Stop Talking About 'Conflict of Interest'

Koichi Nakamura

As we noted earlier, there are likely half a dozen different stories out now showing the various ways that President-Elect Trump is combining the public's business and his own private business ventures. As I noted a few days ago on Twitter, we're about to learn with a little more context what the phrase "conflict of interest" actually means.

A conflict of interest refers to a situation where one individual has two conflicting interests or goals which cannot reasonably be reconciled. In the case of a government official it is usually when the interests of the person's office, which is the public interest - for a President, Senator, Cabinet Secretary, etc. - conflict with their private interests. Usually, but not always, this means their financial interests.

In some cases, we mean merely the appearance of a conflict. Even if a conflict doesn't actually exist, there can be the appearance of a conflict which erodes public trust in the person's ability to do their job.

All of these versions of conflicts of interest broadly apply to people who are trying to accomplish their public roles in good faith but have inherent conflicts which might prevent them from doing so. At a minimum, we use this construct on the assumption that people are acting in good faith and not advancing their private interests with the powers of their office. That's the problem. The concept simply doesn't apply well when you are talking is a public official who is by design using their public office for profit. Everything we've seen from President-Elect Trump so far suggests this all comes so naturally to him that at some level he doesn't even see anything wrong with it. Indeed, this shouldn't be surprising since it matches with his entire career, in which he has used every angle on offer - publicity, stardom, connections with government officials, etc. - to make money or as tools he can leverage to make money for his private businesses.

This is so obvious, so clear right in front of our faces, that it seems hard to see. These aren't conflicts of interest. The construct doesn't work for what we're dealign with. There is no conflict. Everything is working as planned. He's leveraging the office like one might leverage a business. When you have your hotel pitch foreign diplomatic delegations on bringing their business to your hotel, that's not a conflict. That's a revenue stream tied to owning the presidency. Same with expanding your business in countries where the US has critical diplomatic, economic and military relationships.

Donald Trump has a sprawling global business which is inextricably tied to his name. It's not like he could sell his licensing business since the value of the licensing business would disappear with the sale. He plans to have his kids run it while he is President, though to date he seems intent on continuing to run it himself. We also have no way to actually know the full outlines of Trump's business because we don't have his tax returns.

That whole package is inherently corrupt. The President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world. Everyone wants his favor. The sprawling Trump organization provides a ready path for virtually anyone to seek to buy it. Even if Trump didn't want this to be so it would still be so. He doesn't have to pursue it. It will come on its own like gravity forcing objects toward the ground. And yet he is actively soliciting it - seemingly across the board. Again, Trump and his children has some mix of indifference and obliviousness to this central fact.

Note what I flagged this morning. The only reason we know about the meeting with the Indian business partners about expanding operations in India is because it bubbled up in the Indian press. The only reason we know about this phone call with the Argentine president is because an Editor at TPM who knows Spanish and knows Argentina happened to find it. How many other instances like this do you think are out there that the US press hasn't noticed yet simply because of language proficiency in Russian, Chinese, Malay, Polish, Arabic and dozens of other languages where Trump has or wants to build new business ventures?

Here's a question. Do you think the Trump Organization's overseas and domestic licensing and construction business, managed by Trump's children, will expand over the next four years or contract? The answer is obvious. Money always wants to seek out power. And we've never had a case where the most powerful man in the world had some many active tentacles in so many parts of the world to facilitate that process.

Just as the US campaign press really wasn't prepared or able to deal with the novelty of Trump's campaign, they seem unable to grapple with the scope of Trump's corruption.

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Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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