The president likes a deal, and this is a moment for Republicans, who are beginning to show some spine, to make one. How about they work with Trump on his trade war — or is it a trade skirmish? He can have naming rights in exchange for his opening up the books on his and Ivanka’s continued business dealings, in particular those with China.
Congress has negotiating power right now with Trump given that he’s in the hole over his impulsive, unilateral proposal to lift sanctions on Chinese telecom giant ZTE. This came in too-close-for-comfort proximity to Ivanka getting seven trademarks in a month from China worth millions, bringing to 13 her total over the last year. The Chinese love celebrity goods, but not that much. With Trump and Ivanka having so many intermingled interests — in business, in government, in a father-favorite daughter relationship, it’s no wonder there’s curiosity mingled with suspicion about how they are handling it all, and whether they’re working solely for the country and not for themselves.
A look at the ZTE proposal is a case in point. Even for Trump of the Instant North Korean Summit that may yield a hamburger franchise, cooking up this deal with Xi on his own was remarkable. There was no interagency review. He didn’t get the go ahead from anyone in his Cabinet, nor his economic advisers. He simply announced by tweet, “President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost.”
Who knew? The Commerce Department had just put the sanctions on; they were hardly going to lift them. And the usually quiescent Congress, which can see its way clear to go along with a bogus conspiracy at the FBI and blaming Democrats for children going missing at the border, couldn’t stay quiet on a sweetheart deal with the Chinese. On Face the Nation this past Sunday, Sen. Marco Rubio said he spoke with Trump on Friday and still didn’t understand why he wanted to let ZTE off the hook. The Florida Republican said he viewed ZTE as part of China’s effort “to overtake the United States by stealing and by cheating and they’re not going to stop until they know there are real consequences for doing it.” As of a few weeks ago, Trump couldn’t have put it better.
As usual, there is collateral damage when the president goes rogue. As first reported by BuzzFeed, an assistant secretary of Commerce was frog-marched out of the building last week by security just as ZTE was becoming a problem. The White House doesn’t comment on personnel matters but it’s curious that Erin Walsh — a former Goldman Sachs executive, respected global economist concerned about trade and China, and Senate-confirmed official — would be treated this way at the moment Trump needs someone with a title to believe saving ZTE is a good idea. Trump lamented last week how many bright-eyed people (he’s thinking Michael Flynn) came to Washington to serve only to be cruelly ruined by the press. The bright-eyed person at Commerce wasn’t ruined by the press. She was ruined by the president.
Right now, there’s no congressional oversight and no real ethics review given that the head of that office resigned in frustration at how little the Trumps were willing to divulge and how unwilling to change their M.O. from hustling out of Trump Tower to governing in the White House.
Trump should be willing to put more transparency on the table for help in his erratic effort to improve the trade deficit with China,, especially when he needs Congress to make room for his friends and family program. One day it’s steel and aluminum and soybeans, the next day he loves the 747 and farmers too much for that. That’s more at play when it comes to keeping XiI in the mood to look kindly on Ivanka, whose success is dependent on Beijing’s largesse. Clothing already has a carve out. Perfume, throw pillows, housewares — there’s hardly an end to the need for trademarks. Dad already proved invaluable when Ivanka sat in on a meeting with Xi at Mar-a-Lago early in the administration. A raft of trademarks was forthcoming.
It’s unusual for Trump to be confronted about his conflicts. There are so many of them, and so many other scandals that there’s just not enough ink to spill on all of them. His hotel gets scrutiny because there it sits a few blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., a show of conflict every night as people pay $50 for a hamburger and $700 for a room to bank credit with the president should it ever be needed. Ethics experts are certain this violates the Constitution when it comes to foreign officials. So far no one’s been able — or willing — to do anything about it.
It’s even more unusual for Ivanka to be questioned about her conflicts. She may be a White House adviser and famous business executive but she’s treated more like a first daughter in her teenage years deserving protection from the meanies in the press. On Tuesday, when a question about her new trademarks came up in a conference call about a White House sports initiative, she dropped off the line, according to The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman. Reporters couldn’t see that Ivanka was wearing her unpaid adviser hat, not her Trump Inc. one available with free shipping on her website. HuffPost recently reported that Ivanka took in $1.5 million from the Trump Organization since her father became president.
Trump may well have to come to the bargaining table involuntarily. If Trump doesn’t drop the ZTE thing altogether, Republican senators are threatening to thwart him with legislation passed by a supermajority that can’t be vetoed. Think of the last time they posed any such resistance. How’s never?
So really. Can’t we all get along, if not on Mueller, or Sessions, or Roseanne Barr, on taking a knee or building a wall, at least on the Trumps coming clean on their business affairs in China so that Congress can get more of a grip on what’s right and what isn’t?
There is no saying for sure that Ivanka got her trademarks because Trump plotted with Xi to rescue ZTE. But until the Trumps give Congress a glimpse behind the curtain, the burden of proof is on the president and his daughter to prove otherwise.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.