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Trump’s Conflicts

I have no polling data to back me up here, so in my latest column at The Week I engaged in pure speculation about why Trump’s actual and potential conflicts of interest aren’t getting more traction than they are. (And, to be fair, they are getting some traction.)

The opportunities for corruption and self-dealing are manifest — and the evidence so far suggests that Trump is blithe to the problem. So why was this never a material issue in the election? And why isn’t there a public groundswell demanding that he divest himself completely of his assets before taking the oath of office, however painful and expensive such a transaction might be?

Pure partisanship is undoubtedly part of the answer. Trump’s opponents are far more concerned about the potential for corruption in his administration than they were about the potential conflicts of the Clinton Foundation, and vice versa. But that surely isn’t the entire explanation. After all, there was plenty of coverage of the Clinton Foundation as a potential source of conflicts, and not by any means only in the conservative media. And Trump’s potential conflicts really are on an entirely different scale from anything we’ve seen before.

Moreover, given that a large part of the rationale for Trump’s candidacy was that he was incorruptible because he had already made his money, you would think that this would be a point of particular concern to his supporters. But that does not appear to be the case. Why not?

Well, consider how the problem looks to someone inclined to empathize with Trump.

Here is a man who, over the course of a lifetime, built a vast and complicated business. Yes, he started out with many advantages; sure, he may have cut some ethical corners and played hardball more often than not. But at the end of the day, he built a business. It was his work, his risk, his reward.

Now you’re saying that because he decided to serve his country, he has to destroy it? It’s not enough that he remove himself from its operations; he has to take this beautiful thing he built, and sell it at a fire sale price, so that we can be satisfied that he won’t use the office of president to make even more money?

That doesn’t seem fair, does it?

It seems even less fair when you consider the contrast with politics-and-moneymaking as usual. The numerous former elected and appointed officials who have parlayed time in government into lucrative consulting, lobbying, or speech-giving have given voters every reason to suspect that their decisions while in government were corrupted by the prospect for post-public-service buck-raking. It’s probably more than a little puzzling to understand why Trump’s ownership of a Washington, D.C., hotel — which foreign diplomats will undoubtedly stay in as a way of showing respect — is worse than earning millions for speeches to industries you (or your wife) hope to regulate. At least Trump actually built the hotel.

In fact, I suspect to many, Trump’s situation seems less disturbing precisely because it is so much more narrowly personal, whereas garden-variety corruption feels more systemic.

The column goes on to talk about the risk of systemic corruption under a Trump administration — the risk, basically, that Trump could abuse the power of his office to reorient the American economy around regime-provided rents.  The thing is, this risk has very little to do with Trump’s conflicts of interest from his business. The scale of his operations and their opacity makes it considerably easier to exact a toll from any business seeking a more favorable regulatory climate, but plenty of foreign kleptocrats have set that kind of operation up without having started out as oligarchs.

Anyway — read the whole thing there.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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