I’m not hiding the fact that I have serious concerns for the environment, women’s rights, the economy, health care, the Supreme Court, and international relations in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s electoral victory the other day.
But I don’t want to talk about those, at least in this essay (although I’m going to touch on international relations).
What I do want to talk about is something I haven’t seen discussed yet: the very real conflicts of interest between a president Trump, and a businessman Trump.
There was a point, about a month ago, when Trump took a break from the campaign to focus on the opening of a new hotel. So he’s already shown a willingness to put his personal financial interests ahead of even his own political agenda.
What happens when a foreign power gives Trump clearance to build a new hotel or golf course somewhere in its territory? Wouldn’t they expect something in return? It’s why the constitution expressly prohibits the president from holding “present, emolument, office or title” from foreign powers.
Now before I proceed, let me make it clear that all presidents are positioned to profit from the office, both in terms of domestic and foreign powers and investments. But to avoid conflicts of interest, they generally put their holdings in blind trusts or similar vehicles so that they can’t know whether they’re truly profiting from their decisions.
It’s kind of hard to do that with real estate. It would look awfully suspicious if, for example, Vladimir Putin let Trump open a golf course in Yalta and then started building up troops near the Russian border with Lithuania.
All right. That might be a bit extreme but I’m sure it’s something that might keep Dalia Grybauskaite up at night.
I’m not trying to argue that Trump will knowingly do anything illegal as president with regard to his business interests. Hell, I’m not entirely sure the line between what’s legal and illegal is all that well defined. We’ve literally never had a president whose personal finances had this much opportunity for conflicts of interest and corruption.
About a year ago, Trump said he wouldn’t collect the presidential salary ($400,000 per year) if he were elected. Assuming he keeps this promise, I would worry that his refusal to collect it might be window dressing to cover up more shady sources of income.
We’ve had some pretty corrupt administrations in American history. Grant and Harding should be the first names that come to mind. At least with them, they started out more or less clean and just got dirty. With Trump, I don’t see how he can even go in clean.