If the last few weeks are any indication, it looks as though Donald Trump will emerge more or less unscathed from the public controversy surrounding his refusal or inability to divest himself fully from his company. How can this be possible when the conflicts of interests between the fundraising of the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s duties at the State Department played such a major role in solidifying her reputation for dishonesty? The answer goes to the heart of Trump’s unique appeal.
Unlike most ordinary politicians who may enter public life with some wealth but who are always under suspicion for possibly profiting in some ways from their positions, Trump’s vast wealth seems to place him in a different category. Indeed, the argument he is so rich that he doesn’t need to steal the taxpayers’ money is probably an essential element of his popularity. Moreover, his willingness to show off his wealth and flout convention is also important to understanding his seeming immunity from the consequences of actions that would sink him if he were playing by the rules.
As much as it may strike his critics as outrageous, Trump’s base thinks it’s unreasonable for him and his children to take actions that would more or less mean the end of the company he built and will be satisfied with his promise that “no new deals will be done” while he is in office—even if such a vague promise is, strictly speaking, meaningless. They argue that he could be making far more money outside of the White House than in it, and who can really argue with the logic of that?
That doesn’t mean he is in no danger. The concern about the conflicts of interest are real. They just haven’t been triggered in real time with Trump as president. The president may be the one federal official that is not forced to run an ethical gauntlet by the law or subjected to strict rules regarding conflicts of interest. But the Emoluments Clause of Article I of the Constitution may reasonably be interpreted as creating legal exposure for Trump as a result of his real estate holdings. His children will also have to be more careful about participating in meetings with foreign leaders while they are pursuing international business opportunities; they will have no such executive protection from the country’s laws governing bribery.
But barring some smoking gun about one of the Trumps using the White House for profit, this line of attack is not likely to be the gold mine Democrats think it will be. If they had control of at least one House of Congress, they might be in a position to make more trouble for Trump. With the GOP firmly in charge on Capitol Hill, their ability to snipe will be limited.
So while we can look forward to four years of press investigations probing Trump’s failure to adhere to existing ethical standards, don’t be surprised if little of it pays off for his critics without clear evidence of actual wrongdoing.