How Trump could really 'drain the swamp'

Trump postpones news conference on business empire
Trump postpones news conference on business empire

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    Trump postpones news conference on business empire

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Trump postpones news conference on business empire 02:11

Story highlights

  • Sheila Krumholz: It's not just outsiders Trump picks who will keep him from "draining swamp," it's his vast potential conflicts
  • She says if Trump does not divest, his business becomes our business. Nation won't see any benefits, but will reap the fallout

Sheila Krumholz is the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money, politics and influence in Washington. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)In his 2008 campaign, presidential candidate Barack Obama found that fiery speeches about the damaging role of special interest influence, lobbyists and the need to "change the culture in Washington" were enormously popular on the campaign trail. More recently, President-elect Donald Trump was even more successful in employing even more sweeping assurances about, as he put it, "draining the swamp."

Sheila Krumholz
If only it were so easy. Unfortunately, governing is different from making promises on the campaign trail. As Obama and others have found, these particular problems -- of influence peddling -- are deeply entrenched.
And this time, the distance between the candidate's promises and his actions post-election is looking more like a chasm. The shock and concern about Trump's break with decades of US foreign policy to speak with Taiwan's President was compounded by the revelation that it resulted from six months and $140,000 worth of behind-the-scenes work by former Sen. Bob Dole, now a lobbyist for the law firm Alston & Bird.
But far more than the lobbyists and insiders who make it a challenge for anyone to "drain the swamp," it's Trump himself, and his massive portfolio of investments, that threatens to torpedo his pledge. The sheer size, scale and breadth of his holdings at home and abroad is so overwhelming, it would be more surprising if at some point conflicts of interest didn't arise.
We already have every reason to be cautious and vigilant about the influence that Trump's investments and business partners (particularly foreign business partners) may have on shaping US policy; his business interests touch at least 18 countries that we know about. It doesn't take much imagination to see how the opportunity to use policy decisions to benefit financially might be easily rationalized.
Now add Trump's disinclination toward transparency. While all presidential candidates, including Trump, are required to file personal financial disclosure reports, those forms don't present a complete picture. He has said many times that he's worth around $10 billion. To verify this, we would need to see his tax returns, which, unlike all other presidential nominees of the last 40 years, he has refused to release.
Nevertheless, Trump is a very, very wealthy man -- worth around $3.7 billion, according to Forbes. And like many of the ultra-rich, his holdings are very, very complicated. The resorts, hotels, businesses, investments and other trappings of wealth (like homes, planes and helicopters) are held in trusts within trusts, like Russian nesting dolls. Tough to map it all out, even for an investigative journalist or private investigator, much less the average American trying to understand where his commitments lie and to whom he might be beholden.
And those are the "known unknowns." What about the unknown unknowns? Are there business commitments, debts or ethical compromises involving Trump, his companies or his children that we are completely in the dark about?
If he is unwilling to divest his business or put everything in a blind trust, will questions about potential self-dealing continue to dog his administration and distract from his successes? Could foreign governments have damaging information about his dealings that he would not want disclosed publicly; information they could use as leverage in negotiations?
If Trump refuses to fully and meaningfully divest, are Americans then forced to place trust in him completely, ceding our ability and right to verify that he is advancing the public and national interest ahead of his own?
And what if he does divest -- shouldn't that also extend to his children? Even if he transfers all control of his conglomerate to them, what changes? He may be less distracted by the business, but no less partial to its success. The very same potential for priorities that are skewed to favor Trump holdings, and the potential for those concerns to undermine US policy, will continue to exist.
Trump's nominees for top government posts are raising similar concerns. Like Trump, many of them are multimillionaires and billionaires, the latest including yet another Goldman Sachs financier, Gary Cohn, for National Economic Council, and Rex Tillerson, the head of ExxonMobil, for the State Department. Everyone is focused on whether they, too, will bring conflicts of interest too difficult to parse.
Aren't all these elites, many of them major political donors, creatures of the swamp Trump was supposed to drain?
To make sense of all of this, we will require information, information that Trump has been loath to provide. Love him or hate him, we need public pressure on Trump and his administration to be transparent, and diligent probing of documents and sources by researchers and journalists (like ours at OpenSecrets.org) to know whether the swamp is actually getting more crowded.
We think Trump must divest his business, but we're in uncharted territory, so perhaps reasonable people can disagree. But one thing is certain: If Trump does not divest, his business becomes our business. We won't see any of the financial benefits, but our nation will reap the consequences nonetheless.