For a man whose biographer describes him as obsessed “with protecting his image,” President Donald Trump seems oblivious to how flouting conflict of interest norms is blackening that image. Perhaps he thinks that the criticisms leveled (examples from GAB: here and here, major media: here, here, and here) are just the carpings of Clinton supporters that will fade over time. And that his presidential accomplishments will overshadow whatever he may do to grow the Trump patrimony while holding the office.
He might want to consider how conflict of interest charges have sullied the image of one of Britain’s finest leaders since he left office 123 years ago. So great has the fuss been that that no biographer, no matter how sympathetic, and no history of 19th century Britain can ignore the charges.
William Gladstone, the only person ever to serve four terms as British prime minister, is judged to have been one of the greatest, rivaled only by Churchill and Lloyd George. His achievements include putting the nation’s financial house in order, expanding the franchise, championing Irish religious freedom, instituting free primary education, laying the foundation for the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K., and serving as a beacon for the rights of colonial peoples everywhere. Deeply religious, he roamed London streets even as PM trying to rehabilitate prostitutes. He read over 20,000 books, was a close student of the classics, and maintained a vigorous regime of physical exercise throughout his 89 years.
But for all his achievements, and the extraordinary life he led, his decision to send troops to Egypt in the summer of 1882 to put down a nationalist uprising clouds his legacy. The reason: conflict of interest.
Gladstone was heavily invested in Egyptian bonds. In 1882 he owned roughly £57,000 worth, which biographer Roy Jenkins estimates constituted almost 40 percent of his portfolio. That investment was at risk thanks to the rise of a popular, reform-minded Egyptian officer. Colonel Ahmad Arabi came to prominence as a fierce advocate of Egyptian nationalism, demanding the replacement of Ottoman-era officials with native born Egyptians and an end to foreign control of Egyptian affairs. European holders of Egyptian bonds feared that if Arabi succeeded, Egypt would either refuse or be unable to honor its debt. Pressures to intervene mounted, and in early July Gladstone reversed his anti-intervention stance and ordered the British navy to bombard Alexandria; the army later invaded, arresting Arabi and restoring Egypt’s traditional ruler, assuring bond holders the bonds would be paid.
Thanks to the intervention, not only was Gladstone’s investment saved, but he realized a substantial gain. With the uncertainty over repayment ended, bond prices rose. By 1871 the value of Gladstone’s bonds had increased by £7,500, £375,000 at today’s rates.
Although Gladstone proffered several reasons for ordering the attack, critics of the day contended that the real motive was financial. Opposition parliamentarian Randolph Churchill (Winston’s father) accused Gladstone of “an act of criminal aggression against Egypt” aimed at appeasing “stock-brokers and money-lenders.” As Ian St John recounts in his 2016 study of Gladstonian historiography, over the next several years British friends of Egypt kept up the assault with articles and books attacking the PM for ordering the intervention. Whether the critics knew Gladstone stood to benefit financially is not clear. He served long-before British parliamentarians were required to disclose any interest “that might reasonably be considered by others as influencing” their decisions. On the other hand, in the clubby little world of 19th British politics it is hard to believe his holdings were a complete secret — as a cryptic comment in the memoirs of Willfred Blunt, his sharpest critic of the time suggests (Blunt explained there that would not “compromise Gladstone personally”).
Whatever his contemporaries knew about his conflict of interest, Gladstone’s personal financial stake in the invasion of Egypt is no secret to historians and biographers. They have raked over every piece of evidence in an effort to determine what role his interest in Egyptian bonds played in the fateful decision to invade. While the most recent account of his life concedes that “by modern standards . . . his position would have been wholly untenable,” its author, like the majority of historians and biographers, gives Gladstone a pass. Ownership of the bonds is the only hint of impropriety during a public life devoted to service and a private life of unquestioned moral rectitude. His accomplishments while PM are offered as further reason for exoneration.
One wonders whether future historians and Trump biographers will look so charitably on his conflicts of interest. Will they judge them to be a minor deviation in an otherwise exemplary life? Will his achievements rival those of Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt and so give Trump era chroniclers reason to pass lightly over his ethical lapses?
Living in a house surrounded by portraits of great American presidents inevitably leads the White House’s current occupant to ruminate about his (and one day her?) place in history. As President Trump does, perhaps he might consider how his personal ethics will affect his image. Will he enjoy a Gladstonian finale? Or a 100 years from now will his image be permanently besmirched by his refusal to let go of his stake in the “Trump brand”? Is that how he wants to be remembered?