Why America is so blasé about Trump's conflicts of interest
Since the election, there has been an extraordinary amount of ink spilled on the subject of President-elect Donald Trump's businesses and the potential conflicts they pose when he moves into the Oval Office. And the conflicts are legion.
Trump, after all, has been an international brand for decades. He has ventures in multiple countries on nearly every continent. Though we don't know for certain who he owes money to, there is reason to suspect that he is in hock to entities with close ties to the Russian and Chinese governments. His closest advisers are his children, who are also executives in his business. He just built a new hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue with his name on it.
The opportunities for corruption and self-dealing are manifest — and the evidence so far suggests that Trump is blithe to the problem. So why was this never a material issue in the election? And why isn't there a public groundswell demanding that he divest himself completely of his assets before taking the oath of office, however painful and expensive such a transaction might be?
Pure partisanship is undoubtedly part of the answer. Trump's opponents are far more concerned about the potential for corruption in his administration than they were about the potential conflicts of the Clinton Foundation, and vice versa. But that surely isn't the entire explanation. After all, there was plenty of coverage of the Clinton Foundation as a potential source of conflicts, and not by any means only in the conservative media. And Trump's potential conflicts really are on an entirely different scale from anything we've seen before.
Moreover, given that a large part of the rationale for Trump's candidacy was that he was incorruptible because he had already made his money, you would think that this would be a point of particular concern to his supporters. But that does not appear to be the case. Why not?
Well, consider how the problem looks to someone inclined to empathize with Trump.
Here is a man who, over the course of a lifetime, built a vast and complicated business. Yes, he started out with many advantages; sure, he may have cut some ethical corners and played hardball more often than not. But at the end of the day, he built a business. It was his work, his risk, his reward.
Now you're saying that because he decided to serve his country, he has to destroy it? It's not enough that he remove himself from its operations; he has to take this beautiful thing he built, and sell it at a fire sale price, so that we can be satisfied that he won't use the office of president to make even more money?
That doesn't seem fair, does it?
It seems even less fair when you consider the contrast with politics-and-moneymaking as usual. The numerous former elected and appointed officials who have parlayed time in government into lucrative consulting, lobbying, or speech-giving have given voters every reason to suspect that their decisions while in government were corrupted by the prospect for post-public-service buck-raking. It's probably more than a little puzzling to understand why Trump's ownership of a Washington, D.C., hotel — which foreign diplomats will undoubtedly stay in as a way of showing respect — is worse than earning millions for speeches to industries you (or your wife) hope to regulate. At least Trump actually built the hotel.
In fact, I suspect to many, Trump's situation seems less disturbing precisely because it is so much more narrowly personal, whereas garden-variety corruption feels more systemic. If every member of Congress considers herself to be a lobbyist in waiting, who can be counted on to protect the interests of the people? By contrast, some people probably look at Trump's conflicts and say: Okay, in the worst case he personally makes a bunch of money he didn't deserve. But in terms of the effects on public policy, we're probably talking small potatoes. Meanwhile, what did Bill Clinton really do to earn his $80 million? And what did that payday cost America in policy terms?
To the extent that some people are thinking this way, they are mistaken. Matt Yglesias has written powerfully on the risk of systemic corruption in a Trump White House — the possibility that Trump will abuse regulatory discretion to favor companies that have greased his family's palm, and punish those that have not. That risk has more to do with Trump's character — his vindictiveness and his lack of principles — than it does with the disposition of his assets. But those assets make it much easier for Trump to achieve that kind of systemic corruption, if he is so inclined. Meanwhile, this risk is layered on top of the same list of opportunities for pervasive venal corruption that existed before. It's not either/or.
But to make that point, the opposition will need a tribune who isn't tainted with the "normative" corruption that has left the public cynical enough not to be outraged by the prospect of something considerably worse.