When Donald Trump tweeted that Nordstrom stores treated his daughter Ivanka “so unfairly” by dropping her fashion products, was he speaking as president or as an upset father?
White House spokesman Sean Spicer argued that a father “has every right” to defend his daughter. True enough. But Spicer immediately blew the daddy defense cover by charging that Nordstrom’s decision was “a direct attack on his policies.” So Trump saw it as a presidential matter after all.
Then another Trump adviser, Kellyanne Conway, shilled for Ivanka’s product line in an interview televised from the White House and on government time, a clear violation of federal law.
Then word came that son Eric’s January visit to promote a new Trump tower in Uruguay was supported by nearly $100,000 in taxpayer money for Secret Service protection. Eric, said to be running the Trump empire at arm’s length from the president, nevertheless assured a Uruguayan press conference that his father “would do incredible things for the United States” and be “an incredible commander-in-chief.”
And then there’s wife Melania’s $150 million libel lawsuit against the Daily Mail for suggesting that she had worked for an escort service. Her lawyers claimed that the libel damaged her “unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to make millions of dollars being First Lady. They said she lost “multi-million dollar business relationships…for a multi-year term during which (she would be) one of the most photographed women in the world.”
Beginning to sense an ethical shadow here?
One of the first lessons that Ethics 101 students learn is how to recognize ethical dilemmas. The next step is learning how to resolve them.
Unfortunately for the nation, the Trump administration and Trump himself seem incapable of even the most basic recognition that they are living and working in a continuous conflict of interest of enormous proportions and dark portent.
They do not understand, or perhaps prefer not to understand, that blurring the lines between official duties and personal business is a design for disaster – for his presidency and the nation. Or maybe they simply do not care.
Where are the government and people of Uruguay supposed to turn should a problem arise with that new Trump project? What lesson are Nordstrom and other businesses to draw from that presidential Twitter assault? Or from Conway’s shill job: How does Macy’s get a piece of that? And why does Eric Trump need taxpayer-financed protection when his pre-president father paid for his own security on his business trips around the world?
And, most troubling, if the Trump administration cannot see and avoid such (relatively) small-change ethical lapses as those of last week, what about the billion dollar stuff that is invisible because Trump keeps his tax returns hidden and refuses to fully divest himself of his global empire?
We cannot know when this administration is acting in our interest and when it is acting in the Trump family’s financial interest. Neither can the agencies under his control. Nor foreign friends, or foes. Nor businesses and institutions subject to federal oversight.
Trump and his apologists insist that “the president cannot have a conflict of interest” because the ethics law exempts him. But even those beginning ethics students know the answer to that one: Laws don’t make unethical activities ethical; they only make them legal.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.