The use of public office for private gain is the textbook definition of corruption. In very recent memory, it was generally accepted in America that corruption – even the mere appearance of – was a very bad thing. That’s why the U.S. has constitutional prohibitions, laws and norms aimed at eliminating the possibility of government officials using their positions to line their own pockets when they are obligated act in the interest of the public. But the ethical violations of Donald Trump, his family and his administration are so numerous and so flagrant that it’s hard to give any particular one the attention it deserves. In only 100 days, Trump has upended the country’s anti-corruption norms by numbing everyone with a steady stream of serious improprieties that would have been treated as major scandals – if not impeachable offenses – during any other modern presidency.
As a candidate, Trump acknowledged that he should not profit from his businesses while serving as president, and claimed he had no intention of doing so. He assured the nation in a Republican debate that, as proud as he was of his business, he’d be happy to leave it behind. “If I become president, I couldn’t care less about my company. It’s peanuts,” he said.
But Trump has been unwilling to take the steps necessary to demonstrate that he is indeed working for Americans rather than himself. In the pre-Trump world, a wealthy person who took public office would liquidate his or her assets and put them in a blind trust to be managed by someone else. That way, the public official’s decisions couldn’t be influenced by the effect a policy was likely to have on his investments – because he wouldn’t know what he was invested in while in office. But those assets would still grow with the market, and after leaving office the former official would be free to reinvest them as he or she liked.
Whatever the size and complexity of Trump’s holdings, if he were either the awesome businessman or the dedicated public servant he claims to be, it would have been no big deal for him to divest. If Trump were as rich and skillful as he says, he could have been content with the money he’s already made – and confident he could make more if he wanted to after leaving office. If he did take a bit of a loss, which is not unusual when one leaves the private sector for public service, it would be “peanuts” as a share of his vast fortune, and a small price to pay for the honor of serving the American people and holding the world’s most powerful office. (Trump might even have come out ahead by doing things ethically – according to multiple analyses, Trump would be just as rich, or even richer, if he had just invested his $40 million inheritance in index funds and skipped his bankruptcy-filled real estate career altogether.)
Trump has instead refused to give up his day job, because he wants to cash in on the presidency. There is nothing “blind” about the trust holding Trump’s assets. He knows what his investments are, and therefore how his policy choices can make him wealthier. He amended the trust shortly after setting it up to allow him to take money out at any time. He claimed that having his sons run the businesses held in trust for his benefit would keep his presidency and his financial interests separate, expecting the American people to believe that his children wouldn’t tell him how they were doing and would stay out of Trump’s government business. But the “wall” the Trumps claimed to be erecting between business and government is a joke. Eric Trump claimed to have a “steadfast pact” that he wouldn’t talk to his father about the business, and vice versa. But they aren’t even pretending to stick to that dubious plan. Not only has Eric admitted they’ll be giving his dad quarterly updates – they aren’t staying out of politics either. When Eric acts as both the head of the Trump Organization and as a spokesman for his father’s foreign policy, he sends the message to the world that Trump’s companies and administration are so intertwined that enriching the business is a good way to curry favor with the government.
But even without the Trump sons playing dual roles, Trump’s refusal to divest is a conflict of interest that taints every action he takes. Trump claimed to The New York Times that “[t]he law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” This is wrong on two counts. First of all, just because the president is exempt from some conflict-of-interest laws doesn’t mean what he’s doing is legal. The Constitution forbids government officials from receiving benefits from foreign governments without permission from Congress, as Trump does when, for example, they pay to stay at his hotels.
Secondly, it isn’t necessary to violate the law to have a conflict of interest. A conflict of interest exists whenever someone has a choice between the duties of his position and his own private interests – it does not matter whether he would choose to fulfill his obligations rather than pursue his own interests despite the conflict. The fact that he has the opportunity for self-dealing is the problem – regardless of whether he takes advantage of it – because it gives the appearance of corruption. This is why previous presidents have taken steps to eliminate conflicts that weren’t necessarily required: We expected those public officials to assure us they were acting in the public interest. Until President Trump, that is.
Trump knows perfectly well what a conflict of interest is. In an interview with Steve Bannon for Breitbart during the campaign, Trump volunteered the fact that he has a conflict of interest in dealing with Turkey – whose authoritarian, Islamist president, Tayyip Erdogan, Trump congratulated on his recent power grab – because Trump has a “a major, major building in Istanbul.” Trump has similar conflicts stemming from properties all over the world.
Trump refused to divest his holdings because he is unwilling to give up what Professor Michael Dorf has called “the corruption premium” – the increased amount of money and favors people and governments are willing to provide Trump-affiliated businesses in the hope of ingratiating themselves with the U.S. president. In some instances, the corruption premium is paid voluntarily, as when foreign diplomats stay at Trump’s D.C. hotel and tweet about how great it is. In others, Trump has come right out and asked for it, as when, shortly after being elected, he doubled the initial membership fee to $200,000 at Mar-A-Lago, his private club, which he constantly uses government business to market and which the State Department recently promoted in an article.
There seems to be a new story every day about the corrupt dealings through which Trump and his associates enrich themselves. His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, took money from Russia and Turkey in violation of his legal obligations as a retired general. His former campaign manager was working for pro-Russian interests in Ukraine. Trump’s top adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner – whom Trump has tasked with solving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis – built a real estate empire with money from an Israeli family with a bribery habit.
Trump’s daughter and adviser, Ivanka, led up a hotel project for the Trump Organization in Azerbaijan with funding from the Iranian Guard. Ivanka has also enjoyed a big bump in sales for her fashion brand after Trump tweeted about it and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway also promoted it, possibly in violation of federal law. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin gave his own free commercial to a movie he produced. Trump may have fired U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara because he was investigating Health Secretary Tom Price’s attempts to thwart legislation that would impact stocks he owned. Trump’s travel ban conveniently excluded countries where he does business.
But the fact that Trump, his daughter and his associates are cashing in on the presidency is actually the least of our problems. That they may make off with a few billion ill-gotten dollars is disgusting and unjust, but not the biggest problem, in the grand scheme of things. The bigger issue is that after only 100 days, Americans are experiencing corruption fatigue. The sampling of improprieties above is enough to make your eyes glaze over – it’s hard to keep up, and harder still to get outraged about something that is rapidly becoming normal.
Corruption fatigue presents a dire threat to American democracy: Trump may be able to alter national policy in the course of enriching himself, without a political backlash to keep him in check. Furthermore, corruption breeds more corruption. Just the appearance of corruption can make influence-peddling and bribery seem like the only way to compete. High levels of corruption correlate with poor economic growth, as currying favor becomes a better way to get ahead than providing quality products and services. It also correlates with high levels of inequality, as those in office are incentivized to serve their patrons rather than the public.
The U.S. has long been a leader in anti-corruption efforts around the globe, but the situation at home these days is making those efforts look laughable. There’s hope that the constitutional challenge to Trump’s conflicts will eventually result in the courts restoring some semblance of the rule of law in the U.S., but in the meantime, with every passing day that the Republican-controlled Congress normalizes Trump’s actions by looking away, the country is falling further into Trumpian corruption malaise.