When Barack Obama became the forty-fourth president of the United States in 2009, he appointed Norman Eisen, a “special counsel for ethics and government,” to ensure that he violated no prohibitions on conflicts of interest. Before he was replaced in 2011, Eisen, later an ambassador to the Czech Republic and a lawyer who specialized in cases involving fraud, addressed a wide range of questions, including such matters as whether President Obama, a basketball fan, could accept tickets to see the Washington Wizards or the Georgetown Hoyas play.
When Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he sought a formal opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel on whether he could accept the award without violating a constitutional prohibition on the president or any other federal officer accepting “emoluments,” essentially any payment or benefit, from a foreign state. (The office concluded that he could, only because the Nobel Prize Committee is a private entity with no foreign government involvement.) Like every president to precede him in the last four decades, President Obama placed all his investments in a blind trust, so that he would be unaware of his interests and therefore free of conflicts of interest with respect to the many decisions he might make that could affect his own personal wealth. President Obama, again following the precedents of his predecessors, also released his tax returns, both during his campaign for office and as president. Obama, in short, was punctilious about ethics, and his administration was almost entirely free of ethics scandals.
Donald J. Trump, who became the forty-fifth president on January 20, has taken a different approach. He comes to office having repeatedly refused to release his tax returns, even after a leak indicated that he may have paid no taxes for eighteen years. He has cited an ongoing IRS audit as his reason for not disclosing his returns, but the IRS itself has refuted that claim, saying that “nothing prevents individuals from sharing their own tax information.”
Two days after inauguration, his administration announced that Trump would not release the returns even if an audit were complete. Trump has somewhat gleefully asserted that the conflict-of-interest rules don’t apply to the president. He mixed together personal business and official diplomacy during several meetings and conversations with foreign officials during the transition. And despite his widespread private holdings in commercial real estate, condominiums, hotels, and golf courses here and around the world, he has refused to follow the lead of his predecessors by selling his assets and placing the proceeds in a blind trust. Instead, he has transferred management, but not ownership, of the Trump…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.