Jimmy Carter did it. Ronald Reagan did it. George H.W. Bush did it. Bill Clinton did it. George W. Bush did it. And Mitt Romney would have done it.
For the past 40 years, every president and presidential candidate who has had anything other than the most vanilla of investment portfolios — Barack Obama, who had most of his money in Treasury bonds, fell into that category — has put or has promised to put their assets into a blind trust to prevent any kind of conflict of interest between what's good for the country and what's good for their retirement. This wasn't required by law, but it did seem like it was required by good governance. Donald Trump, though, has refused to entertain this even though he has a much more extensive and eclectic array of holdings that includes golf courses in the United Arab Emirates, skyscrapers in Turkey and condos in the Philippines. He has said his three adult children will run his business instead.
To be clear — because Trump was asked this in a debate — this would not be a blind trust. To count as one, the Congressional Research Service says, he'd need to transfer “control and management of private assets to an independent trustee who may not communicate information about the identity of the holdings in the trust” to him. In other words, let someone he doesn't know sell all his old assets and buy new ones for him without telling him what they are. Having his kids manage his properties fails both of these tests, especially when they're a part of his transition team. How do we know that they won't staff the Trump administration based on who'll be friendliest to the Trump Organization? Or that they won't hint that the Trump Organization is just an extension of the Trump administration when they're, say, trying to negotiate a real estate deal overseas? We don't. And we can't as long as there isn't any actual separation between Trump's political operation and his business one.
Alan Garten, the Trump Organization's general counsel, has offered a defense of what in modern times are these unprecedented conflicts of interest: that they're plenty precedented in other countries. “It's not unusual,” he told the Wall Street Journal, “for people around the world successful in a business to play a role in government.” And he's right. There are a lot of places where this is endemic.
Take Ukraine. For a quarter century, it has been passed back and forth between oligarchs who have treated it like their own personal piggy bank. And for a quarter century, its economy hasn't grown at all. In fact, its per capita gross domestic product has actually fallen 26 percent since its communist-era peak in 1989. The problem is that Ukraine is a place where it takes a bribe to do anything, and you can't do anything because of all the bribes it takes. You have to pay off the police, the prosecutors, the judges, the employers, and even the professors if you want a college degree.
It's no wonder, then, that Ukraine ranks 130th out of 168 countries in Transparency International's corruption rankings. Or that its recently deposed president had a palace replete with an ostrich-filled zoo, a replica pirate ship in his man-made lake, a stable of classic cars, and a set of gold-plated golf clubs to go with his own private course. Ukraine's Catch-22 is that it needs to privatize its state-owned companies that enable so much of this graft, but that the act of privatizing them can enable far more. That's because selling companies without a lot of transparency allows people to buy them for way below-market rates — where do you think the oligarchs come from? — with the difference going directly into the auctioneer's pocket. Not to mention the more run-of-the-mill corruption: the tax officials who take disguised payoffs to let companies pay next to nothing, and the politicians who pay $150 million more than they should for, say, an oil rig to turn public money into a private fortune.
This nexus between business and politics has created a situation where it's hard to tell them apart. The point of winning elections in Ukraine seems to be about amassing more money for your company, and the point of your company seems to be amassing more power to win elections. It's the chicken and the egg of corruption. Whichever one comes first, though, there's enough money in it that even a political consultant such as Paul Manafort, who not only ran Trump's campaign for a while, but also that of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, could have $12 million earmarked for him in under-the-table payments.
Now, Trump may completely ignore his business interests in office. But without transparency, without a legal wall between his personal financial interests and the American people's interests, you can't be sure. And although a foreign policy that even partly benefits Trump's hotels couldn't destroy the United States' commitment to openness and the rule of law, it sure could undermine it. Culture matters. So do norms. And above all, the example of the highest-profile person in the country. If Trump tries to turn public office into a vehicle for private enrichment on a scale unknown since the Gilded Age, it can't help but hurt a big part of what already makes the country great. That you can take a dream and turn it into a business without having to worry about greasing the wheels every step of the way. That's what has let the United States become the richest country in the world, and what has kept Ukraine from getting any richer over the past 25 years.
“Make America a Post-Soviet Kleptocracy” isn't that catchy of a slogan.
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