Trump takes office in violation of anti-corruption norms
There are many things unprecedented about the incoming Trump presidency, not the least of which being the fact that the United States has never before been led by a billionaire with business interests spanning the globe. Only time will tell how Donald Trump ultimately ends up balancing his global business empire with running the U.S. government – but so far it is not looking promising.
In fact, as Richard Painter, former ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, has pointed out, he may be in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause on day one of his presidency. This clause is one of the most critical conflict of interest provisions for all U.S. government officials. Basically, it is intended to ensure that nobody holding a position of trust with the United States government can receive payments from foreign governments, whether gifts or a salary or profits.
As Painter explained recently on Democracy Now:
If you have somebody who’s making profits from dealing with foreign governments or companies controlled by foreign governments, that person must dispense with those profits, cannot receive that money, while holding any position of trust with the United States government. That applies to every U.S. government employee, including the president. And so, what this means is that, for Donald Trump, if he’s going to hold onto these business enterprises, which present a whole range of other conflict of interest problems, to satisfy the Constitution, at a bare minimum, what he’s going to have to do is get the foreign government money and money from foreign government-controlled corporations out of his business enterprise. And this includes foreign diplomats staying at the hotels at government expense, foreign governments having big parties in his hotels and canceling reservations at the Four Seasons, going over to the Trump Hotel, to curry favor. All of that is unconstitutional.
Trump has responded to these criticisms by assuring the public that he would donate hotel profits from foreign governments to the United States Treasury and let his children manage all operations. This however isn’t enough to keep him on the right side of the Constitution, as law professor Erwin Chemerinsky explains:
In a word, Trump’s proposed solutions are laughable. So what if he donates “profits” from foreign governments to the United States Treasury? All he has to do is accept money from a foreign government and he’s already in violation of the emoluments clause – it doesn’t matter whether it constitutes a profit, or where the money ultimately ends up.
Focusing on profits, moreover, ignores the countless ways that his businesses can benefit from foreign governments that would never show up on a balance sheet. For example, it was widely reported that Trump lobbied a British political ally to oppose a wind farm project because it might ruin the view from his golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Besides, Trump on Wednesday again refused to reveal his tax returns and declared that the American people do not care about them. A pledge to turn over profits is meaningless without detailed accounting.
While his global business holdings may render his conduct as president unconstitutional, his incoming administration’s nepotism and conflicts of interests also pose serious challenges to international norms, and may render the United States in violation of the United Nations Convention against Corruption. As a state party to this convention, the United States has agreed to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption – including through “revolving-door practices,” such as placing corporate chieftains in charge of government regulatory agencies.
In particular, according to the convention:
Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.
Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …
Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.
The United States has long flouted these international obligations by allowing the corporate-government revolving door to swing freely and lucratively, but the violations of international norms will likely reach extraordinary new levels under Trump.
The advocacy group Transparency International, for one, is raising concerns that the practices that Trump is pursuing are exactly what “leaders in highly corrupt countries do.” As the organization recently tweeted out, “#Trump appointing his son-in-law as senior adviser looks a lot like #NEPOTISM to us!”
The group produced a video driving the point home in dramatic fashion:
Another Transparency International video outlines the conflicts of interest of his top cabinet picks and the likely corruption that will ensue:
While there is nothing new about conflicts of interest and corruption in the U.S. government (as reported by Compliance Campaign among others for years) the graft will likely dramatically worsen under Trump. In the past, the corruption has always been obscured by a veneer of legitimacy that masks the profiteering by the oligarchy running the government, but that mask is about to be removed.
But with the sleaze, fraud and vice about to be unleashed on the world, the United States may become more internationally isolated, possibly hastening the end of U.S. hegemony around the world. This might not ultimately be such a bad thing, as opening the global system to a more multilateral balance of power could end up being a net positive for the world, and U.S. isolation could help bring this about.