We Don’t Need a Trump Investigation
But it couldn’t hurt.
Recently, I’ve seen a few articles cross my Facebook feed about President-Elect Donald Trump’s “potential conflicts of interest,” and a call for Congress to investigate them. In law school, I had a personal engagement with legal ethics that I didn’t have with any other subject, and in an alternate universe there’s a version of me who’s working as a grievance attorney or a compliance officer within a large company or the government. But in this universe, it’s merely a hobby and something that I never tire of reading or talking about.
And it’s for that reason that these articles touch on a pet peeve of mine: Mr. Trump’s conflicts of interest aren’t “potential.” They exist! They’re plain as day, and no investigation is needed to tell us that they do.
Mr. Trump has a large, ongoing business enterprise that not only has business before this government, but has business before foreign governments. At the same time, Mr. Trump will, beginning on January 20, 2017, have the power to nominate federal judges and to dictate American foreign policy through his State Department. See the conflict? It’s not “potential,” it’s real.
Put plainly, a conflict of interest exists whenever you’re in a position to wear two (or more) hats. For a lawyer, the hats might be labeled “my client’s legal interests” and “my personal career interests.” For a public official, the hats might be labeled “my public responsibilities” and “my personal financial interests.” For a police officer, the hats might be labeled, “public safety” and “personal safety.”
The phrase “conflict of interest” implies some level of risk. Throwing the word “potential” on it is often misleading and wholly superfluous to what people actually mean to say. Which isn’t to say that “potential conflicts of interest” aren’t a thing themselves: they are. A potential conflict of interest exists whenever you are acting in a capacity that isn’t solely for your personal benefit, and in that way most of us have “potential conflicts of interest” in each of our professional lives. But in most cases, the barest level of review will turn a “potential” into an “actual.”
To say that a conflict of interest exists doesn’t mean that Mr. Trump will fail to serve the national interest as President. It doesn’t even mean that his personal interests and the national interest aren’t aligned; by doing what’s right for America, he might make money, and that’s perfectly fine as long as it happens in that order.
A Congressional investigation isn’t needed to tell us whether President-Elect Trump has a conflict of interest because, again, we already know that he does. What an investigation might do is reveal other conflicts of interest that exist which are not immediately apparent. But in that case, we’re exactly where we are today.
I suggest that what we need comes from Donald Trump, not from the United States Congress. Broken down simply:
Mr. Trump must acknowledge that there are serious conflicts of interest that will arise the moment he takes office in January. If he doesn’t come out and say that they’re there, we have to figure out if he’s failed to because he doesn’t see them, or because he doesn’t care. Either one is a problem, because the United States of America elected Mr. Trump to be its President in order to further its own interests, not Mr. Trump’s.
He must assure us that he will not allow them to influence his decisions as President. Not only does he need to pay lip service to the existence of conflicts of interest, but he needs to represent to the American public why there’s cause for concern. Without this, there will be room to question his commitment to upholding the principles and stature of the Oval Office.
Mr. Trump must tell us how he plans to prevent the influence of his personal financial interests on government policy. Typically, politicians in high office will put their businesses into a “blind trust,” where they’re not given influence over how their businesses operate. It doesn’t wholly insulate government from the business interests, but it’s a show of good faith. Coupled with Congressional oversight, it’s usually enough. I suspect, however, given Mr. Trump’s historically significant conflicts, that a bit more will be needed. If he were to create a new cabinet position (which would require Senate confirmation, and thus would carry significant symbolic weight) or an executive advisor or ethics “czar” (which wouldn’t, and so would be a less-significant gesture), Mr. Trump’s critics should reasonably find some satisfaction.
Beginning in January, President Trump must make good on all of the above. All the talk in the world doesn’t get us around a conflict of interest, and he’ll actually have to do the hard work and put in the serious thought needed to avoid turning the United States of America into the United States for Donald Trump. He’ll need to do it with sincerity and transparency, the latter likely to be the biggest hurdle. Mr. Trump has demonstrated serious resistance to public disclosure of his private entanglements to an extent uncharacteristic of modern American Presidents, and in light of what little we already know, this has to change.
President Trump will have serious conflicts of interest. There are “potential” conflicts of interest that may be discovered by Congress, but we don’t need to wait for an investigation to call President-Elect Trump to action on it. Whether you consider him “your” President or not, he will be the President of the United States of America, and the United States of America should demand that he act in that capacity at all times in his tenure. This should not be controversial, and it’s something on which his supporters and detractors alike should be able to find common ground.