Trump’s Kleptocracy Is So Astounding It Already Feels Like Old News

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Trump Tower is open for business.Photo: Aude Guerrucci/Picture-Alliance/AP Photo

One of the many surreal moments of the presidential campaign took place at a Republican debate in January, when a moderator asked Donald Trump if he would follow standard practice and place his assets in a blind trust after assuming office. Trump first dodged the question, simply insisting he cares more about the country than about his company. When pressed about the blind trust, he replied, bizarrely, “I would put it in a blind trust. Well, I don’t know if it’s a blind trust if Ivanka, Don, and Eric run it. But — is that a blind trust? I don’t know. But I would probably have my children run it with my executives. And I wouldn’t ever be involved, because I wouldn’t care about anything but our country.”

It was difficult to understand what meaning, if any, could be drawn from this zigzag of verbiage. Was Trump merely pretending not to understand what the term blind trust means? (It means a third party places your wealth into investments of which you have neither awareness nor control, so that self-interest cannot influence your decisions in office.) Did he truly not understand? Was he actually saying he would continue as president to run his business, which was enmeshed in politics throughout the United States and in 18 other countries and which had infinite potential as a conduit for corruption?

The question receded into the background, in part because an endless series of other controversies obscured it, in part because Americans couldn’t fathom what Trump had apparently promised: the presidency as an adjunct of his real-estate and branding business. The developing world is filled with ruling families that use the state to amass huge and usually secretive fortunes. Such an arrangement has been heretofore unimaginable in the United States. And yet the surreal has quickly become real.

Days after Trump won the election, a number of diplomats told the Washington Post they would make a point of patronizing his Washington hotel when they visit the city. “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ ” said one. “Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor’?” As a candidate, Trump speciously argued that having his children run the business, and he the government, would somehow foreclose the possibility of corruption. (As if stepping away from managing his business would make Trump forget his holdings, or that favor-seekers would not attempt to give his children favors.) But even that threadbare pretense has given way. His children have taken roles on the transition team. Ivanka attended official discussions with heads of state of Japan and Argentina. The president-elect met with Indian business partners to discuss business and lobbied a British politician to oppose offshore wind farms because one will block the view at one of his Scottish golf courses.

Trump’s brazen use of his office for personal enrichment signals something even more worrisome than four or more years of kleptocratic government. It reveals how willing the new administration is to obliterate governing norms and how little stands in his way. An expectation that elected presidents must forswear any financial holdings that could conceivably affect their judgment has been an unquestioned point of bipartisan consensus for decades. Jimmy Carter even directed his trust to rent the peanut farm he built, lest any pro-peanut bias taint his decisions in office, and he endured a special prosecutor’s lengthy investigation to ensure his complete divestment.

But a norm is not a rule, a point Trump has leaned on. “The law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he told the New York Times. Disturbingly, this is legally accurate. The strict federal rules about financial conflicts of interest do not apply to the president, whose incentive to avoid self-enrichment is simply assumed. There is no legal mechanism that requires transparency or accountability. In essence, Trump is proposing that we, not he, enter a blind trust: He promises that he will never misuse his power, and we … hope he’s right.

The abuses that have leaked out so far (some through the foreign media, since American reporters were not informed of Trump’s conversations) provide a glimpse into what could easily be a bottomless pit of corruption. Since Trump has refused to disclose his tax returns, or those of his family members, it is possible that business owners or dictators are granting his family excessively generous licensing agreements, or even giving them stock options or cash in return for government favors. Given Trump’s business ethics, which run from refusing to pay contractors and daring them to sue to establishing a fake university to swindle his fans to using his “foundation” to illegally donate to a politician who subsequently did not investigate said university, it would be surprising if he did not eventually accept outright bribery. Once introduced into a political ecosystem, corruption in government tends to spread rapidly. It can infect foreign-policy-making, where overseas partners will seek favors from Trump’s administration, and domestically, where Trump and his allies could form a self-enriching circle that wields state power to exclude both economic competitors and political ones. Astonishingly, the president-­elect has treated the sanctity of government as a nonissue. In a recent tweet, he pronounced the question of his own enrichment through power to have been settled by the voters (or at least the Electoral College). “Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world,” he wrote. “Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!” He is not even claiming innocence — he is placing the question itself off-limits.

The controversy over Trump’s tax returns earlier this year set the template for how this drama will likely unspool. At the beginning of the campaign, Trump offered incoherent or contradictory responses to questions about disclosing them, and most journalists assumed he simply had to release them before the election. Many conservatives urged him to do so — it would “enhance his credibility,” suggested a Wall Street Journal editorial. But Trump simply refused, fatalism set in, and the media and the opposition effectively let the matter drop.

So far, the response on the right to Trump’s financial conflicts has been muted. A Journal editorial urging Trump to sell off his business interests framed its case as sympathetic advice to protect an honest man from unfair suspicion. Trump faced “political danger” and “political damage,” and “the presidential stakes are too high for Mr. Trump to let his family business become a daily political target.” Not a single sentence entertained the possibility that Trump might actually leverage his office for personal gain. If this is the kind of blowback Trump will receive from conservatives, he is probably correct in calculating that he can ride it out.

The question going forward is what other norms Trump can destroy. The potential avenues of abuse for a party in full control of government are vast. It can direct the Department of Justice to hound its political enemies, crack down on voting rights, and use discretionary regulation to punish politically hostile firms and reward compliant ones. Trump already threatened several months ago to use regulatory and tax policy to punish Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, who owns a newspaper (the Washington Post) whose reporting displeased Trump. All these levers of power are legal. Now think ahead to the next presidential election. You know the assumption that the candidate who gets the most votes in a state receives its electoral votes? Also just a norm. Some state legislatures can award their electoral votes any way they like, and most of those legislatures are controlled by the Republican Party.

All these horror scenarios are hypotheticals, but they are only marginally more unthinkable than today’s status quo was a year ago. (And the hijacking of electoral votes even has some precedent: In 2000, when a statewide recount began, Florida’s Republican-­controlled legislature openly contemplated awarding all its electoral votes to Bush regardless of who won the recount, until the Supreme Court made this unnecessary.) Trump’s behavior, if successful, would supply proof of concept that he can destroy norms unimpeded. He has already dismantled the twin guardrails against presidential kleptocracy, tax disclosure and personal divestment, in quick succession. It is a chillingly impressive achievement for a man still two months away from assuming the powers of office.

*This article appears in the November 28, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.