Donald Trump is absolutely, positively wrong when he says a president “can’t have a conflict of interest” and that the “law is on his side.” By even making the statement, he clearly does not understand what a conflict of interest is.
“A man cannot serve two masters,” it is said. When Donald Trump, international businessman, tries to be Donald Trump, leader of the free world, those two interests collide in the most fundamental of ways.
While it is true that elected officials, including the president, are exempt from federal conflict of interest laws, there is another, more fundamental principle at play.
The oath of office.
When, and if, Donald Trump takes the oath of office on January 20, 2017 he will put his left hand on a Bible, raise his right in the air and recite the following words:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Donald Trump the president will have the obligation to do his best to preserve, protect and defend the national interests. Thus, he must put the interests of the country above his private, personal, family and business interests. The use of the term “best” is important, because it is a higher standard than “reasonable” or the exercise of “reasonable care.” “Best” can mean “above all else.”
With a sprawling real estate, hotel,golf and casino empire in at least 18 countries in the world, including hotspots like Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, keeping those interests separate will be no easy task for the most honest and ethical among us.
Most Presidents put their assets in a blind trust or sell them, so there is no way their decisions as President can affect their personal finances.
The Mistake Trump Made.
What Trump meant was that existing federal conflict of interest LAWS do not cover the President or, for that matter, elected politicians. That’s accurate. However, conflict of interest PRINCIPLES do apply to everyone, civil servants and politicians alike.
While Trump may not be fined $3000 for violating some obscure law, rule or regulation regarding conflicts of interest or nepotism, he will be subject to impeachment for the high crime and misdemeanor of failing to protect the interests of the nation. The way the impeachment laws are written, congress can consider the failure to eliminate conflicts of interest to be an impeachable offense (a high crime or misdemeanor). That’s because the term “high crimes and misdemeanors” is not defined in any law or in the constitution. Each legislator can decide what exactly constitutes a “high crime and misdemeanor.” For politicians (and for federal judges), impeachment is the ultimate check and balance
Trump may also run afoul of the so-called “emoluments clause” in the Constitution. Generally speaking, the “emoluments’ clause generally prohibits a President from benefitting financially from a foreign power. The fear is that he or she will make decisions for personal or family business reasons rather than what is best for the country. An “emolument” is a “benefit,” which could be anything from a title (Prince, Duke, etc.) to a cash payment to a gift of a valuable golden statue or the grant of a license to build a hotel on the Danube River.
Potential and actual conflict of interest.
We all have an understanding of what an actual conflict of interest is. That would be when a Saudi prince bankrolls a terrorist who bombs a Trump property in Riyadh. Is Trump the businessman more interested in rebuilding his hotel, or is Trump the president more interested in apprehending suspects and possibly damaging Saudi-American relations. What if it turns out the Saudi prince owns two apartments in Trump tower and is negotiating for a third? What’s a president to do?
What if one of Trump’s investors in Russia is a close associate of Vladimir Putin, and Putin invades a NATO country? Then, what if Congress decides to levy economic sanctions on Putin’s friends and supporters. What will Trump do? Obey the law, or just not disclose the associates’ investments with Donald Trump?
America would know what’s going on if Trump made even the most basic financial disclosures of his tax returns. Now that he is potentially set to become set to become the leader of the free world, that lack of transparency is becoming critical.
Trump must not only look out for actual conflicts of interest, he must guard against potential conflicts of interest. This means he must avoid investments in countries that are, or could be, at odds with America.
Disclosure disclosure disclosure
For example, a Trump building project is underway in Brazil, but its promoters are waiting for building permits. If Trump needs something from the Brazilian government, how can we be sure that he is looking out for our national interests in any negotiations with Brazil when he clearly has a personal interest as well?
The key is disclosure.
Trump must immediately abandon his refusal to release his tax returns so that we may get an adequate picture of the extent of his business interests around the world. In addition, he must disclose his future plans for the Trump organization so that we may evaluate whose interest he is operating in: his own, or ours.
Unless it’s ours, the House should be ready to impeach, and the Senate be ready to convict.
cover photo: By Michael Vadon (Donald Trump) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Other articles by Marty Rudoy