There are many countries in the world that are governed by men who use their office to enrich themselves and their families. Before now, or at least for the last 200 years (since Andrew Jackson secretly profited off his own land grabs) the United States of America has not been a country like this. The modern American tradition has required political leaders to renounce any financial interest that might bias their decision. Donald Trump has abruptly demolished this tradition. And the Republican Party is happy to oblige.
The U.S. government’s imperviousness to the kind of deep corruption that infects kleptocratic states had a key vulnerability: It rested on two completely voluntary norms. The first, a requirement that presidential candidates publish their tax returns so that their financial interests are public, was already discarded during the campaign. After some feeble, initial protest, reporters stopped bringing up the subject, and Republicans stopped suggesting that Trump comply. The second is a requirement that presidents divest their wealth and place it in a blind trust, so that they cannot knowingly make any decision that might redound to their personal benefit. Trump has discarded this norm as well. The only remaining obstacle to Trump leveraging his power for personal gain is a Congress controlled by his own party.
Republicans have mostly dealt with Trump’s conflicts by ignoring them altogether. Darren Samuelson moves the ball forward by asking many of them why they’re okay with a president leveraging his position for personal benefit. Some of them simply argue it is too soon to take any steps. “I take anything in the Constitution very seriously. I don’t want to leave any misinterpretation to you,” says House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. “But I’m just saying, he hasn’t been sworn in yet.” Republican strategist Chris Wilson sneers, “If there was a situation that came up in which later there was a true conflict of interest, that created a dangerous national security situation, the problem is now nobody would believe them … They’re just jumping into it so quickly and on such a stupid issue that it’s almost embarrassing to watch.”
The notion that Trump’s conflicts of interest represent some hypothetical future case that may or may not arise is bizarre. For one thing, his unprecedented lack of transparency means the full extent of his financial interests will not be known to the public. If business leaders were giving Trump and his family stock or gifts in return for favorable policy, we would have no way to know. For another, a president-elect has power; since everybody knows Trump will become president soon, they have no reason to wait before ingratiating themselves with him. And even without public disclosure, reporters have already uncovered numerous conflicts of interest. Jeremy Venook has collected a dozen, a list that is already out of date.
Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, scoffs at requests for hearings about Trump’s conflicts of interest. “It is a little ridiculous to send me six letters before he’s even been sworn in to go on, essentially, fishing trips,” he tells Samuelson. “That’s not what we do.” In fact, it’s exactly what they do. Before the election, Chaffetz boasted of his plans to line up investigations into Hillary Clinton’s conduct: “Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up.” Some of the Chaffetz’s investigations had centered on conflicts not remotely as shady as those already involving the president-elect. Chaffetz referenced a $12 million donation from Morocco to the Clinton Foundation in 2014. The conflict here lay between Hillary Clinton’s hypothetical future power as president — which, in fact, she never acquired — in return for a donation to a charity. Chaffetz considered this a scandal worth investigating. Meanwhile, Trump is making money personally — not through a charity associated with his name — on the basis of powers he is actually, not hypothetically, scheduled to assume.
A more blunt defense of Trump’s kleptocracy comes from Newt Gingrich, who once brought Republicans to power by railing against Washington corruption, then settled into a life of influence-peddling, and has already cashed in on his connection to Trump. “In a pre-Trump world dominated by left-wing ideas,” Gingrich tells Samuelson, “anyone successful is inherently dangerous and should be punished for trying to serve the country.” The dangerous left-wing idea that the president should not enrich himself in office has attracted advocates including such radical socialists as George W. Bush’s former ethics lawyer. That anti-success ideology is now gone, and the United States is free to follow the example of pro-market governments like Uzbekistan, where the president can mix governing and massive personal enrichment as he sees fit.
Trump himself seems to be gravitating toward this “I’m rich, get over it” defense. Trump owns stock in the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline, and has endorsed completion of the project. Trump’s official explanation is that his support for the pipeline “has nothing to do with his personal investments and everything to do with promoting policies that benefit all Americans.” It is probably true that, in this case, Trump’s agenda happens to line up with his personal financial interest. But consider the breadth of this defense. Trump is claiming the right to make decisions in office that enrich himself, and simply insisting that he would have made those decisions regardless because he is incorruptible by definition.
A straightforward bribe involves a quid pro quo transaction between public officials and a private interest. Since Trump refuses to disclose his tax returns, the public cannot know the quid. And his administration insists that any decision he makes must have the public’s best interest in mind, which could rationalize any quo. There is literally no mechanism whatsoever standing between Trump and massive Putinesque corruption.
Perhaps the most chilling defense is one by Gingrich that goes beyond even asserting an unlimited right to undisclosed presidential self-dealing. “The American people,” he tells Samuelson, “knowingly voted for a businessman whose name is inextricably tied to his fortune. In reality, of course, “the American people” voted for Hillary Clinton. Trump was chosen by the Electoral College. What’s striking here is the notion that Trump’s victory inherently moots any concerns about his conduct in office. Accountability is not an ongoing process but a matter settled once and for all in November. Any restraint on his abuse of power is inapplicable, since the election is presumed to have handed Trump the right to use his power as he sees fit. If Trump can so quickly demolish decades of precedent against presidential self-enrichment, what other norms will he destroy?