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Bill Straub: White House turned into ATM machine and other ugly stuff; McConnell’s getting fleas

Any attempt to pinpoint President Trump’s most grievous sin against the body politic is rather like picking out one particular star in a moonless night sky – the process could continue forever.

A simple recitation of the known violence the president has perpetrated upon the nation he was chosen to serve would sate an entire column even without the usual smart-aleck asides. There is, of course, the Mueller investigation to determine if the Trump presidential campaign in some manner cooperated with the Russians to help The Donald defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in November 2016. Then there’s his rather clumsy attempt to obstruct justice by firing James Comey after he asked the now former FBI director to put the kibosh on an investigation of his then national security advisor Michael Flynn.

From there it’s a short hop, skip and a jump to the pay-off of Stormy Daniels, the porn star who maintains she had sex with the billionaire businessman shortly after his now wife, Melania, gave birth to their son. And, of course, there’s always using his position in an effort to punish those he sees as his enemies – pressuring the U.S. Postal Service to raise the mailing rates on Amazon, the corporation owned by Jeff Bezos, who also happens to own The Washington Post, a newspaper that has been tracking him down like a bloodhound.

We could continue to paint this ugly picture but you get the point. Trump has turned 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. into a house of horrors, and we’re not even making reference to the many outrages he has managed on the public policy stage, which is enough to give anyone the heebie-jeebies.

Mar-A-Lago, Palm Beach

But there is still one scandal that hasn’t received the attention it deserves – Trump using his position to further enrich himself, transforming the Oval Office into something approaching his own personal ATM machine.

Since assuming office, before that, even, Trump has been giddily thumbing his nose at what is known as the Emoluments Clause, a fancy way of saying the president of these here United States is playing the American people for a bunch of suckers.

For the uninitiated, the Emoluments Clause, found tucked into Article 1, Section 9, of the U.S. Constitution, prohibits the president from using his high position to line his pockets, essentially by collecting tributes – known in New Jersey, at least, as graft – “from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

In order to avoid even the appearance of using the office of the president for personal gain, previous chief executives have either sold their business interests, placed them in a blind trust or taken some similar steps to assure the public he didn’t enter the game for the money. Not Trump. He has stepped down from running his $3 billion business empire – at least that’s what he claims – and turned day-to-day operations over to his son. But he still maintains an ownership interest in his properties and can quickly determine whether they’re prospering to his satisfaction.

And he’s doing his best to make sure his palm gets greased regularly. Trump is constantly promoting his businesses and foreign ministers, who often want or need some assistance from the United States and generally are not stupid, realize it might prove beneficial to pay some sort of homage to one of the president’s business holdings to at least get their foot in the door.

So it goes that foreign interests are flocking to the Trump International Hotel, the old Post Office building in downtown Washington DC, paying exorbitant room rates and $250 for a shot of 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle at Benjamin’s Bar and Lounge where you can occasionally find more well-coifed businessmen speaking Russian rather than English.

Foreign interests are flocking to the joint. According to Time magazine, during one six-month period, “lobbyists working on behalf of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia ran up a $270,000 tab on rooms, catering, and parking, according to foreign lobbying disclosures.’’

That stretch “coincided with a Saudi lobbying push against legislation that would allow victims of terrorist attacks to sue foreign governments,’’ Time reported, adding that Trump chose Riyadh as his first foreign stop as president, “where he announced an arms deal, gave a major foreign policy speech and participated in a traditional ceremonial sword dance.’’

Governments from nations like Bahrain, Kuwait and Azerbaijan have staged events at the hotel, thus contributing to Trump’s already bloated bank account. The latest is the Philippines, which intends to hold an Independence Day gala at the facility in June.

The Trump International isn’t the only holding that has experienced an uptick in business. The Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where Trump often spends weekends golfing at extravagant taxpayer expense, also seems to be doing well. And there are several others.

All of which raises concerns that those who give to Donald can expect Donald to give to them, leading to questions about China and ZTE, that nation’s second-largest cellphone company.

The Trump administration has been highly critical of China’s trade policies and has been engaged in discussions to narrow the trade deficit between the two nations. Amidst these talks came unexpected word from the prez himself in support of ZTE, which has suffered since earlier this year when the Commerce Department prohibited U.S. companies from selling to ZTE because the firm violated American sanctions against various foreign countries.

Now it may be pure coincidence that the Chinese government, according to the South China Morning Post, is providing $500 million in state loans to a Trump company project — MNC Lido City, a resort and theme park in Indonesia that will include a golf course and hotels carrying Trump name – at the same time he’s protecting a Chinese corporation. Maybe.

The situation naturally leads to speculation that Trump’s foreign policy is based on his own financial well-being. Several lawmakers, including Rep. Adam Schiff, D-CA, ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, have speculated that the China deal violates the Emoluments Clause. But is Congress, where several lawmakers are still screaming to put Hillary Clinton in jail for imagined violations of the public trust, looking into this?

Get real.

In an odd way, Trump isn’t responsible for the murky circumstances. The president, and we all knew this when he was elected to office, is a grifter, a charlatan, a flim-flam man of the first order. So, of course, he’s doing what comes naturally for him and his ilk – cashing in. It’s Trump being Trump. Electing him was almost part of the deal.

The real failure rests in Congress where Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root ‘n Branch’’ McConnell, of Louisville, is turning his usual blind eye to the embarrassments crushing the White House. Rather than pose as a statesman, a role he has never found comfortable, McConnell is buddying up to the ersatz president, according to The Washington Post, conversing on the phone “multiple times a week, and sometimes at unusual hours,” as Root ‘n Branch tells it.

In other words, heck with the Constitution, give me those judges and perks.

History will not treat either man well. If it was ever true that lie with a dog you’ll catch fleas, it hits a bullseye in this instance.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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