My latest column for the Guardian is about Trump’s business dealings and how they are not some quaint conflict of interest. What kind of example are we setting for the rest of the world if the leader of the free world is enriching himself while in office?
Somehow Donald Trump manages to dumb down everything. Somehow he manages to lower the bar to the point where he can play by a different set of rules. And somehow the media and elected officials just shrug their shoulders and walk away.
By his own admission, the president-elect is negotiating business deals at a time when his predecessors were, you know, filling cabinet positions and transitioning to power. He met with his Indian business partners and the Trump Organization signed a Kolkata deal last week.
He explained this in more detail, if not entirely coherently, in his interview with the New York Times: “I’ve built a very great company and it’s a big company and it’s all over the world. People are starting to see, when they look at all these different jobs, like in India and other things, number one, a job like that builds great relationships with the people of India, so it’s all good.”
“It’s all good” is indeed Trump’s approach to mixing his business and political affairs. “The law is totally on my side,” he claimed, “meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
To be clear: profiting from the presidency would not be a quaint conflict of interest.
This is not about whether Trump favors one country or president over another, gives a contract to one company or another, or spends more time making money for himself than he does boning up about policy.
There are laws on the books about US businesses influencing foreign officials with payments or other inducements. The law is called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and its goal is to stamp out bribery by any US citizen.
Bribery is what the law calls favors and payments given to foreign officials in exchange for business deals. Not a conflict of interest.
The so-called emoluments clause prohibits gifts and titles from foreign powers as follows: “No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
It’s this clause that leads to exceptional red tape around any and all gifts received by the White House and every other department: from a homemade quilt to a Rolex watch. Everything is detailed, declared and surrendered. Officials can only keep the gifts up to a value of $375 if they repay the US government.
This process will be hard within the world of international real estate, where foreign powers can grant gifts ranging from planning permits to investments from sovereign wealth funds. The list is almost endless.
Now we don’t know if Donald Trump discussed his Buenos Aires investment with President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, but we do know that his daughter Ivanka – now running the family business – was on the call.
We don’t know if there was any suggestion that President Mauricio Macri could expect any benefits for himself or his country. Spokespeople for President Macri and President-elect Trump have denied reports about the mixing of Trump business and politics on the call.
But we do know that the long-stalled Buenos Aires project is now moving forward: news that emerged just three days after the call between Macri and Trump.
For a president who has refused to release his tax returns, the need for transparency is not exactly clear.
Trump’s promise to his voters was that he was incorruptible because he was so independently wealthy that nobody could touch him. He knew how to drain the swamp because he had lived in it for so long, buying off begging politicians for so many years that it made him sick.
This argument was always a stretch, but clearly many voters bought into his pitch. Just two weeks since the election, it’s obvious that Trump has no interest in separating his personal wealth from his political agenda.
The damage caused is not confined to public confidence in the United States government.
Being leader of the free world is not a casual concept. That cold war phrase encapsulates the long-prized notion that the United States is a beacon of freedom and democracy for the world.
As his own transition came to an end, President-elect Kennedy best summed up the notion in his final address in Boston in January 1961: “I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella 331 years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. ‘We must always consider’, he said, ‘that we shall be as a city upon a hill – the eyes of all people are upon us’.”
The eyes of the world are on the Trump transition right now. They see a president-elect who lost the popular vote by more than 2 million votes and almost 2 percentage points.
This is a difficult notion of democracy to explain to a world struggling against authoritarian regimes where votes are routinely ignored and discounted. The work of democracy promotion by the National Endowment for Democracy, established by Reagan, is immeasurably harder as a result of the 2016 election.
The work of spreading corruption-free government has become just as hard as a result of Trump’s business dealings. If a sitting president can enrich himself while in office, then why can’t a president of a developing country set up his own businesses to do the same? Why should they not do both?
After all, as Trump told the Times, “In theory I could run my business perfectly, and then run the country perfectly.”
Corruption – the seeking of personal profit by government officials derived from their roles – is a plague that condemns the most vulnerable people in the world to poor or non-existent public services. If the US can’t talk credibly about the need to stamp out conflict of interest, the world will struggle to eradicate corruption and improve life for the poorest people on the planet.
America needs to lead by example and that starts with the president. That’s not a conflict of interest. That’s the national interest.