Donald Trump’s biggest problem: conflict of interest

What does the advent of a billionaire businessman into White House mean for good governance, particularly when the entrant is from an industry (property construction) known to be rife with corruption

US president-elect Donald Trump.  Photo: AFP
US president-elect Donald Trump. Photo: AFP

Donald Trump’s ascendency from a billionaire property developer to the man destined to become the 45th president of the United States is nothing short of mercurial, but it is also clouded with many uncertainties—he attracts a strange and shadowy following of racists; he has never held public office and is, therefore, politically inexperienced; he has odd ideas about how to deal with immigrants; he wants to tear up trade deals; he has been furiously back-pedalling on election pledges; and there’s that misogyny.

To many, this is nothing short of a nightmare.

We have known all about all of the above for months. But there’s one area of concern that is only now being addressed—the potential of huge conflicts of interest. What does the advent of a billionaire businessman into the White House mean for good governance, particularly when the entrant is from an industry—property construction—known to be rife with corruption?

Are we about to see the emergence of the kind of kleptocracies that were known to plunder the national resources of countries back in the Cold War days, with those stolen resources then making their way to secure banks and other assets in the West? A small number of US newspapers have used the word ‘kleptocracy’ in commentaries about Trump’s conflict of interest, but that may be an over-stretch.

It is also true that kleptocracies have survived the Cold War in countries such as Pakistan (Asif Ali Zardari), Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) and Nigeria (Sani Abacha). And conflicts of interest have tended to crop up in democracies across the world, including the US and UK.

One recent Asian example is Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire media mogul who was prime minister of Thailand from 2001 to 2006. Credited with rolling out policies that benefited the rural poor, healthcare and economic growth, Thaksin’s later years in power were marred by increasingly strident protests over charges of corruption and conflicts of interest. While infrastructure projects were executed, many benefited companies owned by his family. Amid increasing political instability, the Army took over in 2006 and Thaksin, convicted in his homeland, fled to the UK, where he bought the Premier League football club Manchester City for nearly £82 million. Thaksin’s fabulous wealth (some £4 billion was said to have been frozen by the UK) is comparable to that of Trump, who, according to Fortune magazine this year, is worth $3.7 billion. The magazine, which has scoured the Trump business for 35 years, says his fortunes fell $800 million this year, mainly on account of a “softening of New York City’s real estate market, particularly in retail and office”.

Fortune’s investigations into 28 Trump assets show his aircraft alone are worth $35 million—made up of three Sikorsky choppers, a Boeing 757 aircraft and a Cessna.

His overseas property management and licensing deals include at least three in India—Trump Gurgaon, Trump Towers Pune and Trump Towers Mumbai, although these luxury condos “merely pay Trump to use his name”, according to Fortune.

Already, according to The Economic Times, Trump has taken time off his busy transition schedule last week to meet with three Indian real estate developers from Panchshil Realty and Tribeca Developers in New York. But Indian property developers won’t be the only ones lining up at Trump Towers in New York—or may be even Washington—in search of business opportunities. That is the nature of business. Far more important is how Trump himself approaches such business opportunities. So far, the signs have been decidedly mixed. On the one hand, he recognizes that there is a potential for conflict. “The president of the United States is allowed to have whatever conflicts he or she wants—but I don’t want to go by that,” he has said. And: “In theory, I don’t have to do anything, but I would like to do something—I would like to try and formalize something…. I don’t care about my business…. I don’t want to have people saying ‘conflict’.”

But in his very first meeting with a British political figure—his friend and leading Brexiter Nigel Farage—after winning the election, he brought up his objections to a planned wind farm near a luxury golf course he owns in Scotland. Andy Wigmore, a former Brexit communications chief who attended the meeting, said, “Mr. Trump kept returning to … the issue of wind farms…. He is dismayed that his beloved Scotland has become over-run with ugly wind farms which he believes are a blight on the stunning landscape.”

When newspapers reported this incident, and other similar incursions of business in his initial political interactions, Trump appeared to lose his temper. “Prior to the election, it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world. Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!” he wrote on Twitter.

Trump is not the first billionaire to want to be president of the US. Ross Perot in 1992 tried to do the same. You cannot possibly legislate to keep millionaires and billionaires from contesting elections in democracies. But the trend increasingly—and this is in line with predictions by 19th century European economists and political scientists—is that of convergence of big business, political power and the media.

For anyone worried about the health and future direction of democracies, this above all should be their biggest nightmare, not the ascendance of individuals, however wealthy. That is the real danger from conflict of interest.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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