Every American must be a watchdog when it comes to Trump's conflicts of interest

Walter Shaub resigned as director of the Office of Government Ethics last week after criticizing our government’s current ethical standards as being insufficiently tough.

After all, just consider our president.

In January of this year, Shaub found Donald Trump’s proposal to avoid conflicts of interests insufficient and non-compliant with 40 years of presidential practice. Trump’s base and Republicans in Congress, however, continue to tolerate his conflicts.  

That tolerance is more shameful than the conflicts and unpresidential behavior themselves, and effectively forces the rest of us to tolerate them. They would never be allowed in a chief executive officer of any company — he or she would be removed immediately. Yet we’re allowing it in America’s CEO. 

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That’s new. Prior presidents fully separated themselves from their business interests to avoid potential conflicts. Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonCould the coming 'red wave' election become a 'red tsunami'? Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket A year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low MORE and George W. Bush either divested their businesses or put them in blind trusts. Johnson placed his radio and TV stations in the hands of trustees, though he frequently spoke with them.

 

But Johnson’s assets were domestic, and not encumbered by Trump-like conflicts. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCould the coming 'red wave' election become a 'red tsunami'? Bottom line Barack Obama wishes a happy 58th birthday to 'best friend' Michelle MORE had little influence over his holdings; they were largely mutual funds and treasury bonds.

Past presidents had enough respect for their office to separate themselves from their businesses, even though they didn’t involve the severe conflicts that attend Mr. Trump’s businesses. By today’s measures, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were worth over $500 and $200 million, respectively. But that wealth was in land, and, sadly, slaves. 

Foreign holdings like Trump’s are much more susceptible to actions by foreign governments, and much more likely to corrupt presidential decisions.

President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump lawyers to Supreme Court: Jan. 6 committee 'will not be harmed by delay' Two House Democrats announce they won't seek reelection DiCaprio on climate change: 'Vote for people that are sane' MORE, on the other hand, retains interests in at least 500 international businesses while negotiating agreements with foreign governments that could benefit or harm those businesses. 

Would Trump lift sanctions on Russia in exchange to build Trump Tower in Moscow, which he’s been trying to do over decades? Whether he would or not, the existence of the conflict mocks the integrity of past presidents.

Trump makes millions from hotels in the following countries, which generally require government approvals to continue operating.

All of these governments have issues pending before the administration, including:

  • Canada, where Trump is renegotiating NAFTA
  • India, where two Trump-branded buildings will soon be going up, while the Administration negotiates issues of trade, intellectual property and market access for American companies. 
  • Turkey, where Trump must address arming Kurds and form our reaction to Erdogan’s brutal treatment of protestors.
  • Panama, which has applied to the U.S. to extradite on corruption charges its past president, who presided over the opening of Trump’s 72-storey Ocean Club there. 
  • The Philippines, where Trump must address Rodrigo Duterte’s extrajudicial killings under the banner of fighting drugs. 
  • South Korea, where nuclear tensions are at a very dangerous level. The notion that Trump’s personal business interests might influence U.S. policy on the Korean peninsula is truly frightening.

Trump and his daughter Ivanka also received multiple trademarks from the Chinese since Trump took office. 

Such conflicts should not be tolerated, whether they involved quid pro quos or not.  

Trump’s supporters have also shown tolerance for the most frequent and obvious lies, possibly more frequent and obvious than all past presidents put together. As New York Times columnist David Leonhardt has documented and reported, “There is simply no precedent for an American president to spend so much time telling untruths. ... No other president — of either party — has behaved as Trump is behaving.” 

Trump’s break with precedent also extends to indulging in outrageous, unpresidential vitriol: mocking a disabled reporter, insulting the parents of a slain U.S. soldier who was Muslim, disrespecting John McCainJohn Sidney McCainKelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race Voting rights, Trump's Big Lie, and Republicans' problem with minorities Sinema, Manchin curb Biden's agenda MORE’s war record because he had been captured, misogynistically libeling Megyn Kelly and Mika Brzezinski about bleeding from their eyes and face after boasting about getting away with sexual assaults, and claiming that U.S.-born Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel should be disqualified because of his Mexican ancestry after asserting that Mexicans immigrants are often rapists, drug dealers and murderers.

Politics is a full contact sport. Every president has been criticized and has responded to attacks. The press and others made fun of George W. Bush for not being smart, of his father for vomiting on the Japanese prime minister’s lap, of President Ford for not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time, and of Bill Clinton for his transgressions, perjury and falling asleep during Hillary’s nomination speech. Yet none of these presidents degraded their office with crude insults as Trump has.

Tolerating Trump’s conflicts and behavior is made even more shameful by his supporters’ willingness to ignore its broad dissemination in the media. Is this a new normal that has been forced upon our country? Has Donald Trump permanently compromised our dignity? Let's hope not. But his supporters should be more anxious to restore our dignity than his detractors.

History will not be kind to those who passed over Trump’s transgressions in silence.

Neil Baron advised the SEC and congressional staff on rating agency reform. He represented Standard & Poor’s from 1968 to 1989, was vice chairman and general counsel of Fitch Ratings from 1989 to 1998, and was on the board of Assured Guaranty for a decade.


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