President-elect Trump will face an array of conflicts of interest when he takes office. These conflicts are not minor or isolated. They are legion. And, to use his own favored language, they will be “huge.”
His real estate holdings abroad make him vulnerable to offers of favorable treatment (or financial threats) by governments overseas. He stands to personally benefit (or suffer) from decisions made by government departments like the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Several conflicts have already surfaced. The president-elect apparently complained to British politicians about wind farms near his golf course and asked the Argentinian president about permitting issues for a planned office building. Trump’s hotel in Washington, D.C. is leased by the federal government. The Secret Service might even rent space in Trump Tower for security purposes.
That would be an overwhelming number of conflicts even for someone without Trump’s questionable track record.
But unlike many outside observers, ethicists and the government department responsible for ethics, Trump doesn’t seem to grasp the enormity of the problem. In that regard, Trump may not be alone. Social science research suggests that we all tend to be blind to our own ethical failings.
‘I don’t care about my company’
Trump’s previous plan for addressing conflicts of interest was to hand the business over to his children, even though he believed he could still, in theory, run it as president.
In recent tweets, Trump promised to provide more information on Dec. 15 on a plan to “take [him] completely out of business operations.” This could represent a departure from the old plan or simply the implementation of the original one.
Hence, legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations. The Presidency is a far more important task!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 30, 2016
The “hand it over to kids” plan has been criticized as insufficient, partly because he will likely remain in contact with them and partly because he would remain knowledgeable about the assets he owns. As long as he knows about specific assets, his decisions may be influenced by his financial motives with respect to those assets.
President-elect Trump seems to discount the seriousness of these conflicts, suggesting they are cleansed by the sincerity of his commitment to the American public. He told The New York Times:
“I don’t care about my company. It doesn’t matter. My kids run it. They’ll say I have a conflict because we just opened a beautiful hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, so every time somebody stays at that hotel, if they stay because I’m president, I guess you could say it’s a conflict of interest… The only thing that matters to me is running our country.”
Given the magnitude of Trump’s conflicts, and his underwhelming plan to address them, it seems hard to believe that Trump was sincere when he said he didn’t care about his business. But it is possible. The president-elect – just like the rest of us – may overestimate his own ethicality.
We’re all biased about ourselves
As business ethics professors Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel explain in their 2011 book, “Blind Spots”:
“Prior to being faced with an ethical dilemma, people predict that they will make an ethical choice. When actually faced with an ethical dilemma, they make an unethical choice.”
Despite these unethical choices, people still tend to tend to think of themselves as ethical, the professors argue. In others words, we overestimate our ethical tendencies.
They cite a study in which participants were asked whether they would later buy a daffodil to support the American Cancer Society. Eighty-three percent said yes, but only about 43 percent actually did so.
In a related study, participants also overestimated the likelihood that they would cooperate in a “prisoner’s dilemma” scenario, where partners are rewarded for “cheating” rather than cooperating. They did, however, accurately predict the frequency with which others would cheat. In other words, we’re actually pretty good at predicting the unethical behaviors of others. We just can’t see it in ourselves.
It is possible that Trump is indifferent to notions of undivided loyalty. But his condemnation of the Clinton Foundation as a conduit for potential improper influence and Clinton’s paid speeches to Goldman Sachs suggests he understands the threat that conflicts pose. More likely, he considers himself immune to influence.
He would not be the first to overlook the conflicts at his doorstep. As Bazerman and Tenbrunsel point out, Justice Antonin Scalia famously refused to recuse himself from a case that involved Dick Cheney, his friend and hunting partner. No jurist, however careful, can expect to be impartial when a personal friend is a party in the case.
“Moral hypocrisy” is actually a term of art in social science, referring to our tendency “to hold a belief while acting in discord with it.” In one study, participants were given the choice between assigning a long, boring task to another participant or risk being assigned the boring task randomly by a computer. Those who assigned the boring task to someone else rated their decision as more “fair” than a neutral observer watching the experiment.
In another study, participants tended to downplay the moral significance of cheating on a test after reading a hypothetical scenario in which they were the cheaters.
Our failure to recognize our own conflicts is fueled by a related concept known as “motivated reasoning” – our tendency to interpret facts in ways that favor the outcome we prefer. When faced with a conflict of interest that could be quite costly to address, we’re motivated to persuade ourselves that the conflict of interest isn’t so bad.
Trump seems to think he can will away the conflicts through sheer mental acrobatics, even as he cannot help but push his business interests in talks with foreign dignitaries.
Conflicts can’t be willed away
Conflicts of interest aren’t about moral restraint. They are pernicious. They can operate beyond our conscious awareness. As the Supreme Court has observed, “an impairment of impartial judgment can occur in even the most well-meaning men when their personal economic interests are affected by the business they transact on behalf of the Government.”
By way of illustration, suppose that Batman or Ironman were elected president, while maintaining ownership of their business empire. Even with unquestionably good motives, could either be trusted to exclusively serve the American people? Unlikely. Not because of who they are, but the position it would put them in.
When it comes to conflicts of interest, Trump’s biggest weakness is not the breadth of his holdings but his overconfidence. Taking conflicts seriously requires us to admit we are human and subject to human frailty.
These options would undoubtedly be expensive, but they wouldn’t be impossible. If there were ever a time for the president-elect to defer to expert opinion, this would be it.