Appearances Can Be Revealing: The Trump Administration’s Corruption Perceptions Problem

In the wake of President Trump’s Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” (also known as the “Muslim Ban”), numerous media outlets published articles highlighting the fact that Trump’s order excluded several predominantly Muslim countries where the Trump organization conducts business (see here, here and here). The implication was that this exclusion was intentional, and demonstrates the extent to which Trump’s business ventures create conflicts of interest that influence his policy decisions. Although this explanation is plausible, another likely explanation is that the list of countries targeted by the ban tracked the visa waiver program restrictions Congress passed in 2015 and the Obama administration expanded in 2016 (see here).

Were the limitations on the ban driven by corruption or policy priorities? We don’t know—and that’s the problem. Even if Trump’s executive order had no connection with his business, Trump’s extensive conflicts of interest and unwillingness to divest from foreign holdings casts a shadow of corruption over any decision made by the administration. The fact that every decision Trump makes could be tainted with the appearance of self-interest, regardless of whether his administration actually is doing what it believes is in the public’s interest, is incredibly damaging, delegitimizing, and destabilizing. This is why we have ethics rules for government officials that seek to prevent not only corruption, but also the appearance of corruption. Trump’s failure to clear his presidency of any potential conflicts of interest has a few particularly pernicious effects:

  1. The shadow of corruption entrenches the perception that the goal of public office is primarily personal enrichment. Trump has dropped all pretenses and dispensed with the very notion of ”public service.” This furthers the transformation of government from a vehicle perceived as working on behalf of the ”public” into a tool to be wielded by interest groups, or in Trump’s case, by politicians for explicit personal gain. This is damaging to any sense of public faith or accountability and undermines the basis of representative democratic government.
  2. A corollary to my first point: By ignoring political norms and customs (and potentially laws) that were designed to prevent the appearance of corruption, Trump has normalized conflicts of interest for other public officials. Where legislators and judges might previously have been wary of perceived conflicts of interest, Trump’s actions—and the relatively limited political backlash they have generated—may make other public officeholders feel like they too have permission to push the boundaries.
  3. When it is difficult to disentangle what decisions are being made for personal gain and what decisions are made for purely political or policy reasons, it is tempting for journalists and other corruption watchdogs to find a correlation between every decision Trump makes and his personal enrichment. This makes it easier for Trump and his administration to play the victim: The administration can highlight reports that might be stretching to make the connection, and by doing so, the administration can delegitimize other investigative reporting that might actually provide proof that a policy decision was primarily driven by personal business interests.

The perception that the Trump Administration is racked with conflicts of interest undermines its legitimacy to govern. Maybe ending sanctions on Russia is a good policy idea, but maybe Trump will push to drop Russian sanctions because he was given the brokerage of a 19% share of Rosneft in exchange for a commitment to end the sanctions (see here). Does that sound crazy? Maybe it is. Who knows? Under a president who has refused to divest himself from his global business interests, continued to promote his business with foreign leaders while elected, refused to release his tax returns, and has a long track record of manipulating public benefits for private gain, far-fetched accusations can seem plausible. And that is exactly the problem – the failure to take small steps to overcome the perception that Trump’s motivation is primarily personal gain is incredibly damaging. By generating additional mistrust in the press, the opposition, and other institutional actors, Trump unnecessarily makes his job harder; accomplishing his campaign promises and policy goals will require at least some cooperation from those outside of his inner circle. Trump is doing a disservice both to himself and the democratic institutions of government by refusing to cleanse any taint of corruption from his decision-making. I hope he does, and we can all go back to giving our elected representatives the benefit of the doubt and critiquing them for politically acceptable forms of influence peddling rather than outright kleptocracy.

5 thoughts on “Appearances Can Be Revealing: The Trump Administration’s Corruption Perceptions Problem

  1. I absolutely agree. An interesting analogy is in corporate law. If a Director has an interest in two companies that strike a deal with one another, that Director is required to disclose the potential conflict. The disclosure allows other decision-makers, whether fellow Directors or stockholders, to make a reasoned decision with all the important facts at hand.

    Trump might similarly be sitting on both sides of the table when he crafts a policy that benefits one of his business interests. The government deals with the public interest, so the public is analogous to shareholders and deserves to know, at the very least, what Trump’s business interests are, so that they can see more clearly whether any financial benefit is ancillary to (or the purpose of) a given policy decision. The first and most important step for Trump to take, in order to lessen the “shadow of corruption”, is to release his tax returns.

  2. I completely agree with the premise that even the appearance of corruption has a delegitimizing effect and that each new day seems to bring another transgression against democratic norms (in today’s example, the President once again attacked the legitimacy of the independent judiciary), but I am going to take issue with the assertion that the President is making his job harder. That assumes that the job is conceived of as trying to govern effectively, to promote the best interests of the American people, in accordance with the Constitution and other laws of the land. Unfortunately, from the record so far, there is no sign that the President shares that view. And as of now, the Congressional leadership seems disinclined to act as an ethical check on anybody — just look at the move to disband the Office of Congressional Ethics, the fast-tracking of Cabinet confirmation processes without the normal ethics clearances, the total indifference to Trump’s children continuing to be involved in/present at official activities, and the repeal of the Cardin-Lugar provision. Furthermore, the President’s refusal to release his tax returns was a pretty clear sign that he was always going to put self above country, but nevertheless nearly half the voters were sufficiently unfazed by that that they still thought he was a better bet. So what incentive is there really for the administration to hold itself accountable to traditional notions of legitimacy? I hope I’m wrong and legitimacy comes back into fashion sooner rather than later, but I don’t expect to see any change unless and until voters send a clear message in 2018 and 2020 that we won’t stand for it anymore.

  3. An interesting read, particularly about how the shadow of corruption is relevant and destabilizing. With the lack of transparency in some cases, and explicit conflicts of interest in others, it is hard to escape accusations of suspicion, especially in a time where media and agendas on both sides are loudest. Like you alluded to in the third point, all this does is add to the chaos, making the truth harder to surface, and allowing for people of vastly different political leanings to each find explanations that their confirmation biases can agree with. As an aside, I would note that the exclusion of certain countries in the ban may have been due to a political rather than personal conflict of interest, due to strategic dependence the Trump administration believes can arise from keeping relations with those countries. I get that this doesn’t take away from the point (in fact it adds to it) that perceived corruption is damaging, but I just thought it’s a theory worth mentioning since the example was brought up.

  4. Really interesting and timely post. I am of course concerned about these issues as they pertain to to President Trump, but I think your second bullet is what scares me the most. Trump is normalizing conflicts of interests across the country, and I believe the effect will trickle down to even the local level. Your notion that elected officials will start to push the boundaries is spot on, in my opinion.

  5. Pingback: Good News in the Anticorruption War | |

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