Politics

Trump's Conflicts of Interest Could Weaken Him

Congress and foreign nations might use his business entanglements as a weapon against him.

Or how to fall into a trap.

Photographer: Peter Kramer/Getty Images

Donald Trump is apparently not going to sell off his businesses and put his assets into a blind trust, as the Office of Government Ethics recommends and as every recent president has done. He isn't going to release his tax returns, breaking a custom that began with Richard Nixon.

That almost certainly is going to put him in violation of the clause of the Constitution forbidding anyone holding federal office to receive emoluments -- the dictionary definition is "a salary, fee or profit from employment" -- from foreign governments. He might also potentially be at risk under a 2012 law barring presidents (and other elected officials) from profiting from information obtained through their office. 1

And while many other conflict-of-interest laws that apply to the rest of the executive branch are not legally binding on presidents (something Trump has been pointing out), the Office of Government Ethics recommends that presidents act as if they do apply. 

But suppose you don't care if Trump violates the Constitution, the law and ethics guidelines and uses the presidency to enrich himself. It mostly doesn't matter to me how much money he might stuff into his wallet, to tell the truth. 

Suppose you also believe that worries about the "appearance" of corruption are mostly a lot of hooey. I'm still with you. Actual corruption may be a problem, but the appearance of corruption? That's something do-gooders worry about instead of focusing on the nation's real challenges. 

Trump supporters might go the full distance and always trust Trump to settle his conflicts of interests by putting the nation first, even if it costs him personally -- that is, regard him as entirely incorruptible. This is the point where you've lost me. 2

But even if a lot of Trump's voters sincerely believe that his business interests are not going to pose a potential problem, they should be the very people who are most eager to see him divest -- especially if they are suspicious of congressional leaders of both parties.

The insurmountable problem for Trump is that violating the Constitution, the law or ethics guidelines hands a weapon to his enemies and to his potential enemies.

At any time, the House majority party -- Republicans now, but maybe the Democrats after the 2018 midterm elections -- could threaten to impeach the president, and they would be on absolutely solid ground. Trump's business entanglements are an impressive cudgel for Congress to hold as a way of keeping him in line.

That's just one risk. Anyone his companies do business with, even if Trump is not involved in day-to-day management (but retains full or partial ownership, or probably even family ownership), could be in a position to influence the president by threatening accusations of illegal or unethical transactions. And this "anyone" could include foreign nations. The general category of "conflict of interest" is loose enough that a lot of things might plausibly fall under it. 

In other words, Trump's presidency might begin and remain in a position of unusual weakness. The only way he can avoid being a target is to divest. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. The only remedy for violations of the Emoluments Clause is impeachment. It's also possible to face ordinary prosecution under the 2012 Stock Act and any other violations of law, but it would be unlikely that the Trump Justice Department would act if Congress was not pursuing anything.

  2. There are also legitimate worries one might find overblown about systemic corruption

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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