On 20 January US President-elect Donald Trump will be sworn into office, bringing with him his son-in-law as his senior adviser and a cabinet full of multi-millionaires and billionaires with little political experience and problematic business relationships.
When asked recently about potential conflicts of interest in his cabinet picks, Trump responded: “I want to bring the greatest people into government… We don’t make good deals anymore.”
By “good deals” is he referring to ExxonMobil lobbying against sanctions that would harm its oil deals with Russia; buying up doomed mortgages and evicting thousands of homeowners; or investing in shares while working on bills that could benefit the company’s value?
Good deals must also be ethical deals. If they are tainted with corruption, cronyism or conflicts of interest, they will benefit the few at the expense of the people. Despite Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp”, he must be aware that nepotism and cronyism will only add to the muck.
Trump’s appointments are rife with potential conflicts of interest. Take Rex Tillerson – Secretary of State appointee – who was with ExxonMobil for 41 years and, as CEO, received Russia’s Order of Friendship medal from President Vladimir Putin after signing deals with state-owned Rosneft. Or Betsy DeVos – a billionaire that Trump appointed Secretary of Education despite her lack of experience with public schools and her lobbying efforts to divert public school funds “to pay for kids to attend private, religious schools”.
Check out the video below for more potential conflicts of interests in Trump’s cabinet picks.
Keeping it in the family
Trump selected his son-in-law Jared Kushner as senior adviser – an appointment that, unlike cabinet positions, requires no Senate approval. This is not unprecedented and previous presidents have appointed in-laws and family members to office. However, according to our definition of nepotism, this example is fraught with potential conflicts that warrant public scrutiny.
Leaders in countries perceived as highly corrupt do the same thing – from Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, who selected his wife as Vice President (Nicaragua comes in at 130 out of 168 countries in our Corruption Perceptions Index 2015), to Angola’s President José Eduardo dos Santos appointing his daughter Isabel dos Santos – considered Africa’s richest woman with a net worth of US$3 billion – to head the state-owned oil company (Angola ranks 163 out of 168 in our index). Or Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang appointing his son Teodorín Obiang as Vice President. The latter currently faces trial in France, accused of laundering and embezzling millions of dollars from his nation’s state funds.
Nepotism robs qualified citizens of opportunity. It’s a tactic used by corrupt politicians to enrich their families and to consolidate power. It’s dangerous and it’s unjust.
Kushner’s attorney has stated they are confident that nepotism rules will not apply to this particular appointment. Yet he and his wife – Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump – remain closely connected to their families’ billion-dollar businesses – and to the new administration in the White House.
First steps to come clean
Trump says the US doesn’t make good deals anymore, so he wants a cabinet that does. The question is, in whose interest?
If Trump and his cabinet are serious about a corruption-free administration and eliminating conflicts of interest, they should:
- Divest from their businesses and put all assets that may pose potential conflicts of interest into truly blind trusts run by independent trustees. The family of the new president should not control the Trump businesses while he is in office.
- Publish tax returns and a register of interests, so as to be transparent about investments as well as personal and business debt obligations to ensure there are no conflicts of interest.
- Disclose campaign contributions and political expenditures of cabinet appointees, and any interests in any Trump businesses.
The Senate should only approve candidates whose assets will not influence their decisions at the expense of the public interest. Successful appointees must be qualified for the job and have an ethics agreement with the Office of Government Ethics.
Image: Creative Commons, Flickr / gageskidmore
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