So far, President-elect Donald Trump’s attempts to resolve his massive conflicts of interest have as much substance as the pile of empty business folders he laid out at last week’s press conference. As things stand, leading ethics experts are clear that America’s 45th President will violate our constitution from the moment he is inaugurated.
Take the Trump family’s global real estate empire. Unless he severs all ties, how can the American people know that Mr. Trump’s foreign policy decisions won’t be swayed by his family making or losing considerable amounts of money?
We cannot underestimate what this means for our national security and foreign policy. For years, the U.S. has been at the forefront of efforts to stop kleptocrats using public office to enrich themselves and their families in countries around the world. Such countries are sometimes subject to sanctions, asset seizures or other punitive measures, because unaccountable leaders are dangerous. So to protect our status and influence in the world, we need assurances that this model of government we have spent decades denouncing will not take root in the White House, of all places.
Unless he severs all ties, how can the American people know that Mr. Trump’s foreign policy decisions won’t be swayed by his family making or losing considerable amounts of money?
The part of the constitution that Trump will be violating (it’s called the emoluments clause) stops people in power from deriving any financial benefits from foreign governments as a result of their position. It exists to protect our democracy and make sure our leaders act in the public interest, not their own. Leading ethics experts from both parties agree with this interpretation of the law. The only people who don’t are the lawyers on Mr. Trump’s payroll. Mr. Trump is following the rule book used by corrupt leaders around the world, handing his business interests over to his children in a bid to appear to separate himself from any conflicts of interest.
This isn’t new to us at Global Witness. We have spent decades showing how corrupt leaders get around rules to grow rich at the expense of their people. In Cambodia, we exposed how members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family are amassing vast personal fortunes in the private sector, with links to companies spanning the majority of Cambodia’s most lucrative business sectors. The Hun family have Cambodia’s economy so sewn up that many Cambodians are likely to struggle to avoid lining the ruling family’s pockets multiple times a day. In Kyrgyzstan Maxim Bakiyev, the son of the former President, has been convicted of using his family connections to embezzle millions before the country collapsed (although he argues that the charges are politically motivated). He then sought refuge in the UK, and is known to live in a mansion in a leafy suburb on the outskirts of London.
U.S. leadership has been crucial in tackling this problem. We’ve helped build international norms and push through game-changing laws because our policy-makers have understood that corruption is a threat to global stability. We are not saying that the Trumps will behave like the Bakiyevs and the Hun Sens – we certainly hope they won’t. But if the President-elect continues along his current path, our hard-won authority on this critical issue will disappear. We will lose credibility in calling out and punishing tyrants in countries like Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan. This will threaten global security and our national self-interest. That’s why we should set an example that raises rather than lowers the bar when it comes to fighting corruption.
Mr. Trump’s refusal to avoid both real and perceived conflicts of interests is not only a legal problem that breaks with precedent respected by every other President in recent history. It also violates common decency and betrays the trust that voters have placed in him. In casting their vote for him, his supporters were looking to “drain the swamp”, in Mr. Trump’s famous phrase, only to see the exact opposite: the muck of scandal threatening to swallow the honor of our highest office.
There is a simple solution. Mr. Trump should give up ownership and place his assets in a blind trust run by an independent trustee—not his kids—and he should do it now. Then the U.S. public can have faith that he intends to deliver on the oath he will swear today, and put our national interest above his own.