One of the more remarkable things about Donald Trump's presidency is how much of the outrageous stuff we so quickly began to take for granted. Take emoluments, for example — a wonderful word that most Americans (myself included) didn't even know existed before November 8, 2016. Simply put, emoluments are a payment from a foreign government or entity aimed at influencing policy makers here at home.
The reason you never heard about "emoluments" before about 16 months ago was because no modern U.S. president was even in the ballpark of doing this. It's not that it was never anticipated that a wealthy individual, even a billionaire, would reach the White House. What no one imagined was that a new POTUS like Trump would defy every ethical demand to sell his business holdings or at least put them in a blind trust that would be beyond the day-to-day control or knowledge of Trump or his family. Instead, Donald Trump continues to own — and his two oldest sons continue to run — a sweeping business operation including hotels and resorts that have been used by foreign governments and related entities that would also have an interest in currying favor with the government that Trump heads.
Late last month, The Trump Organization claimed that it donated profits from its dealings with foreign governments to the U.S. treasury. Claimed, because there was no information about how much was paid, when the payment was made, or which governments were involved. The leader of a good-government group called the mystery payment and the lack of disclosure "woefully inadequate" — which is a gross understatement. But let's be honest: Even though the president is hitting a true ethical low here, "emoluments" is not going to be the issue that leads to Trump's impeachment, let alone his removal from office. It looks terrible, but it's probably too squishy for most voters to care about, or Congress for that matter. Kuwait throwing a big shindig at Trump's D.C. hotel looks as sleazy as hell, but lacking a clear quid pro quo the issue will never cut through all the Trump-fried chaos.
So what would bring a slam dunk impeachment of our increasingly unsettled 45th president? What if there really was a quid pro quo, a clear case where official U.S. policy, either foreign or domestic, actually changed because of the myriad financial doings of the extended Trump family. This possibility has long hovered over the Trump-Russia probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is said to be looking at Trump's business dealings in the unanswered questions about whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in its 2016 election meddling.
But news reports suggest another possible quid pro quo may have been hiding in plain sight — the beyond-Shakespearean tangled web of the presidential son-in-law and unlikely Middle East peace genius, Jared Kushner. Ivanka Trump's husband — he of the tiny resume but a huge White House portfolio that is basically … everything, short of curing certain types of cancer — is a man who, like his father-in-law, has retained many of his messy business ties. He's also now dealing with authoritarian regimes from Riyadh to Beijing. What could go wrong? You don't think the unqualified Harvard admittee would be some dumb as to mix those two things?
You see, Jared Kushner has a devil of a problem that ye shall know as "666" — 666 5th Avenue, a massive skyscraper that the young Kushner — looking to assert himself, with his dad and family patriarch Charles Kushner dealing with his own past sins — bought for their development firm for $1.8 billion at the very height of a real-estate bubble in 2007. The Kushners were able to stave off disaster with a $1 billion 10-year loan that will be due … any day now. Suitors offering a bailout were few and far between … until Kushner's father-in-law was elected president.
Since last November, Kushner has met with a who's who of Bankers-To-The-Dictators, including a shadowy financier with close ties to Russia's Vladimir Putin and the since-downgraded insurance gurus with connections with China's repressive regime. Problematic, although it seems nothing came of these. In recent days, though, there's been an avalanche of new information about America's uncrowned prince and why he can't seem to get a top-secret security clearance from the FBI; one report from the Washington Post says intelligence agents in as many as four countries — Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico as well as China — were talking about how to leverage the financially compromised Kushner and the Trump White House.
Then there's the matter of the tiny kingdom of Qatar, a key U.S. ally — well, it was, anyway — in the Persian Gulf some 6,782 miles from Philadelphia, yet possibly at the heart of the Kushner-Trump woes. Last week, the Intercept reported that Jared's ex-convict dad, Charles Kushner, met privately in April 2017 with Qatari finance minister Ali Sharif Al Emadi — one of two meetings he had with Qatari officials regarding the never-ending drama at 666 5th Avenue. No deal was reached, which is significant.
Why? Because within a matter of weeks, something happened involving Qatar and U.S. policy in the Middle East that made no apparent sense at the time. Remember, Qatar is a key American ally in the oil-rich region — so much so that 11,000 U.S. troops are currently based there in our largest military base in the Persian Gulf. It seems like we'd want to be on their good side. Instead, five key Arab nations — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (now accused of seeking leverage with Jared Kushner … remember?), Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen — moved sharply against Qatar in early June 2017, cutting off diplomatic ties with the tiny oil state and curbing travel. And President Trump stunned even some on his own foreign policy team by hailing those acts, even seeming to take credit.
Look, indeed! Top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, seemingly sought to reassure Qatar after the Twitter blast, and the New York Times reported that the president's surprising stance "sowed confusion about America's strategy and its intentions toward a key military partner." Did the Kushner's failed business dealings with Qatar weigh on Trump's mind as he met with key Saudi and UAE officials last spring and urged actions at odds with longstanding U.S. policy? Or consider it in reverse: Would Team Trump be praising the diplomatic isolation of Qatar if that nation had just bailed out Jared and Charles Kushner days earlier?
Either way, the implications are stunning. This is the worst nightmare for those who feared Trump's presidency and that his business connections would somehow get entangled with government actions and policy. Frankly, America should be re-thinking its policies in the Middle East — but hopefully not on the basis of Charles and Jared Kushner's debt crisis. Even if there were no connection between the White House policy on Qatar and 666 5th Avenue, the appearance is already a scandal. Anything worse should result in Trump's impeachment.
It's worth noting that the Qatar problem is similar to the allegations at the core of the Trump-Russia scandal — that a Trump presidency would lift crippling economic sanctions on Putin's regime and possibly offer less confrontational policies toward Ukraine or in Syria, in return for either election help or favorable business deals for Trump or his allies. It's also important to point out these matters are still under investigation and that nothing has been proved definitely, but the bad appearances are piling up. Here's another lead for Team Mueller: The New Yorker's Jane Mayer reported this week that investigator Christopher Steele of the notorious Trump dossier — a lot of which is increasingly checking out — said he also heard from a high-level Russian source that Mitt Romney's candidacy to become Trump's secretary of state was nixed … by Putin himself. That an allegation that Russia's autocratic leader has veto power over the U.S. cabinet seems remotely credible shows how far we've fallen into the Trump rabbit hole.