The conflict of interest for President-elect Trump that no one’s talking about
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President-elect Donald Trump and his family have exacerbated concerns about conflict of interest complications in the last two weeks. Although many papers and news broadcasts have discussed the multiple difficult problems that the Trump family’s financial empire poses for making presidential decisions in recent days, so far the focus has only been on half the issue.

The president not only presides as chief executive of the federal government, he is also the commander in chief of the military and responsible for sending American soldiers into harm’s way.

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This presents an urgent problem.

The moral authority of the president is critical in our democracy: The decisions of the commander in chief must be viewed as legitimate by the citizenry and especially those who serve in the military. When the moral authority of a president-commander declines, there can be serious negative consequences for our military and the security of our country.

During the Vietnam War, we saw the moral authority of the president begin to break down. A growing fraction of the population questioned the morality and wisdom of the war as well as the moral authority of the president and his advisers to send soldiers to combat. We saw problems with recruitment, such as draft dodging, as well as soldier morale and operational capacity.

As is widely known, the Trump family has holdings and debt obligations around the world, including loans from and ties with state-controlled banks and entities in Russia and China in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Trump has not agreed to a blind trust, nor has he made a full public disclosure of his business investments, obligations and partnerships. Yet even a blind trust would not be enough to shield Trump’s decisions as president from the potential influence of his business interests; given the nature of his business empire, he would still know where the major physical assets, debt obligations, and profits are.

The central question is whether Trump will have U.S. national security interests foremost in his mind when putting U.S. soldiers into harm’s way. Or will his huge investments, contracts and loans with foreign actors influence his decisions? Even just the appearance of a conflict of interest can damage public trust and support for military action.

This conflict of interest problem may very lead to a growing crisis that will affect military recruitment, retention, morale, and possibly ultimately military capacity.

The situation is especially problematic given Trump’s views on relations with Russia. In contrast to nearly all Democratic and Republican politicians and military advisers, he plans to soften our stance and appease Russia’s recent aggressions in Europe and the Middle East. Notably, Trump asked for changes in only one of the hundreds of policy planks in the Republican Party platform this year: a softening stance toward Russian aggression in Ukraine. Apparently this is the only real policy issue he is concerned about.

Trump’s stated intentions to reverse U.S. policy toward Russia in what may be the most significant and sudden geopolitical shift initiated by a president since Richard Nixon’s opening to China. There has been no public discussion of this geopolitical reversal, nor the costs and benefits of the strategic plan going forward; there’s been no thorough discussion with experts and no discussion with the public. It is possible that Trump has valid reasons for an about-face on Russia, but until he lays out the rationale and resolves his conflict of interest problem, we can never be sure about his motives.

In this context, will American families trust that Trump has America’s best interests at heart and not those of his family’s foreign investments and obligations? Will America’s families send their children to enlist in the military with the possibility of being sent into combat under a President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Romney on NRSC awarding Trump: Not 'my preference' McConnell sidesteps Trump calling him 'dumb son of a b----' MORE’s order?

Personally, I will not advise my son to enlist when he graduates high school this year. My earliest memories are of growing up on a military base in Ohio. But I cannot allow my son to be ordered into battle, perhaps to sacrifice his life, for what may be the interests of Trump Family Inc.

How many others will feel the same way?

Given the virulence and hostility of the campaign toward certain ethnic and racial groups, it is possible that minority families in particular, such as Latino and African-American families, will be especially suspicious of Trump’s motives as commander in chief. If these families keep their children away from military service over the next four years, the ethnic and racial profile of our military troops will become less representative of the country. That is unacceptable in a democracy.

The long-term consequences of this situation may undermine the military beyond Trump’s tenure. If Democratic-leaning youths shun the military under Trump, will Republican leaning youths shun service under a Democratic president? There is a danger of the political polarization of military service.

This is not about Trump’s personal or public behavior. A discussion of whether his comments and behavior before and during the campaign have been moral or legal would lead us down the wrong path: This concern about conflict of interest is not a personal or partisan issue. We are concerned the actual and perceived conflicts of interest may strain our democracy’s ability to support a strong defense capability with a volunteer military service.

There is still time for Congress and President Obama to enact conflict of interest provisions for the president akin to what Cabinet members and other high-level government officials are held to. The president (and his immediate family) should not be allowed to have significant holdings, loans and contracts with foreign entities. Trump must commit to a quick process of selling off and terminating these foreign financial interests.

And if Trump balks? If he says it is too difficult to extract his business from obligations and ties to foreign interests in a reasonable time frame, say, six to 12 months, his chosen vice president will assume the presidency.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little interest and energy among our national leaders to protect our military and soldiers from being used — or even just appearing to be used — to promote Trump’s own personal interests. A failure to meet this opportunity to strengthen our democracy, by placing the office of president and commander in chief on a transparent, high moral plane, could lead to a growing crisis over the next four years in both our military and our democracy.

 

Mark Feinberg, Ph.D., is a research professor of Health and Human Development at Pennsylvania State University; he has a small business that trains military family service providers in supporting couples becoming parents. His father proudly served in the Air Force.

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