By Lauren McMullin
A conflict of interest occurs when President Trump has multiple interests, namely financial, which could corrupt the desires or decision-making of his position as president of the United States of America. There have been many red flags raised on Trump’s potential conflict of interests, such as his children managing his hotel line; however, what truly defines a legitimate conflict of interest for the president?
An example recently of Trump’s conflict of interest was of Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, who, while in the White House Briefing Room, encouraged Americans to buy Ivanka Trump’s products. The reason this is a problem is that the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has an executive branch ban on staff endorsing products or companies, and also a prohibition against using public office for private gain of oneself, friends or relatives.
Clearly, Conway violated this ban, and Trump did as well when he tweeted that his daughter had “been treated so unfairly” by Nordstrom when they dropped her fashion line. Not only is Conway in the red tape area, Trump is clearly there too. The problem is, there are no enforceable consequences for violating this regulation. And the consequences that do exist are insignificant to the Trump administration.
Consequences for breaking regulation include the director of the OGE notifying the employee of the violation and asking for the OGE to investigate. Then, it is up to the OGE director to pick a poison: they can recommend discipline, suspension, loss of pay or termination, but usually the first time offense is just a warning. Basically, Conway gets off with a warning, or in reality, nothing. Inside the White House, if there is a violation of the regulation, the White House Council is supposed to impose punishments, and the president is on the White House Council. Therefore, there is no real way to regulate the OGE’s standards for conflict of interests within the White House for the president and his staff.
There is another problem. A federal conflict of interest law bars lower executive branch officials from acting on matters that affect their personal financial interests, but it doesn’t apply to the president. The reason it doesn’t is that Congress wants to avoid direct confrontations between branches of government, which raise constitutional issues. Congress could attempt to apply this law to the president, but in so doing their attempt could be challenged in court as unconstitutional. The conflict of interest law has federal criminal penalties, which would indeed be a much stronger consequence than a warning. But these ethical rules come from each governmental branch, and each branch enforces it individually. Essentially, there should exist official and enforceable consequences for any conflicts of interest the president may have.
In the past, most presidents have done their part to separate themselves from their previous conflict of interests. Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama used blind trusts to manage prior assets. Many are calling for Trump to do this—to put his financial assets in a blind trust. According to Dictionary.com, a blind trust is “a trust in which a trustee controls the financial investments of a public official, without the beneficiary’s knowledge of how his or her affairs are administered, in order to avoid conflict of interest.” Trump needs to do all he can to let America know he has our back: our nation needs to come first, not Trump’s financial assets. Even though he did have a past life managing a complex financial empire, he now has to figure out what to do with the empire he built. Obviously, being president trumps his past financial assets, and hopefully, in the very near future, Trump will put America first and leave his conflict of interests behind him.
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