Some types of sharks have to swim continuously to keep oxygen coming in; to be still is to perish. Donald Trump is similar, except his unceasing drive is trying to make money. He could no more stop merely because he's running for president or serving as president than he could take a sabbatical from breathing.
The charges unveiled Thursday against his former fixer, Michael Cohen, suggest just how irrepressible his avarice is. Trump had sought real estate and other deals in Russia for three decades, and he had long wanted to put up a signature building in Moscow. "TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next," he tweeted after a 2013 visit there.
He bragged about the Russian big shots he knew. He said President Vladimir Putin might become his "new best friend." Donald Jr. made several business trips to Russia. Son Eric was quoted as saying the Trump Organization had no funding problems: "We have pretty much all the money we need from investors in Russia."
In 2015, Trump signed a letter of intent to build a hotel in Moscow, but the project never came about. The Trump Organization claimed it gave up the effort in early 2016, suggesting that he had no reason to use the campaign to ingratiate himself with the Russian government for the benefit of his bottom line.
The charges filed against Cohen by special prosecutor Robert Mueller tell a different story. Cohen now admits he lied to Congress in testifying that the negotiations ended in January 2016. In fact, they continued, with Trump's knowledge, until as late as June of that year.
This aberrant behavior makes perfect sense if you assume that Trump's original motive for running was pecuniary rather than political — burnishing his brand and setting himself up for bigger things once the campaign was over. Anything that enlarged his fame could only help his quest for lucrative transactions abroad.
At some point, it doubtless occurred to him that just as running for president could help him make deals, making deals could help him in running for president. We learned last year that Felix Sater, a Russian immigrant and Trump business associate, pursued the Moscow building partly to help the campaign. "I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected," he wrote in an email to Cohen.
Trump has repeatedly claimed he has no investments or business interests in Russia, and on Thursday, he said Cohen is lying.
"I didn't do the project," he insisted, in a formulation that was curiously beside the point. On Friday, he tweeted that it was "very legal & very cool" for him "to run for President & continue to run my business."
Legal, yes, but sleazy. A tycoon who operates a company while seeking the White House is hopelessly compromised by the temptation to use his political platform for personal profit. But what uptight fussbudgets see as problematic, Trump sees as a golden opportunity. Conflict of interest? He lets nothing conflict with his interests.
If Trump has investments, loans or business schemes in Russia, or hopes to, they would explain a lot, such as his refusal to disclose his tax returns, his strange divergence from Republican (and Democratic) norms on policy toward Russia, and his canine eagerness to stay on Putin's good side.
Aside from what they may reveal about Trump's stance on Russia, the Cohen charges are a reminder that Trump has treated every aspect of his campaign and presidency as a chance to cash in. His "winter White House" is his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, where people pay to gain proximity to the president. After he was elected, the price to join doubled, to $200,000.
His Washington hotel has profited from governments that patronize it. The establishment, in a building owned by the federal government, is one basis for a lawsuit that a federal judge allowed to proceed, saying, "Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that the president has been receiving or is potentially able to receive 'emoluments' from foreign, the federal, and state governments in violation of the Constitution." Among the governments enriching him through the hotel is Saudi Arabia — another unsavory regime Trump has gone far to appease.
The broad pattern of his behavior raises the central question: Is his priority the welfare of the American people or the prosperity of his own business empire? But it's a question that answers itself.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.