We may well be witnessing the final triumph of mammon over our national government.
Does that sound overwrought? Consider what Donald Trump is doing. First, he is refusing to put the management of his financial and business interests at arm’s length during his presidential term. The law may not dictate that he do so, but precedent surely does.
Trump is believed to have business holdings in as many as 150 companies operating in at least 25 different countries. The web of potential conflicts is dizzying. For example, workers at a casino he owns in Las Vegas are now in a labor dispute with Trump. His appointees to the National Labor Relations Board and to the courts will possibly make rulings on this and other cases that involve Trump’s interests.
Trump has stated that his business interests would be looked after by three of his adult children. Yet at the same time, there is little evidence this would represent any significant firewall between the nation’s business and his personal business. Already his children have sat in on meetings and phone calls with foreign leaders. According to an Argentine news report, the president-elect used a phone call with Argentine President Mauricio Macri to inquire about the status of some permitting problems that are holding up a Trump building project there.
There are many more instances that could be cited, but let’s look at Trump’s reaction to the so-far mild criticism he’s come in for, given in his favorite medium, a tweet:
“Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world. Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!”
That’s right, folks. You only have yourselves to blame. You trusted him.
To give Trump his due, a good enough portion of the American voting public asked for it. They did so when they latched onto the idea that a man known for his business acumen (deservedly or not) would be a leader who had their interests at heart.
It seems a lifetime ago that the press was breathlessly examining the conflicts of interest Bill and Hillary Clinton were courting with their charity that accepted contributions from foreign donors at a time when Hillary Clinton held sway in global affairs as the U.S. secretary of state. That’s not to mention the outrage of her paid speeches to Wall Street banks.
How quickly things have changed. The Washington Post reports that Trump’s foundation has admitted to the IRS that it engaged in self-dealing, which is illegal. That disclosure included this interesting tidbit: A Ukrainian steel oligarch paid Trump’s foundation $150,000 in 2015 for what was described as a video speech.
Hmm. I’m sure there’s no taint in that arrangement.
If Trump keeps it up, he may learn that the public is still disgusted by corruption in politics. Usually it is not the big honcho who enriches himself but rather his henchmen and the businessmen he cuts in on sweetheart deals. But Trump is different. He gloried in his exploits in the private sector, buying off politicians and avoiding taxes. We’ll see how long it takes for that act to get old.
Here’s what the public needs to keep in mind: Every decision that Trump makes on trade deals, Congressional legislation and all manner of international agreements could have an impact on his global holdings. We have to watch for them. We have to keep him honest, because it’s doubtful he can do that himself.
Donald Trump’s extraordinary ability to cultivate and promote his brand of wealth persuaded many voters to send him to the White House. But Trump’s success as president will hinge on his ability to pivot from a businessman’s way of operating to a viewpoint and style consistent with governing within a democracy. In other words, the skills that brought him into the office can’t sustain him after his inauguration.
Admittedly, the idea that the federal government would function better if it behaved more like a business is a seductive one. The sweeping entry of a CEO to upset the Washington status quo is temptingly simplistic.
Yet government does not and should not function like a business. The public good cannot be reduced to profit and loss. Many of government’s functions are costly yet essential despite their great expense; think of national security, justice and education. Think of ensuring baseline medical care for all and social insurance for the aged and disabled. Think of national infrastructure.
Private enterprise is largely or wholly inadequate to address these needs on its own, and a businessman/statesman must recognize that.
Donald Trump seems intent to shred the ethics manual on self-enrichment in office. A man like that can just as easily shred the social contract. Stay alert, America.