It is hardly a month after the 2016 Presidential election, and already, President-elect Trump is showing plenty of warning signs that his administration will be one conflict of interest after another. This is a worrying sign to anybody interested in upholding high standards of business ethics, good governance, and regulatory compliance.
About a week after Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States, the Washington Post reported, some 100 foreign diplomats from around the world gathered at the Trump International Hotel in Washington to essentially entertain a sales pitch about the new property. They drank Trump-branded champagne and won raffle prizes that included free stays at other Trump properties. The foreign diplomats attended in an effort to build better ties with the new administration, but to anybody with even a passing interest in matters of business ethics and corruption, the event looked bad. More than one foreign official said that they hoped to stay at the hotel when visiting with the Trump administration so they could say they stayed at the President’s hotel chain, and not a competitor. That, my friends, is what we call a red flag. Maybe not a huge one, but it’s bright red, all the same. Anybody can see this for the conflict of interest that it is.
And yet, this is hardly the biggest problem with Trump International. The hotel is inside the Old U.S. Post Office building, which Trump leases from the federal government. This puts us in the strange position of a sitting president having potential business negotiations with the federal government. Were he to do so, he would be committing the same kind of behavior we so often decry in other nations: using presidential power to enrich oneself while in office.
Meanwhile, the New York Times has recently reported that a business partner of Trump’s in the Philippines—Jose E. B. Antonio, the chairman of Century Properties Group—will be named that nation’s trade envoy to the United States during the Trump administration. The connection between Antonio and Trump is not particularly strong—Trump licensed his name to Century Properties Group on a $150 million apartment building contrition project in Manila. But stock in Century jumped 20 percent upon news of Trump’s election. A sign of blossoming pay-to-play? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s already having difficulty passing a smell test.
There is no specific law that requires the president to remove him or herself from pre-existing business ties upon taking office. But customarily, the president puts those dealings in a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest. Customarily, people running for president also release their tax returns, so there’s no telling what Trump will really do. Increasingly, though, as those who run for president do so on the back of their business efforts—poor people simply don’t get elected to high office in this country anymore—there must be special efforts made to firewall their business and political careers.
I am reminded of former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s connections to Halliburton at a time when that firm received no-bid contracts from the federal government to handle oil fields in Iraq. Halliburton was a highly qualified firm for the job. But the feelings of impropriety surrounding its role cast a cloud over it and the Bush administration.
Hopefully, we won’t see that during the Trump administration. Hopefully, Trump will make every effort to separate Trump the businessman from Trump the commander in chief. Hopefully, I won’t have a reason to rewrite this editorial every month for the next four years. We’ll see.