and agreed to refund $2.5 million to its customers for fees associated with the phony accounts.
Compounding the scandal were stories of about the way the bank treated its employees, from impossible sales quotas to reports of the harsh way the bank retaliated against whistleblowers. Amid these reports, John Stumpf, now the former CEO of Wells Fargo, stepped down without severance, in October of last year, forfeiting $41 million in equity. The bank is also facing a probe by the Justice Department, which could mean criminal charges for the executives whose policies led to the pressure to create fake accounts.
Unsurprisingly, recent numbers show that the bank’s performance with new credit cards and accounts has dropped drastically. Earlier this year, the bank reported that credit-card applications and checking account openings both fell more than 40 percent. The disclosure was part of the bank’s strategy of increasing transparency to rebuild trust with its customers and the public. The bank is trying a lot of other things too: It’s abolishing its aggressive cross-selling goals, spending millions to monitor sales tactics, and unveiling a new compensation plan that’s no longer tied to cross selling.
Earlier this month, Tim Sloan, the current CEO of Wells Fargo, acknowledged that it will take more time and effort to fix the bank’s entrenched problems in an interview with The Associated Press. Along with the settlement, on Tuesday, a federal regulator gave Wells Fargo a failing score on community lending; the bank is also facing class-action lawsuits seeking billions in damages from both its employees and its shareholders. And the question remains as to how customers’ credit scores and ability to borrow may be affected by the scandal in the future—which, according to the bank’s recent regularly filings, may have impacted more people than previously thought.
The $110 million settlement on Wednesday is notable because it’s the first private settlement between Wells Fargo and its customers. Amid ongoing probes and class-action lawsuits, more news about just how much money the bank will repay those wronged in the scandal is sure to come. According to Wells Fargo, the bank is expecting to settle 11 other pending class-action cases related to the scandal. But beyond paying, what business experts want to see is for the bank to overhaul in its toxic culture and ethics standards. Whether Wells Fargo responds to the pressure to do so remains unclear; in the meantime, as William Dudley, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said recently, continuing to spotlight the issue is one way the public can hold bankers accountable.
Next week, Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to the United States to meet Donald Trump for the first time. But according to Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, power is flowing in the opposite direction. Rachman is far from the first analyst to argue that China and other Asian nations are rising while the Western world declines, nor is he the first to cite the now-familiar statistics about China’s ballooning economy and unparalleled manufacturing might. His contribution is to help explain some of the most confounding developments of the day—from the Middle East’s descent into anarchy to the ascent of populist politicians in the West to the emergence of nostalgia as a political force—through his theory of the “Easternization” of international affairs.
“In the twenty-first century,” Rachman writes in his recent book on the concept, “rivalries among the nations of the Asia-Pacific region will shape global politics, just as the struggles between European nations shaped world affairs for over five hundred years from 1500 onward.”
Trump, in fact, was an early opponent of Easternization, though he used different language. The businessman first expressed some of the core themes of his 2016 campaign—that foolish free-trade deals and greedy allies were draining the United States of its greatness—in the late 1980s, when the Japanese economy was booming and, as the former Bush administration official Peter Feaver has noted, “the joke was that the Cold War was over, and Japan had won.” Today, Trump argues that China is winning—and that America’s losing streak must end.
Ahead of the Trump-Xi summit in Palm Beach, I spoke with Rachman about how he understands Trumpism, how the Trump administration might accelerate Easternization, and what a world dominated by China might actually look like. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Uri Friedman: You write that you see Donald Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” as a promise to reverse the process of Easternization. What do you mean by “Easternization” and why do you view Trump’s agenda in that context?
Gideon Rachman: What I mean by Easternization is the shift of economic power to Asia and, with that, the shift of political power to the East. And I think that Trump and the many Americans who voted for him, and maybe even some who didn’t, are unsettled by that process. Certainly Trump doesn’t accept it in any way as natural or inevitable that America’s position as the dominant economic and political power would erode. There was definitely a backward-looking nostalgic element to the “Make America Great Again” slogan—[back to] the period when America was the dominant power, the dominant economy, when the world respected American power. Probably the peak of that was the 1950s.
Sometimes Trump explicitly links this to the rise of Asia, as when he says that China has been “raping” the United States. [White House Chief Strategist] Steve Bannon, who is acknowledged as the ideologue of the Trump agenda, gave an interesting interview just after the election where he rejected the idea that globalization, or as he calls it “globalism,” is a good thing. He said what [the globalists have] done is create the middle class in Asia and destroy the middle class in America. If you take that as your intellectual starting point, then that leads you to the [trade] protectionism that Trump is flirting with. He’s a reversal of the [Bill] Clinton and the [George W.] Bush views of the rise of China—that, although it presented challenges, basically it was a good thing, it would create economic opportunities for America, and it would bind the world together, reduce conflict. Trumpism, insofar as it’s a coherent ideology, is very much based on the premise that Americans made a big mistake encouraging the rise of Asia economically.
Friedman: Do you feel that, as power shifts east, nostalgia is becoming a political force in the Western world?
Rachman: Yeah. If I look at my own country, Britain, behind the arguments [in favor of Britain’s vote to exit the European Union], there was a very powerful nostalgia for a sense that, as one pro-Remain guy put it to me, “A lot of the Leave voters think we used to be a great country and now we’re just a member of a club with 28 countries. Luxembourg has a veto and we’re not going to accept that. We want to go back to the way it was.” And Britain, I think, has embarked on a rather perilous course of trying to do that. If you look at Russia—it’s not so much the West as Europe—[Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s slogan could as well be “Make Russia Great Again.” What is Marine Le Pen about in France? It’s “Make France Great Again.” She, like Trump, sees globalism as a force that’s eroding the nation.
But I think it’s particularly difficult for America because it’s pretty obvious to most people in Britain and France, however much they may dislike what’s happened, that we’re not going back ever to the period where they were the dominant global power. I think a lot of Obama’s policies can be read as trying to adjust America as gently as possible to this new reality in ways that are as least damaging as possible for the United States and for the rest of the world. But even within his own mind, there’s a struggle going on; in Asia-Pacific, [the Obama administration] doesn’t say we’re going to accept that China is going to be the dominant power.
Friedman: You mention that you see developments like the Syrian Civil War as a symptom of Easternization. How so?
Rachman: The Middle East since the end of the First World War had been dominated by Western powers. [First] the French and the British. Then, after the Second World War, there’s Cold War rivalry: Russia has elements of influence in the Middle East but America is the dominant power, certainly after the Russians are kicked out of Egypt. There are blips—the Iranian Revolution and so on—but by the first part of the 2000s, all of the key powers have relationships with America: Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. Because of what’s happened in recent years [with the Arab Spring and the Iraq War], you suddenly have a sense that America no longer is in control of events in the Middle East. The Europeans, although they make a feeble effort to intervene in Libya, then walk away and leave a vacuum. And then the Russians move [into Syria]. More generally you just have an anarchic situation, with Chinese economic interests very much [at] the fore but the Chinese having no interest in playing a political role.
[Another] example would be Turkey. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, [Turkish President Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk comes [along] in the 1920s [and] sets Turkey on a course to the West: dress like Europeans, change your alphabet to look like Europeans’, create a secular state. Under [current Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, you’re seeing a Turkish leader saying, “We reject the West in many ways. We want to rediscover our Islamic roots. We want to discover the Ottoman hinterland. And we think that you that you [Westerners] are a sick society and that you’re no longer our model.
Even in Israel, [political leaders are] looking very much to economic opportunities in India and China, partly because they [feel] that the Indians and the Chinese [are] pragmatists who [won’t] put them under pressure on human rights or the West Bank. An aide to [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu said to me, “We had a great meeting with the Chinese. Twelve hours and you know how long they spent on the Palestinians?” I said “no.” He said, “Twenty seconds. They’re not interested. What they’re interested in is business deals with us and that suits us.”
Friedman: You spend a lot of the book making the case that Easternization is occurring and describing what it looks like in different parts of the world. There’s less detail on what an Easternized world might actually look like. Can you paint me a picture of it?
Rachman: [The trend] I’m most confident of is [the] growing economic power of Asia. More of the world’s production will come there. More of the world’s trade will come there. China will, for at least 30 years, be easily the most important economic power in Asia.
Many of the countries that looked instinctively to America, both for their markets and for their political leadership, will begin to tilt more toward Beijing. The thing that causes a definitive break [in alliances] is war. The world order we’re living in was remade in 1945 [after World War II] and again after 1989, when the Cold War ends. But absent a dramatic event like a war or the fall of the Berlin Wall, you’re looking at a slower drift where you’ll be in a different place in 20 years’ time but it won’t be obvious that there was a particular event that marked [the shift].
You will have countries like South Korea, Japan to an extent, the whole of Southeast Asia, caring more about what is coming out of Beijing than what is coming out of Washington because that’s where their economic livelihoods [have] gone. That might stretch all the way to Europe, where China is now Germany’s largest trading partner. And so if you have Donald Trump, who is increasingly antagonistic toward Germany, but a booming trade relationship with China, maybe Germany, which throughout my life has been centered on NATO [and] on the EU, begins to think, “Whether or not NATO still continues to exist formally, our relationship with Beijing might be more important than our relationship with Washington in 10, 15 years’ time.”
Another country that’s very strongly in the Western orbit now but is under enormous pressure is Australia, where, as we speak, the Chinese prime minister’s been there and explicitly said, “We don’t want to see you Australians taking sides in the U.S.-Chinese dispute, as you did during the Cold War. Stay neutral.” That’s remarkable. Australians fought with the Americans in the Second World War, [fought] with them in Vietnam, and [Australia] is part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement [with the United States]. But overwhelmingly [Australia’s] markets are [in] China now. Now the Australians [are] also very uneasy about the Australian property [and] companies that China’s buying up. But it’s not clear that in the long run they have much of an option but to adapt because the American market is much less important than the Chinese market, and there is a question mark over America’s staying power in the Pacific. Australia, kind of the definition of a country without problems, is really at the cutting edge of these questions about how we adapt to this new world.
Friedman: Do you see the architecture of free trade changing if China becomes more dominant?
Rachman: A lot of that will be dependent on what Trump does. Will Trump trash the [World Trade Organization]? Will he walk away from it if he doesn’t get what he wants? In that case, I think you might start moving toward a much more bilateralized world trading system where the global rules begin to erode and you have people trying to strike deals with individual markets—the Brits trying to strike a deal with America. But I think it also gets China moving quite smartly, as they’ve done in the wake of Trump pulling America out of the [Trans-Pacific Partnership], to create a China-centered free-trade area.
In the aftermath of Trump’s election, there was this famous moment where Xi Jinping comes and gives a speech at Davos. I was in the audience. The conventional thing to say afterwards was, “Isn’t it amazing: China’s now the defender of the globalized order that America has turned against.” But it’s not that surprising because China is the world’s biggest manufacturer. It’s the world’s biggest exporter. Of course it would defend the current system. I remember talking to an EU official afterward and he said, “When Britain was the dominant economy it was the promoter of free trade. When America was the dominant economy it was the promoter of free trade. Now China’s the promoter of free trade, and you can feel the wheels of history turning.”
Friedman: I’ve [seen] in reports by U.S. intelligence officials, a recent report by Brookings, a vision of a [future] world dominated more by China and Russia that is a “spheres of influence” world [for great powers]: China has control over its neighborhood, Russia has control over its neighborhood, the U.S. has more sway in its neighborhood. Do you think that is a likely result of this process of Easternization?
Rachman: I think that is one very plausible outcome. It’s certainly what the Russians want and it’s what the Chinese want. The question [was], up until now, would the Americans be prepared to cede that? Obama and [former U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry very much rhetorically were opposed to it and, I think, in reality were pretty opposed to it. There was a question about would they have the will to enforce their opposition. The question that begins with Trump is slightly different: Some of what [Trump has said] has implied that he might accept a “spheres of influence” concept—that Russia and maybe China in time, if they respected American commercial interests, would be given more of a free hand politically in their regions. But whether Trump could persuade the American establishment, or “deep state” as we now have to call it, to go along with that is a big question. Whether the vestigial alliances would drag him in anyway—the Japanese certainly wouldn’t accept it, the Poles wouldn’t accept it, and America has treaty commitments to these countries—[is an open question].
There’s an Australian academic I quote in the book called Hugh White who argues that in the long run [a spheres-of-influence model is] where it has to go in Asia—that [otherwise the U.S. and China] will end up with a war. In the end I rejected [that argument] because I think it’s too fatalistic and too deterministic. China is not a stable polity. I don’t think anybody would place bets on the Communist Party still being in charge in 50 years’ time. It seems like a mistake for the West to surrender preemptively. Nobody anticipated what happened in 1989 [with the fall of the Berlin Wall], and nobody can really be sure how things are going to pan out politically.
Friedman: To sum up: If the Easternization process continues, and we look out a decade or two, potentially you could see some traditional U.S. alliances gradually shifting toward China and away from the U.S. Free trade is still there, but the center of gravity is more in China than in the U.S. The international institutions [like the WTO and the United Nations] that we’ve known for decades will still be there. And China may have more influence in its neighborhood, or it may not. Is that a fair summary?
Rachman: Just the last two bits I’d qualify. The international institutions probably will still be there in the sense that they won’t have been formally abolished, but they might [be] hollowed out, whether that’s NATO or the WTO or even the UN. And some parallel structures will have been set up beside them, like the [China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an alternative to the World Bank], which may have more power than some of the older ones.
And the second thing is: I’m a bit less on the fence about Chinese power than that summary [suggests]. I think the likelihood is that we’re looking at a much more powerful China in 30 years’ time, but we don’t know what’s going to happen politically in China.
Friedman: Based on the evidence so far, do you think the process of Easternization is accelerating under Trump?
Rachman: Yeah. And I think that’s the precise opposite of what he intends. But [that is] the paradoxical result of an America that looks much less reliable. Allies don’t know whether they can trust him. Some allies, like Japan, who have absolutely no alternative to America, have rushed to embrace him. The Brits a little bit. But others—the Europeans, the Australians—are beginning to think, “OK, we’ve got to start hedging our bets.”
Second, to the extent that the isolationist, protectionist tendencies in Trump come to the fore, there’s a voluntary [U.S.] pullback, and that leaves a vacuum for China to move into. The abolition of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is the prime example of that.
Friedman: So you don’t buy the argument that [Trump] is scaling back American overextension [in the world] precisely to make America more powerful so that it can reverse this process of Easternization?
Rachman: I don’t ultimately buy it. If he’s focused on the core group of Trump voters—the guys who used to have a middle-class existence through manufacturing and don’t anymore—there may be some forms of Trump economic policies that give a temporary boost to them. Even there I’m pretty skeptical because I think protectionism doesn’t tend to work that well in the long run. And I think American workers won’t get the jobs if Chinese workers are displaced. It’ll probably be a robot. So I’m not sure he can reverse, even in that quite limited sphere, the effect of Easternization.
An overwhelming majority of Republicans—at 74 percent—believe it’s likely that Donald Trump was wiretapped or otherwise subject to government surveillance while he was running for president, according to a CBS News poll released on Wednesday.
The results suggest that Republican voters have largely accepted the president’s claim—which he first made earlier this month in a tweet—that President Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower. That’s despite the fact that there is no evidence to substantiate his charge, which PolitiFact has labeled “false.” So why do so many Republicans appear to believe the president if there’s no concrete evidence to back him up? A few factors help explain the polling result.
To start, it’s possible that many Republicans either believe Trump or are willing to say they do out of a sense of partisan loyalty. While 74 percent responded that it’s either “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that Trump’s offices were wiretapped or surveilled, the same percentage of Democrats rated those same possibilities “not very likely” or “not at all likely.”
This isn’t the first time survey data has found a partisan split over an unsubstantiated allegation made by the administration. In January, the White House falsely claimed that Trump’s inauguration featured “the largest audience to ever witness” such a ceremony. Yet one survey found that when voters were presented with photographs from Trump’s and Obama’s inaugurations, and asked to say which one had more attendees, Trump supporters were “significantly more likely to answer the questions wrong” than Clinton voters, according to The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog. (Obama’s inauguration drew a larger crowd.)
“While this may appear to be a remarkable feat of self-deception,” as my colleague Julie Beck put it, it may be that people simply wanted to signal support for Trump. “In these charged situations, people often don’t engage with information as information, but as a marker of identity. Information becomes tribal,” Beck explained.
Another reason why Republican voters may be more likely to accept Trump’s allegations is because other partisans, in particular House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, have muddied the waters around the wiretapping claim. Last week, Nunes delivered a bombshell—if difficult to parse—announcement to reporters that the intelligence community had “incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.”
Still, Nunes’s statement did not vindicate Trump’s claims that his New York City residence had been wiretapped by his predecessor, and the California congressman had previously stated that there was no “physical wiretap of Trump Tower.” FBI Director James Comey has also said that he has “no information” to support Trump’s tweeted claims, and he told Nunes’s committee earlier in the month that neither does the Justice Department.
Nevertheless, Nunes provided the White House with a degree of political cover with his statement on incidental collection last week, and that may have helped still-wavering Republican voters accept Trump’s accusations. In recent weeks, the White House has tried to bolster Trump’s claims by arguing, in effect, that he should be taken seriously, but not necessarily literally. “The president used the word wiretap in quotes to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said earlier this month. In light of that, Nunes’s claim that transition-team intelligence had been collected may have been enough to either convince some Republican voters that Trump had been vindicated or make them feel comfortable asserting that he had.
The exact wording of the survey question could also have contributed to the results. The CBS poll does not explicitly quote from Trump’s original accusation, and instead asks a question more in line with the White House interpretation of Trump’s claims—that by mentioning a wiretap in his tweet, the president was discussing surveillance more generally. It reads: “How likely do you think it is that Donald Trump’s offices were wiretapped, or under government surveillance, during the 2016 presidential campaign?” The question also does not mention Obama.
Faced with competing and overlapping claims from a variety of sources, Republican voters may opt to privilege the information that doesn’t cast doubt on the president’s trustworthiness. As Beck explained, “doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance,” with dissonance defined as “the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict.”
Liberals and conservatives alike are susceptible to believing, or at the very least circulating, incorrect information that appears to confirm their political worldview. So-called “fake news” has found an audience among progressives and liberals, just as it has found an audience in pro-Trump circles, too. There’s little sign that this embrace of false beliefs, especially those seemingly rooted in partisanship, will end anytime soon.
What did the U.K. government do on March 29?
The U.K.’s envoy to the European Union hand-delivered a letter from Prime Minister Theresa May to the office of the European Council president in Brussels, invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and formally beginning the process of talks over the U.K.’s separation from the European Union—the process that’s come to be known as Brexit.
How did we get here?
On June 23, 2016, Britons stunned Europe’s political establishment and voted 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had supported the U.K.’s continued membership in the bloc and who also wanted to give voters a voice on EU membership, resigned. After a brief period of political backstabbing, which saw all the favored successors to Cameron fail in their leadership bids, Theresa May, who had also supported remaining in the EU, emerged as the U.K.’s new prime minister. She pledged to respect the wishes of the public—dashing the expectations of those who’d hoped for a change of mind. She said she’d invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism by which negotiations on the U.K.’s exit from the EU can begin, in March 2017. But while British politicians and policymakers argued with their European counterparts on what a future U.K.-EU relationship would look like, the U.K. High Court ruled last November the government does not have the authority to invoke Article 50, saying that authority lay with Parliament. The government appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed with the lower court’s ruling. After weeks of heated back-and-forth in Parliament, lawmakers voted on March 13 to give the government the authority to trigger Article 50. Three days later, the measure received royal assent from Queen Elizabeth II. On March 29, May invoked Article 50.
Is the separation immediate?
No. Article 50 gives the U.K. and the EU two years to reach an agreement on what Brexit will look like. The earliest we could have a deal is March 29, 2019, until which the U.K. remains a full EU member but won’t participate in decision-making.
But that two-year timeframe is seen as optimistic or, as the Financial Times puts it: “It may prove fiendishly hard or simply impossible to complete it all.” One unnamed senior EU figure told the FT: “Two years is unfeasible. The more you learn the more you bump into the complications and legal problems.” Indeed, the Telegraph reports that members of the European Parliament, who must vote on any final deal the EU reaches with the U.K., say that the U.K. must remain an EU member until 2022. Philip Hammond, the former U.K. foreign secretary who is now chancellor, warned last year that Brexit could take six years to complete.
As the BBC points out:
Unpicking 43 years of treaties and agreements covering thousands of different subjects was never going to be a straightforward task. It is further complicated by the fact that it has never been done before and negotiators will, to some extent, be making it up as they go along. The post-Brexit trade deal is likely to be the most complex part of the negotiation because it needs the unanimous approval of more than 30 national and regional parliaments across Europe, some of whom may want to hold referendums.
But Brexit has provisions in place for such an eventuality; the two-year schedule can be extended by unanimous consent of the European Council.
What happens next?
The U.K. government will first repeal the European Communities Act of 1972, the legislation that made accession to the EU possible, and then make EU law U.K. law. This would make business operations seamless even after the U.K. leaves the EU, but it would also allow U.K. lawmakers to repeal those aspects of EU law that they consider onerous or irrelevant.
Then begin the talks themselves, which are likely to be complicated: At issue is not only the future of EU-U.K. relations, but also the future of some 4 million people—3 million EU citizens and 1 million Britons—who live on either side of the English Channel. Here’s how Linda Kinstler described it in The Atlantic:
Brexit negotiations will come in two phases: the first, which begins on Wednesday, is a battle over what the divorce settlement between the U.K. and EU will look like. The two most important issues in those proceedings concern how much the U.K. will have to pay the EU upon leaving—current estimates are around $60 billion, though Brexit Secretary David Davis swore on Monday the sum would be “nothing like that.” The other issue is securing the rights of EU citizens living in the U.K., and U.K. citizens living in Europe. May has said she would like to reach an early agreement to secure the reciprocal rights of EU and U.K. citizens; arriving at such an agreement in the first few months of negotiations could be an easy win for both sides. In the meantime, the rights of EU citizens in the U.K. will indeed be used as “bargaining chips” in Brexit negotiations. Many families have already begun preparing to leave the country, fearing their loved ones may be denied the right to live or work in a post-Brexit Britain.
Much of the discussions so far have centered on whether it’ll be a “soft” Brexit or a “hard” Brexit. A “soft” Brexit would allow the U.K.’s relationship with the EU to remain mostly unchanged: in other words, with the U.K. having access to the single market, and with the free movement of EU citizens. A “hard” Brexit, on the other hand, would see the U.K. negotiators refusing to compromise on the unrestricted movement of EU citizens, thereby losing access to the single market. In reality, since immigration is one of the reasons Brexit occurred, a final settlement is likely to fall somewhere in between a “soft” and “hard” Brexit.
The EU will formally respond to May’s letter later this week by issuing draft guidelines on negotiations for the other 27 member states. A Brexit summit is scheduled for April 29, in which members will outline their negotiating positions. (Politico has a breakdown of what each of the 27 member states wants Brexit to look like.) Seventy-two percent of member states, comprising 65 percent of their populations, must agree on the eventual deal, which will then be ratified by legislatures in each of the 27 states. (No one said this would be easy.)
As Alex Stubb, the former premier of Finland, told the FT: “The U.K.’s negotiating hand is by definition weak. All the EU has to decide is the bill and the time of exit. The rest is altruism.”
Will Brexit hurt the U.K. economy?
It’s too soon to tell. The worst prognostications of Brexit didn’t materialize. The country is moving toward full employment and is growing more quickly than other major industrialized nations, but inflation is high and the pound is about 15 percent lower against the U.S. dollar.
Is Brexit reversible?
Although a considerable minority in the U.K. would like to think so, it would be political suicide in the U.K. to reconsider Brexit under the present political circumstances. The major criticisms many Britons had with EU membership—perceived loss of sovereignty and mass immigration from the bloc’s citizens—will persist unless something there’s a fundamental change of heart within the EU’s other 27 countries about what membership means to them. That won’t happen overnight: Polls in most EU countries show that most citizens see membership as a benefit. Practical considerations aside, May’s own remarks that “Brexit means Brexit” suggest the U.K. government is unlikely to revoke a decision made by a comfortable majority of its citizens. She reiterated those remarks Wednesday, telling Parliament: “This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back.”
But never say never. John Kerr, the U.K. diplomat who wrote the text of Article 50, which May triggered Wednesday, told the House of Lords last month: “If, having looked into the abyss, we were to change our minds about withdrawal, we certainly could and no one in Brussels could stop us.” And Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said last month he hopes “the day will come when the British re-enter the boat,” leaving open the possibility, however slim, for those Britons who want to remain part of the EU.
What happens to the U.K.?
This could be one of the most contentious issues in the wake of the Brexit announcement. The U.K., or United Kingdom, comprises England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. While England and Wales voted to leave the EU, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain. Brexit affects them, too. The Scottish government says it wants to secede from the U.K., calling for talks with the U.K. government on an independence referendum sometime between the fall of 2018 and the spring of 2019. The U.K. government says it won’t negotiate. May had previously said “now is not the time” for a Scottish referendum on independence. Scotland’s desired timetable for an independence referendum would fall within the two-year period of negotiations between the U.K. and the EU. A Scottish independence campaign run in parallel with the Brexit talks would considerably weaken the U.K. government’s hand.
In her letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, May wrote:
From the start and throughout the discussions, we will negotiate as one United Kingdom, taking due account of the specific interests of every nation and region of the UK as we do so. When it comes to the return of powers back to the United Kingdom, we will consult fully on which powers should reside in Westminster and which should be devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it is the expectation of the Government that the outcome of this process will be a significant increase in the decision-making power of each devolved administration.
Then there is Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish border with the Republic of Ireland is the U.K.’s only land border with the EU. Critics of Brexit say that open borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic are a cornerstone of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and any deal that doesn’t take this into account would imperil the peace deal. There have also been calls in Northern Ireland for a referendum on leaving the U.K. and joining the Republic of Ireland—though the prospect of that being successful are slim.
What happens to the EU?
As I wrote nine months ago, soon after the Brexit vote:
There were fears that Britain’s exit would energize Euroskeptics across the bloc. Indeed, polls in Denmark have suggested that the country would vote to leave if a referendum were held on membership (none is planned). Far-right parties across Europe rejoiced at the news from Britain Friday. Marine Le Pen, the head of the National Front in France, said on Twitter: “Victory for Freedom! As I have been asking for years, we must now have the same referendum in France and EU countries.” Similar sentiments were expressed by others across the bloc. Whether that translates to referenda in those countries and subsequent votes to leave is an unknown, however.
Since that time, however, the EU’s approval rating rose in its member states. Even in Denmark, the percentage of people who supported a Brexit-style referendum fell. Expected populist victories in elections across Europe have, at least for now, stalled.
Washington attracts a certain type of person who loves attention—the thrill of the crowd, the glow of the camera. But it also attracts the kind of person who loves to operate in the shadows: the master of arcane rules, the backroom operator. When the second category of person ends up with the attention, things can get uncomfortable.
Take Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman whose ties to the Kremlin have come under new scrutiny as the Trump administration’s own ties do the same. Last week, the AP reported on alleged work Manafort did to burnish Vladimir Putin’s image abroad. As my colleague Julia Ioffe wrote, such work may appear distasteful to some, but it’s more often than not totally legal.
But now that Manafort is under the microscope, several reports are pointing to actions that might be more questionable. The first comes from WNYC, the New York public-radio station, which reported on three cases unearthed by 377union.com in which Manafort purchased properties in the city with no mortgages:
Manafort’s New York City transactions follow a pattern: Using shell companies, he purchased the homes in all-cash deals, then transferred the properties into his own name for no money and then took out hefty mortgages against them, according to property records.
The purchases came around the time Manafort signed a contract with Kremlin-aligned Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, which AP-acquired documents say involved lobbying to help Russia but Manafort says was merely on Deripaska’s behalf.
This pattern does not necessarily indicate any illegal behavior. But experts told WNYC that if someone was trying to launder money, this would be a typical way to do it, turning ill-gotten gains into legitimate cash by moving it through the various transactions. Once the mortgage was taken out, the money would be “clean” for the individual, with the property as collateral and the original source and purchaser forgotten. Manafort denied any wrongdoing and said it was common to buy real estate with limited liability companies, as he did.
Despite the large cash flows, Manafort found himself in danger of foreclosure on a townhouse in Brooklyn and properties in California, The Wall Street Journal reports. He was saved by a $16 million bailout, spread between November and January, from a bank owned by a Trump adviser. Manafort has received other loans from Trump friends before, highlighting the closeness of his ties to Trump. Nonetheless, the White House has argued of late that Manafort was a mere short-term volunteer for the campaign.
Manafort was also investigated for money laundering on Cyprus, NBC News reports. The island is a common outlet for money from Russia. Starting in 2007, Manafort opened at least 15 bank accounts and incorporated at least 10 companies. The large amounts of money flowing into Manafort’s Cypriot assets, including from Deripaska, raised concerns about money laundering at the bank, which opened an investigation. Manafort then closed his accounts there. NBC reports that the manner in which the accounts were being used was curious:
Banking sources said that in October 2009, one of the 15 Manafort-associated bank accounts in Cyprus received a payment of a million dollars and left the account on the same day. Experts said the way the multiple accounts and companies were used suggests they were set up to deliberately make it difficult for auditors to track the movement of funds.
The vast amounts of cash accord with what is known about Manafort’s work. According to the AP scoop, he was to receive $10 million annually from Deripaska. In 2016, The New York Times reported that documents turned up in Ukraine showed that Manafort was to receive almost $13 million in off-the-books cash payments from the political party of Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin client for whom Manafort worked as a consigliere. Yanukovych was deposed during a revolution in 2014.
Deripaska and Manafort eventually ended up at legal odds over a business transaction for a telecom company that ran through the Cayman Islands.
Manafort has always cut a somewhat sinister figure: He is fond of dark suits with wide pinstripes, giving him an old New York gangster look, and he has worked for a variety of unsavory clients—not just Yanukovych and reportedly Putin, but also Ferdinand Marco and Mobutu Sese Seko. Yet simply appearing sinister and actually breaking the law are two rather different matters.
The FBI and Treasury are both probing Manafort’s ties to Russia, as are committees in both houses of Congress. Last week, Representative Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, announced that Manafort had offered through an attorney to testify, though it’s unclear whether that would public or private, and whether it would be under oath. Deripaska, meanwhile, took out ads in The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal in which he said he was “ready to take part in any hearings conducted in the US Congress on this subject in order to defend my reputation and name.” (That is assuming he is able: Deripaska has on occasion been refused entry to the United States because of ties to organized crime.)
But Nunes’s announcement about Manafort was largely overshadowed by the greater drama engulfing his committee. Democrats have demanded Nunes recuse himself from the Russia inquiry over his mysterious handling of alleged revelations about intelligence surveillance of Trump transition team members. At the moment, the committee seems to have ground to a halt.
Testimony from Manafort and Deripaska could help determine whether the raft of stories point to truly nefarious behavior or are the stuff of conspiracy theory. If, that is, the House committee is able to get back on track. If not, the FBI or Treasury could get there first.
Donald Trump is taking steps to make the government more like the private sector. Past administrations have tried similar exercises in reform with mixed results, however, and it might be harder for a White House with relatively little governing experience to make improvements to the sprawling federal bureaucracy.
On the campaign trail, Trump pointed to his business record in promising to fix government. On Monday, the White House unveiled an Office of American Innovation, which will make recommendations to improve government based on private sector consultation.
An early start may signal the administration plans to prioritize the effort, though it’s hard to tell what kind of follow-through it will devote to the project, what recommendations the office will devise, and whether any will actually be implemented. The office will be led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, who does not have prior experience in government, and whose portfolio now includes everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the opioid crisis.
“It takes a long time to really improve government, there aren’t quick fixes, so you have to start right away,” said Max Stier, the president of the Partnership for Public Service, a good government non-profit. “It’s also important that you have buy-in from the highest levels of government.”
There’s a long history of presidential administrations looking to the private sector for advice on how to fix government—as well as examples of those efforts amounting to little more than unrealized recommendations. In 1982, Ronald Reagan established the Grace Commission, led by businessman J. Peter Grace, which resulted in a set of recommendations to rid government of waste and inefficiency. “Some recommendations were adopted,” according to a report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service. But “the most significant recommendations required congressional action and were not implemented.”
Other administrations have attempted to improve government by modernizing it, a goal the Trump administration is also promising to achieve. According to a Elaine Kamarck, an aide to President Bill Clinton who helped implement a reform project known as the National Performance Review, and later re-named the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, the NPR helped bring the federal government into “the Internet Age.” It launched “the federal government’s first, comprehensive web portal,” Kamarck told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2013, which was designed to “offer citizens one stop access to government information.”
The Obama administration also focused on modernization as part of its own government reform agenda, including an effort to update information technology.
Shrinking the size of government, and cutting costs, has been another target of past administrations echoed by the Trump White House, which released an executive order aimed at eliminating redundancy in the federal government. During his first year in office, George W. Bush outlined a call for reform rooted in a “market-based” approach, and announced a “Management Agenda,” which the administration billed as “an aggressive strategy for improving management of the federal government.” As part of that, the Bush administration saved taxpayers roughly $7 billion by encouraging public-private sector competition, according to a 2008 assessment published in the Public Administration Review.
The Clinton administration's reforms also resulted in a cost-savings in the billions of dollars, according to the IBM Center for the Business of Government and Partnership for Public Service report, and included scaling back the size of the federal workforce.
It can be hard to predict how a massive federal bureaucracy will respond to efforts to change it, however. And it may be difficult to avoid unforeseen repercussions. Job cuts under the Clinton administration created “unintended consequences, such as weakening the acquisition workforce and diminishing the expertise and capacity of professionals in federal human resources and other management rules,” according to the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service.
The Trump administration might face a unique set of challenges if the people tasked with recommending and carrying out reforms lack expertise in actually running government. A press release describing the so-called innovation office says that recommendations will be developed “with career staff along with private-sector and other external thought leaders.”
“The concern would be that relying on business people to make recommendations and fixes might not work as well as relying on public administration experts,” said Rob Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “The federal bureaucracy is complicated, and you need to address these issues with people who actually understand public administration. Otherwise it would be kind of like taking a governor and asking him to go in and advise General Motors on how to run their business.”
Kamarck made a similar argument, writing earlier this week that “a real government-reform effort must be led by people with in-depth knowledge of the government itself. Otherwise, it will simply be another initiative that is forgotten almost as soon as it is announced.”
Part of the challenge of government reform is when it works well, it often fails to generate much attention or praise, potentially diminishing the incentive for government officials to prioritize reform in the first place. A breakdown in government operations, however, does have the potential to generate significant negative publicity, a lesson President Obama’s administration learned during the botched rollout of the healthcare.gov website in 2013. “Most presidents focus attention on policy and often fail to understand that won’t mean much if you can’t make it operational,” Stier said.
It’s too early to judge how this latest effort might turn out. But unless the administration makes a substantial effort to tap existing governmental expertise, it’s hard to see how this latest attempt at reform could succeed.
Earlier this month, a lobby group for major internet providers like Comcast and Verizon attacked a set of online-privacy regulations that they believe are too strict. In a filing to the Federal Communication Commission, the group argued that providers should be able to sell customers’ internet history without the customers’ permission, because that information shouldn’t be considered sensitive. Besides, the group contended, web traffic is increasingly encrypted anyway, making it invisible to providers.
It’s certainly true that encryption is on the rise online. Data from Mozilla, the company behind the popular Firefox browser, shows that more than half of web pages use HTTPS, the standard way of encrypting web traffic. When sites like The Atlantic use HTTPS, a lock icon appears in users’ web browsers, indicating that the information being sent to and from servers is scrambled and can’t be read by a third party that intercepts it—that includes ISPs.
But even if 100 percent of the web were encrypted, ISPs would still be able to extract a surprising amount of detailed information about their customers’ virtual comings and goings. This is particularly significant in light of a bill that passed Congress this week, which granted the lobby group’s wish: It allows ISPs to sell their customers’ private browsing history without their consent.
Although the exact URL of a page accessed through HTTPS is hidden to the provider, the provider can still see the domain the URL is on: For example, your ISP can’t tell what exactly story you’re reading right now, but it can tell that you’re somewhere on theatlantic.com. That may not reveal much other than your (excellent) taste in news sources—but a user who visited a page on plannedparenthood.com and then a page on dcabortionfund.com may have revealed much more sensitive information.
That’s an example from a 2016 report prepared by Upturn, a think tank that focuses on civil rights and technology. The Upturn report also sets out some of the sneaky ways that user activity can be decoded based only on the unencrypted metadata that accompanies encrypted web traffic—also known as “side channel” information. (These methods probably aren’t widely in use right now, but they could be deployed if ISPs decided it’s worthwhile to try and learn more about encrypted traffic.)
Website fingerprinting, for example, relies on the unique characteristics of a particular web page to reveal when it’s being accessed. When a user visits a page, his or her browser pulls data from various servers in a particular order. Based on that pattern, a network provider might be able to tell what page the user is visiting, even without having access to any of the actual data streams it’s transporting. (For this to work, the network operator would have to have already analyzed the loading pattern associated with the particular website the user is visiting.)
In November, a group of researchers from Israel’s Ben-Gurion and Ariel Universities demonstrated a way to extend the idea behind website fingerprinting to videos watched on YouTube. By matching the encrypted data patterns created by a user viewing a particular video to an index they’d created previously, they could tell what video the user was watching from within a limited set, with a startling 98 percent accuracy.
Ran Dubin, a Ph.D. candidate at Ben Gurion and the research paper’s primary author, told me that the discovery came out of work he’d been doing to optimize video streaming. He wanted to know if he could figure out the quality at which users were watching YouTube videos, so he analyzed the way devices received data as they streamed.
He quickly realized he’d stumbled into something bigger. “The network patterns that belong to each video title have very, very strong meaning,” Dubin said. “I found out that I could actually recognize each stream.”
The giveaway, he found, was embedded in the way devices choose a bitrate—an indicator of video quality—at which to stream the video. At the beginning of a stream, the player receives quick spurts of data, which begin to space apart after the video has been playing for a while and the player has settled on a bitrate. The pattern of these spikes helps identify each individual video.
The researchers assembled fingerprints from 100 YouTube videos by using a browser crawler to automatically download each video under various network conditions, then cataloguing the resulting data pattern. Next, they analyzed the traffic patterns created by a device as it played one of 2,000 videos—including the 100 target videos. Using an algorithm to match the stream to the nearest fingerprint, the researchers could tell when one of the target videos was being watched. Not once was a video outside the set of 100 accidentally identified as inside the target set.
The technique could be used by law enforcement to identify users who are watching ISIS propaganda videos, Dubin said. It could also be used to compile data on users’ viewing habits and sell it to advertisers—and that’s where the privacy rules that just passed Congress come in.
If President Trump signs the bill, ISPs will have free rein to sell data they gather on their customers without asking for consent. As online encryption spreads further and further across the internet, there will be monetary incentives to dig up as much information on users as possible, to offset the loss of access to more detailed unencrypted data. Tricks like Dubin’s, which might have otherwise been too costly and inconvenient to put in place, could become an attractive way to glean valuable information about user habits and turn them over to advertisers for big money.
The little transgressions are the forgivable ones. Local knowledge in any place is earned with time. So it’s understandable why someone who is only visiting Hawaii might think to describe poke as “sashimi salad,” for example, though that’s not quite right.
But then there are the big transgressions, the characterizations of a place that are so unmoored from a sense of history that it’s almost shocking.
Almost. But Hawaii has seen it all before.
“The Hawaii Cure,” a feature published March 21 by The New York Times Magazine, treads a well-worn path of colonialist tropes as a writer indulges his escapism fantasies with a trip to Hawaii. That’s nothing new. Yet in the internet age, a lighthearted essay can travel quickly back home and elicit a scathing response from the people who live in the place it depicts. Dozens of Hawaii people I know from when I lived on Oahu responded to the essay—in text messages, online chats, and Facebook comments, to me and to one another, with messages like: “Not today, Satan,” and “I like that you have the print version so you can BURN IT,” and a keyboard-smashing “owfi;ds'pfwePDKFMQE;LFSGKDFJ.” Let’s just say the emoji responses were not kind either.
The travel essay, as a form, is particularly fraught in places where indigenous groups were displaced by colonialism. Theodore Roosevelt’s writings on Africa, for example, were deeply influential in shaping global perceptions of a place that he described as having “the spectacle of a high civilization all at once thrust into and superimposed upon a wilderness of savage men and savage beasts.”
Africa was viewed as a vehicle for escapism for Roosevelt and other writers, including the many inspired by him who would follow suit. Travel writing was, for a time, one of the main ways people learned about distant cultures.
“Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them,” Joan Didion wrote, in her own essay about Hawaii, published in The White Album in 1979. “Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner...” Coming from a writer’s writer, like Didion, who is herself a dedicated Hemingway fan, this seems to be meant as a compliment. But it is her use of the word “belongs” that hangs on the page.
Travel writing is traditionally concerned with the writer’s sense of belonging, or lack thereof—the spectacle of being somewhere new, the sense of displacement one feels. Focus on your own sense of self in a place where questions of belonging are at the heart of local politics and culture, however, and you risk misunderstanding the place entirely. Escaping is not a form of understanding, anyway.
“It’s worth noting,” writes David M. Wrobel in his book Global West, American Frontier: Travel, Empire, and Exceptionalism from Manifest Destiny to the Great Depression, “that Roosevelt overtly insisted that politics, whether domestic or foreign, not intrude in his African experience.”
Which brings us back to “The Hawaii Cure,” billed as “a first trip to the island, in a desperate bid to escape the news,” but with no hint at the short distance between escapism and exploitation in the history of Hawaii, or in the history of travel writing for that matter.
“Can it be true?” the author asks, “The aloha spirit is real? Paradise on earth? An Eden of happy Americans moated from our national ravages of malevolence, contempt, uncertainty and fear?”
There are deep and complicated tensions in these questions. Hawaii is beautiful, yes, but it is not simply an “Eden of happy Americans.” Though many people in Hawaii are proud of its nearly 58 years of statehood, others don’t consider themselves to be American at all. The state’s economy is hugely dependent on both tourism and federal jobs, both of which can be viewed as complicit in a form of settler colonialism that shapes the way people perceive and experience life in Hawaii. This is heavy stuff, and worthy of consideration by all Americans, especially those who visit Hawaii.
The Times story doesn’t go there. Instead, it begins with a stereotype, a reference to Polynesians overeating. Its first scene takes place at a commercial luau. And though the author, Wells Tower, hints that he’s somehow in on the joke—it’s not totally clear what he’s lambasting. (In response to my interview requests for Tower and his editor, The New York Times told me they had “no comment.”) There are moments of self-deprecation in the essay, but the prevailing tone is one that supports the idea that Hawaii is, as Tower puts it, “a magical land where the laws of physics bend toward human satisfaction.”
Along with the idea that Hawaii exists to please outsiders is the recurring theme that it’s still never good enough. “Hankering after something incontestably Hawaiian, you end up on a charter bus bound for the Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park 15 miles east on the Kalanianaole Highway. Never mind that what is most purely Hawaiian about the luau is its proficiency at extracting tourists’ dollars.”
Now that is something.
You might argue that whatever it was that was most “purely Hawaiian” is long gone, perhaps lost when Hawaii was first invaded by colonialists, or when the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown by outsiders in 1893, or when the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898, or when steamships gave way to commercial airplanes and ever-more hotels blossomed along the Waikiki coast. An allusion to anything being “purely Hawaiian,” if such a designation could be made, seems tone deaf in a place where some people’s housing is still determined by blood-quantum laws.
Tower goes on to say he always assumed Hawaii was a “meretricious luxury product,” worthless unless you quantified your own happiness in dollars. But on this trip, he says, he is ready to go to a place that is “notoriously nice.”
“Give me a slack-keyed, macadamia-dusted holiday,” he writes, “where things are pretty and people are smiling, if only because it’s in their job description.”
The people we meet in the story, however, often come across as caricatures. There is the “tanned, professional butt” of a young woman on the beach. And later, “this coconut man (the second in our mounting tally),” who tells an old story about coconut water being used in place of blood transfusions during World War II. “I have heard this fable before and know it to be hogwash, but I say, ‘Oh, wow,’ and await my $10 change that does not appear to be forthcoming,” Tower writes. Eventually, he gets his change and departs, “full of gratitude for this fellow, not only because his coconuts are very fine, but for nipping a budding and inconvenient fancy that I might like to live here on the Big Island. His brand of coconut palaver is, I suspect, common in these parts.”
Is it at all possible that this particular brand of “coconut palaver” is just a guy who sells coconuts, and that he just sold you two coconuts, and that’s basically it? No matter. To the visitor, this encounter is strange and undesirable: “Encountering it on any sort of regular basis, straight-world mainlander that I am, would drive me out of my mind.”
The writer concedes to being awe-inspired by the sight of Kilauea, the long-erupting volcano on the Big Island, but then describes the lava flow as “newborn wads of America,” which is not exactly the tenor of respect that one might expect for a sacred site. (It’s also weirdly nationalistic language for describing a geologic phenomena.)
As it happens, that section of the story contained a translation snafu, an understandable mistake—we all make them—and had a correction appended: “Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article gave an incorrect English translation of the Hawaiian word ‘Kilauea.’ It is ‘much spreading,’ not ‘mush spreading.’”
Leaving readers with an image of spreading mush, however, seems about right.
Washington, D.C. (March 29, 2017)—Rosie Gray has been assigned as White House correspondent, a role she takes on just three months after joining The Atlantic as a staff writer covering politics. Gray’s new role adds to the increased weight The Atlantic has given to coverage of politics and policy over the last 15 months, under the leadership of editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg, TheAtlantic.com editor J.J. Gould, and politics & policy editor Yoni Appelbaum.
Since joining The Atlantic in January, Gray has been dedicated to political-news coverage, focusing on the rise of populist nationalist movements in light of a Trump presidency. Her reporting includes a newly published profile of Michael Anton, the populist nationalist serving on Trump’s National Security Council; how Stephen Miller’s rise explains the Trump administration in its infancy; and extensive reporting on the power dynamics inside and outside of the White House, from the Bannon-Priebus relationship, to Breitbart, Newsmax, and the Trump-era media landscape.
“Rosie is a force of nature—an absolutely tenacious and fearless reporter with a knack for spotting stories, and an uncanny ability to bring her subjects to life,” says Appelbaum. “This is a role for which she’s ideally suited.”
The Atlantic’s editors have also announced that Eliot A. Cohen, who served as Counselor of the Department of State under George W. Bush, will become a contributing editor. Cohen has already published tone-setting Atlantic pieces since Trump’s inauguration: a widely-cited reflection on a “clarifying moment” in our nation’s history, followed by a piece on the “Rudderless Ship of State” after the departure of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Cohen is director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
The Atlantic continues to see record audience growth, driving the international conversation with its expanded Politics & Policy reporting and analysis. In February 2017, audience to TheAtlantic.com reached a new record of 33.7 million monthly uniques—following audience records in October 2016, November 2016, and January 2017—driven largely by the site’s decisive politics coverage. The print magazine has also featured powerful politics-centered cover stories this year, kicking off January/February with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “My President was Black” and David Frum’s March issue story “How to Build an Autocracy.”
At a time of growing global political uncertainty, The Atlantic has also announced plans for an international expansion with a global office in London to open this summer. Long-time national correspondent James Fallows will serve as The Atlantic’s first Europe Editor, with various editorial and business hires to be made in the coming months.
Amid fears of a rising populist tide in Europe, Germany seems to be resisting its rightward tug with unique success. The day after Donald Trump’s election, The New York Times hailed German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the “Liberal West’s Last Defender.” And it was to Merkel, the new “leader of the free world,” that Barack Obama directed his final phone call as president.
Meanwhile, others around the world are embracing right-wing populism, from the Britons’ stunning decision to leave the European Union to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarian policies. Trump’s election has appeared at times to inject fresh energy into the right-wing parties of Europe. As some countries there brace for national elections this year, the prospects for these parties look bright. In France, for example, far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen is expected to advance to the second round of balloting in April’s presidential elections; recent polls show her beating scandal-ridden conservative candidate Francois Fillon in the first round.
Of course, Germany has had to cope with the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party peddling the same jingoistic, xenophobic populism as its cousins promote around the globe. The party has received outsized attention from media, both in Germany and abroad. Recent incidents, including a high-profile defection from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), have added a note of panic to Germany’s politics.
But despite hysterical headlines claiming that the AfD’s presence augurs a “return of the Nazis,” support has remained tepid at best. In recent elections in Lower Saxony, the party garnered only 7.8 percent, below its stated 10 percent goal and far less than the CDU’s 34 percent. In an election last weekend in the Saarland, the CDU won over 40 percent of votes. The AfD won only 6.2 percent, barely clearing the threshold to take seats in the regional parliament.
Recent polls show that Merkel enjoys a high approval rating and that German voters remain committed to mainstream parties. The entry of former European Parliament President Martin Schulz as the chancellor candidate for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has ignited the center-left and buoyed the prospects for Germany’s political mainstream. Even if the AfD were to rise substantially in the polls, Germany’s coalition-based parliamentary system makes it extremely unlikely that the party would be able to form a government.
And there are stark attitudinal differences between Germany and other Western countries, as reactions to recent terrorist attacks highlight. Whereas French President Francois Hollande stated that “We are at war” and declared a state of emergency in the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks, Merkel’s reaction to the 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack was quiet, calm, and comforting. While Trump used the occasion of the Orlando Pulse massacre to congratulate himself on his own doomsday prognostications, the German people have “refused to panic.”
Why has Germany, a country once defined by radical right-wing conservatism and still seen by some foreigners as a comfortable home for Nazism, stayed relatively immune to the virus of global right-wing populism?
One explanation has to do with Germany’s economy. The so-called “engine of Europe” weathered the 2008 financial crisis far better than most other western nations and has generally benefited from the open borders and common currency of the Eurozone. Germany’s economy is export-based and the euro has allowed it to sell industrial goods to other European countries on advantageous terms.
But some of that strength is illusory: As the Economist pointed out in 2013, “most Germans’ living standards have stagnated, wealth is highly skewed and national saving … has been spectacularly badly invested.” Moreover, Germany’s economic fundamentals are not spectacularly stronger than other countries’. Germany currently enjoys a 4.6 percent unemployment rate, about the same as America’s current 4.7 percent and not substantially lower than the Danish 6.2 percent or Dutch 6.9 percent. As in many other Western countries, Germany’s economy is projected to grow 1-2 percent in the next year. Besides, commentators have noted that economic performance is no predictor of the appeal of economic populism. And even if Germany’s relatively healthy economy may ease the pressures on Merkel’s ruling coalition, it does not explain away the AfD’s poor electoral prospects.
The appeal of populists lies not merely in the economic policies they promise to implement, but rather in their ability to tap into the cultural and social anxieties of voters who feel that globalization threatens their way of life, even their very identity. A key reason for the AfD’s comparatively weak allure can be found in Germany’s unique relationship to national memory.
Unlike virtually any other country, Germany has, over the seven decades since the Holocaust, dedicated itself to inculcating in its citizens a clear-eyed awareness of and responsibility for its crimes. It is this wariness of the radical right and national sense of duty to stand against racism and extremism that render Germans generally less susceptible to right-wing populism today, despite the continuing presence of radical, and sometimes violent, fringe movements.
The process of de-Nazifying Germany began as soon as the Allies occupied the country in 1945. Nazi officials were removed from public posts and millions of Germans were required to fill out de-Nazification questionnaires. The highest Nazi officials were famously tried at Nuremberg, where 10 were executed for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Although that process stalled in 1949—when West Germany was founded and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer took power, promising a break with the Nazi past—remembering Germany’s Nazi legacy again became a public priority in the 1960s. The 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, famously chronicled by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, along with the sensational Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in 1963, reawakened Germans’ sense of complicity with the crimes of their government.
The student uprisings of 1968 were, in Germany, motivated precisely by this sense of guilt for the Holocaust and frustration that the old generation had opted for silence and forgetting, rather than remembrance and atonement.
In 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, German President Richard von Weizsäcker delivered a now-famous address to the German parliament. The speech did more than virtually any other act in the history of postwar Germany to cement citizens’ sense of responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis. In it, Weizsäcker spoke openly about the millions of Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, and mentally handicapped people murdered by the Nazi regime. He exhorted the young generation to “understand why it is vital to keep alive the memories.” In one passage he boldly proclaimed, “If we for our part sought to forget what has occurred, instead of remembering it, this would not only be inhuman. … We must erect a memorial to thoughts and feelings in our own hearts.”
Over the past decades, Germans have taken Weiszäcker’s entreaties seriously, reaffirming their commitment to understanding and atoning for their past. The national government continues to pay reparations to victims of the Holocaust, a process that began in 1952, when West Germany signed a treaty with Israel. As recently as 2013, Germany pledged to pay an additional 800 million euros to elderly survivors of the Holocaust.
Germany’s commitment to atonement is most obviously and creatively expressed in its passion for monuments. In 1992, for instance, the German artist Gunter Demnig began laying small stones capped with brass in front of buildings where Jews had lived. These stones are engraved with the names of those who had lived there before being deported and murdered by the Nazi regime. In the decades since, tens of thousands of so-called Stolpersteine have been laid; all manufactured by Demnig, but put in place by various people, they are a common sight in most German cities.
Of the hundreds of monuments and memorials in Germany, Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by Peter Eisenman, is the most impressive. Composed of almost 3,000 grey concrete slabs, the monument sits in the very heart of Berlin, only a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag Parliament building. In the 12 years since it was opened in 2005, over 5 million people have visited.
Indeed, it was AfD candidate Björn Höcke’s broadside against this memorial in January that brought fears about the party to a fever pitch and unleashed a torrent of criticism against the AfD. Höcke had said that Germans “are the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of our capital,” and he was probably correct. But this is not, as he believes, evidence of German weakness. It’s a testament to the country’s moral leadership.
Public discourse in Germany is generally wary, even intolerant, of anything perceived to praise the Nazi past or lessen the nation’s guilt for it. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to pin blame for the Holocaust on Muslims in 2015, a spokesman for Merkel fired back, “We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own.” It’s hard to imagine a leader in any other country not being excoriated for declaring national guilt. In recognition of Merkel’s commitment to preserving Holocaust memory, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will present her with the 2017 Elie Wiesel Award in April.
The speeches, monuments, and reparations that have defined Germany’s engagement with the Nazi past are not empty gestures or hollow symbols. They’re an expression of Germans’ broad commitment to atoning for past crimes and to preventing similar horrors in the future. A 2015 poll, for instance, found that 75 percent of Germans believed that their country has a “special international role” in preventing atrocities.
Germany’s engagement with its sins marks a radical break with how most states define their nationhood. Though there is no way to atone completely for a crime as malicious and devastating as the Holocaust, the very attempt to do so is what sets Germany apart.
To some extent, each country stands on the wrongs of its past; behind every nationalist myth lies some crime or other. Great Britain has never fully acknowledged the monstrosity of imperialism, which robbed untold wealth from the developing world, murdered millions, and in which Arendt saw the early seeds of fascism. Nor has France ever truly recognized the evil of its own colonial empire or the insidious collaboration of many French people with the Nazis. The United States has never come close to fully acknowledging the role of slavery in building the country, the depravations of Jim Crow, or the Native American genocide upon which the nation was founded.
The connection between these unacknowledged deeds and the furious racism and xenophobia of today’s right wing may be subtle, but it is unmistakable. It was imperial nostalgia that helped convince Britons to break their bonds with Europe. What did Theresa May’s call to a “global Britain” harken back to, if not the lost empire? How else to explain the unusually high support of former French Algerian colonists and their families—so-called pied-noirs—for Le Pen’s National Front? And how else to make sense of the American far right’s own defense of the continued brutalization of minorities, and its affection for totems of racism like the Confederate flag?
All countries have their original sins, but only Germany has fully named its sin and sought expiation for it. If the rest of the world hopes to counter the populist revolution, it might do well to emulate Germany.
Ten years ago, a team of scientists published the first genome of Aedes aegypti—the infamous mosquito that spreads Zika, dengue fever, and yellow fever. It was a valiant effort, but also a complete mess. Rather than tidily bundled in the insect’s three pairs of chromosomes, its DNA was scattered among 36,000 small fragments, many of which were riddled with gaps and errors. But last week, a team of scientists led by Erez Lieberman Aiden at the Baylor College of Medicine announced that they had finally knitted those pieces into a coherent whole—a victory that will undoubtedly be helpful to scientists who study Aedes and the diseases it carries.
This milestone is about more than mosquitoes. The team succeeded by using a technique called Hi-C, which allows scientists to assemble an organism’s genome quickly, cheaply, and accurately. To prove that point, the team used Hi-C to piece together a human genome from scratch for just $10,000; by contrast, the original Human Genome Project took $4 billion to accomplish the same feat. “It’s very clear that this is the way that you want to be doing it,” says Olga Dudchenko, who was part of Aiden’s team. “At least in the foreseeable future, there’s no method that can compete,” adds her colleague Sanjit Singh Batra.
This technique should make it easier to map the genome of any species—especially those that have never been sequenced before.
The word “genome” has become so commonplace that it’s easy to forget how difficult it can be to sequence one—even now. When geneticists decipher an organism’s DNA, they do so in fits and starts, rather than in one continuous burst from start to finish. The result is a lot of short pieces, or “reads,” which must then be assembled. Sometimes, that’s easy: If two reads have a lot of overlap, they probably fit next to each other. But it’s much harder when genomes include long repetitive stretches. Assembling these is like solving a jigsaw puzzle filled with blue sky; it’s a royal pain to work out where each piece fits in. That’s why the Aedes genome was so fragmented. It is full of repetitive sections. And that’s where Hi-C comes in.
Aiden and his colleague Job Dekker created the technique in 2009 for a completely different purpose—to study the shape of the human genome. Each of our cells contains around two meters of DNA, which somehow packs into a compartment just six millionths of a meter wide. To fit, the long one-dimensional DNA strands fold into a tight three-dimensional ball. Aiden and Dekker developed Hi-C to study these folds: It freezes the entire genome in place, and reveals which bits of DNA are touching each other in three-dimensional space.
As it happens, this information also reveals how far apart two bits of DNA are likely to be in the one-dimensional string—which is really useful for assembling genomes. Think about that jigsaw puzzle. If you have two identical pieces of blue sky, you may not know where they go, but Hi-C can tell you that they have 15 pieces between them. Gather enough of that information, and you can put the whole sky together.
Two teams, one led by Dekker and the other by the University of Washington’s Jay Shendure, accomplished this in 2013, using Hi-C to assemble human, fly, and mouse genomes. A year later, a Chinese team did the same for a plant—the mustard cress. And in 2016, an American group used Hi-C to assemble the genome of a goat named Papadum. Goats had been sequenced before, but as with the Aedes mosquito, their genomes were messy, fragmented, and incomplete drafts. By contrast, Papadum’s genome was a polished work of art, with the fewest gaps of any mammalian genome to date. Adam Phillippy, one of the project leaders, jokingly called it the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT).
So Dudchenko and Batra are hardly the first to use Hi-C to assemble genomes, but they made two improvements. They developed software that can work off much shorter reads, so they can effectively solve jigsaw puzzles with 10,000 tiny pieces rather than 1,000 large ones. They also developed a better way of correcting errors along the way. “Their work significantly improves over the older projects,” says Michael Schatz from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who worked on the original draft of the Aedes genome. “The assemblies they produce are an enormous improvement over the version I helped to publish in 2007.”
Being able to assemble genomes using short reads is useful because such reads are cheap. With Dudchenko and Batra’s methods, scientists can assemble many genomes on tight budgets, which is good news for several projects that are aiming to sequence 10,000 vertebrates, 10,000 birds, and 5,000 arthropods.
But Erich Jarvis from Rockerfeller University, who is leading one of these dauntingly ambitious projects, says the future lies in pairing Hi-C with new sequencing technologies that can read longer stretches of DNA. That would provide higher-quality pieces for Hi-C to then stitch together. That’s what mosquito researcher Leslie Vosshall and her colleagues are trying to do for Aedes. She notes that Dudchenko started with the decade-old reads from the 2007 project, and her team is now working to re-sequence those before “applying the Hi-C magic,” she says. “We won’t be done with this chapter in the history of mosquito biology until that is fixed.”
“It has taken a while for this approach to catch its sails, because most groups did not have much experience with Hi-C, but that’s changed in the last year, as the technique has become easier to implement,” says Shendure. Indeed, at least two companies now offer it as a service. “I think this is really going to be the way genome assembly is done going forward. It’s a nice example of a technology proving useful for goals that are different than those for which it was originally developed.”
There may soon be more than one Trump Hotel in Washington D.C. According to The Washington Post, the Trump Organization is considering purchasing another property in the nation’s capital to develop for its recently created Scion brand, which aims to offer a more affordable alternative to the upscale properties bearing the president’s name.
Unlike the Trump International Hotel—the upscale property that opened in September 2016 and has become something of a synecdoche for the president’s conflicts of interest—a new Scion hotel in D.C. would likely be a licensing deal. That means that, rather than the Trump Organization owning and operating the property itself, a third-party hotelier will be paying the president’s company for the right to use the Scion name; candidates identified by the Post include Foxhall Partners, which has two properties in the city and a third under development, and the Beacon Hotel in downtown D.C.
But even if it isn’t actually owned or operated by the Trump Organization, the new hotel would likely attract scrutiny along the same lines as the Trump International. A licensing agreement means that the president will not be profiting off of the building directly; payments from individuals or organizations booking rooms or events there will not go straight to the Trump Organization, but to the hotelier. But Trump will still have a financial stake in the hotel’s viability: The longer it stays in business and the more successful it is, the more (and longer) the licensee will pay to use the Scion name, and the more likely other owners may be to commit to similar partnerships with the fledgling brand. Trump has resigned from his positions with the Trump Organization and transferred control of his assets to his two adult sons and a long-time business partner. But he still owns the company, which means he will still profit from his properties. According to his son Eric, the president will even continue to receive quarterly reports on how his real-estate empire is faring financially. The pathway to Trump’s pocketbook may be slightly more complicated, but it still exists.
The proposed new property also engenders some of the same concerns as the broader round of expansions the Trump Organization announced in February. Developing a hotel, even in an existing building, means working with local government bureaucracies, such as zoning offices that sign off on structural changes or licensing boards. In any city, this would create conflicting incentives for government officials who are suddenly being asked to rule on the president’s businesses. On the one hand, Washington, D.C., like many of the cities into which the Trump Organization is looking to expand, voted strongly against the president in the 2016 election; city officials, especially those elected by D.C.’s denizens, may feel a need to factor his unpopularity into their decisions with regard to the newly proposed hotel. On the other hand, the federal government still controls D.C.’s budget, placing additional pressure to green-light a proposal from the infamously mercurial commander-in-chief.
President Donald Trump still has not taken the necessary steps to distance himself from his businesses while in office. In accordance with a plan that he and one of his lawyers, Sheri Dillon, laid out at a press conference on January 11, Trump has filed paperwork to remove himself from the day-to-day operation of his eponymous organization. However, numerous ethics experts have voiced strenuous objections to the plan, which they say does very little to resolve the issue: As long as Trump continues to profit from his business empire—which he does whether or not he is nominally in charge—they say, the possibility that outside actors will attempt to affect his policies by plumping up his pocketbook will remain very much in play.
This week, some of Trump’s critics moved forward with legal action. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, filed a lawsuit alleging that Trump’s business holdings violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which makes it illegal for government officials to “accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” CREW’s bipartisan legal team includes, among others, Norm Eisen and Richard Painter, who served as ethics lawyers under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, respectively; Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University; and Zephyr Teachout, a professor at Fordham University (and former congressional candidate) who is considered an authority on the Emoluments Clause. All have been vocally critical of Trump’s continued refusal to sell off his business, and are now taking their case to court to argue that several of Trump’s businesses present avenues by which foreign governments could seek to influence the president by, for example, booking stays at one of his hotels or renting space at one of his properties. Additionally, the lawsuit seeks to force Trump to reveal his tax returns, something every president has done since Gerald Ford but which Trump has refused to do, significantly limiting the public’s ability to understand the president’s finances. When asked about the lawsuit, Trump described it as “totally without merit.” Eisen was quick to respond on Twitter, offering to “debate Trump (or his chosen champion) on the merits of our case anytime,” making it clear that CREW intends to continue to pursue its case. (CREW has also filed a separate complaint to the General Services Administration arguing that Trump has violated the lease on his Washington, D.C. hotel, which states that “no … elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”)
Though CREW is the first group to bring a lawsuit against President Trump, it may soon have company. According to The New York Times, Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, has said that his organization is looking for a plaintiff to sue Trump for violating the Emoluments Clause, although with a different claim to legal standing: While CREW intends to demonstrate that the group itself has suffered financial harm because the need to focus on the Emoluments Clause has diverted its resources away from other worthy causes, the ACLU is hoping to find a hotel or bed-and-breakfast owner that can prove he or she has lost business to one of Trump’s hotels during his presidency.
CREW’s lawsuit is just the latest development in what promises to be a continuing saga regarding Trump’s many conflicts of interest that began almost as soon as he won the presidency. Along with his unprecedented wealth, Trump brings to the office unique and gravely concerning entanglements that, whether he recognizes their effects or not, threaten to undermine his decision-making as president. The plan Trump and Dillon announced on January 11 would do very little to resolve the conflicts: It places control of his assets in the hands of his two adult sons and a longtime associate of their father’s with what so far amounts to a pinky-swear assurance that, despite their proximity to the president, they will not discuss any aspect of the business with him. On top of that, the plan supposedly would terminate several of the Trump Organization’s pending deals and place a ban on new foreign deals, two conditions undermined by the announcement that the organization would be moving forward with expanding its golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Even before his most recent plan was laid out, Trump has attempted to deflect criticism by repeatedly asserting that the law barring executive-branch officials from maintaining financial holdings or business ties that overlap with their duties does not apply to the president or vice president. In this, he is correct; the law, passed in 1989, exempts the two chief executives from conflict-of-interest rules on the understanding that their purview is so broad that it would be impossible for them to completely disentangle themselves.
Regardless, legality does not imply propriety. Unless Trump acts to put actual distance between himself and his business ventures, these questions are likely to continue throughout his time in the Oval Office. On top of the aforementioned legal actions, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, has declared Trump’s efforts insufficient, remarking, “I don’t think divestiture is too high of a price to pay to be the president of the United States,” and a number of Senate Democrats have introduced legislation that would force Trump to divest or face impeachment. Below is an attempt to catalogue the more clear-cut examples of conflicts of interest that have emerged so far. The most recent entries appear at the top:
That Property in Azerbaijan
When it comes to President Donald Trump’s constellation of foreign investments, properties, and companies, much of the attention so far has been on his business’s apparent violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which bars officeholders from taking gifts from foreign leaders. According to numerous ethics experts, the clause takes an expansive definition of gifts, encompassing everything from a direct bribe to a foreign official’s approval of construction of a new Trump property. But some of the Trump Organization’s properties raise additional red flags due to the specific partners involved. That’s true in Indonesia, for example, where Trump’s affiliates have been involved in bribery scandals and radical Islamic nationalist parties, and Brazil, where the company pulled out of a branding agreement amid a criminal investigation of a local business partner.
Such is the case in Azerbaijan, which Transparency International ranks as among the most corrupt countries in the world, where the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Baku remains unopened. Though the long-stalled development has generated a steady drip of news and rumors for years, an overview by Adam Davidson in The New Yorker, entitled “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal,” puts into perspective just how convoluted the situation is, and just how much the project has led Trump and his company into a partnership with numerous corrupt officials in the Middle East. The details suggest that, on top of the continual underlying breach of the Emoluments Clause, the Trump Organization’s involvement may also violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or FCPA, which forbids American companies from participating, even unknowingly, in bribery schemes in other countries, with a penalty of up to $2 million and up to five years in jail.
According to Davidson, though the project originated in 2008 as a high-end apartment building, the Trump Organization has had a licensing deal with the building’s Azerbaijani developers to turn the property into a hotel since 2012. Though the Trump Organization presented the deal as a straightforward licensing agreement, it was in fact a much more involved agreement granting the company—specifically, Trump’s daughter Ivanka—extensive oversight over the project. Based on his FEC disclosures in 2016, which as of this moment remain the only official record of Trump’s finances, the president has so far made $2.8 million from the partnership.
But what makes this story unique among the dozens of ethical questions surrounding the president is the Trump Organization’s partners on the project. Ostensibly, the main developer behind the property is Anar Mammadov. He is in turn the son of Azerbaijan’s transportation minister Ziya Mammadov, who was once described in a leaked diplomatic cable as “notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan.” Also in on the deal, though not initially publicly disclosed, is Ziya’s brother Elton, who founded the company that currently owns the property in Baku while serving in Azerbaijan’s parliament. Then there’s the Mammadovs’ relationships with Iranian oligarchs. For years, the Mammadovs have been closely linked with the Darvishis, whose members include the head of a construction firm implicated in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s possibly illicit financial operations and the former leader of a company that was sanctioned by the United States for its role in Iran’s attempts to develop an arsenal of nuclear missiles. As the Mammadovs’ influence within Azerbaijan has begun to weaken in recent years, they have increased both their wealth and their mutually profitable relationship with the Darvishis, green-lighting a number of deals that will prove lucrative for both families.
Alan Garten, the chief legal officer for the Trump Organization, asserted to The New Yorker that, as the company has never worked directly with Ziya or Elton Mammadov, it has not engaged in any behavior that should trip ethical alarms. He has additionally claimed that the company did “extensive due diligence” in making the deal, which did not raise “any red flags,” although the actual employees who carried out the process are no longer with the company.
Still, merely by partnering with the Mammadov family, the Trump Organization may have violated the FCPA. The law explicitly covers cases in which an American company claims not to have known it was working with corrupt officials; jurisprudence since its 1977 passage has further expanded the law’s definition to include “conscious avoidance,” or active efforts by an American company to not learn of a foreign partner’s corruption. So though Garten claims that, since the Trump Organization did not have enough control over the project and has not itself engaged in bribery, its hands are essentially clean, experts on the law say that the Trump Organization may be legally liable if its foreign partners engaged in corrupt practices.
Adding to all this is the fact that Trump is on the record as opposing the FCPA in May 2012, right when it would have become relevant to his company’s engagement in Azerbaijan. Trump called the law “absolutely horrible” and argued that, since other countries do not have the same provision, American corporations are at a major disadvantage in which bribery is the norm. Trump’s appointee to the Securities and Exchange Commission (which enforces the statute), Jay Clayton, similarly considers the FCPA an obstacle to U.S. companies seeking to expand abroad. A dissenting voice on the topic is Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who stated in his confirmation hearings that he intends to continue enforcing the statute. Which of these voices will end up winning out on the topic remains an open question.
This, then, is the situation in which the Trump Organization—and, by extension, the president, who has stepped down from his position within the business but who retains ownership—finds itself in Azerbaijan: The company’s direct partner on Trump Tower Baku is the scion of a wealthy and notoriously corrupt family that appears to have only stepped up its self-dealing as its political power wanes. That family is engaged in what appears to be a relationship of mutual graft with Iranian oligarchs with deep connections to their country’s Revolutionary Guard, the ideological militia widely suspected by the international community of gross corruption and sponsoring terror at home and abroad.
These families can be added to the ever-growing list of international partners whose relationships with the Trump Organization could create conflicts of interest for the president. The Mammadovs’ arrangement with Trump’s company may not only violate the Emoluments Clause but could also feasibly put the president and his family in legal trouble should the SEC choose to actively pursue enforcement of the FCPA in Azerbaijan. And the Darvishis could in turn use their relationship to influence the Mammadovs, which could have significant implications should Trump attempt, as he has said he will, to take hard-line stances that could affect the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s activities. And if Trump so chooses, he could direct the Justice Department to curtail its enforcement of the FCPA or even use his bully pulpit to lead a legislative push to undo it, essentially condoning unethical behavior that in many countries enables leaders to personally profit at the expense of their own citizens—which, of course, could be a fair way to characterize the current situation with Trump’s business holdings.
That Trump Tower Penthouse
With President Trump in office and still refusing to distance himself from his businesses, every new tenant in one of his buildings creates another possibility of a conflict of interest. Such is the case with Xiao Yan Chen, who also goes by Angela Chen, a business executive who, according to documents filed with the New York City Department of Finance, purchased a $15.8 million penthouse apartment at Trump Tower in New York on February 21. Chen’s transaction is the first notable real-estate deal involving one of Trump’s properties since the election, although it should be noted that she has lived in a different unit in Trump Tower since 2004. And though Trump has officially removed himself from the board of directors of Trump Park Avenue LLC, the corporation that runs Trump Tower, he remains the company’s owner, meaning that he profits from its dealings.
Chen’s purchase represents the exact kind of entanglement that has fueled concerns that Trump’s financial interests could influence his decision-making as president. Chen is the founder and managing director of Global Alliance Associates, a consulting firm that, according to its website, “facilitates the right strategic relationships with the most prominent public and private decision makers in China.” The firm is explicit about what it sells: access. Though the page listing its partnerships is currently empty, the firm’s “affiliates” page includes a number of international organizations promoting relationships between private corporations and the governments of the United States and China, including the USA-China Chamber of Commerce, the Asia Society, and the China Institute. Notably, Global Alliance Associates also consults for the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Trade & Development Agency, meaning that Trump is accepting money from the founder and managing director of a firm that works with the U.S. government.
Because Trump is holding onto his businesses, he has created a situation in which some of his earnings include money from the leader of a company whose sole goal is to help its clients curry favor with the Chinese government; it’s no stretch to believe that her move to Trump Tower and the money it puts in Trump’s pocket may help her gain access to the United States government. (Reached for comment by the New York Post, Chen said she was “not comfortable” discussing the purchase and its possible ramifications for her company.) Even if it wasn’t Chen’s intention, the transaction still could influence the president. As the president’s conflicts of interest continually accumulate, the likelihood that one or more will eventually impact his decision-making continually grows—as does the appearance that he is ethically compromised by the many people, organizations, and governments from which he is receiving money while in office.
That Resort in the Dominican Republic
The Trump Organization’s January 11 pledge that it would no longer be pursuing new deals in foreign countries is looking increasingly toothless. Shortly after President Donald Trump took office, The Guardian reported that the president’s business would be moving forward with a planned expansion of its golf course in Aberdeen. Now, the Associated Press has reported that the company is working on a licensing deal in the Dominican Republic.
As was true with the Aberdeen plans, the Trump Organization has provided a narrow justification under which it argues that the news does not violate its promise. Technically, it argues, the deal is not new: The Trump Organization has had a contract with Ricardo and Fernando Hazoury, the brothers who own the Cap Cana Resort in the Dominican Republic, since 2007. But the financial crisis and disagreements between the Trump family and the Hazoury brothers, which climaxed with Eric Trump accusing the pair of “textbook fraud” in a 2012 lawsuit, had stalled the arrangement for nearly a decade, and the two parties haven’t written a new contract since the 2007 deal was struck. Even other real-estate developers have said that the resumption of the relationship between the Trumps and Hazourys caught them by surprise. For their part, the Hazourys have said that the relationship with the Trumps “remains incredibly strong, especially with Eric, who has led this project since its conception.”
The development in the Dominican Republic epitomizes the way the Trump Organization seems intent to violate the spirit of their “no new foreign deals” pledge, and arguably even the letter. Asked about the Organization’s justification for the deal, Richard Painter, who served as the ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, noted that the company “can take the tiniest little past involvement in something and then extend it into an enormous new deal” and hasn’t presented a meaningful way “to distinguish between new business and old business.” Already, the Trump Organization has provided excuses for moving forward with two projects based on an interpretation of its own pledge that seems predicated on the idea that a deal can only be described as “new” if there had never been any relationship whatsoever between the Trump family and the property in question. As the company finds more explanations to broaden what initially seemed to be a clear-cut policy to reduce conflicts of interest—arguably, the only step in Trump’s plan that actually would have helped him do so—the pledge will likely become increasingly meaningless.
The Cap Cana story is yet another conflict of interest that only became public because of reporting from local media—and because of the nonchalance with which the Trump family handles the relationship between their business and the presidency. The first outlet to report on Eric’s trip was the Dominican newspaper Diario Libre, shortly after Cap Cana posted a picture of the Hazourys with Eric on its website. This follows stories like the president’s phone call with the president of Argentina and his company’s plans to expand into Taiwan, both of which were similarly broken by local newspapers before getting picked up by American press outlets. Further, like the president’s post-election meeting with business partners from India and Eric’s trip to Uruguay, the Trump family’s propensity for photo ops played a role: Even amid intensifying scrutiny of the Trump Organization’s actions, Eric seems unworried about having not only taken the trip but also taken pictures with his business partners.
The president’s putative pick for his ambassador to the Dominican Republic only adds to the perception that Trump will intermingle business and politics in the country. Trump has picked Robin Bernstein, a campaign donor, business partner, and founding member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, to be his administration’s representative in the country. Bernstein and her husband Richard have been in business with the president and his company for decades through The Americas Group, a consulting and marketing firm focused on construction projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. Choosing personal friends and supporters to be ambassadors is relatively common, especially in countries with which the United States has relatively uncomplicated relations. However, Trump’s decision to appoint somebody with whom he has long maintained a financial relationship—his second such appointment, after having named fellow billionaire real-estate developer and business partner Steven Roth to head his infrastructure program—suggests a continued willingness to blur the lines between his endeavors as a businessman and his duties as president, all while contributing to the perception that the president is willing to reward those who have done business with him in the past.
That Chinese Trademark
On February 15, President Trump scored a long-sought-after victory when a Chinese court ruled in his favor in a trademark dispute. In the case, which dragged on for more than a decade, the Trump Organization won sole rights to use the president’s name on products in the country, which would help prevent a bevy of unrelated entrepreneurs from applying it to a wide range of products, from toilets to clothing to condoms to explosives.
Almost immediately, Trump’s critics pointed out that the ruling poses a clear conflict of interest. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California called the trademark decision “deeply troubling,” adding, “If this isn’t a violation of the Emoluments Clause, I don’t know what is.” Some, including Feinstein, went further in their assertions: Only days before, Trump had apparently reversed one of his stances toward China by offering a full-throated endorsement of the “One China Policy” (under which countries officially recognize the mainland Chinese government but not Taiwan), leading to the suggestion that the court’s decision was part of a quid-pro-quo deal between the two governments.
Additional context, though, complicates this picture. The case, it turns out, was largely resolved in November 2016, before there was any indication that the president would waffle on the One China Policy by calling the president of Taiwan, and was the culmination of more than a decade of litigation that largely predates Trump’s involvement in politics. Conflicts of this kind over trademarks are fairly common in China, and, though resolving such cases often costs companies significant time and money, the Trump Organization’s victory is one of several that have gone in favor of American corporations in recent years. None of this rules out the possibility of a quid-pro-quo arrangement, but in sum it suggests that there is more to the case than what Feinstein alleges.
Whether or not the Chinese government tried to curry favor with the president by seeing to it that the court ruled in his favor, Trump’s newly awarded trademark poses a conflict of interest that could impact his future interactions with China. On top of the questions around his adherence, or lack thereof, to the One China Policy, Trump has taken a number of controversial stands when it comes to China, from accusing the country of currency manipulation to threatening to take hard-line trade positions that experts worry could lead to a trade war. Over all of these questions will loom the president’s knowledge that, with its trademark now secured, his company has an ongoing profitable relationship with the Chinese government—which, even if Trump does not proactively consider it in approaching the negotiating table, could provide his Chinese counterparts with leverage to influence the president’s decisions.
That Meeting at Mar-a-Lago
Of his first three weekends in office, President Donald Trump spent two of them away from Washington, D.C., at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida. On his first trip to the resort, which he has dubbed his “Winter White House,” Trump spent time on the golf course, attended a ball held by the Red Cross—a federally chartered organization over which he will likely be tasked to wield authority while in office—and held a Super Bowl party at which he hobnobbed with wealthy patrons.
His third weekend in office, Trump brought a guest of honor along with him: the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe. After first meeting with Abe at the real White House, Trump took his Japanese counterpart to Florida for a weekend on the links. The biggest controversy out of the weekend was over the president’s handling of a situation that developed on Saturday, February 11: As news of a North Korean missile test broke during dinner, Trump and Abe discussed the situation in public, using light from phones of gathered onlookers to read briefing documents, an incredibly lax approach to information security, particularly ironic given that Trump won in part because of his opponent’s own lapses in information security.
The situation perfectly encapsulates the way the president’s business interests are coming up against those of the country. Already, the Trump Organization’s decision to double Mar-a-Lago’s initiation fees led to accusations of profiteering, premised on the notion that people would be willing to pony up in the hopes of earning an audience with the commander-in-chief.
The events of Saturday, February 11 took the problem to a whole new level. By discussing the recently obtained intelligence with Abe without leaving the table, the president committed a breach of international-security protocol in a very public setting. Even had the meeting been taking place in the White House, Trump’s lackadaisical approach to information security would have been cause for concern; for self-evident reasons, briefings on urgent security situations do not typically happen in somewhat open settings around civilians. But on the patio at Mar-a-Lago, the situation becomes much more dangerous, because the patio is not a secure setting, and the administration does not appear to have taken measures to make it one. This is a perfect example of a conflict of interest in practice: Trump has an incentive to host an event at Mar-a-Lago (personal financial gain) that runs directly counter to what would be best for the country’s security (hosting the event at the White House or an otherwise secure location). Not only that, part of the appeal of Mar-a-Lago is that guests will have a front-row ticket to see Trump at work. Previous presidents like Barack Obama, meanwhile, took a more conventional, and far more secure, approach, setting up a mobile security perimeter known as a sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF, to ensure that nobody in the area could look in on or overhear the president’s dealings.
According to the president’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Mar-a-Lago does, in fact, have a SCIF on site that they used for the remainder of the Trump’s conversation about North Korea with Abe. That they apparently began their discussion at the dinner table before deploying the SCIF underscores the problem of the situation at Mar-a-Lago: Trump has a financial incentive to hold an open-air meeting like Saturday night’s to keep up the appearance that, by paying to be a member of his exclusive club, anyone can have access to the most powerful man in the world.
Who could have been present? The club’s membership list is private, meaning that the American public has no way of knowing who was around to overhear the conversation. (Two Democratic senators, Tom Udall and Sheldon Whitehouse, have introduced a bill to change this fact, but there is little evidence suggesting it has any hopes of passing through the Republican-held Congress.) Nor have the Trump Organization and White House been forthcoming as to how they intend to screen club members and employees for security clearance; though Udall and Whitehouse reached out to the administration to ask how Mar-a-Lago vets guests for security risks, but received no response. In such a public place, and without protective measures like a SCIF, there may not be anything to stop an agent of a foreign government or other malicious actor from paying the $200,000 initiation fee to stay at the club, effectively paying to be near to the president when he receives sensitive information. Unless Trump takes significant steps either to erect barriers between himself and the guests at Mar-a-Lago—which he certainly didn’t do this time, and which could reduce his ability to profit from the property—there is a real possibility that he will continue to compromise his country’s interests when he travels to his resort in Palm Beach.
One patron of the club, Richard DeAgazio, demonstrated just how much of a breakdown the situation represents. DeAgazio, who, according to a photo he posted on Facebook, joined the club in December after Trump’s election, snapped several pictures of the president and prime minister’s conversation, which helped corroborate a CNN report on the public nature of the ad-hoc meeting and details such as the use of cellphone flashlights to illuminate documents; he also took pictures with Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon and the president’s “body man,” whose job is in part to carry the “nuclear football” containing missile-launch codes (and who was initially identified by name in the photo’s caption). As if to reinforce impression that Mar-a-Lago members gain unprecedented access to the the president, even in the middle of a crisis situation, another patron was able to film Trump giving a toast at a wedding shortly after his press conference with Abe.
There is no reason to believe that DeAgazio had any intention of compromising international security with his pictures; he appears to simply be a wealthy Trump supporter who was excited at the chance to see his commander-in-chief in action and wanted photographs with which to remember the occasion. (He has since apparently either deleted his Facebook profile or increased his privacy settings so that it is no longer publicly accessible.) Nevertheless, he demonstrated just how Trump’s continued commingling of his business interests and his presidency places not just Americans but the entire global community in jeopardy.
In a way, the sheer enormity of the situation at Mar-a-Lago briefly crowded out the fact that merely bringing Abe to Mar-a-Lago demonstrates Trump’s conflicts of interest neatly. Though diplomatic meetings outside the White House are not unprecedented, Trump’s trip with Abe is likely the first instance of the president actually making money from such a meeting. Though Trump said that he was footing Abe’s bill, with both increased Secret Service presence and Abe’s retinue on hand, there’s a distinct possibility that, at some point in the weekend, somebody from the U.S. or Japanese government made a payment that ended up in Trump’s pocket. On top of that, the visit generated an inordinate amount of free publicity for Mar-a-Lago, which Trump repeatedly mentioned (and posted photos of) on his social media accounts and was continually noted in coverage of the weekend.
That Defense Department Trump Tower Rental
President Donald Trump’s most iconic property is about to get a new tenant: the Department of Defense. According to CNN, the Pentagon, hewing to a longstanding policy of establishing an offshoot headquarters near the president’s private, non-White House residence, is planning to lease space in Trump Tower in New York City to maintain close proximity to Trump should he choose to spend time there instead of Washington, D.C..
The Department of Defense’s decision is yet another example of how Trump’s decision to hold onto his business interests is rewriting norms surrounding the presidency and creating problems in what were once uncontroversial procedures. As mentioned above, the Department of Defense’s decision is not unique to Trump’s presidency: They took up residence in Chicago, for example, during Barack Obama’s two terms for the exact same reason.
The difference, as is true in so many of the stories surrounding Trump and his family’s conflicts of interest—the Red Cross’s decision to hold its annual ball at Mar-a-Lago, for example, or Eric Trump’s business trip to Uruguay—is that the president himself is now making money off of routine governmental functions. Exactly how much money remains unknown, as the Department of Defense has yet to publicly state how much space they will be renting and for how long. However, details of the Secret Service’s decision to do the same are instructive as to the general scope of the bill. When that news first broke back in November 2016, the New York Post used publicly available information regarding rents at Trump Tower to deduce that, at a cost of up to $105 per square foot, the Secret Service’s decision to occupy two 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot floors of the building could cost taxpayers more than $3 million a year, a significant portion of which would be going to the Trump Organization, and, by extension, the president himself.
Just how much the DoD will be paying the Trump Organization for the privilege of working out of the president’s property is not the only outstanding question. Trump’s protestations to the contrary aside, scientific evidence shows that the mere knowledge that one has profited from a relationship in the past often leads to preferential behavior, which could lead Trump to favor the Pentagon in his decision-making. As a result, beyond the overarching problem of a government agency paying the president himself a large sum of money to set up shop in the president’s property, the Department of Defense’s decision to rent space in Trump Tower could have significant ramifications for how the Trump White House operates.
That Red Cross Ball
The web of President Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest has grown to encompass the American Red Cross, which held its annual ball on Saturday, February 4, at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida. By hosting the ball, the Trump Organization accepted money from an organization that, while not a federal agency per se, is subject to federal oversight that at some point in the next four years will likely involve President Trump.
Unlike a number of the events at Trump properties that have been featured in this list of Trump’s conflicts of interest, the Red Cross Ball, which celebrated the organization’s centennial anniversary, appears to have been scheduled before Trump even received the Republican nomination for president; a calendar listing on the website of the Coastal Star, a local newspaper covering events in the Palm Beach area, is recorded as having been placed in April 2016. Additionally, though the event has been held elsewhere in the past, this was not the first time it has taken place at Mar-a-Lago: Not only was last year’s ball held there, but the very first Red Cross Ball was hosted there by the property’s prior owner, the famous socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Given all that, there is no indication that the decision to hold the event at Mar-a-Lago had anything to do with Trump’s election, and the fact that Trump will likely be attending the event is not unusual—President Barack Obama also attended as the honorary chairman of the organization while in office. Nevertheless, the ball perfectly encapsulates why Trump’s continued refusal to relinquish his business interests complicates even situations that would have taken place had he not become president.
Thanks in part to the makeup of the Red Cross’s leadership and its unique relationship with the federal government, the ball creates a particularly complicated situation. According to its website, the Red Cross “is not a federal agency, nor [does it] receive federal funding on a regular basis to carry out our services and programs,” instead relying on donations and fees for services like health-and-safety training courses. However, the organization operates under a federal charter as a “federal instrumentality … to carry out responsibilities delegated to [it] by the federal government.” The best-known of these duties include overseeing blood-donation drives and disaster-relief efforts; according to its website, it is also the Red Cross’s duty “to fulfill the provisions of the Geneva Convention” and “provide family communications and other forms of support to the U.S. military.” Further, the organization has a chairperson appointed by the president; currently, the chairwoman is Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2004. The charter also periodically comes before Congress for review and amendments to be signed into effect by the president.
On multiple occasions in recent years, the Red Cross has come under scrutiny for how it handles its multi-billion-dollar budget, most of which comprises donations from the American public. Prompted in part by reporting on the organization’s inadequate response to Hurricane Sandy, misleading statements about how it uses its money, and a September 2015 report by the Governmental Accountability Office, two congresspeople—one Democrat and one Republican—have independently introduced measures to increase the organization’s transparency. Neither has been enacted, but there will likely be another push to improve the relationship between the federal government and the Red Cross during Trump’s presidency, whether via a review of the Red Cross’s charter, the need to appoint a new chairperson, or the introduction of reform-minded legislation. If and when Trump is called upon to weigh in on these decisions, he will be asked to do so having directly profited from the organization while in office, which could limit his ability to act in the best interests of the American people.
That D.C. Labor Dispute
One month before he took office, President Donald Trump managed to sidestep a potential conflict of interest at his hotel in Las Vegas. In the fall of 2015, several hundred employees at the city’s Trump International Hotel had voted to join the local branch of the Culinary Workers Union, only to find their efforts stalled by Trump and the hotel’s co-owner, Phil Ruffin. The case languished for more than a year until, after the National Labor Relations Board found Trump and Ruffin in violation of federal law, the workers successfully negotiated their first collectively-bargained contract. If this hadn’t been resolved, a conflict of interest would have arisen: The case would have gone to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to which Trump will soon be able to appoint members.
Now, the same issue is cropping up at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. Already a centerpiece of the controversy over the likely violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, the property may soon be the site of another legal tussle: According to The Washington Post, 40 workers at the hotel have also voted to unionize, the first group to do so at a Trump-owned establishment since his election.
As was true in Las Vegas, the push for unionization in D.C., if it’s met with resistance from the hotel, would create an opportunity for the president to place his own financial interests above those of the hotel’s workers. In Las Vegas, the dispute appears to have been resolved partly because of the NLRB’s intercession; if the Trump Organization similarly contests the case in D.C., the NLRB may once again be asked to weigh in. And now that Trump is president, he will be appointing new board members to fill two vacancies on the agency’s five-seat panel, which could very well tip it from its current left-leaning, labor-friendly composition to a more conservative, pro-owner bent. If, as in Las Vegas, the NLRB finds in favor of the workers, but the Trump Organization chooses to continue its opposition, there is a possibility that the case could come before a federal appeals court, where judges who Trump himself may have appointed will be asked to review the NLRB’s decision. And if the conflict continues even beyond the Court of Appeals, it will fall to the Supreme Court, to which Trump recently nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch, to render a final verdict. (It should be added that each appointee will be faced with the possibility of ruling against the financial interests of the infamously vindictive man to whom they owe their position.)
Appointing labor-unfriendly officials and justices might fairly be said to be in keeping with Trump’s long history of questionable labor practices, but this does not mean that the conflict-of-interest question will dissipate. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to determine how much his pro-business stances are dictated by a sincere belief in their efficacy rather than an understanding that he himself has benefited from them in the past and will likely continue to do so in the future. As such, Trump’s motivations will continue to occupy an ethical and legal gray area until he eliminates the overlap between his roles as a businessman and as president.
That Estate in Palm Beach
Even before President Donald Trump took office, Mar-a-Lago, his golf club in Palm Beach, Florida, was involved in instances of self-dealing that attracted scrutiny. During the presidential campaign, David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post discovered that Trump used donated funds to buy a $20,000 portrait of himself to reside at the resort and that he used foundation money to settle a lawsuit over the size of the his flag on the property. Then, on New Year’s Day, footage emerged from an event the previous evening at Mar-a-Lago in which Trump praised an Emirati business partner to the assembled crowd, seemingly confirming that those who have done business with the president in the past may receive preferential treatment in the future.
Now, it appears that Trump may be exploiting his new position to make more money off of the club. On January 25, NBC reported that the resort had doubled its initiation fee, from $100,000 to $200,000. The increase, which took effect on January 1, is the first change to the cost of admission since 2012, when, amid a decline in membership in the aftermath of the Bernie Madoff scandal (which affected a large number of Palm Beach residents), the club made the exact opposite decision, halving the fee from $200,000 to $100,000.
The increase drew widespread criticism due to the perception that Trump is using the presidency to pad his wallet. As Mar-a-Lago’s owner, Trump directly profits from any increase in revenues at the club. He has also designated it his “winter White House,” meaning there’s plenty of reason to believe that people will be willing to pony up the increased initiation fee for the chance to rub shoulders with him, whether that means an opportunity to actually talk to him about an issue or just for the chance that they’ll catch his eye and make a good impression.
On the surface, the situation appears similar to previous examples of access-selling; there’s a long history of wealthy citizens paying large sums of money to attend events where they may have a chance to bend a politician’s ear. What makes this case different is that, while such events usually benefit a charity or campaign, here, Trump himself will be the beneficiary.
Those Expansion Plans
Of the measures that President Donald Trump and his lawyer Sheri Dillon laid out at his January 11 press conference to address conflicts of interest, only two actually ameliorate any of the concerns critics have raised: the cancellation of all of the Trump Organization’s pending deals and the promise not to pursue expansion in other countries (although developments since the announcement suggest that those pledges leave plenty of wiggle room). Conveniently left out of the plan, however, is any prohibition on expanding holdings within the United States—which is apparently something that Trump Hotels plans on doing while Trump is in office.
On January 25, Bloomberg reported that Eric Danziger, the CEO of Trump Hotels, said after a panel discussion in Los Angeles that the company is considering tripling the number of Trump-branded properties within the U.S. According to Danziger, “There are 26 major metropolitan areas in the U.S., and we’re in five. I don’t see any reason that we couldn’t be in all of them eventually.” Danziger listed Dallas, Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco as among the cities where the Trump Organization is looking to build in the near future.
As the Trump Organization’s holdings expand, so too does the potential that business considerations will have undue effects on the president’s behavior in office, or at least appear to. Each location presents another opportunity for businesspeople or foreign dignitaries to choose to stay in a hotel in an attempt to burnish Trump’s opinion of them, their company, and/or their country. Each location increases the number of municipal governments with whom Trump will be interacting both as president and as the owner of a real-estate empire.
Trump Hotels’ expansion plans could put not only Trump but also the cities where new properties may be built in a difficult situation. San Francisco, for example, is currently experiencing a housing crisis, one possible solution to which would be to increase the pace of new home-construction projects, some of which could be funded by federal grants. On the one hand, it is almost certain that the residents of San Francisco, a city that voted against the president by roughly a 9-to-1 margin in November, would strenuously object to a new Trump-branded property in the city. But there is also an incentive for the city government to work with the Trump Organization in finding a suitable expansion plan. With plenty of evidence to suggest that collaborating with Trump’s businesses could influence the president, there’s added pressure for city officials to pursue a potentially costly project residents may otherwise not want in hopes of reaping the benefits down the road. Meanwhile, the officials in charge of doling out federal largesse such as housing grants may similarly feel pressure based on the knowledge that Trump’s feelings toward particular cities may change based on how receptive the locale was of his business’s expansion plans.
Finally, the Trump Organization’s announcement that it would be pursuing expansion further attests to just how little the president’s plan to mitigate his conflicts of interest actually accomplishes its goal. For the Trump Organization to not just expand but do so on such a large scale violates the professed spirit of the measures laid out on January 11 and defies any argument that the company will cease to act in a way that jeopardizes the president’s ability to do his job.
That Hotel in Vancouver
Less than a week into his administration, President Trump has a new property opening for business: the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Vancouver. According to The Washington Post, construction on the hotel finished shortly before Trump assumed office, with the building’s finishing touch—the president’s name spelled out in giant letters—revealed on January 19 (the day before the inauguration), and the first guests and permanent residents checking in on January 25.
As with many buildings bearing the president’s name, the new hotel in Vancouver is a licensing deal, with the Trump Organization leasing its branding to a third party—in this case, a real-estate company called the Holborn Group, which operates several luxury hotels throughout Canada. The Holborn Group is run by Joo Kim Tiah, the eldest son of one of the wealthiest families in Malaysia; several members of Tiah’s family are expected to fly in from Kuala Lumpur to attend the opening with the president’s two adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric.
The building is yet another manifestation of the running problem posed by Trump’s extensive foreign real-estate holdings. Unless the president actually rids himself of his financial stake in his company, every Trump property influences his incentives when it comes to making policy, foreign or domestic: Should he act in the manner that best serves the country, or the one that will protect his profits? Every building provides the opportunity for third parties to curry favor with the infamously capricious president: If he knows that he has taken money from somebody, be it a company, a private individual, or agents of a foreign government, that knowledge, and the goodwill it creates, is likely to color Trump’s decision-making. Moreover, every businessperson who has a licensing deal with Trump now has leverage: If Tiah, or any of the other businesspeople around the world with a Trump-branded property, disagrees with a decision the president makes, he can threaten to pull out of the partnership and jeopardize some of Trump’s cash-flow in an attempt to change his mind.
Hardly a day had passed between the new hotel in Vancouver opening for business and the first report of an organization choosing to host an event at the site, possibly for political reasons. On January 26, The Washington Post reported that The American Chamber of Commerce in Canada, a business organization affiliated with the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had scrapped longstanding plans to hold a meeting about trade relations at the home of a diplomatic official and would instead be booking space in the new Trump Hotel for the equivalent of roughly $1,900—a relatively small sum, to be sure, but even small sums have been shown to substantially influence decision making. The change initially prompted at least one planned speaker, the University of British Columbia professor Matilde Bombardini, to back out of the event; however, according to the Vancouver Sun, she has since changed her mind after being told that the change of location was due to a leak at the previous site.
As with so many of the instances chronicled here, the venue change demonstrates how Trump’s conflicts of interest often operate in shades of grey. If the Chamber of Commerce did make its decision solely based on logistics, booking a spot in a Trump-branded building still makes possible the appearance of paying for play. In a marked departure from the Chamber’s copacetic relationship with the Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, the aggressively free-market, pro-trade group clashed with the president on multiple occasions during the 2016 campaign over Trump’s protectionist trade policies, but has already made public overtures since the election to reconcile with the president. If it did, in fact, choose to move the event even in part because of the giant name on the new location’s facade, the decision represents another chapter in the ongoing saga of the business community’s desire to both please and sway a president whose ideology is not that of a typical Republican. Additionally, though nearly all of Trump’s rhetoric about NAFTA centers on Mexico, Canada actually trades more with the U.S. than not just Mexico but any other country in the world. As such, there is plenty incentive for the Canadian branch of the American Chamber of Commerce to do whatever it can to reach out to Trump.
That Reality-Television Show
Though President Donald Trump has been a well-known figure in American public life for decades, perhaps the single biggest contributor to his stardom has been NBC’s The Apprentice. Trump himself is no longer the star of the show—former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken over as host in 2017—but the president remains an executive producer on the series for at least the coming year, including receiving a low five-figure salary for the position, according to Variety. Shortly after the news of that income broke, Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Trump, clarified that he would be taking on his producing duties in his spare time, comparing the situation to previous presidents playing golf or pursuing other leisure activities.
Norm Eisen and Richard Painter, who served as the chief ethics lawyers under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, respectively, pointed out on NPR’s Fresh Air that Trump’s ongoing involvement with The Apprentice presents yet another conflict of interest. According to AdWeek, 11 companies, including the television-shopping network QVC and Carnival Company (which operates the eponymous cruise line), are providing on-air sponsorships for the newest season of The Apprentice; a twelfth, the Japanese motorcycle company Kawasaki, withdrew from a previously reported deal after customers threatened a boycott because of its sponsorship of the show. All of these companies—plus the numerous companies that run ads during the show’s commercial breaks—are effectively putting money into the pockets of the president, not to mention supporting one of his products.
Trump apparently believes himself immune to such conflicts of interest, both in terms of legal impunity and his ability to ignore them, despite a good deal of research indicating that even minuscule financial incentives (minuscule for a billionaire, that is) can be enough to significantly influence behavior. Additionally, there is little doubt that Trump cares deeply about the ongoing success of The Apprentice: The weekend after the new Schwarzenegger-led season debuted, the then president-elect took to Twitter to voice his thoughts on the new season’s ratings. So when one of the companies that sponsors the show interacts with the executive branch—as when Carnival reached a $40 million settlement with the U.S. government over pollution in the Atlantic Ocean, for example, or when QVC settled a $7.5 million suit regarding deceptive advertising in 2009—the question will necessarily arise how their contributions to Trump’s pocketbook and beloved TV show will affect the outcome.
Even if Trump were able to fully blind himself to the conflicts described above, the president’s role would remain a problem because it provides an unprecedented bargaining chip for both the companies currently sponsoring in the show and those that could seek to use it to attempt to manipulate the president. Consider, for a moment, the potential negotiations between one of Trump’s sponsors and a government agency that finds it in violation of federal regulations. That company, though, has a trump card the likes of which has never been seen in American politics: Should it become apparent that the case is going awry, they can threaten to pull their support of the president’s television show. The move would inevitably make waves on cable news of the kind that Trump has repeatedly demonstrated himself to be susceptible to. Any decision, whether in favor of the company or against it, immediately loses credibility: If the company is found guilty, the decision is easily framed as retaliatory, a vindictive manifestation of the president’s ego and narcissism; if the company is let off the hook, it will appear that the company has manipulated his venality for its own gain. A formerly uninvolved company facing federal investigation could essentially pull the same gambit in reverse: By publicly committing to sponsor The Apprentice, a company could create a situation in which any decision appears to reflect not the facts of the case but the sticky situation created by its involvement with the show. In this sense, then, Trump’s decision to stay on as executive producer, and the conflicts of interest the position creates, jeopardizes not only the president’s ability to carry out his job but also the fundamental legitimacy of the rule of law for any company that currently is or in the future may become involved with the show.
Additionally, the president’s continued involvement with the show creates a strange and tricky situation for NBC. Trump’s reputation is inextricably intertwined with that of the show, meaning that NBC will to some extent be caught between promoting Trump as a successful businessman and doing its journalistic work. The network will likely also be advertising The Apprentice during its other programs, not only through commercials but also possibly in-studio promotions on other shows, creating conflicting incentives for NBC journalists who will be trying simultaneously to talk about the Trump administration fairly while their own network markets one of his products.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, was the subject of continual controversy during the presidential campaign, drawing months of protests because of the perceived environmental impact it would create by crossing the Missouri River in close proximity to a Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Shortly before the election, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would be halting progress on the pipeline for further environmental review and to study potential routes that might avoid crossing both the river and Native American territory. On January 24, however, only four days after President Trump took office, he decided to move forward with both DAPL and the Keystone XL pipeline, which the Obama administration likewise blocked because of environmental and tribal-sovereignty concerns; the Army Corps of Engineers finalized the easement on the project on February 7. Trump has been vocally supportive of the pipelines for months, claiming that they would create new jobs in construction and the oil industry.
Trump’s FEC filings, which remain the only public record of his finances, suggest that he may have had an additional incentive to greenlight the projects: According to financial-disclosure forms he filed in June 2015 and May 2016, Trump has owned stock in Energy Transfer Partners, the company seeking to build DAPL. The stock was worth between $500,001 and $1,000,000 in 2015 and between $15,001 and $50,000 in 2016.
The president and one of his spokesmen, Jason Miller, have both stated, without offering evidence, that Trump’s stock-related conflicts of interest have been resolved. According to Trump and Miller, the president sold off his stocks in June of last year specifically to head off concerns that they may influence his decision-making in office. However, they have offered no meaningful evidence to back up their claims—evidence which, in this case, would likely be fairly easy to provide. They could, for example, offer more details on when exactly the stocks were sold beyond simply “back in June,” or explain why they did not mention the sale until December, just after the election, if the intention was to proactively address conflict-of-interest questions.
Given Trump’s penchant for dissembling about his personal finances and the lack of evidence that he has sold off his stocks, Trump’s decision to push ahead on DAPL and Keystone XL simply underscores the need for him to take larger, and more public, steps to distance himself from his financial interests. Moving forward with the pipelines is not the first instance of Trump making a significant decision that benefits a company whose stock is listed in his financial disclosures. For example, when Trump announced his intention to intervene at the factory of the air-conditioner manufacturer Carrier in Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Star noted that Trump’s filings list stock in Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies.
Those HUD Grants
As has been noted on several previous occasions, one of the overarching questions about America’s first businessman presidency is just how President Trump’s vast empire will interact with federal agencies that answer to him. One of these potentially sticky situations became something of a flashpoint at the hearing for Dr. Ben Carson, Trump’s appointee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. At the hearing, Senator Elizabeth Warren pressed Carson over the fact that, as the head of the department, he would be in charge of numerous programs that the president could manipulate to profit his real estate empire, asking Carson, “Can you assure me that not a single taxpayer dollar that you give out will financially benefit the president-elect or his family?” Though Carson did not respond to the question with regard to Trump specifically, he responded that he “will absolutely not play favorites for anyone” or act with an “intention to do anything to benefit any American, particularly.” (Warren went on to expound on how Trump’s lack of financial transparency makes it borderline impossible to know if a policy will benefit him.)
Warrens’s line of questioning was not entirely hypothetical: Trump does, in fact, own properties the maintenance of which falls under HUD’s purview. Thanks to an inheritance from his father, the president holds an ownership stake in—and has made millions from—Starrett City, a 153-acre, 5,881-unit low-income housing development in Brooklyn. The development, according to ABC News, receives substantial federal funding via HUD’s many programs designed to support low-income renters and homeowners. Trump could easily press for policies that would increase his profits from Starrett, most notably allowing for the sale of the complex, an action HUD blocked in 2007—and, potentially, to other properties from which he may profit in ways that, without more complete financial information, the American public may not even know.
The potential for a profitable relationship with HUD underscores a central problem with Trump’s refusal to fully divest from his holdings before entering office. It’s not just high-ranking officials who will possess the ability to act in a manner that benefits the president’s pocketbook—it’s ordinary civil servants as well. Shortly before his inauguration, The Washington Post noted several additional ways employees in Trump’s executive branch could do so: Trademark disputes, for instance, will be adjudicated by judges appointed by his Commerce secretary, while the EPA could roll back environmental regulations that reduce profits at his golf courses.
Meanwhile, lower-level officials tasked with the day-to-day work of regulating Trump’s properties are likely to face pressure as well—if not explicit from superiors, then from the implicit, inescapable knowledge that enforcement decisions will impact the president personally. Federal Aviation Administration inspectors, for instance, are in charge of on-the-spot, random inspections of aircraft, including Trump’s, and at one point during the campaign grounded one of his planes after its registration expired; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversees construction sites, and has fined the Trump Organization on multiple occasions for workplace-safety violations. Only 10 years ago, politically motivated firings within the Justice Department became one of the many enduring scandals of George W. Bush’s administration; with so many executive-branch employees interacting with the president’s properties in so many different ways, some will inevitably face difficult decisions between proper enforcement at his expense or looking the other way to stay in the boss’s good graces.
That Golf Course in Aberdeen
Though his golf course at Turnberry is the more famous of his two properties in Scotland, it is Trump’s resort in Aberdeen that has attracted attention for the conflicts of interest it created when Trump spoke with the British politician and Brexit cheerleader Nigel Farage about blocking a proposed wind turbine that Trump believed would have blocked views from the resort. Now, attention has once again turned to Scotland after The Guardian reported that the Trump Organization will soon be moving forward with a multi-million dollar plan to expand its Aberdeen resort, including a new 450-room, five-star hotel and a second 18-hole golf course.
The announced expansion drew criticism almost immediately, especially coming as it did only three days after the press conference at which Trump unveiled his (woefully insufficient) plan to resolve his conflicts of interest. At the conference, the president and one of his lawyers, Sheri Dillon, announced that the Trump Organization would cease pursuing new foreign investments. Additionally, though neither Trump nor Dillon articulated the promise at the event, a press release detailing the steps Trump would be taking also states that he has “directed the Trump Organization to terminate all pending deals—over 30 in number.”
A representative soon clarified the grounds on which the Trump Organization deemed the expansion permissible in light of these statements. She argued that “implementing future phasing of existing properties does not constitute a new transaction, so we intend to proceed.” In other words, plans for the expansion had been drawn up and agreed upon before Trump made his pledge; simply moving forward with the project does not, in their view, breach their commitments to avoid pursuing new foreign investments or moving forward on pending deals.
As with so many of the defenses of Trump’s behavior when it comes to conflicts of interest, the representative’s justification overlooks the actual concerns regarding conflicts of interest: that Trump’s relationship with the British government and other foreign-policy questions may be colored by his expectations of what a policy will do to his property values, for instance, or whether wealthy guests will pay for a stay in the interest of currying favor with him. Instead, the argument relies on a tactic Trump and his many surrogates have used with alarming frequency. On several occasions, Trump has come out with what appears to be a clear policy statement, which then becomes increasingly vague as he and his surrogates attempt to justify an action or position. One famous example is his proposal to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States: As critics started to question its constitutionality, and as support for the measure declined, he revised it to a vaguer policy of “extreme vetting,” which itself varied significantly depending on who was describing it to whom and what part of the plan they were defending. Here, the Trump Organization has done something similar: In the face of allegations that the Aberdeen development violated the company’s pledges regarding conflicts of interest, the pledges have been revised to create a more vague, and therefore more permissive, stance. As Richard Painter, who served at the chief ethics adviser for President George W. Bush, put it, the new, more ambiguous policy “clearly illustrates that around the world, he will just simply expand around the various holdings and as they continue to expand, the conflicts of interest expand.”
If, as they argue, the expansion of the Aberdeen golf course constitutes neither a “new foreign deal” nor a “pending deal,” that only further complicates the picture regarding the Trump Organization’s future behavior during Trump’s presidency. The organization currently has several nascent development projects, several of which, including those in Georgia, Argentina, Indonesia, and Taiwan, have already prompted concerns over conflicts of interest. Trump and Dillon’s statements at his press conference appeared to rule out continued development of these properties, but the ongoing development in Scotland calls into question whether other development plans have truly been canceled or whether Trump will find a similarly legalistic framework under which they claim they can proceed. By moving forward in Aberdeen, Trump has demonstrated just how easily he can—and, in all likelihood, will—continue to flout concerns regarding his conflicts of interest by simply redefining the terms of his promises in order to allow for his latest move.
That Other Billionaire New York Real-Estate Developer
President Trump’s promise to erect a big, beautiful wall between himself and his business lasted slightly more than 48 hours.
Almost exactly two days after the January 11 press conference at which Trump announced plans purported to disentangle himself from his namesake business, the Huffington Post reported that the president had scheduled a meeting with Steven Roth. Roth, a fellow New York-based billionaire real-estate developer, is in charge of Vornado Realty Trust, an investment firm that co-owns two of Trump’s most valuable properties, one in Manhattan and one in San Francisco, and served as an economic adviser during the campaign. What Trump and Roth discussed at their meeting remains unknown, nor is it clear when exactly the meeting was scheduled. Regardless, that the meeting came directly on the heels of the press conference at which Trump and his lawyer laid out a plan supposedly meant to resolve conflicts of interest, throws the reality of the problems that come from having a businessman as president—and one who seems completely uninterested in taking steps that would actually distance him from his business—into sharp relief.
Shortly thereafter, The Wall Street Journal reported that Roth may soon become involved with the Trump administration beyond just his pre-existing friendship and partnership with the president. Trump, it seems, will soon be naming Roth and Richard LeFrak, yet another New York-based billionaire real-estate developer, to oversee a council of 15 to 20 builders and engineers who will be carrying out the president’s $1 trillion infrastructure proposal, a situation which itself provides ripe opportunities for the pair to direct federal dollars toward projects from which they will financially benefit. This news comes on top of a December report in The Washington Post that Roth’s firm had put in a bid to rebuild the FBI’s headquarters, a deal that could be worth as much as $2 billion. In other words, Trump, mere days after promising to remove himself from his businesses, is instead ushering a longtime partner into his administration.
The move could also end up providing yet another avenue by which Trump could enrich himself in office and by which others could attempt to curry favor. Whether or not he intended to do so, the president’s decision to place Roth at the head of such a large pool of money sends a signal to other companies about the continued intermingling of his business and his presidency: that working with the Trump Organization can be a path to increased influence or even appointment. And though Trump claims that he will no longer be in involved in day-to-day operations, he will be actively profiting off from the company, meaning that he will be personally making money off of the attempts of others to gain influence over American public policy.
Those Indonesian Politicians
Despite President Trump’s assurance that he has stopped pursuing deals since the election, his namesake organization apparently moved forward with a pair of projects in Indonesia. According to The New York Times, the two properties that will bear the Trump name, one overlooking a Hindu temple in Bali and the other abutting a theme park in West Java, presented ethical problems even before the election.
To begin with, through his Indonesian partner on the projects, the billionaire media mogul Hary Tanoesoedibjo (known in Indonesia as Hary Tanoe), Trump has forged relationships with several top Indonesian politicians. One such leader is Setya Novanto, the speaker of the country’s House of Representatives who temporarily lost his post for trying to extort $4 billion from the American mining company Freeport-McMoRan (a company which counts Carl Icahn, who will be serving as a special adviser in Trump’s administration, among its largest shareholders, and which has been frequently criticized by labor advocates and environmentalists). Trump had lunch with Novanto and several other Indonesian politicians during the campaign in September 2015 to discuss the Trump Organization’s planned expansion into Indonesia. At a post-luncheon press conference, Trump pulled Novanto in front of the cameras, calling him “an amazing man” and “one of the most powerful men” and asserting, “we will do great things for the United States.” (It is unclear exactly whom Trump meant when he used the word “we.”) Trump then asked Novanto to confirm that “they like me in Indonesia,” which Novanto did.
Another of the politicians who attended the lunch with Trump is Fadli Zon, the vice chairman of Indonesia’s House of Representatives, whose district includes one of the cities in which one of the Trump-branded properties will be built. According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Zon is associated with a political movement seeking to unseat and jail the current governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known by his nickname, Ahok, and has spoken at rallies against Ahok. The anti-Ahok movement is rooted partly in centuries of ethnic tension within the country: Ahok is both Christian, which has made him the target of attacks by hardline clerics claiming to represent Indonesia’s Muslim majority, and a member of the country’s historically oppressed Chinese minority, which was the target of a massacre in 1998. Aside from an interim governor appointed half a century ago, Ahok is the first governor of Jakarta to fall into either category, and is currently on trial for blasphemy for allegedly insulting the Koran, although Ahok’s supporters claim that it is Ahok’s accusers who are guilty of blasphemy for denigrating Ahok’s Christianity.
Both Trump’s question to Novanto and Zon’s presence at the meeting underscore another difficulty the president introduces into the United States’ relations with Indonesia. Indonesia is both the largest predominantly Muslim country in the world and the nation with the largest population of Muslims. Novanto received significant blowback for his statement that, yes, Indonesians do like Trump, because it turns out that, no, many Indonesians don’t like Trump, in large part because of his on-again, off-again proposal to ban Muslims from immigrating to the U.S.; in fact, faced with mounting criticism, Novanto’s party apologized not only for Novanto’s statement but also for his mere attendance at the luncheon. Since Trump’s victory, both Novanto and Zon have stood up for the president, arguing that Trump’s hardline stance toward Muslim immigration was merely campaign rhetoric and not actually reflective of the president’s own beliefs, something Novanto claimed Trump personally assured him was the case. Regardless, it is clear that the Trump Organization’s planned expansion into Indonesia—which, again, is the reason Trump met with Novanto and Zon in the first place—could introduce major complications into the relationship between the president and the political leaders of the world’s largest Muslim country, not to mention a significant trade partner and an important ally in the South China Sea region.
As if that weren’t enough, Tanoe himself has shown increasing interest in becoming involved in Indonesian politics. In 2014, Tanoe publicly supported the retired general Prabowo Subianto in the nation’s presidential election; Subianto lost to the country’s current leader, Joko Widodo. Then, in 2015, he helped found a new political party, the United Indonesia Party, or Partai Perindo, which intends to field candidates for national office in the near future, including Tanoe himself: Shortly after The New York Times reported on the project, Tanoe told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that, “If there is no one I can believe who can fix the problems of the country, I may try to run for president.”
If Tanoe does so, it will create the possibility that Trump will be dealing with a head of state with whom he has shared business interests, which, as the ethics lawyer Richard Painter told The New York Times, “makes it impossible to conduct diplomacy in an evenhanded manner”—especially considering that, after Trump’s election, stock in Tanoe’s company rose significantly. Moreover, Tanoe, like Ahok, is both Christian and ethnically Chinese, which some insiders consider an obstacle to his electoral chances, although Tanoe argues that it is not Ahok’s religion but his lack of firm leadership that has led to the large-scale protests against the governor. Nevertheless, if Tanoe does choose to run for office, it is difficult to see how his race, religion, and business partnership with a president many see as blatantly Islamophobic could do anything other than create further difficulties both within Indonesia and in the country’s relationship with the U.S..
Tanoe remains close to Trump. He attended the inauguration as a guest of the Trump Organization; he and his wife posted several photos commemorating the occasion on their Instagram accounts, including pictures with Donald Jr. and Eric Trump and a video taken out the window of a car driving along the inaugural parade route. Then, in a February 7 interview with the Indonesian news magazine Tempo, Tanoe bragged about his access to the president. In the interview, he claimed to have seen Trump as recently as January 4 in New York, though he demurred when asked what they discussed, saying, “It wouldn’t be ethical, especially now that he is the president.” Tanoe also confirmed that “nothing has changed” regarding the branding deals in Indonesia, which he says will be moving forward with Trump’s sons in charge, a statement that would seem to contradict Trump and his lawyer’s January 11 announcement that the company would be suspending unfinished development projects.
That Emirati Businessman
Though the biggest controversy over the New Year’s Eve celebration at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida estate, was apparently whether or not Joe Scarborough could accurately be described as having “partied” there, video footage taken by a guest and obtained by CNN the next day brought renewed scrutiny to President Trump’s own presence at the event. During a 10-minute speech given in front of the party’s 800-odd attendees, Trump praised his Emirati business partner Hussain Sajwani and Sajwani’s family, saying, “The most beautiful people from Dubai are here tonight, and they’re seeing it and they love it.” CNN identifies Sajwani as a “billionaire developer in Dubai” who has “paid Trump millions of dollars to license the Trump name for golf courses in Dubai.” Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, defended the remarks by clarifying that the president and Sajwani “had no formal meetings of professional discussions. Their interactions were social.”
Whether or not Hicks’s statement was true, Trump’s commendation of Sajwani is part of a pattern in which the president praises his business partners in ways that suggest he has little interest in extricating himself from his company’s interests. Previously, he has name-dropped business partners in Turkey and Argentina while on official calls with the countries’ leaders; he also met, and took photos, with associates from India shortly after the election. Moreover, as with several of the countries in which Trump-branded buildings are located, the United Arab Emirates has a questionable record on human rights; Human Rights Watch specifically states that the nation “uses its affluence to mask the government’s human-rights problems.”
By singling out Sajwani, Trump also runs headlong into accusations that he and his family are selling access to his administration through their organization and family foundations. According to Politico, tickets to celebrate with the president at Mar-a-Lago, went for upwards of $500; the stated attendance of at least 800 people means that the Trump Organization made at least $400,000 off of ticket sales for the event. (There is no indication that the party was a fundraiser for any outside organization, such as a charity or campaign fund, as is often the case when politicians attend such an event.) Whether or not the president sees it as such, the event offered attendees the opportunity to be in the same room as Trump and bend his ear for a price. This follows consternation regarding an auction for a face-to-face meeting with Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and a charity event that offered a reception with the president and a hunting trip with his two sons, both of which have since been cancelled, as well as ongoing speculation that foreign entities will attempt to curry favor with Trump by booking rooms and events at his hotel in Washington, D.C. That Trump singled out Sajwani at the New Year’s Eve party lends credence to these concerns—it’s an instance of someone receiving the president’s attention simply by buying a ticket to one of his events.
That Virginia Vineyard
Among the dozens of properties President Trump owns is Trump Vineyard Estates and Winery in Charlottesville, Virginia, the source of his namesake wine. On December 23, the property requested temporary H-2A visas for six foreign workers, according to The Washington Post; on February 17, BuzzFeed reported an additional request that upped the total to 29. The visas, which are administered by the Citizenship and Immigration Services wing of the Department of Homeland Security, allow businesses to temporarily hire foreign, unskilled workers provided that the employer proves that there are not enough domestic candidates to fulfill a one-time or seasonal shortage and that the hiring will not depress wages for U.S.-born employees. Trump, of course, appointed the current Secretary of Homeland Security, which gives Trump authority over the very department responsible for deciding whether to grant the visas that the vineyard has requested. His choice for the position, the retired general John Kelly has a relatively scant track record when it comes to immigration, leaving open the question of how much influence Trump himself will have over the DHS’s policy on the matter.
On top of the fact that Trump will soon be able to influence the outcome of the request, that his organization has continued to request visas after his election underscores a tension in the president’s stance on immigration. From the moment that he announced that he would be running for president, Trump made antagonism toward immigration the central aspect of his campaign, arguing that both legal and illegal immigrants are taking jobs that should be filled by native-born Americans and depressing wages for others. Though he did not specifically single out the H-2B visa, the president has on multiple occasions spoken critically about the H-1B program, which enables employers to temporarily hire foreign workers for skilled jobs like those in the tech industry.
But the Trump Organization has long been a beneficiary of immigrant labor. For example, according to a Reuters report from August 2015, nine companies of which Trump is the majority owner have requested at least 1,100 foreign visas since 2000. The majority of these requests were from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, which has requested at least 787 foreign visas since 2006, including 70 applications in 2015. (Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that, since 2010, only 17 of the nearly 300 domestic applicants for positions at the Mar-a-Lago have been hired.) The Trump Organization also famously may have benefited from illegal immigration: There is significant evidence that many of the Polish construction workers at the Trump Tower construction site in New York in 1980 were in the country illegally. In other words, Trump’s track record includes not just taking advantage of the very visa process he claims to abhor but also actually subverting existing law for his own profit. Now, by applying for visas for his vineyard, Trump is signaling that he expects that his business will continue to be able to profit from one of the very immigration programs he continually denounces.
That Las Vegas Labor Dispute
On top of owning various properties and enterprises, Trump and his company employ roughly 34,000 people, according to an analysis by CNN. On December 21, several hundred of those workers resolved a labor dispute against the president—one in which, had it continued for even a few weeks more, Trump would have had the unprecedented power to make appointments to affect its outcome.
Here’s the situation: In October 2015, several hundred employees, primarily housekeeping staff, at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas voted to join the local branch of the Culinary Workers Union. Trump Ruffin Commercial LLC, which owns the hotel and is itself owned by Trump and the casino magnate Phil Ruffin, contested the vote, first by enlisting an anti-union consulting firm (for whose services it paid $500,000) and then by filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Shortly before the election, the NLRB not only rejected Trump and Ruffin’s complaints but also found that, because the pair had refused to negotiate with the nascent union, they had violated federal law and their hotel was operating illegally. Trump and Ruffin have since appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
On December 21, more than a year after the hotel’s workers first voted to join the union, the workers announced that they arrived at their first collectively-bargained contract, achieved, according to an employee quoted in ThinkProgress, despite significant pressure from ownership that attempting to unionize would cost workers their jobs. According to the union, the new agreement “will provide the employees with annual wage increases, a pension, family health care, and job security” comparable to that of other Las Vegas hotels. Moreover, the Culinary Workers Union’s parent organization, UNITE HERE, has reached an agreement to represent workers at Trump’s recently-opened hotel in Washington, D.C..
Although this dispute has been resolved, it is included here because it exemplifies the type of situation in which Trump’s business interests are likely to overlap with his duties as president. Trump will be tasked with appointing members to fill current openings on the NLRB, the very body that ruled against him shortly before the election and will be tasked with resolving any future disputes between the hotel’s owners and its employees. Moreover, as Slate noted, the chief justice of the D.C. Court of Appeals is none other than Merrick Garland, whose nomination to the Supreme Court has spent months languishing in the Republican-controlled Congress and was withdrawn once Trump became president. Finally, if disputes of this nature go beyond the Court of Appeals, the case would go to the Supreme Court, to which Trump will be appointing a justice, which is expected to tip the balance decisively in a more conservative (and likely anti-union) direction. In other words, no matter how far up the chain future disputes of this nature go, Trump’s presidency will give him new power to influence the results.
That Kuwaiti Event
According to an anonymous source and documents obtained by ThinkProgress, representatives from the Trump Organization pressured the ambassador of Kuwait to hold its embassy’s annual celebration of the country’s independence at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. The event, held annually on February 25, was originally scheduled to take place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown; the location was allegedly changed after members of the Trump Organization contacted the country’s ambassador. ThinkProgress’s source “described the decision as political,” suggesting that the embassy chose to relocate the event in an effort to curry favor with the president. The Kuwaiti ambassador has since disputed the report, telling The Washington Post that he had not been contacted by the Trump Organization and that the move “was solely done with the intention of providing our guests with a new venue.”
If ThinkProgress’s account is correct, Kuwait’s decision represents an escalation of a situation that has been developing since Trump’s election. The Trump International Hotel has been the subject of continual scrutiny for the conflict of interest it poses, in part because its lease explicitly bars elected officials from holding it, but mainly because Trump’s ownership of the hotel will almost definitely result in a violation of the Emoluments Clause, which prohibits the president from receiving payments from foreign powers—something that will arguably be happening any time a foreign government books a room at the hotel. Already, the hotel has begun advertising itself as a destination for diplomats and dignitaries, and the embassies of Azerbaijan and Bahrain have both scheduled events in the building. However, before the ThinkProgress report, there was no evidence that the Trump Organization had individually reached out to a foreign government in hopes of getting it to relocate an event to the hotel.
Those Certificates of Divestiture
In addition to the many possibilities for President Trump to pursue his financial interests in office, the unique makeup of his cabinet also creates a new set of financial motivations. While Trump’s own fortune automatically makes his administration the wealthiest in history, he has also surrounded himself with an unprecedented collection of billionaires and multi-millionaires whose investments are likely to also come under scrutiny.
Unlike the president himself, those who are up for Trump’s cabinet, such as his proposed Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, will be legally obligated to divest from any holdings which may pose a conflict of interest. However, as The Washington Post noted, even selling off their holdings offers an opportunity for Trump’s cabinet members to enhance their fortunes. A federal program known as a “certificate of divestiture” allows executive-branch appointees and employees to avoid capital-gains taxes when selling their assets. The program has existed since 1989, and most recently received attention when President George W. Bush appointed Hank Paulson, then the chief executive of Goldman Sachs as his Treasury Secretary in 2006. Paulson was forced to sell off $700 million in shares of the bank; the certificate of divestiture enabled him to avoid a potential $200 million in capital-gains tax liability. According to The Washington Post, the Office of Government Ethics is currently researching whether the president himself would qualify for the tax break; even if he doesn’t, the unprecedented wealth of Trump’s cabinet promises to push this provision, and the financial incentives it creates, to the limit.
That Carrier Deal
One of President Trump’s first major economic moves as president was the deal that he and Vice President Mike Pence struck with the air-conditioner manufacturer Carrier, which had planned to move 2,100 jobs from its Indiana plant to Mexico. Finalized on November 29, the compromise kept 730 of the plant’s jobs in Indiana in exchange for $7 million in tax breaks over 10 years. The deal immediately attracted praise and criticism on both sides of the aisle, with much of the scrutiny going toward the tradeoff between jobs and tax breaks and Trump’s idiosyncratic, ad-hoc negotiation techniques.
An additional detail soon emerged regarding the deal: According to his FEC filings (which, despite Trump and his spokesman Jason Miller’s unverified statements that the president sold off his stock in June, remain the most recent public record of the president’s finances), Trump holds stock in Carrier’s parent company, United Technologies. In 2014, his investment in the company was between $100,001 and $250,000, while in 2015, the stock is listed as worth less than $1,001, which could indicate that he sold some or most of the stock; each year, his holdings earned him between $2,500 and $5,000.
The paucity of information in the FEC filings makes it difficult to ascertain why his holdings appear to have decreased; regardless, the investment is not only one of several hundred but also a relatively minor one among Trump’s many holdings, some of which are worth over $5,000,000. As a result, it’s difficult to know how much, if at all, Trump may have considered the stock, particularly considering that he didn’t appear to remember his initial promise to save the Carrier plant. Additionally, Trump does not have stock in the next company he called out on Twitter, Rexnord Corporation (which is also based in Indiana), or its parent company, The Carlyle Group. Still, Trump’s deal with Carrier demonstrates the unprecedented challenge the president’s conflicts of interest create: Unless he either puts his holdings in a truly blind trust or divests completely, a significant number of the decisions he makes will involve some level of financial incentive for himself as well as for the country.
Over the past few months, a number of experts have called for President Trump to either sell off his business holdings or, if the illiquidity of his assets prevents him from doing so, to put as much as possible into a blind trust managed by a lawyer or other trustee with whom he will have no contact. Pursuing one of these two options is seen by many as an important step to distancing himself from even the appearance that he will be considering his own financial prospects in addition to those of the nation while in office. In response, Trump repeatedly said during the campaign that he intends to cede control of his business to his three adult children, Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric, although, as has been previously noted, doing so would barely even create the appearance of a blind trust given how his children are close advisers, members of his transition team, and, well, his children. (Trump has also alluded on Twitter to an upcoming press conference in which he intends to more fully explain his plans, although doubts remain that the arrangement he proposes will actually create the necessary barriers between Trump and his business.)
Moreover, even if one does take take the president at his word that his children will be entirely separate from his administration, events since his election strongly suggest otherwise. All three have been seen in contexts that significantly diminish the appearance of separation Roughly two weeks before the election, Donald Jr. met with a pro-Russian group in Paris to discuss his father’s policy toward Syria and, according to Politico, was involved in his father’s search for a Secretary of the Interior; he was also spotted hunting in Turkey shortly after his father’s phone call with Turkish President Recep Erdogan in which the president praised a Turkish business partner. Eric, meanwhile, appeared in photos with his father and a group of Indian businessmen mere days after the election. Officials within the State Department have begun to express frustration with the optics of the Trump family’s current system.
Much of the focus, though, has been on Ivanka, whom many consider to be among her father’s most trusted advisers, and the various ways she has indicated that she will remain a part of both the family business and her father’s administration. Ivanka also appeared in the photos with the family’s Indian business partners, and she and her husband Jared Kushner—also one of Trump’s advisers—sat in on a meeting between the president and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; reports later emerged that, at the time, Ivanka was in negotiation with the Japanese apparel company Sanei International, whose parent company is owned in large part by the Japanese government. A number of outlets have reported that, while Melania Trump will be the official First Lady, Ivanka plans to assume a policy portfolio akin to that of previous first ladies; one issue she apparently plans to take on is climate change, on which she recently met with her father and former Vice President Al Gore. Even the optics of physical distance are diminishing: According to CNN, Ivanka and Jared plan to move from New York to Washington, D.C.. That the president’s children appear involved in both the Trump administration and the Trump Organization presents a major threat to the long-established norm that presidents should distance themselves from business interests that could interfere with their official duties.
Finally, removing himself from day-to-day operations will do little to change the fact that Trump will retain substantive knowledge of the illiquid assets involved in his business, such as the numerous buildings and other products that bear his name, especially if he remains in frequent contact with his children. Even assuming that Trump does separate himself from any consideration of his holdings, his children will still likely be major players in the family’s organization, which will still bear at least the Trump name—arguably one of their most valuable properties, as much of the family’s wealth derives from licensing the name to third-party companies. Given the family’s oft-touted brand-consciousness (Ivanka, for example, briefly appeared to be distancing herself from the campaign, and several properties considered rebranding under the name “Scion” when it appeared Trump would lose), the situation epitomizes the way Trump’s, and his family’s, business interests may very well prove inextricable from his actions as president.
Those Fannie and Freddie Investments
After railing against elites during the campaign, Trump has so far stocked his prospective cabinet with an array of billionaires whose policy positions seem likely to significantly benefit those who are also doing very well. Trump’s putative treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, is no exception: His resume includes stints as a banker at Goldman Sachs, a Hollywood producer, and the operator of a bank that has been described as a “foreclosure machine” and once foreclosed on a homeowner over a 27-cent discrepancy.
One of Mnuchin’s apparent beliefs is that the government should cede control of the mortgage guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which the government acquired during the 2008 financial crisis. The two financial institutions’ stocks rose by more than 40 percent after Mnuchin stated that he believes the Trump administration “will get it done reasonably fast.”
Doing so would be broadly compatible with Trump’s general antipathy toward regulation of the banking industry. However, The Wall Street Journal identified an additional wrinkle to the story: When Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s stocks rose, one major beneficiary was John Paulson, an adviser to the Trump campaign and a business partner of Mnuchin’s. Paulson’s hedge funds include significant investments in both Fannie and Freddie. Trump himself has invested between $3 million and $5 million across three of Paulson’s funds, according to his filings with the Federal Election Commission (which remain the only available window into the president’s financial holdings). In other words, as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s stock prices increase—and they have so far more than doubled since the election on the expectation that the incoming Trump administration will be more lenient toward the financial sector than Obama—Trump’s portfolio benefits.
That Phone Call With Taiwan
When news first emerged that the president spoke on the phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on December 2, the immediate reaction was uproar over his apparently impetuous breach of decades of U.S. protocol toward China and Taiwan. As my colleague David Graham explained, since 1979, the United States has participated in the “artful diplomatic fiction” of officially recognizing the mainland People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate Chinese government while maintaining loose, unofficial recognition of—and significant economic and military ties to—Taiwan. That Trump would speak to the president of Taiwan, especially before doing the same with Xi Jinping, the president of the PRC, flies in the face of a diplomatic tradition that has undergirded almost 40 years of U.S.-China relations.
Amid the days of dissembling that followed the phone call, an additional worrisome detail came out: At the time, the Trump Organization was apparently exploring expansion into Taiwan. Soon afterwards, the Trump Organization denied that it planned to do so; however, even before the controversy arose, the mayor of Taoyuan, Taiwan, the municipality in which the Trump Organization allegedly wants to build, described in a televised interview a meeting with a representative of the Trump Organization in September to discuss prospective real-estate projects, and at least one Trump employee was found to have posted on Facebook that she was in Taiwan at the time on a business trip. Based on the January 11 announcement that the Trump Organization will be suspending its development plans and will not pursue foreign deals in office, it would appear that any movement on development in Taiwan is no longer on the table.
The phone call, and the many statements that have followed, are of particular interest because of the extent to which they dovetail with some of the biggest concerns about Trump’s approach toward governance. In the ensuing 48 hours, Republican officials offered several, sometimes entirely contradictory, explanations of what initially appeared to be an impulsive move by Trump; depending on who was speaking, the phone call was actually initiated by Ing-wen (which, if technically true, ignores that it was Trump’s staff who arranged the conversation), was just “a courtesy,” or manifested a policy shift weeks in the making—although, regardless, it was made without first consulting the White House or State Department. The defense of the move, and the questions it creates regarding conflicts of interest, have largely hinged on the belief that, since voters apparently don’t mind, the reaction was overblown.
On this issue, though, whether or not voters care is immaterial to the central question. The president of the United States breached decades of international protocol created to preserve a precarious balance of power. That decision raised not only the possibility that Trump was blundering into a potential international incident but also that he may have done so in part out of consideration for his business prospects.
That Deutsche Bank Debt
Though he often brags about leveraging corporate-finance law to become “The King of Debt,” Trump’s numerous bankruptcy filings have left most large Wall Street banks reticent to lend to him, according to The Wall Street Journal. Among the few exceptions is Deutsche Bank, which “has led or participated in loans of at least $2.5 billion” to the president since 1996, with at least another $1 billion in loan commitments to Trump-affiliated companies; more than $300 million of those loans have come since 2012.
The president’s indebtedness does not itself pose a conflict of interest, but Deutsche Bank’s ongoing legal troubles very well might. The Justice Department is currently negotiating with Deutsche Bank regarding a preliminary settlement of $14 billion to resolve probes into allegedly misleading predatory lending practices in the leadup to the 2008 financial crisis; while it is believed that Deutsche Bank will push back against the sum, there has been no public news regarding negotiations since the initial figure was reported in September. Trump will soon be naming many of the officials with jurisdiction over this and other deals, prompting several House Democrats to send a letter to federal financial agencies calling for close scrutiny of how Trump may seek to influence the settlement through his appointments—although doing so would be just as in keeping with his general stance toward financial regulation as with active protection of his pocketbook. Other Democrats have called for the proactive appointment of independent prosecutors to avoid any appearance of conflict if the case is not resolved before Trump takes office.
Fears that Trump may unduly consider his indebtedness to Deutsche Bank in deciding his administration’s policy toward the financial sector go beyond general anxiety about deregulation. Deutsche Bank is undergoing a period of struggle that may have it on the verge of failure already. Its stock valuation has dropped by more than half since July 2015; in January, it posted its first full-year loss since 2008; and one of its many tranches of bonds—one specifically designed to be a high-risk, high-reward safety valve in times of trouble—has recently begun to crash. In June, the International Monetary Fund called Deutsche Bank “the most important net contributor to systemic risks” among globally important financial institutions. If the bank were to fail, it could have major consequences for not only Trump’s businesses, which would lose their sole remaining lender, but for the global economy as well.
Arguably, the $14 billion fine the Justice Department is seeking to impose has exacerbated rather than alleviated these struggles. Based the company’s market capitalization—the number of shares multiplied by their price— of roughly $16 billion, the sum would leave Deutsche Bank critically low in liquid assets with which to absorb future troubles. although the institution’s own self-valuation of $68 billion argues otherwise. But given the complexity and potential volatility of the situation, it is important for any decision to be free from outside influence, something Trump’s outstanding debt threatens to jeopardize.
That Secret Service Detail
During the election, the Trump campaign put no small portion of its funds toward paying for use of the candidate’s own properties; perhaps the most notable of these expenditures was the nearly $170,000 the campaign spent in July on rent for its headquarters in Trump Tower. These expenses raised the possibility that, as Trump predicted in 2000, he “could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” Now that he will be president, he may be able to profit off of the Secret Service by virtue of the fact that he and his family will live in Trump Tower and fly in his private jets—which requires the agents tasked with guarding them to pay him rent and airfare.
The first way Trump could monetize his own protective detail is by having family members travel in his two planes and three helicopters. This is not so much speculative as foregone: Over the course of the campaign, the Secret Service, which traditionally pays for its own travel during elections, spent $2.74 million to fly on a plane owned by one of Trump’s own companies. While in office, Trump will fly exclusively on Air Force One, while Mike Pence will be riding Air Force Two. However, their families may still be flying on Trump’s private planes—along with their protective details, which would effectively direct even more money to Trump. (Previous first families have flown with a detail, whose legal purview covers “the immediate family members,” but none have done so on planes they themselves own.)
A bigger question regards Trump Tower in New York, where the president appears likely to spend a significant amount of time. For the past few decades, it has been common practice for the Secret Service to provide protection for the president and vice president’s non-White House residences, which sometimes entails paying rent to the officeholder. (Joe Biden, for example, received $2,200 per month when the agency rented a cottage he owned near his home in Delaware.)
But Trump Tower is a unique case, as it’s not in Delaware but the middle of Manhattan. Already, pedestrians and tourists are chafing at the increased security around the building, Trump’s frequent use of which has required closing a block of 56th Street and multiple lanes of Fifth Avenue; with multiple outlets reporting that Trump’s wife Melania and 10-year-old son Barron are expected to stay at Trump Tower for at least part of his term, it appears that the consternation will continue, with an enormous price tag for taxpayers: According to the New York Post, it could cost as much as $3 million a year to rent out two of the building’s vacant floors, meaning that Trump will be making money off of his own security detail. Meanwhile, Reuters has reported that the city of New York is calling for federal funds to reimburse the costs of keeping up a security detail around Trump Tower.
This system creates an unusual set of conflicting interests for Trump regarding his own travel and residences. Though presidents as disparate as Dwight Eisenhower and Barack Obama have evoked partisan ire over time spent away from the White House, whether on the golf course or on vacation in Hawaii, only Donald Trump will actually have gained from his and his family’s travels. And if, while in office, Trump visits properties he owns other than Trump Tower—his buildings in other U.S. cities like Chicago and Miami, for example, or his golf course and resort in Scotland, or one of the many international hotels bearing his name—he stands to gain from the stays for which his security detail (and, by extension, taxpayers) may be paying. Moreover, the more his family members fly on his planes, whether they are running his business on his behalf or running interference with foreign leaders, the more the Secret Service will end up paying for seats alongside them.
In fact, there are already signs that the Trump Organization has no qualms about making money off of the New York tower’s new security arrangements in more ways than one. According to Politico, just five days after the election, a prominent New York real-estate firm invoked Trump Tower’s new secret-service detail as a selling point for a $2.1 million condominium, which it described as “The Best Value in the Most Secure Building in Manhattan.” Though the flier was issued by an outside agency, the president’s corporation still stands to benefit from increased traffic through processing and other service fees, making the advertisement a clear example of how Trump stands to benefit off of his new position.
That Property in Georgia (the Country)
Trump’s election has had the effect of speeding up development on a number of his branded properties, even when the president appears not to be pulling any strings himself. As occurred with Trump Tower Buenos Aires, the completion of an embattled Trump-branded building in the former Soviet republic of Georgia is no longer on hold now that Trump has won. The project, which has been in the works in the seaside resort city of Batumi since 2010, was initially scheduled to break ground in 2013, but has been in stasis for several reasons, possibly including the 2013 electoral defeat of President Mikheil Saakashvili, a friend of Trump’s and a supporter of the deal.
According to a report in The Washington Post, the green-lighting of the Trump property in Batumi has not been linked to a specific conversation with Georgian leaders, and a U.S.-based partner on the project has suggested that it has moved forward without any nudging from the government. However, numerous public statements in the days since suggest that Trump’s election was a major factor, including an interview with a real-estate entrepreneur who said, “Cutting the ribbon on a new Trump Tower in Georgia will be a symbol of victory for all of the free world.”
That the property seems to be moving forward solely because Trump was elected suggests his various business interests around the world may play a role not only in his foreign policy but in how other countries seek to deal with the U.S. as well. America’s relationship with Georgia is largely shaped by concerns about Russian influence and potential aggression in the region, most recently manifested in Russia’s 2008 seizure of two regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. With controversy already swirling over Trump’s admiration for Putin and Russia’s alleged role in the U.S. election, some in the foreign-policy community have expressed trepidation that Trump’s potential deferential attitude toward Russia would prove deleterious for the continued independence of former satellite nations like Georgia. So, if Georgia has an ulterior motive behind the approval of Trump’s property in Batumi, it would be to keep Russia at bay and maintain the status quo in the region.
According to Trump and his lawyer, as of January 11, the Trump Organization has suspended ongoing development projects and will no longer pursue deals in foreign countries. As the project in Batumi falls under both categories, the statement suggests that progress on the president’s property in the city is no longer moving forward. Still, it’s alarming that a country like Georgia may be giving Trump’s businesses favorable treatment (whether he asked for it or not) in an attempt to influence his foreign policy.
That Phone Call With Erdogan
One of the worries regarding Trump’s many conflicts of interest is that they may influence policy towards countries whose relationships with the U.S. are currently strained. Such is the case with Turkey, whose president, Recep Erdogan, has been cracking down significantly on civil liberties and democratic institutions within the country after a failed coup last summer. Though Turkey has in the past been a vital U.S. ally as a bulwark against Islamic terror, Erdogan’s authoritarian turn and combative stance toward Europe have led to some reevaluation of that relationship.
Thus, it was troubling news that when Erdogan phoned Trump earlier this month—it was one of the first calls Trump received after his victory—Trump used the opportunity to plug his business partners in Istanbul. According to the Huffington Post, while on the line with Erdogan, Trump relayed praise for the leader from Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, whose father-in-law, Aydin Dogan, owns the holding company that operates the Trump Towers in Istanbul. Dogan has previously drawn Erdogan’s ire by criticizing the leader; in recent years, however, Dogan’s companies, most notably CNN Turk, have shown support for Erdogan’s regime, including broadcasting his first message after the uprising in July.
Trump’s conversation with Erdogan is also worth noting because of a number of Trump’s previous statements regarding the Turkish president. Though Erdogan briefly called for Trump’s name to be removed from the Istanbul property due to his proposed ban on Muslim immigration, Erdogan dropped the demand when, after the overthrow attempt, Trump praised Erdogan for “turning it around” and essentially dismissed concerns over Erdogan’s crackdown on civil liberties by bringing up domestic problems. Michael Flynn, who was recently named Trump’s national security adviser, wrote an election-day op-ed in The Hill arguing against offering asylum to a Muslim cleric whom Erdogan has accused of orchestrating the uprising, which some have interpreted as a diplomatic overture. Erdogan has also bristled at post-election protests in the U.S. and the description of both himself and Trump as part of a “ring of autocrats.” That the two are now talking about their countries’ relationship as in the same conversation as Trump’s business interests further complicates Trump’s strangely effusive comments about Erdogan.
It’s worth noting that Trump himself considers his hotel in Istanbul a potential conflict of interest. In a December 2015 interview with Stephen Bannon, at the time the chairman of Breitbart News, Trump said as much, telling Bannon, “I have a little conflict of interest ‘cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul. It’s a tremendously successful job." That he chose to discuss the towers with Erdogan, albeit obliquely, through his references to his business partners when he has already acknowledged the impropriety of doing so simply reinforces the perception that he may prove unable to separate his business from his official duties while in office.
That Hotel in Washington, D.C.
The White House is not the only new Trump property in Washington, D.C.; there’s also the new Trump International Hotel, which opened in October and is located just a few blocks away in what was formerly known as the Old Post Office Pavilion. Previously, the hotel played a role in the campaign as the site of the event at which Trump recanted (sort of) his belief that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Now, the hotel is at the center of speculation as a symbol of how inextricable Trump’s presidential role may be from his personal interests.
First and foremost, since his election, ethics groups and critics of the president have repeatedly alleged that, simply by taking office, Trump has been in continual violation of the lease he holds on the Old Post Office, the government-owned building the Trump International Hotel inhabits. At issue is a clause in the lease stating that “no ... elected official of the Government of the United States shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.” As such, watchdog organizations such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington have repeatedly appealed to the Government Services Administration, the federal agency that administers the lease, to terminate the agreement with the Trump Organization.
On March 23, however, the GSA released a letter finding that Trump “is in full compliance” with the lease. According to Kevin Terry, the contract officer who oversaw the initial negotiations between the government and Trump, the president’s plan to turn over his businesses to his two adult sons and the long-time Trump Organization executive Alen Garten is sufficient to meet the terms of the agreement, as Trump is no longer “an officer, director, manager, employee, or other official in any of the entities” involved in operating the hotel. The letter immediately drew outcry from ethics organizations like CREW, which called the ruling “a disappointment” that failed to address the underlying problems of Trump’s businesses, and the left-leaning advocacy group Public Citizen, which described it as “an affront to the rule of law” based on “tortured and wholly uncompelling analysis” that “would get a first-year law student kicked out of law school.”
The GSA’s decision may also prove a blow to the more general argument that Trump has not done enough to distance himself from his namesake organization. Critics have strenuously objected to the plan Trump and his lawyer Sheri Dillon laid out on January 11 to mitigate conflicts of interest, under which the president has stepped down from, but retains ownership of, his numerous business interests, and placed his assets in a trust to be administered by his adult sons and Garten. His opponents maintain that, because Trump still has significant knowledge of his business interests and will still be benefiting from them, and because he has put in place few real barriers between himself and his sons, there is still ample opportunity for outside actors to seek to influence the president’s decisions by patronizing his companies. Though the letter from the GSA discusses only the Trump International Hotel and not the legality of the overall arrangement, it is nonetheless a decidedly favorable outcome for Trump in the first legal challenge over his conflicts of interest.
As if its location didn’t pose enough of an ethical question, the hotel has already hosted at least one promotional event specifically aimed at enticing foreign diplomats to stay at the establishment while in town on official state business. On the one hand, direct influence will likely be difficult to prove: The establishment is, after all, a five-star hotel that would have been likely to attract high-class clientele even if Trump had lost the election, a fact to which Trump and those who surround him may well point in order to maintain a patina of respectability around their dealings. Still, the meeting’s proximity to the election reinforces that it will be worth watching the comings and goings at the hotel closely for signs that Trump, who so often accused his opponent (often without evidence) of pay-for-play, may be using his position as president to promote his businesses.
Trump himself acknowledged that his presidency is likely to increase traffic to his Washington, D.C. property. Speaking to The New York Times, the president noted that the property is “probably a more valuable asset than it was before” and that his brand is “hotter” since the election. However, he went on to insist that there was nothing even potentially problematic about his unprecedented situation and that he sees no reason why he couldn’t run both the presidency and his business without conflict.
Multiple events since the election have made Trump’s lease on the hotel a central focus of discussions of his conflicts of interest, including among Democrats in the House. On November 29, Bahrain—a country whose donations to the Clinton Foundation Trump and his campaign decried during the campaign—announced that it would be celebrating the anniversary of its king’s ascension to the throne at the hotel. Other events announced since the election include a Hannukah celebration co-hosted by the Embassy of Azerbaijan and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a reception for the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation featuring Vice President Mike Pence as its keynote speaker.
Nor did the string of bookings by international entities end after Trump’s inauguration: On February 9, Politico reported that a lobbying group with connections to the government of Saudi Arabia had booked a four-day stay at the hotel in Washington, D.C. And on March 13, The Daily Caller reported that the Turkish-American Business Council will be co-hosting its annual conference at the Trump International Hotel after a seven-year runat the Ritz-Carlton. The latter announcement is especially notable because the organization’s chairman, Ekim Alptekin, is involved in another of the Trump administration’s scandals: One of Alptekin’s companies, the apparent shell company Inovo BV, paid $530,000 to the former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to lobby on behalf of the Turkish government, which prompted Flynn to register as a foreign agent shortly after he was ousted from the Trump administration for lying about his contacts with Russian agents while a member of the president’s transition team.
That Argentinian Office Building
According to a report by the prominent Argentine journalist Jorge Lanata, the president’s first phone call with his Argentine counterpart Mauricio Macri included a discussion of the permit issues currently holding up construction of a new Trump-branded office building in Buenos Aires. Both Macri and Trump quickly denied the report; according to a statement from the Embassy of Argentina, “The subject both leaders talked about was the institutional relationship, and they briefly mentioned the personal relationship they have had for years.”
As summarized in a tweetstorm here, Trump’s relationship with Argentina’s government and business elites—and the story so far on his property there—is already long and convoluted. The phone call with Macri was apparently set up through Felipe Yaryura, one of Trump’s longtime associates whose company, YY Development Group, is in charge of Trump Tower Buenos Aires. The day after the phone call, the PanAm Post reported that YY Development Group had been approved to break ground in June 2017; evidence has since emerged that the permitting process is not, in fact, finished, although Trump’s business associates are moving ahead as though it is.
Based on the information at the president’s January 11 press conference, it appears that the properties in Argentina, as both ongoing development projects and deals in a foreign country, is no longer moving forward. Nevertheless, the questionable circumstances under which it did so in the immediate aftermath of the election demonstrates just how many avenues there are for Trump’s conflicts of interest to interfere with governance around the world.
Those Companies in Saudi Arabia
Even as Trump was running for president, his company was continuing to operate and open new properties. While the most memorable openings may have been that of his hotel in Washington, D.C., and his golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, the Trump Organization was continuing to work on projects in other countries, including, according to a report the Washington Post, registering eight new companies in Saudi Arabia during the 16-month campaign.
The organization’s endeavors in Saudi Arabia are notable not only because they may further complicate the shaky relationship between the U.S. and an oil-rich gulf state notorious for human-rights abuses but also because of how they relate to Trump’s campaign rhetoric. One of his criticisms of Hillary Clinton was that her charitable foundation had accepted donations from governments with questionable records on human rights, most notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, always with the implication (or direct accusation) that they were doing so to curry favor with Clinton when she was secretary of state. That Trump was continuing to level this criticism while his namesake organization was actively pursuing new projects in Saudi Arabia not only bodes ill for his ability to separate his personal and presidential interests but also further calls into question the honesty and transparency of his campaign.
That British Wind Farm
As he indicated when he stopped there during the campaign, President Trump takes enormous pride in his recently opened golf course in Turnberry, Scotland. The day after the British public voted for Brexit—over intense Scottish opposition—Trump spoke at the property’s opening, proudly touting how the decision’s deflationary effect on the pound would benefit his business.
However, Trump also has a second golf course in Aberdeen, where it appears Trump has attempted to intercede in the interest of his own pocketbook.* According to The New York Times, Trump had a post-election meeting with Nigel Farage in which he “encouraged Mr. Farage and his entourage to oppose the kind of offshore wind farms that Mr. Trump believes will mar the pristine view from one of his two Scottish golf courses.” Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for the president, denied that the two had discussed the subject, only for Trump to later confirm that the topic had, in fact, come up in their conversation.
* This entry originally misstated that Trump intervened at Turnberry, his other golf course in Scotland. We regret the error.
Those Indian Business Partners
It didn’t take long after the election for President Trump to be seen in public with international business partners. According to a November 19 article in The New York Times, Trump took a break from his transition schedule to meet with three Indian real-estate executives who are currently building a Trump-branded apartment complex in Mumbai. According to both Trump and the Indian businessmen, the meeting was essentially congratulatory in nature; a picture posted by one of the executives on Twitter shows the four men smiling broadly and giving a thumbs-up to the camera. However, that the meeting happened in the first place suggests that Trump does not currently have any qualms about forestalling official state business for personal business.
On top of that, the meeting raises questions in the blind-trust realm as well. The president himself was not the only member of his family there; two Facebook photos show that Ivanka and Eric Trump both attended the meeting as well. Their presence serves as a reminder that their father seems so far uninterested in maintaining even the nominal separation between himself and his assets that he repeatedly said he would create during the campaign.
That Envoy From the Philippines
One leader with whom Trump already has an advantage over President Obama is Rodrigo Duterte, the similarly brash president of the Philippines. Duterte, who has threatened to “break up with America,” told Obama to “go to hell,” and called the president a “son of a whore,” expressed admiration for Trump, noting that, among other similarities, they both enjoy swearing.
Duterte’s affinity for Trump apparently goes beyond vulgar word choice. Late in October, Duterte appointed a longtime business associate of Trump’s as a special envoy to the United States, an announcement that became public shortly after the election. This appointment in particular raises questions because it is just as open to exploitation by Duterte as it is to Trump, as the Filipino president could intend to use his new envoy’s relationship with Trump to strengthen the Philippines’ hand. Whichever side the appointment does eventually benefit, however, the situation is nevertheless fraught with conflicts between the three men’s personal and political interests.
The true story of The Zookeeper’s Wife is an arresting, if somewhat familiar, narrative of heroism in the Second World War. Antonina and Jan Żabiński, the owners and operators of the Warsaw Zoo in Poland, lived in relative security during the carnage of the Nazi occupation, though their facility was robbed of its animals by the invaders. Nonetheless, the couple put themselves at great risk by hiding some 300 Polish Jews in the zoo and spiriting them to safety. It’s a noble effort that deserves remembrance, and the director Niki Caro’s handsome realization of the Żabińskis’ story mostly does the job well. So why does the film feel so airless and predictable?
Perhaps it’s that the Żabińskis’ work, while certainly worthy of veneration, is similar to other accounts that have been faithfully rendered by Hollywood over the decades. It’s one of quiet defiance in the face of tyranny and discrimination, and like many a tale of political insurgency, it may have greater resonance in this moment of growing anti-Semitism. But the film is also one that keeps its focus squarely on its heroes—particularly Antonina—to the detriment of the people she helped save. The Zookeeper’s Wife is involving at points and is often beautiful to look at, but given its subject matter it’s strangely devoid of tension.
Jessica Chastain plays Antonina, a sort of zoo savant who is introduced interrupting her own dinner party to run over to the elephant pen to help one of her animals give birth. Throughout the film, she’s never much more than a figure of unambiguous good—a helpful partner to her zookeeper husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), a doting mother to her son Ryszard (Val Maloku), and, after the war begins, a steadfast rock of hope for the many Jews she shelters in her zoo’s cavernous basements.
Chastain is luminous in the role, but not much more than that—the film’s script, by Angela Workman (based on the book by Diane Ackerman), does little to shade in her character beyond offering evidence for her boundless compassion. In the movie’s early, idyllic scenes Chastain tenderly cradles numerous exotic creatures that she seems more attached to than the denizens of Polish high society. Soon enough, though, the Nazi invasion of her country arrives, and with it, the loss of her animals, who are either shot by soldiers or shipped off to Berlin to be added to the Third Reich’s zoos.
The Zookeeper’s Wife does well to keep the grisly action and bloodshed off-screen without sacrificing its visceral impact. Caro intriguingly keeps her camera’s focus tightly on Antonina during the Nazi blitzkrieg campaign; we hear bombers buzzing overhead, but never see them. There are brief glimpses of chaos on the streets (including some escaped animals running around), but after an unsuccessful attempt to flee the city with her family, Antonina returns to the zoo and prepares for life under occupation. Chastain convincingly plays Antonina’s misery at losing her livelihood and sense of identity, as her zoo is overrun and eventually turned into a pig farm to feed German soldiers.
Caro has spoken of trying to make a “consciously feminine” Holocaust film that focuses on visual details and emotional experiences that usually go unnoticed in the genre. As such, much of The Zookeeper’s Wife is set within the gilded cage of the zoo and its extensive grounds, jumping through time as Antonina and Jan begin their project of rebellion, smuggling Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto and finding them new, safer homes as a part of Poland’s underground resistance. While Jan is at the center of the action as it were, sneaking people through tunnels and hiding them in his truck (where he collects refuse from the ghetto to feed his pigs), Antonina has her own, more delicate acts of espionage to commit.
Most of these revolve around Lutz Heck (a typically twitchy Daniel Bruhl), the German zoologist who took Warsaw’s prize animals for his own menagerie in Berlin, and then embarked on a selective-breeding program to try and revive extinct species (like the aurochs and the tarpan) as a demonstration of the power of Nazi eugenics. Heck identifies Antonina as a kindred spirit, and she uses her wiles to distract from her subterfuge, playacting as his affectionate friend to serve the greater good.
This should be a delicate enough balance to generate some real suspense, but the outcome of The Zookeeper’s Wife always feels secure; even at his most threatening, Heck feels like a petty, insignificant fool. The horrors of the Holocaust play out in the background, but Caro never has enough time to really flesh out the people Antonina and Jan are saving. Perhaps the most significant of these characters is a traumatized, mute teenage girl (Shira Haas) whom Antonina coaxes back to health, but the youth’s journey revolves more around her savior than herself.
This is not to downplay the heroism of people like Antonina and Jan Żabiński, who stood up to fascism in the face of mortal danger, and are rightly honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem (an honorific from the State of Israel for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust). While Caro tells their story with proper reverence and grace, The Zookeeper’s Wife feels like a staid history lesson even in its most wrenching moments. It’s a worthy film that fails in revealing any depth to its protagonists, remembering them for their courageousness and little more.
The discrepancies in earnings, wealth and other markers of financial success between black and white Americans are stark. Black Americans, for instance hold much less wealth and have higher rates of unemployment. But perhaps more unsettling than the gaps themselves is the fact that even as many black Americans make progress that should help bridge the divide, such as by working more hours, they have yet to see tangible or enduring economic advancement.
Valerie Wilson and Janelle Jones, economists at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, took a look at labor data for black and white workers between the years 1979 and 2015. They found that both black and white workers, between 18 and 64 years old, have increased their number of paid, annual hours of work in the past 36 years. According to the analysis by Wilson and Jones, the average black worker in 2015 put in 1,805 hours, or 12.4 percent more hours than they did in 1979. By contrast, the average white worker put in 1,888 hours, for an increase of around 11 percent. While those trajectories may seem similar, the picture looks a lot different when it comes to the lowest-wage workers in each racial group. When looking at the lowest earners, black workers have seen much more significant increases.
In both 1979 and 2015, poor black Americans worked more hours than poor white Americans. The poorest black workers have increased their annual hours of work to 1,524, a gain of 22 percent from 1979, compared to the 1,445 hours and 17 percent gain of white workers, according to EPI. Unsurprisingly, in both groups, women had the largest gains when it comes to the number of hours worked, in part because more women entered the workforce. But low-wage black women in particular have seen the largest increase in the amount they work each year of any racial, gender, or income- group combination, logging 30 percent more time on the job since 1979.
With the increased hours of labor and climbing education levels, it would stand to reason that black workers in 2015 were in a better economic position than they were in 1979—but that’s not really true. Black-white wage gaps are actually larger now than they were in 1979. The growing discrepancy is even more pronounced for the same low-income workers who are adding the most work hours. In 1979, white workers in the bottom 10 percent of earners made 3.6 percent more than black workers in the lowest income bracket. In 2015, the poorest white workers made 11.8 percent more.
Wilson and Jones say that these gains rebut critics who “blame black workers for racial wage gaps, saying that they should do anything, from getting more education to simply working harder.” Those arguments, they write, ignore the impact of racial discrimination in the labor market and perpetuate stereotypes about the work ethic of black Americans that aren’t supported by data.
For all black workers, bridging economic gaps is proving difficult. Though unemployment numbers have improved across the board, the same discrepancies persist: white Americans had an unemployment rate of only 4.5 percent at the close of 2016, but black workers had an unemployment rate of 7.9 percent. (That’s actually a relatively small gap considering that, historically, the unemployment rate among black Americans have been around double that for white Americans.)
The racial wealth gap has also widened since the Great Recession, according to Pew Research. In 2004, white families held about seven times as much wealth as black families; by 2013, that ratio had grown to 13. And economic downturns such as the Great Recession have long hit black families harder than white ones; the Economic Policy Institute observed similar effects after both the 2001 and 1990 recessions. Over time, these differences only grow: A report from the American Civil Liberties Union looking at the long-term effects of the Great Recession found that by 2031, white families will have wealth that is 31 percent lower due to losses in the recession, while Black families will have 40 percent less of their already lower wealth.
There’s reason to be concerned about these inequalities going forward. Not only do black Americans, especially poor ones, not have enough wealth to weather a shock, but they are also unemployed at higher rates. And when they do find jobs, they are often paid less and scrutinized more. The result is a cycle of economic disadvantage that’s hard to break.
Washington, D.C. (March 29, 2017)— With a new administration at the helm and Republicans dominating state legislatures from coast to coast, there is renewed debate over many fundamentals of the education system: viability of voucher programs; federal versus state and local jurisdiction; race and gender issues in schools; education quality and access for rural students. All of this leads to one central question: how will education in the United States—at all levels—be affected by our current political climate? On April 11, The Atlantic’s third annual Education Summit will critically examine the key issues facing the education system with the policymakers, educators, administrators, parents, and students that have the biggest stake in its success.
The daylong event will run from 9AM-4:15PM EST at the Newseum (555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW) and is open to press. Media interested in attending should RSVP directly to this email or call 202-266-7338.
Topics across the day will cover the future of the education reform movement; school segregation and integration; teaching politics in a climate of extreme polarization; technology in the classroom; creating a more competitive workforce; challenges surrounding rural schools; and the future of Title IX. Confirmed speakers include:
Interviews will be led by The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein, Steve Clemons, and Alia Wong; AtlanticLIVE contributor Mary Louise Kelly; and Michele Norris of the Race Card Project. Hechinger Report editor in chief Elizabeth Willen and executive editor Sarah Garland will also serve as moderators.
The program will include a series of breakout sessions covering topics including gender in the classroom, college preparedness, and technology in schools.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation are Founding Underwriters of The Atlantic’s Education Summit. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation are Contributing Level Underwriters. The event is also held in association with The Hechinger Report.
QUICK DETAILS: THE ATLANTIC’S EDUCATION SUMMIT
WHAT: The Atlantic’s third annual Education Summit will gather educators, policymakers, parents, and students together to consider the challenges and opportunities facing the American education system. Topics to be covered include: quality early childhood education programs, school segregation and integration, technology implementation in the classroom, the purpose and future of higher education, and more.
WHEN: Tuesday, April 11; 9:00 AM-4:15 PM EST (*timing subject to change*)
WHERE: Newseum, Knight Conference Center (555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW)
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In 1763 London, Harlots baldly reveals in its opening scene, one in five women made a living by selling sex. It’s a provocative statistic that—coupled with images of petticoats trailing in the filthy streets and corseted bosoms thrust skyward—sets the series up to be a genially bawdy historical drama. But Harlots, a co-production with ITV that debuts on Hulu Wednesday, is something more complex. Created by Alison Newman and Moira Buffini, it takes an unflinchingly clear-eyed look at the 18th-century sex trade, seen from the perspective of the women who participate in its frequently brutal and unforgiving hierarchy. It doesn’t romanticize sex work, but neither does it ignore the realities of an economy that left women with few other options.
In that, Harlots mostly pulls off a tricky balance of substance and tone. It’s infinitely more jocular than Starz’s 2016 show The Girlfriend Experience, which undertook a similarly ambiguous and anatomical analysis of sex work, but no less thoughtful when it comes to the dynamics of sex and power. Margaret Wells (the superbly accomplished Samantha Morton) is a “bawd” (a brothel keeper) in Covent Garden, with aspirations of setting up a more refined shop in Soho. Her girls operate a strata above the women working on the street, but are looked down upon by Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), who runs a higher-class establishment for noblemen. Loftier still is Margaret’s daughter Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay, better known as Downton Abbey’s Lady Sybil), who’s become the mistress to a buffoon of an aristocrat (Fleabag’s Hugh Skinner).
Mrs. Quigley is a cheerful villain, locking women in their rooms at night, tricking wide-eyed innocents new to London into giving up their freedom, and subjecting her girls to sexual and physical violence. Margaret is harder to categorize. Her actions are often monstrous—the first episode shows her auctioning off the virginity of her 15-year-old daughter Lucy (Eloise Smyth) at the opera—but she’s more altruistic as a boss, and reluctant to see her daughters enter the same business she was sold into at 10 by her mother for “a pair of shoes.” While the role doesn’t give Morton the same room to flex her acting muscles as, say, Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, she gives depth and moral conflict to a character who could easily be a pantomime dame in the wrong hands.
Harlots is adamant about depicting sex from the point of view of its female characters, which means it’s anything but sexy (its writers and directors are all women). From a distance, the scenes might resemble the choreographed background couplings of Game of Thrones or True Detective, but they’re more realistically awkward close-up. Lucy, whose virginity is sold not once but twice, hasn’t yet learned to fake enjoyment as efficiently as her older sister, and her visible discomfort is painful to watch. Her contrast with Charlotte’s enthusiastic responses serves as a pointed reminder of how often pleasure is a performance, both onscreen and off. It’s an antidote to the mindless abuse of women in so many prestige dramas, but not an easy one to digest.
Harlots is thoughtful, too, in its portrayal of how easily women can be persuaded to participate in the abuse of other women when there are no other means of power available. “Damn you for a stupid slut, you need to be his property,” Margaret tells Charlotte in one scene. “Men don’t respect whores.” Later, she laments how “money is a woman’s only power in this world.” Even the aristocratic wife of Charlotte’s nobleman isn’t immune, telling Charlotte that her husband is frittering away her fortune on his mistress, though in the eyes of the law, it’s his to spend. For the most part, the show takes a dim view of its male characters, although Margaret’s dependable and understanding partner (Danny Sapani) is a notable exception.
After the first two episodes, the show loses some of its momentum. There isn’t really an overarching plot leading anywhere, beyond a conspiracy among noblemen to despoil virgins that’s only loosely gestured at, and Margaret’s ongoing attempts to elevate her business. In that, it sometimes feels structured more like a British soap opera than a prestige-TV miniseries. But it’s fun nevertheless to engage with the characters of Harlots, who are vividly written, outspoken, and frank. “I’m clawing my way upward in the world, Mr. Gibbon, not down,” Margaret tells a john in one of the earliest scenes, after the girls have perused their reviews in Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies—a real publication that inspired the show. It’s perhaps not quite how Sheryl Sandberg envisioned leaning in, but it’s a gratifying 18th-century approximation.
In January, Benoît Hamon, the far-left politician, beat out former Prime Minister Manuel Valls to lead the French Socialist Party’s ticket in next month’s presidential contest, but you wouldn’t know it by some of the party members’ endorsements.
In the past few weeks, Socialist leaders like Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defense minister, and Thierry Braillard, the sports minister, have thrown their support behind Hamon’s independent rival Emmanuel Macron, signaling a divide within a party already bruised by the deeply unpopular presidency of François Hollande. This division only widened Wednesday after Valls announced his decision to defect from the Socialists and endorse Macron—a candidate he once dismissed as “populism-lite.” Valls told French broadcaster BFMTV that his decision “isn’t out of love for the candidate” but rather “about being reasonable.”
But for Hamon, the lack of support from his party’s more centrist members may not be such a bad thing. The 49-year-old Brittany native has actively tried to distance himself from the current Socialist government, in which he briefly served as finance and education minister before quitting in August 2014, citing opposition to the government’s more centrist economic policies. In response, Hollande reportedly asked: “What would Benoît Hamon be without the Socialist Party?,” to which he himself answered, “Not much.”
Hamon has long represented the far-left of the center-left party—a role that has earned him comparisons to Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the U.K. Labour party. His more than 100-point platform, which Hamon says aims to “make France’s heart beat,” would reduce the 35-hour working week by three hours, impose a “robot tax” on automatization that replaces workers with machines, and establish a universal basic income of 750 euros ($815) for all citizens—an endeavor opponents say could cost as much as 400 billion euros a year (though Hamon estimates it will cost closer to 300 billion euros).
It’s a platform many of his critics have described as utopian. It’s also one Dr. David Lees, a researcher on French politics at Warwick University, says could sway the more left-leaning voters who make up the party’s base.
“He's essentially saying, ‘I’m going to break the status quo. I’m going to break with what's come beforehand’ in terms of the Socialist party and create something new there,” Lees told me in an interview. “That certainly will appeal to some people who are very much disillusioned with François Hollande and his legacy.”
Though Hamon’s left-leaning platform may successfully distance himself from his deeply unpopular predecessor, it does little to solve another challenge: distinguishing himself from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the similarly far-left candidate. The 63-year-old former education minister and veteran Socialist politician quit the party after 35 years in 2008 to create the Parti de Gauche, or Left Party. In this current presidential bid, however, Mélenchon has no formal party backing, opting instead to run under the banner of a movement he calls La France insoumise, or “Unsubmissive France.”
“Mélenchon is very radical or perceived to be very radical,” Lees said. “Hamon therefore really needs to push more toward the right, but he seems to be instead careering really toward the left.”
This lack of differentiation is probably best seen in opinion polls, which earlier this month put both candidates neck-and-neck for fourth place behind Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate and first-round frontrunner, Macron, the independent candidate and Le Pen’s projected second-round rival, and François Fillon, the center-right Republican candidate. And though both candidates reportedly entertained talks of forming an alliance last month, they failed to reach an agreement. Since the candidates’ first televised debate last week, in which they sparred for the same pool of voters, Hamon has fallen behind in polls, with an Ifop poll Monday showing him taking 10.5 percent of the vote compared to Mélenchon’s 14 percent.
Though neither candidate is expected to advance to the election’s second round of voting in May, a loss to Mélenchon would be a major blow to an already fragmented Socialist party.
“The Socialists are really done for at the moment,” Lees said. “They need a bit of time to kind of regroup and reshape themselves as the center-right did post-Hollande. ... They’ll probably need to rethink their image a bit.”
In some ways, he added, Hamon never really stood a chance.
“I think it could be anyone instead of Hamon,” Less said, “and it wouldn’t make a huge amount of difference.”
In I Contain Multitudes, Atlantic writer Ed Yong synthesizes hundreds of papers to dispel the fear of microbes. Only a small amount of microbes have the ability to make us sick. The other hundreds of thousands of species live symbiotically within us. “We have been tilting at microbes for too long,” says Yong. “And created a world that is hostile to the ones we need.” Bill Gates sits down with Yong to discuss the new book and the fascinating microbiome.
Yong’s I Contain Multitudes is a New York Times Bestseller. To learn more of Gates’ impression of the book, visit his article on gatesnotes, “You Should Appreciate Germs”.
Over the last few years, Rhode Island has emerged as a national leader in the drive to put personalized-learning programs into actual classroom practice. Now education leaders in Providence, the state’s capital and most populous city, are looking to scale their early efforts statewide, pushing district leaders to think bigger about pilot programs and technological infrastructure, while also commissioning new research on how an understudied learning model could drive student performance.
The state’s six-month-old, $2 million public-private personalized-learning initiative is capitalizing on the freedom afforded by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—the nation’s federal education law, which returns significant power to the states—to chart and test how personalized instructional techniques can be delivered to its 140,000 K-12 students. Broadly speaking, personalized learning tailors the instruction, content, pace, and testing to the individual student’s strengths and interests, using technology, data, and continuous feedback to make that customization possible.
The ability for states to more fully explore innovation through technology and curriculum paths separate from traditional reading, writing, and math—rather than following the federal government’s lead—was a key aspect of ESSA’s original intent. In shifting authority and autonomy back to local leaders, the education law, which replaced No Child Left Behind, earned widespread support from a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers; former President Barack Obama even dubbed its passage in 2015 a “Christmas miracle.”
“Could you do some of this stuff before ESSA?” asks Richard Culatta, Rhode Island’s chief innovation officer and the former director of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education. “Certainly it would have been possible, but it would have been harder to do. With our additional flexibility, we are up at the front of the line taking advantage of it.”
Rhode Island is accepting applications for its new Lighthouse program, giving schools the opportunity to apply—through a challenge process—to serve as school-wide personalized-learning models. Already in that pipeline are the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a public charter-school network that uses the Summit Basecamp learning platform at its Blackstone Valley Prep. The free digital-learning platform, created by Summit charter schools and Facebook, provides curriculum, student projects, and teacher resources and support to some 130 schools, 1,100 teachers, and 20,000 students.
“Our goal is to meet the kids where they are and help them be their best; that has been our charge from the beginning,” says the Blackstone executive director, Jeremy Chiappetta. “In order to meet them where they are, you need to understand where they are across a broad spectrum, and you have to be able to track it and push people.”
Chiappetta points to Blackstone as a key incubator that will inform and shape the state’s larger personalized-learning vision. “We need to be a proof point,” Chiappetta says, “an open door for others to learn from us and give feedback to the Rhode Island initiative. It is really powerful and we are helping fulfill the vision as others are exploring.”
The Lighthouse program is funded in part by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a three-year $3 billion investment by the pediatrician Priscilla Chan and her husband, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, to advance science and education. Other funders include the Jaquelin Hume Foundation, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, and the Overdeck Family Foundation.
Rhode Island hopes to have the pilot schools vetted and chosen by this summer, with the goal of implementing a personalized-learning program by the start of the 2017-18 school year.
“We are providing resources to help them build out their plans,” Culatta says. “We will select a couple of schools to win the challenge and want to help a broader number of schools to build plans. Even if we can’t fund them [all], it leaves them with a solid step to build out a plan on their own.”
Culatta is working closely with Daniela Fairchild, the director of education for Governor Gina Raimondo’s office of innovation. The office, a quasi-governmental agency working with educators across the state to spur, seed, and accelerate innovation through technology, released a paper in late February that tackled the uneasy task of defining personalized learning for every educator in Rhode Island, further solidifying the three essential components that have been laid out by the U.S. Department of Education: pace of learning, definite learning objectives for each student, and defined instructional approaches.
“The paper is great to create common understanding,” Fairchild said. “Action steps that came out of the paper, the big things, were folks wanting to get connected to more research, to answer some specific questions around implementation, and to see locally some real examples and models of personalized learning.”
Last month, in an interview with EdSurge, Fairchild laid out the broader plan, that the state is looking to “leverage our work with our partners to scale personalized learning, and become the first state in the nation with a new model on a systemic level.”
That system-wide model will also be constructed using new personalized-learning research. Fairchild says the state is now building a network that will pair higher-education researchers to the K-12 practitioners who are implementing the plans in the classrooms. A key component of this network is that it will extend beyond education researchers, connecting elementary- and high-school educators with academics from a variety of disciplines.”
“We are connecting so practitioners are getting answers in real time,” Fairchild says. “If it is just education [researchers], you miss out on network approaches, organizational structures, social networks, cognitive sciences, and so many other disciplines. We are hoping to break down some of those silos and connect some of those [other] researchers.”
Existing research on personalized learning is limited in both depth and scope, and often tied to smaller efforts. According to Education Week, the most comprehensive study to date was conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2015, studying how personalized learning shaped the learning of 11,000 students across 62 schools.
“The results look fairly promising,” says John Pane, one of the Rand researchers, “but the research method is vulnerable to bias. There was evidence of promise that suggests it could be positive, but more work has to be done.”
Pane says giving students more individualized attention has proven powerful in past research, but scaling personalized learning with technology presents a new, modern method that simply hasn’t been tested. Studying entire schools that are looking to implement the approach across the board offers an ideal research opportunity.
A major component of Rhode Island’s research will focus on the role of technology in facilitating and measuring learning at a student’s desired pace. State leaders say that rolling out of personalized learning plans to every student in a given school will help define that sweet spot.
“One thing we say, kind of jokingly, is one of the biggest challenges is: When do you use technology? And the second challenge is: When do you not use technology enough?” Culatta says. “Finding that balance is really key.”
Critics of personalized learning argue that too much faith has been placed in the use of technology altogether as it relates to student learning and that putting students in charge of their own learning paths and the pace at which they tackle and master new information can be counterproductive.
“I am of the view that we created the profession we call ‘teaching’ largely to solve this problem [choosing how and what to study],” writes Benjamin Riley, the founder of Deans for Impact. “Students need to be guided down the path of their learning. Teachers should remain central to the activity of imparting knowledge to students.”
Anecdotally, education leaders across Rhode Island—including the head of Providence Public Schools, the state’s largest district—say that they’ve already seen the benefits of a personalized-instruction approach that gives schools greater autonomy.
“Providence is committed to school-based autonomy, with each school involved in choosing its own technology and instructional methods to support personalized learning,” says Christopher N. Maher, the district’s superintendent. “By owning these choices, school leaders and teachers truly buy into personalized-learning concepts and practices. Through professional development led by groups such as Summit Schools and the Highlander Institute [a Providence-based education nonprofit], our teachers and administrators have learned how to use real-time student data to shape instruction so that they can meet each child where that child is at academically.”
Maher sees this personalized-learning approach increasing engagement on both sides of the classroom. Educators are better able to focus their time and attention on helping students with problem areas and lessons that have them struggling, while kids have a greater sense of control over the pacing and direction of their learning.
“Personalized-learning technology helps students choose subjects they find personally meaningful and culturally relevant,” he said. “In Providence, the push toward personalized learning has led to greater student voice, with students and teachers working side by side to create a new ethnic studies curriculum now piloted in a number of our schools this year.”
Leaders say that as the state has invested more time, energy, and money in these personalized-learning efforts, Rhode Island educators have embraced the challenge of turning the conceptual into the commonplace.
“There are already a lot of groups thinking about this and doing a lot good work,” Culatta says. “How do we help push and really expand the implementation?”
Beginning this fall, Rhode Island is poised to find out.
This story appears courtesy of The74Million.org.