Trump’s great bait-and-switch strategy is working

As the nation’s news media try to figure out how to handle President-elect Trump, he continues to keep them off balance with the hustler’s tactic of bait-and-switch. He tosses out one after another tasty news morsels to draw attention from issues than can do him political damage.

A recent example is how he countered the fact that he lost the popular vote on Election Day by insisting he had really won it – and then threw into the mix his allegation that the whole election was rigged anyway.

With this double dose of malarkey, Trump at least temporarily misdirected eyes and ears away from the more significant question: Is he potentially breaking the law or flirting with a serious conflict of interest by holding onto his huge real-estate business while preparing to assume the presidency?

At first, in his long interview with editors and reporters of the New York Times in their Manhattan lair, Trump insisted that there was no conflict in him taking over the Oval Office and continuing to run his huge international real-estate empire.

He told his Times hosts that "the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest. That’s been reported very widely. … And I understand why the president can’t have a conflict of interest now because everything a president does in some ways is like a conflict of interest, but I have, I’ve built a very great company and it’s a big company and it’s all over the world."

Thus did the president-elect of the United States filibuster the Times bigwigs with his typical bragging snow job, without touching on the serious legal and ethical questions involved.

To read the long transcript of Trump’s meeting with the Times editors and political reporters is to see how he repeatedly kills time and avoids serious interrogation with senseless and ludicrous evasions. One segue in the marathon Trump performance was his explanation of how difficult it would be simultaneously be president and be a real estate mogul.

Foreign partners in his luxury hotels, he explained at length, always want him to have his picture taken with them on site. "So I can say to them, … ‘I don’t want to have a picture,’ or, I can take a picture," he told his elitist hosts with all seriousness. "I mean, it’s wonderful to take a picture. I’m fine with a picture. But if it were up to some people, I would never ever see my daughter Ivanka again. That wouldn’t be good. … I guess the only son I’d be allowed to see was my son, at least for a little while, would be Barron, because he’s only 10."

This was the man talking who is on the brink of becoming the most important government official on the planet. Were the Times staffers hearing this silly ruminating just amused or appalled? Trump left them rewarded only with his assurance that somehow or other the matter of conflict of interest would be resolved.

A few days later, Trump announced he would handle the whole issue and reveal the steps he would take at a press conference on Dec. 15, with his children/heirs present. In other words, he was putting the whole troublesome matter on ice for two weeks, freeing the pesky news media to chase the other news-making detours he might offer, and thus keeping them at bay on the conflict questions for several more news cycles.

While this master bait-and-switcher has managed to keep many newsgatherers occupied disproving his verbal whoppers, a relatively few investigative reporters remain on the conflict-of-interest trail. Also, the spokesman for the federal Office of Government Ethics commented that, while Trump’s comments that "he wants to be free of conflicts of interest" may be applauded, divestiture of all business holdings resolves such conflicts in a way that "transferring control does not."

Previous presidents with business interests on taking office, including Democrats Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, created sorts of blind trusts for such holdings. Trump told the Times folks, "I would like to try and formalize something, because I don’t care about my business." Meanwhile, skeptics will await his latest gambit to keep the rest of us guessing.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.