Alexandra Erin is an independent author and commentator. If you gain anything from her writing, you can help support it on Patreon (http://www.patreon.com/alexandraerin) or PayPal (http://www.paypal.me/alexandraerin).
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Donald Trump has changed his story about how he will handle his conflicts of interest as president so many times that it would be a mistake to try to figure out what his intended message is. Indeed, it would be a mistake to assume that any of his answers on the subject were intended to communicate a particular message at all.
They were not attempts to answer questions so much as they were attempts to answer the questioner, to say something that would end the line of questioning and allow him to change the subject.
Nevertheless, Donald Trump has told us—and shown us—exactly how he intends to handle his conflicts of interest, again and again, to the point that there can be no real surprise at the revelation that he’s staying on as a paid executive producer at The Celebrity Apprentice.
Let’s back up.
There was a moment during the presidential campaign when, while he was being criticized for his fat-shaming comments about Miss Universe Alicia Machado, Donald Trump attempted to set the record straight and clarify that actually, she really had gained weight.
That moment came back to me when I read the presumptive president-elect’s comment that business-wise, the law is on his side, because “the president can’t have conflicts of interest.”
They were both moments where it was spectacularly apparent that Trump does not get it, that he quite literally does not see what the problem is.
He thought that people objected to him calling a woman “Miss Piggy” because they disputed the accuracy of the characterization, and so he defended himself by asserting that his insults were factually correct and grounded in reality.
Similarly, he believes all this talk about “conflicts of interest” is just so much quibbling over rules, that the trouble that so many knowledgeable and experienced people have been warning about consists of nothing but legal penalties he may himself face for running afoul of laws.
He does not—perhaps cannot—understand that those rules and laws have a deeper purpose or that anyone might be concerned with upholding that purpose more so than upholding particular rules.
In editorial after editorial and analysis after analysis, writers parsing Trump’s words have hastened to point out that on a technical level, Trump is correct in saying that the president “can’t have conflicts of interest.”
I have to disagree with this. The letter of the law is on his side, but the idea that the president “can’t have conflicts of interest” is true only in the imperative sense.
I mean, I know what they’re saying and why they are saying it, when they say that he’s right. Despite the Nixonian shades of “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal,” Trump’s view is actually rooted in the rule of law: the conflict-of-interest laws that constrict most of the executive branch don’t apply to the president.
This, like many other forms of immunity the president enjoys, is there to prevent another branch of government from interfering in the office of the president. Because the president’s decisions can affect every aspect of life in the United States and ripple around the world, anything a president might need to do could conceivably be spun to be a conflict of interest.
But this does not mean the concept of a conflict of interest does not apply to the president. It means that no one but presidents themselves may be trusted to judge their own conflicts of interests, and that we more or less trust them to police themselves accordingly.
And therein lies the problem, the very special problem presented by Donald Trump, because in the plainest and simplest terms: he just does not get it.
I think we’ve pretty much all had that one coworker or classmate who has the same problem, while not wielding the powers of the office of the President of the United States. This is the person who doesn’t quite grok the honor system, doesn’t understand things like leeway, discretion, or informal rules, and who invariably ruins things for everyone else.
If your boss tells you that there’s a ten-minute grace period for arriving and leaving around your shift’s scheduled start and end time, this is the person who hears “You can clock in ten minutes late and clock out ten minutes early, every day,” and proceeds to do so, until the policy is changed for everyone in order to stop the one person from doing so.
If the person in charge tells such a person that there’s no rule covering a situation but they are expected to be honest and use their best judgment, they stop listening at “no rule” because the rest is just noise, isn’t it?
This is the kind of person who, once they realize that a sign that says “Take One” over a candy dish has no legal force, will empty the entire thing into their bag and continue blithely on their day.
As I said, I think most of us have known someone like this, in a context where it mattered that they behaved this way.
Throughout his campaign—and likely for long before most of us were paying this level of attention—there was a theme, when Donald Trump was confronted with evidence of wrongdoing for his own enrichment: “that’s just good business,” he’d say, or “that makes me smart.” His surrogates would then make the cable and print news rounds repeating and elaborating on these lines.
In doing so, he’s laid the groundwork for never having any chickens come to roost from any pay-to-play, self-dealing, or those pesky emoluments people keep talking about that might arise during his term of office.
To the extent that enough of us have shrugged, accepted his reasoning, and moved on to deliver him an apparent electoral victory, we’ve sent the message that this is an acceptable way of looking at and dealing with the world, that there is no difference between doing the right thing and getting away with the wrong thing.
When Donald Trump ignores a signed contract specifying a payment he agreed to for work that was already delivered and forces the other party to agree to a much lower price in order to get anything at all, in a purely legal sense he does get away with it.
There is a difference between “conduct that is legal” and “conduct that you can get away with under the law, if you have enough leverage and are nasty enough to bring it all to bear on someone in no position to fight back,” but Donald Trump does not recognize that difference. He doesn’t recognize it to the point that he has failed to realize anyone else sees such a difference, hence his clueless defense that the law is on his side.
By his repeated appeals to this idea, he has taught his followers not to see it, either, and the rest of us are learning that lesson at varying speeds every time we let him change the subject or accept for the sake of argument that it’s just “good business” not to pay what is owed and to take for himself as much as he can get away with taking.
Once he actually occupies the Oval Office, there will be a whole other layer to this. As the heads of the three branches of government are exempted from many ordinary legal checks, the biggest single check on their conduct is the willingness of the American people to hold them accountable. We are the instruments of consequence for our leaders. If we accept that we can’t judge one of those leaders for any actions he got away with, he can get away with anything.
Worse, there are implications for this mindset that go beyond Trump’s financial well-being and the havoc he might wreak “being smart” about his businesses while he’s in office.
He has been very open in interviews and the various books written for him about his philosophy of vengeance, his desire to hit back ten times as hard in response to any perceived slight or insult. We have watched this in action throughout the campaign and his transition. We can expect it to continue, as it only makes sense to him to stop if someone is in a position to stop him.
Similarly, we have no reason to expect him to stop appealing to and empowering hatred and enshrining autocracy. When asked if he would denounce figures such as Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin or KKK leader David Duke, his answers were largely to ask rhetorically why he would denounce someone who flatters and supports him.
He did eventually offer a weak denunciation of Duke, when it appeared that not doing so would cost him more support than Duke could give him.
It was a simple cost/benefit analysis, in other words, the sort that he says “makes him smart”.
His continued alignment with the modern face of white nationalism, the various overlapping movements of the so-called “alt-right”, further reflects this. After what happened on November 8th, it is unlikely anyone will ever be able to convince him it will be worth it on a purely practical level to cut those ties, and that’s the only level he will acknowledge.
He might metaphorically wag his finger and say “stop it” and his proxies might say that of course he deplores racism, because this costs him nothing and (he hopes) allows him to change the subject. But to actually denounce these groups and their actions with the same level of vitriol and specificity that he reserves for Saturday Night Live and Hamilton? It won’t happen.
It’s not “good business”.
For the health of the republic and the well-being of everyone within it, it is important that the president does not have any serious conflicts of interest, to the extent that this is humanly possible.
This requires as a bare minimum a president who recognizes it is possible to have a conflict of interest without a law that spells out what it is, and a president who cares about more than whether or not one can get away with something.
To put it simply: the presidency operates on the honor system. For it to operate it at all, the occupant of the office must have some notion of honor. As a nation, we can differ about how honorable various president have been, what it means to be honorable, or even if the term has any intrinsic value.
But the idea of being a person of honor, of being seen as honorable, has at least held some appeal to each occupant of the Oval Office, and this ideal has been at least a partial brake on the exercise of executive power for petty and personal reasons.
That brake, like so many others, has come flying off in the person of Donald Trump, a man who sees no value in even the concept of honor, a man who could not understand why people would honor the sacrifice of a captured soldier (or even a fallen one), a man for whom there is only winning and losing, and that ignoring the rules to win doesn’t taint your victory, it only makes you smart.