When President-elect Donald Trump has his event on Dec. 15, purportedly to announce a plan to deal with the vast, unprecedented conflicts of interest he will bring to the White House, the question everyone will ask is: Is this good enough?
The risks of a president who asserts the right to continue business activities outside the presidency stretch well-beyond Americans' typical conception of corruption. The way Trump uses corporate control to affect his political power may present a bigger risk than the way he uses political power to affect his personal finances.
In response to Trump's unprecedented conflicts, ethics experts -- in a calm and politic manner -- are proposing measures, including disclosure, divestment, blind trusts and firewalls, to try to separate the incoming president from the entanglements of his business. Experts like former White House counsels Norm Eisen and Richard Painter (whose recommendations you should read!) are presenting their concerns with warmth and good faith.
Total divestment, or a real blind trust, Trump (and the public) is repeatedly assured, will prevent the distraction of constant news coverage, will allow the president to focus on his work, will remove a line of attack from the opposition, will prevent appearances from being a concern, or will match the decorum of the office.
While these warnings are accurate, and are likely the appropriate tone to strike in trying to influence the transition team, they also understate the possible consequences of Trump's relationships with his corporate network. In particular, presidential use of corporate entities for political ends presents an acute risk to the integrity of government and political operations.
As the conventional wisdom currently holds it, presidential conflicts of interest creates three primary risks:
These are each real, significant concerns, as we have explained. Trump is likely to enrich his business interests (and indeed probably already has), and he'll have a difficult time ignoring decades of business for the more complex national interests the presidency represents. He and his entourage are likely to reward donors and business interests that reinforce his political power. When Trump's latest plan is announced, we should evaluate it, in part, based on whether each of these concerns is addressed.
Moving beyond these concerns, though, consider a few scenarios President-elect Trump will face during his administration:
- A close vote looms in Congress, and Trump and his staff are determining what concessions or sweeteners might flip key members to their side.
- A news outlet harms Trump politically with a series of stories about his family, his business or using sources within his administration.
- Batches of pending FOIA releases threaten to disclose embarrassing details that could harm the president's standing.
- A politically important constituency is in need, but the government cannot directly intervene.
All presidents face these challenges. A president, though, who asserts his ability to use corporate influence however he wants to, who ran on his business acumen and negotiating power, and who prides himself on violating norms to represent national interests in a new way, may use his corporate network to a new and different effect.
In each of these scenarios, a Trump-affiliated private, corporate or nonprofit entity could be used as a direct political tool to hide secrets, influence Congress or reinforce a patronage network. This is not an entirely abstract concern, either.
For example, Trump has demonstrated a litigious disdain for the press, and while he will be unable to directly sue news outlets through official government channels, his network of corporations faces no such restriction. Another problematic tool in his toolbox, Trump has dozens of pending development deals. This means that slight differences in decision-making about a hotel or casino can give or take thousands of jobs from a congressional district -- an influence that is likely neither illegal for Trump to threaten nor for a member of Congress to heed. Hundreds of thousands of government jobs are managed by private contractors, whose work sits beyond essential public protections like the FOIA or whistleblower protection laws, so outsourcing any politically troublesome services helps obfuscate their function, and outsourcing them to a Trump-owned subsidiary would put them under direct political control. And a charity or family foundation can maintain the presidential imprimatur while directing social services or other arrangements to serve political needs.
While each of these corporate abuses may be unlikely individually, in sum they represent a type of conflict of interest that has rarely been raised in connection with Trump's business network. These avenues for using corporate power to consolidate political control are available, and prevented only by the very norms about presidential power that Trump's political brand repudiates.
To prevent this kind of abuse from happening, not only do we need full divestment from existing business interests, we also need full disclosure so that wealth, debt and corporate connections can be monitored and evaluated. Without Trump's tax returns, integrity will be an article of faith.
As we interpret Trump's purported plan to prevent conflicts of interest, we should remember that the line between state and corporate power has been policed by norms that Trump's brand is defined by violating. Our sense of risk and conflict needs to be updated too. Just as biased state power might unfairly enrich, corporate power that serves state interests would violate integrity and trust more fundamentally than Americans are prepared to anticipate.