Would a Trump presidency spell the end of ethics and compliance?

Many years ago, I helped provide E&C training to a group of Russians visiting the U.S. The apparent hope of the session sponsor (the Commerce Department) was that these individuals would use our information to implement programs in Russian companies. The visitors seemed interested in the presentations but at one point indicated that what they needed was not so much practice pointers on technical issues as a home government that supported the basic notion of E&C.

The logic of this point was obvious even before it was made – but I have never forgotten hearing it articulated. I have also never stopped giving thanks for living and working in a country where the basic notion of E&C is supported by the government. When one thinks about those countries where E&C is either ignored or worse, having the type of support that both Republican and Democratic administrations have shown for E&C for the past quarter century is truly a blessing of liberty – a blessing which plays a substantial role in promoting honest business practices, fair returns for shareholders, safe and respectful workplaces and a healthy environment.

Could that be lost in a Trump presidency?

I should stress at the outset that I’m no fan of Hillary Clinton’s ethics. I never bought her explanation of how she made a small fortune in commodity trading; am very uneasy about many of her and her husband’s paid speeches (less so about the Clinton Foundation); and think what she did with her email was, for want of a better word, deplorable. But I don’t view her as an existential threat to E&C, which I do with Donald Trump.

I see this on two levels.

First is the ethics dimension – and specifically Trump’s “tone at the top.” Based on the campaign he has run to date his ethical tone is deeply problematic – characterized, as it certainly can be, by a near total absence of humility (which, in my view, is the most underappreciated ethical quality); an equal lack of empathy and respect for others; a view that the ends always justify the means; a lack of respect for the law (most recently, the laws of war ); and the greatest penchant for lying I have ever seen in any human being  (including in my nearly twenty years as a white collar criminal defense lawyer).

While – as with all matters involving ethical culture – measuring the impact of a leader’s tone is an inexact science, we would do well to remember these words of Justice Brandeis: “Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.” The example set by a President Trump would, in my view, be utterly poisonous, reaching into not only businesses but also the governmental and possibly even personal (family and community) spheres.

The second dimension is, of course, compliance – and concerns various substantive areas of risk where instead of zero tolerance he seems to favor either zero or substantially reduced enforcement or himself appears to be a violator. Among these are corruption (he has said the FCPA is a horrible law ); conflicts of interest ; anti-discrimination/anti-harassment ; fraud (think of Trump University case and his practice of not paying suppliers); and gutting environmental laws .

When you take these areas off the E&C table, there’s not much left. Moreover, a lowering tide could wreck all boats, with each cutback feeding a broader acceptance of social irresponsibility by businesses.

Having said all this, I don’t think a Trump presidency would truly be the death of E&C. Other countries’ governments presumably would continue their respective efforts to promote E&C, and at least some state attorneys general would seek to fill the void, as would plaintiffs’ lawyers. Perhaps more importantly, many companies would continue to see strong E&C as good for business, in maintaining the trust of customers and shareholders and being a preferred place to work.

But a Trump presidency would almost certainly hurt E&C – the only real question to my mind is: How much? And the casualties would be all of us.

NOTE TO READERS: I AM TRAVELLING FOR THE FIRST PART OF THIS COMING WEEK AND SO MAY BE DELAYED IN POSTING ANY COMMENTS.

2 Comments
  1. Alice Peterson 1 year ago

    The leadership of a country impacts not only lawmakers and laws, but the citizens’ attitudes more broadly. For this and all the reasons you cite, Trump would be a negative if not destructive force for the U.S.

  2. Howard Whitton 1 year ago

    This argument strikes me as depressingly deterministic: at least 50% of people are as smart as Mr Trump, allowing that he is of average intelligence or perhaps better, and so the assumption that the people would regard his personal standard of Business Ethics as automatic licence to do likewise does not hold up. President or not, Trump is only Trump. More than one President has been reigned in by the Supreme Court, or the Court of Public Opinion, or Impeachment… – or the Washington Post.

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