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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.