DONALD TRUMP IS in many ways a unique winner of the top political job in the US. He is the first president-elect who does not have any military experience or some prior government job that equips him to handle one of the most complex roles in the world. On top of this, his continuing engagement with a sprawling real estate empire has raised questions about conflicts of interest. The latter has been held as a unique problem in recent US political history. It is hardly that.
All this may be coming to an end. On Twitter—Trump’s favourite mode of communication—on November 30th, he said, ‘Hence, legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations.’ Critics were quick to point out that the expression ‘business operations’ is ambiguous and does not rule out his continued ownership of business while putting his children in executive positions to run them.
The argument goes that foreign governments may provide lucrative contracts or out-of-turn project clearances to businesses he owns to curry favour with the White House. This, they say, amounts to a conflict of interest that could potentially go against US foreign policy goals. As mentioned earlier, this is hardly a unique case.
If anything, Trump’s contender for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, displayed worse dangers of conflict of interests. These pertained to the activities of the Clinton Foundation when Hillary was a serving US Secretary of State under Barack Obama. Clinton’s chosen method to keep a ‘hand’s distance’ did not work: some of her closest staff when she was in the State Department continued to be engaged with the Foundation. In any case, the number of foreign contributions to the Foundation while she was a high-level official was sufficient to raise concerns through her tenure in office.
That situation has not confronted Trump yet. He has promised that by December 15th, he will release legal documents that will show his disassociation from his Trump Organization.
The lesson in all this for democracies is clear. The business of state is far more complex than it was in the days of Aristotle. Special mechanisms of oversight are now required even for the very highest offices. That should, ideally, not be a problem in democracy, which, after all, is a system of checks and balances designed to rule out such issues.