Conflicts of interest for “the little people”

The conclusion of the Mueller investigation does little to resolve the much broader set of concerns regarding President Trump’s conflicts of interest. These are too numerous to be chronicled on this site, but are being tracked on a weekly basis by the Sunlight Foundation, which even offers a searchable data base of Trump COIs. Additionally, a study recently conducted by USA Today showed that by failing to divest his various investments before taking office, Trump has created more than 1400 COIs.

The late Leona Helmsley is reported to have said that “only the little people pay taxes.” Trump’s view of COIs –  that the President can’t have one – while  similar in spirit to Helmsley’s timeless quip, is correct as a strictly legal matter.

As noted by USA Today: “There is no specific law that directly prohibits the president from owning any assets — whether real estate or anything else — that conflict with his official duties.” But the analysis is very different from an ethical perspective.

First, the foreseeable negative impact of a COI by a President is great. This is less a matter of the specific economic harm arising from an individual conflicted transaction as it is one of setting a bad example.

Justice Louis Brandeis famously said: “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.” While Brandeis was speaking about violations of law the point seems just as applicable to ethics.

Indeed, I believe that the negative impact of presidential impunity regarding COIs is particularly worrisome in a way that is unique in our history.  In the coming years we will be compelled to make sacrifices to address increasingly urgent needs regarding climate change and public debt. If government’s motives on these and other subjects are subject to question due to COI’s then the (already small) likelihood of sufficient sacrifice being made is diminished. (For more on the link between morality-based sacrifice and the success of human societies see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.)

Second, the likelihood of a president having a COI  is – at least as a general matter —  very high. That is a function of the near-infinite breadth and depth of a president’s power to help or hinder various interests – which, in turn, can reward him for his action/inaction.

Several weeks ago the House of Representatives passed a wide-ranging bill that – among other things – would encourage presidents and vice presidents to divest assets or create of blind trusts, but the Republican leadership has pronounced the legislation “dead on arrival.” Given how many of the other provisions of this bill are controversial, maybe Congress should be focused more narrowly on what is truly an ethics no brainer.

 

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