Trump’s Conflicts of Interest: What Are They, and Why Do They Matter?

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The fact that President Donald Trump has taken office with an unprecedented number of conflicts of interest, which he has failed not only to resolve but even to properly address, is a matter on which prominent critics from both parties can agree. His ascension to office has been a particularly fraught one—according to an analysis by USA Today, Trump has been party to over 4000 lawsuits in the past 30 years, and is currently embroiled in about 75 ongoing suits. All of this is a distraction from the many other issues plaguing this administration, and the issues that threaten the wellbeing of the American people.

Why aren’t more people talking about his conflicts of interest? Trump was elected because people perceived him as both a savvy businessman, and as someone who (against his previous record) would fight for the rights and livelihood of blue-collar voters. But surely his refusal to separate himself from his many money-making ventures is an indication that he still has his own financial interests very much at heart, at the expense of his constituency. Even without the ethical entanglements of his many conflicts of interest, the fact that he is still going to, for example, be an executive producer on The Apprentice is a clear sign that he is not exactly prioritizing the duties of the highest office in the land.

Below, a layperson’s summary of his conflicts, and why they pose a problem not only to his administration, but to the interests of the American people Trump is supposed to serve:

The Emoluments Clause
It’s in the Constitution, folks. (Remember the Constitution? We still care about that, right?) Article I, Section 9: prohibits an elected official of the United States from accepting any gift, office, title, or present from a King, Prince, or foreign State. This clause was written into the Constitution by our founding fathers (Republicans! Remember how much you claim to revere the founding fathers?) as a response to the threat of foreign influence on the United States, then a young and fledgling nation. It was intended to prevent private financial interests from holding sway over the decision-making of elected officials. On this we should all be able to agree: opening the door to foreign influence through monetary channels will lead to vast potential for corruption, weakness, and bias. With Trump and the Trump Foundation, there’s a finger in pies all over the world, many of which we don’t even understand clearly because Trump has maintained a shroud of secrecy over much of his finances. What we do know is that his personal financial interests both create a dependency on foreign states and their economic interests, while also allowing for foreign states to buy influence or access to him. President Trump stands to benefit personally from financial decisions made by foreign governments and their economic agents. Given that he has refused to divest himself from these personal stakes, he will almost certainly use his political office to benefit himself—a temptation that would sway a far more ethical man than Trump. He will also open himself up to influence from foreign state agents who can sway decisions that will affect his personal finances. Below, a few examples of potential violations of the emoluments clause, from a report by the Brookings Institute:

  1. “Mr. Trump’s businesses owe hundreds of millions to Deutsche Bank, which is currently negotiating a multi-billion-dollar settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, a settlement that will now be overseen by an Attorney General and many other appointees selected by and serving at the pleasure of Mr. Trump.”
  2. “The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China—owned by the People’s Republic of China—is the single largest tenant in Trump Tower. Its valuable lease will expire, and thus come up for re-negotiation, during Mr. Trump’s presidency.”
  3. Foreign diplomats who stay at the Trump Hotel in Washington DC perceive it as a direct line to presidential influence, and can spend millions of dollars booking its suites and ballrooms. Even if Trump donates these profits to the US Treasury as he has promised, the fact that foreign dignitaries spent the money creates an opening for them, and a sense of obligation on the part of the Trump Foundation. Ultimately the issue at stake is influence and access, not just fair-market-value.
  4. President Trump will be a producer on NBC’s The Apprentice. While this is far from his largest conflict of interest problem, it is perhaps his most undignified. One would assume that the President of the United States and proclaimed leader of the free world has better things to do with his time than run a reality TV show, but even his cozy association with the network and the multinational brands sponsoring the show raise questions (and eyebrows).

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The bottom line?
Well, political decisions will now affect Trump’s bottom line, and his bottom line may very well affect his political decisions—especially since his transfer of management to his children is an inadequate response to his violations of the clause. Ultimately, ownership of these financial ventures still rests with President Trump. Handing things over to his sons is hardly distancing himself. If he, his sons, or the company that bears their name could personally benefit down the line from a small (or large) adjustment to national policy, he might well think: why not? Indeed, this has already been the case: in a rather absurd turn of events, it’s been reported that “Mr. Trump opposes wind farms because he has decided that they ruin the view from his golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland. Recently, Mr. Trump openly lobbied Nigel Farage—a British political ally of his—to oppose wind farms in the United Kingdom, an issue that does not otherwise appear to be of relevance to American foreign policy.” You might think wind farms are not, in the end, the biggest deal to the American public. But Trump has used his position to influence even a matter that seems to come down to mere aesthetics. This indicates that he will not hesitate if the stakes are more real for him.

It is impossible that his decisions as President will not be affected, in ways both large and small, by the stakes that he personally holds in a tangled web of multinational financial interests governed by foreign states. Has a particular foreign government dealt fairly with one of his businesses? Does he stand to benefit from a particular policy, if it is enacted? These and other considerations blur the boundaries, to say the least, between his sworn duty to act in the best interest of the American people and his own personal gain. And as we know, President Trump has never been shy about how proud he is of those gains, and how much he prizes them. His refusal to disclose his personal finances is a clear sign that he doesn’t plan to stop prioritizing them anytime soon.



Note: This article was jump-started when I heard an episode of Fresh Air featuring Norm Eisen (special counsel on ethics and government reform under President Obama) and his friend Richard Painter (former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush). You can see more sources, and more of that conversation, below:

Ethics Lawyers on NPR

http://www.npr.org/2017/01/20/510616166/as-trump-takes-office-he-still-faces-questions-about-conflicts-of-interest

http://fortune.com/2016/11/15/donald-trump-conflicts-interest-ethics/

https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/gs_121616_emoluments-clause1.pdf

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