Trump’s Conflicts of Interest: What Are They, and Why Do They Matter?

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The fact that President Donald Trump has taken office with an unprecedented number of conflicts of interest, which he has failed not only to resolve but even to properly address, is a matter on which prominent critics from both parties can agree. His ascension to office has been a particularly fraught one—according to an analysis by USA Today, Trump has been party to over 4000 lawsuits in the past 30 years, and is currently embroiled in about 75 ongoing suits. All of this is a distraction from the many other issues plaguing this administration, and the issues that threaten the wellbeing of the American people.

Why aren’t more people talking about his conflicts of interest? Trump was elected because people perceived him as both a savvy businessman, and as someone who (against his previous record) would fight for the rights and livelihood of blue-collar voters. But surely his refusal to separate himself from his many money-making ventures is an indication that he still has his own financial interests very much at heart, at the expense of his constituency. Even without the ethical entanglements of his many conflicts of interest, the fact that he is still going to, for example, be an executive producer on The Apprentice is a clear sign that he is not exactly prioritizing the duties of the highest office in the land.

Below, a layperson’s summary of his conflicts, and why they pose a problem not only to his administration, but to the interests of the American people Trump is supposed to serve:

The Emoluments Clause
It’s in the Constitution, folks. (Remember the Constitution? We still care about that, right?) Article I, Section 9: prohibits an elected official of the United States from accepting any gift, office, title, or present from a King, Prince, or foreign State. This clause was written into the Constitution by our founding fathers (Republicans! Remember how much you claim to revere the founding fathers?) as a response to the threat of foreign influence on the United States, then a young and fledgling nation. It was intended to prevent private financial interests from holding sway over the decision-making of elected officials. On this we should all be able to agree: opening the door to foreign influence through monetary channels will lead to vast potential for corruption, weakness, and bias. With Trump and the Trump Foundation, there’s a finger in pies all over the world, many of which we don’t even understand clearly because Trump has maintained a shroud of secrecy over much of his finances. What we do know is that his personal financial interests both create a dependency on foreign states and their economic interests, while also allowing for foreign states to buy influence or access to him. President Trump stands to benefit personally from financial decisions made by foreign governments and their economic agents. Given that he has refused to divest himself from these personal stakes, he will almost certainly use his political office to benefit himself—a temptation that would sway a far more ethical man than Trump. He will also open himself up to influence from foreign state agents who can sway decisions that will affect his personal finances. Below, a few examples of potential violations of the emoluments clause, from a report by the Brookings Institute:

  1. “Mr. Trump’s businesses owe hundreds of millions to Deutsche Bank, which is currently negotiating a multi-billion-dollar settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, a settlement that will now be overseen by an Attorney General and many other appointees selected by and serving at the pleasure of Mr. Trump.”
  2. “The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China—owned by the People’s Republic of China—is the single largest tenant in Trump Tower. Its valuable lease will expire, and thus come up for re-negotiation, during Mr. Trump’s presidency.”
  3. Foreign diplomats who stay at the Trump Hotel in Washington DC perceive it as a direct line to presidential influence, and can spend millions of dollars booking its suites and ballrooms. Even if Trump donates these profits to the US Treasury as he has promised, the fact that foreign dignitaries spent the money creates an opening for them, and a sense of obligation on the part of the Trump Foundation. Ultimately the issue at stake is influence and access, not just fair-market-value.
  4. President Trump will be a producer on NBC’s The Apprentice. While this is far from his largest conflict of interest problem, it is perhaps his most undignified. One would assume that the President of the United States and proclaimed leader of the free world has better things to do with his time than run a reality TV show, but even his cozy association with the network and the multinational brands sponsoring the show raise questions (and eyebrows).

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The bottom line?
Well, political decisions will now affect Trump’s bottom line, and his bottom line may very well affect his political decisions—especially since his transfer of management to his children is an inadequate response to his violations of the clause. Ultimately, ownership of these financial ventures still rests with President Trump. Handing things over to his sons is hardly distancing himself. If he, his sons, or the company that bears their name could personally benefit down the line from a small (or large) adjustment to national policy, he might well think: why not? Indeed, this has already been the case: in a rather absurd turn of events, it’s been reported that “Mr. Trump opposes wind farms because he has decided that they ruin the view from his golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland. Recently, Mr. Trump openly lobbied Nigel Farage—a British political ally of his—to oppose wind farms in the United Kingdom, an issue that does not otherwise appear to be of relevance to American foreign policy.” You might think wind farms are not, in the end, the biggest deal to the American public. But Trump has used his position to influence even a matter that seems to come down to mere aesthetics. This indicates that he will not hesitate if the stakes are more real for him.

It is impossible that his decisions as President will not be affected, in ways both large and small, by the stakes that he personally holds in a tangled web of multinational financial interests governed by foreign states. Has a particular foreign government dealt fairly with one of his businesses? Does he stand to benefit from a particular policy, if it is enacted? These and other considerations blur the boundaries, to say the least, between his sworn duty to act in the best interest of the American people and his own personal gain. And as we know, President Trump has never been shy about how proud he is of those gains, and how much he prizes them. His refusal to disclose his personal finances is a clear sign that he doesn’t plan to stop prioritizing them anytime soon.



Note: This article was jump-started when I heard an episode of Fresh Air featuring Norm Eisen (special counsel on ethics and government reform under President Obama) and his friend Richard Painter (former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush). You can see more sources, and more of that conversation, below:

Ethics Lawyers on NPR

http://www.npr.org/2017/01/20/510616166/as-trump-takes-office-he-still-faces-questions-about-conflicts-of-interest

http://fortune.com/2016/11/15/donald-trump-conflicts-interest-ethics/

https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/gs_121616_emoluments-clause1.pdf

Kindness to Strangers

The Rabbi who spoke at the White House told the audience that his father came to the United States on the St. Louis, its last journey to the United States before making its famous “Voyage of the Damned.” As Obama said Wednesday night, now, it is other boats being turned away from potential asylum. Thus, as Jews, as people who have ourselves been turned away when seeking refuge, or have been accepted, begrudgingly and with a high tax for being who we are, we must open our doors to refugees, open our doors to the stranger as we are commanded to do each year on Passover.

By S.T.

 

Wednesday night – which happened to be both the 150th anniversary of the passing of the 13th Amendment and the fourth night of Chanukah – I stood in the White House, listening to President Barack Obama and a Rabbi (whose parents were both Holocaust survivors) talk about the origins of the holiday. Relative to Christmas, Chanukah is minor, but the story fits in with several other Jewish holidays – “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” But I was pleased by the serious tone both the President and the Rabbi took; they both talked about the refugee and immigrant experiences of Jews, and how now, it is a different group that is in trouble, a different group to whom we must extend a helping hand. Both leaders drew a connection I often feel, between Judaism and compassion to those in need, and to hear a similar message from my president was deeply moving.

Continue reading “Kindness to Strangers”

Bonus Weekly Dance Break: Back to Back (Barack Obama!!!)

Ok, it’s not really Barack Obama. But in keeping with our Drake theme today, I just had to share this video because if you haven’t seen it, you are not living your best life. It’s “Barack Obama” rapping Back to Back as a Trump diss track. I’m serious. This dude’s Obama voice is great and so are his political jokes, all wrapped in a beautiful Drake beat.

Just….please. If you value our friendship, you will do yourself this favor. Watch this and cackle along with glee. Continue reading “Bonus Weekly Dance Break: Back to Back (Barack Obama!!!)”

The Good, The Bad, And the Absolutely Terrifying (in Abortion Legislation) Part II: Everything’s a Giant Shitshow

The Good:

Right now, the “good” is less about “awesome things happening” and more about “some of the terrible things that could have happened didn’t happen!”

The Senate did not pass the House’s bill to defund Planned Parenthood. So, that’s good, considering one in five women have used Planned Parenthood’s services, and 2.7 million women and men visit Planned Parenthood centers annually.

The Government has not shut down. That’s good. Two years ago, the Republicans successfully threw a massive temper tantrum, and effectively screwed over roughly 2 million people for two weeks; 800,000 did not work at all, and another 1.3 million were required to go to work without knowing when – or if – they would be paid.

Planned Parenthood has also raised a fair amount of money amidst all the crazy; donations have spiked recently, and my favorite trend is donating to PP in the name of virulently pro-life politicians.

The Bad:

Speaking of donations, however, despite reports to the contrary Mark Zuckerberg did NOT donate just shy of one million dollars to Planned Parenthood. Several years ago, he donated 18 million Facebook shares to a charitable umbrella organization; Planned Parenthood is one of the many organizations it supports. This is hardly catastrophic news, but since most of the “good” news I have to report is about bad things that didn’t happen, here’s a piece of “bad” news about a good thing that didn’t actually happen.

While Planned Parenthood has not been defunded at the national level (yet), there are people out there doing everything they can to make sure individual clinics can’t run. Recently, a Planned Parenthood clinic outside LA was a victim of arson.

The Absolutely Terrifying:

While it’s good the government is still up and running at the moment, that could very well end soon. I’m not sure which is scarier: what would happen with a government shutdown, what would happen if Planned Parenthood does get defunded, or the fact that the Republican Party (who could hold the Presidency in just over a year) is willing to hold the country hostage to its demands (not to mention the fact that my two-year-old niece’s temper tantrums don’t come close to rivaling those of the GOP).

Even if the GOP doesn’t manage to shut down the government, they still might have other ways of defunding Planned Parenthood. Representative Reid Ribble, of the somewhat ironically-named “House Freedom Council” (‘freedom’ is just a thing for straight white men, right?) is determined to strike a bargain with the democrats over Planned Parenthood funding. While this seems somewhat unlikely, in 2011, President Obama did capitulate to GOP demands re: abortion restrictions in our nation’s capital (they can’t vote, so who cares?) in order to avoid…you guessed it…a government shutdown.[*]

[*] Note: The author is from DC, and has very strong feelings about DC’s congressional impotence. She is aware, however, that the rest of the nation does not feel as strongly.

Michelle Obama Promotes #62MillionGirls and the Let Girls Learn Initiative

Image from whitehouse.gov
Image from whitehouse.gov

Our beloved FLOTUS took the stage with Beyonce at the 2015 Global Citizen Festival to raise awareness for her new campaign, 62 Million Girls. In partnership with the initiative Let Girls Learn, 62 Million Girls seeks to empower girls around the world, helping them to continue their educations, eradicate gender-based violence, achieve economic stability, and more. The focus on education and earning potential gives girls greater bodily autonomy and control of their own futures.  Continue reading “Michelle Obama Promotes #62MillionGirls and the Let Girls Learn Initiative”