Many people, myself included, believe Donald Trump’s failure to place his assets in a blind trust is more than just problematic. The full extent to which President Trump may be abusing public power for private gain—that is, engaging in corruption—is unknowable, so long as his business empire remains opaque and his tax returns stay buried. Even where Trump’s business interests are out in the open, a “shadow of corruption” hangs over the actions he takes as an ostensible public servant.
Some of the people who share these concerns are exploring ways in which they might engage in consumer activism as a response to Trump’s conflicts of interest. Consider two organizations that are leading broad boycotts against the Trump Administration. Don’t Pay Trump is a web browser extension that allows one to, in their words, “keep your money out of Trump’s tiny hands.” It alerts the consumer when he or she is making an online purchase from a business that sells Trump products. A second initiative, #grabyourwallet, is a more established and exceedingly low-tech enterprise which also calls for “flexing consumer power.” #grabyourwallet maintains what looks like an excel spreadsheet that displays companies ripe for a Trump boycott. It provides the necessary tools to the activist consumer: name and number of the company, reason it should be boycotted, suggested sample of what to say, and updates on successes. #grabyourwallet received credit for the recent Nordstroms decision to drop Ivanka Trump’s produces from its stores, which earned Nordstroms a Presidential tweeted complaint on February 8th.
Both of these organizations attempt to decrease the profitability of Trump businesses, albeit for different reasons. Don’t Pay Trump seeks to weaponize consumer power to affect administration policy, while #grabyourwallet is explicitly motivated by the Trump family’s conflicts. It is difficult to say how effective the anti-Trump boycotts might be, given the absence of direct analogies to the current situation. Nonetheless, we might be able to draw some lessons from past corporate boycott efforts:
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:
A potlatch is a competition once found among tribes in the American Northwest. Contestants took turns destroying things of value to them to demonstrate their wealth and status in the community, and overtime the combat escalated until eventually the only way to win was to reduce oneself to material ruin. In a 1964 essay Stanford Law School Dean Bayless Manning, a member of the President’s Advisory Panel on Ethics and Conflicts of Interest in Government, compared the then current race in Washington, D.C., to condemn conflicts of interest to a potlatch – with similar unfortunate consequences. Given the conflict of interest mania now gripping Washington, D.C., the time seems right to resurrect Dean Manning’s largely forgotten classic on the perils of ethics overstretch. “The Purity Potlatch: An Essay on Conflicts of Interest, American Government, and Moral Escalation” appeared in volume 24 of the Federal Bar Journal. Available nowhere online, excerpts follow. The emphasis are as in the original:
“Something dramatic has happened of late to the subject of conflicts of interest. This formerly obscure topic has become front page news and Big Politics. . . .
“The significant feature of these nation-rocking exposes is that, so far as is known from the record, none of the men involved actually did anything demonstrably injurious to the public treasury or the public interest. None figured in an alleged Teapot Dome or anything resembling it. The charge was only that the combination of their economics circumstances and their offices did not look just right. The worst allegation that could be made against them was that they held an economic interest or received gifts that might, upon a certain set of assumptions about the conduct of their office and about human nature generally, tempt them in the future to act contrarily to the public interest in certain limited situations. Continue reading →
Last week I wrote about the problems arising from laws which make “conflicts of interest” illegal but which do not define “interest.” As I explained, the harm that results from leaving “interest” undefined, or vaguely defined, is of several kinds: Public employees have no way to know when they should avoid making or participating in a decision; authorities can easily slant enforcement of the law to serve their own ends; and the ease with which charges of conflict of interest can be leveled in the court of public opinion undermines public confidence by creating the impression that conflicts of interest are ubiquitous.
Making “the appearance of a conflict of interest” illegal can do as much, if not more, harm. Continue reading →