Forget the Nunes memo — where's the transparency with Trump’s personal finances?

Forget the Nunes memo — where's the transparency with Trump’s personal finances?
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Last week’s flap over the Nunes memo has brought to light something interesting. I refer to the Republicans apparently newfound interest in “transparency” on the part of public officials.

This has me thinking that it’s time to request more transparency on something else — Trump’s personal finances, which have more national security significance even than the Nunes memo.

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First a brief bit of background. Many readers will recall that when Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaNational security leaders: Trump's Iran strategy could spark war The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump questions Kavanaugh accuser's account | Accuser may testify Thursday | Midterm blame game begins Dems look to Gillum, Abrams for pathway to victory in tough states MORE was president many who disagreed with his policies sought to undermine his constitutional legitimacy. This they did by suggesting he’d not been born in the U.S. “Show us your birth certificate,” these so-called birthers demanded.

 

Among the “birthers,” of course, was Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Groups plan mass walkout in support of Kavanaugh accuser MORE, whose entry into presidential politics effectively commenced with his public “birtherism.”

Now, perhaps partly as “payback” for that sorry episode, many Trump detractors last month began calling themselves “girthers.” This they did in response to medical reports to the effect that Trump weighed nearly the same as do many active professional sports figures. But rather than “birthers” or “girthers,” I think, we should all become what I’ll call “worthers.”

Here’s what I mean. Much of Trump’s claim to authority lies in his public identity as a putatively successful “business tycoon.” Since America’s principal woes of late have been economic in character, the pitch has been, who better to be president than a legendary business mogul?

Since those woes are in turn rooted in bad trade and immigration deals, the pitch has continued, who better to be president than a great dealmaker? And finally, the pitch has concluded, since our bad deals and bad politics are themselves rooted in candidates’ dependence on rich donors, who better to be president than an “independently wealthy” candidate beholden to no one?

But what if Trump isn’t the “independently wealthy” business marvel he claims to be? What if he’s actually bankrupt? What if his net worth is zero or, worse yet, less than zero? What if he owes more than he owns?

There is, it emerges, reason to think this is so. We know Trump has filed for bankruptcy multiple times during his business career. We also have him on record lamenting to his daughter that a homeless man they both passed on the street likely had higher net worth than he had.

Last week yet another aggrieved Trump counter-party in a transaction placed a third lien on a Trump hotel, raising its total in unpaid bills to over $5 million. Are these the sorts of developments that one routinely witnesses in the lives of successful businesses?

Were Trump’s debts actually to exceed his assets, a number of otherwise puzzling behaviors would suddenly make sense. First there is his continuing refusal to be transparent with his tax returns — a refusal that is unprecedented among modern presidents. Next there is his continuing refusal to remonstrate with the Russian government over meddling in our 2016 election. Might Trump be being kept financially afloat by Russian oligarchs whom he cannot afford to offend?

Finally there is Trump’s unprecedented “monetization” of his presidency itself, both by opening a Trump hotel near the White House and by hosting official events on Trump properties. This practice has drawn much attention for its evident violation of the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

But it is as puzzling as it is scandalous, for a truly rich man taking office in old age would have no need to profiteer further and every wish to be remembered for something more noble.

A man who is bankrupt, on the other hand, might well make use of an office as valuable as the presidency to get himself back into the black for family and reputation.

The public will do well, then, to look into the president’s actual finances.

Obviously we cannot know, at this point, whether he’s solvent or not. But a man whose entire claim to renown and to office rests on a reputation for business prowess will be tempted to do anything he can to prevent actual business failure, and beholdenness to foreign oligarchs, from becoming public. And we whom he claims to serve must know whether he’s subject to that dangerous temptation.

We must demand both that Trump cease hiding his tax returns and that he not interfere with the Mueller investigation that will ultimately determine whether foreign oligarchs bankroll him. Until we have clarity on this, I for one shall be what I’ll call a “worther.”

Robert Hockett is a Edward Cornell Professor of Law at Cornell University and senior counsel at Westwood Capital in New York. He is also a Fellow at The Century Foundation.