That doesn’t mean the decision isn’t morally wrong. A fundamental feature of modern liberal democracy is that the public interest is separable from an officeholder’s private interest. Officeholders in pre-modern governments frequently became wealthy by using their official positions to line their pockets by awarding themselves valuable monopolies or contracts. Modern democratic officeholders are supposed to act in the public interest and spurn such temptations, with both laws and public norms designed to prevent someone from acting to enrich himself or herself rather than the public at large.
Trump seems not to grasp this. In both this and in his actions regarding Ukraine, he seems to believe that his interests are the public interests. He thus has no compunction about using government power to advance goals that can benefit only him rather than Americans more generally.
This might have been how he acted at the Trump Organization, but that is a privately owned business that has no public shareholders to please. The U.S. government is something else entirely. It is the ultimate publicly held business, with each one of us an equal “shareholder” who elects officials to steer it in our best interests. Trump should be acting to please us, not himself.
That principle is violated by acts such as hosting an official, globally prominent summit at one of his privately owned properties. It is also arguably violated by acts such as Vice President Pence staying at a Trump-owned property in Ireland hours away from his official meetings in Dublin, or by the Air Force’s scheduling of up to 40 overnight stays at Trump’s property in Turnberry, Scotland. The president of the United States should not be steering public funds to prop up his own bottom line.
The amount of money involved is not the issue. Unless there is much more government usage of Trump-owned properties than previously reported, the amounts involved are little more than a rounding error in the president’s fortune. But the principle being violated by his conflation of public and private interest is invaluable.
Every president tries to use public policy to improve his or her chance at reelection, but that is entirely different. A president does this calculating that his acts will be what the people actually want, and the policies themselves are subject to public review and approval. This is arguably exactly what democracy is supposed to produce — officials who compete for our support by offering us the type of government we want. This is not what Trump is doing in a case such as this.
A man who does not even understand the difference between public and private interests could be tempted to do other immoral things, many of which could be illegal. The Watergate break-in that led to the impeachment process against President Richard M. Nixon and his eventual resignation was a case in point. Nixon directed and then attempted to cover up his involvement in an illegal burglary of a political opponent, the Democratic National Committee. Trump’s petty corruption with regard to his own properties simply makes it more believable that his and his agents’ attempts to push Ukrainian authorities to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden were not legitimate attempts to uncover possible corruption, but instead were illegitimate attempts to use government power to manufacture dirt on a likely opponent.
Trump’s incredulity that anyone could question the propriety of his call with the Ukrainian president or his shameless plugging of his commercial properties shows how deeply ingrained this belief is. It doesn’t matter that his call was polite or that his properties are nice and classy. Leaders of democracies aren’t supposed to use public power to advance private interests, full stop.
Public pressure and the reaction of foreign governments might cause Trump to change the location of the G-7 summit. But public pressure will likely not force him to change his spots. The only question we need to consider next year is whether the public interest is safe in the hands of a man who doesn’t seem to understand the concept to begin with.