Whatever the differences between the two nominees, either will function as an emissary of the powerful who control America. That’s the conflict of interest we all should be talking about.
As described in various articles and op-eds, Trump’s conflicts stem from his far-flung worldwide enterprises, while Clinton’s emanate from the global reach of her family foundation and her long-standing ties to Wall Street banks. Given their assets and business relations, questions of favoritism, self-dealing and compromised judgment would haunt either candidate’s tenure in office.
But as so often happens with American news coverage, even at its best, either too much emphasis has been placed on personality, or too many details have been offered without placing the Trump and Clinton campaigns in a wider historical and political context. Indeed, the biggest conflict of interest of all has gone practically unmentioned in mainstream coverage—namely, that Trump and Clinton don’t just have personal conflicts of interest that would affect their ability to govern, but they represent different dimensions of a larger corporate oligarchy that dominates American democracy.
When most reporters write about Trump’s and Clinton’s conflicts, they usually have in mind a more narrow concept imported from the United States criminal code, as set forth in Title 18, Section 208. That statute, as the Congressional Research Service has explained, embodies the “axiom ‘that a public servant owes undivided loyalty to the Government,’ and that decisions, advice, and recommendations made by or given to the government by its officers be made in the public interest and not be tainted, even unintentionally, with influence from personal financial interests.”
Willful violations of Section 208 are felonies subject to as much as five years in prison. To guard against running afoul of the law, executive branch officers are instructed to follow the principles of “disqualification, disclosure, and divestiture.” Thus, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration is precluded from owning stocks or bonds in an aeronautical company, and no member of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors can own stock in a bank.
Some of the better reporters, such as Bloomberg’s Timothy O’Brien, have been quick to point out, however, that while Section 208 applies to other executive branch employees, officials and Cabinet officers, it does not cover the president and vice president. Congress, in drafting the legislation in 1962, exempted those offices because the powers of the chief executive were considered so vast that any decision he or she made could be open to attack on conflict grounds.
Still, as O’Brien and others have noted, presidents are subject to the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which requires annual disclosures of financial assets, sometimes sparking controversies about conflicts of interest. Thus, while presidents are not legally bound by Section 208, in recent years most have taken steps to avoid the appearance of impropriety, often by placing their holdings in “qualified blind trusts” administered by independent managers, or by selling off specific assets.
Even taking a narrow view of Trump and Clinton’s candidacies rather than focusing on the greater contradiction of oligarchic influence in a formal democracy (to which I will return), the conflicts are staggering.
According to the financial disclosure form he filed in May with the Federal Election Commission, Trump has an ownership share in more than 500 closely held corporations. These include (with credit to O’Brien for closely analyzing the filing) hotel and real estate development projects across the United States, as well as resort and hotel properties in Dubai, Qatar, China, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Egypt, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Israel, the Philippines, South Africa and Turkey. And don’t forget the neckties manufactured in Bangladesh, his misbegotten Russian ventures like the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, or former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s lobbying on behalf of deposed former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
In addition, Trump is deeply in hock to foreign banks, to the tune of $335 million according to a Mother Jones story in June. And a New York Times exposé revealed Saturday that “companies [Trump] owns have at least $650 million in debt.”
Mother Jones reports that the Frankfort-headquartered Deutsche Bank has lent Trump some $295 million since 2012. The Times alleges that Trump’s major creditors include the Bank of China, as well as Goldman Sachs.
Deutsche has an especially nasty history of clashing with U.S. and European regulators, and in 2015 agreed to a payout of $2.2 billion to settle charges of interest-rate rigging here and abroad. It’s difficult, if not impossible, as O’Brien has argued, to “conceive of a global trade deal that wouldn’t raise a red flag given Trump’s international presence,” or an interest-rate or tax policy that wouldn’t do the same.
Clinton’s conflicts are not much cleaner. Since its inception in 2001, the Clinton Foundation has raised more than $2 billion in donations to fund initiatives and programs on global health, climate change and economic development in the Third World. More than 40 percent of its top donors—those who have contributed more than $1 million—have been based in foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Corporations have also ponied up a boatload, with the Citi Foundation, Barclays Capital, Goldman Sachs, HSBC and Exxon Mobil chipping in as much as $5 million each. According to Bloomberg, 29 of the 30 companies listed on the Dow Jones industrial average have contributed.
While neither Bill nor Hillary has ever drawn a salary from the foundation, they have nonetheless benefited handsomely from speaking fees paid by many of their corporate underwriters, and in Hillary’s case from campaign contributions as well. Such funding has fed a right-wing narrative, to quote New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, that “the Clintons are criminals on a world-historic scale.”
Late last week, in an attempt to counter that narrative or at least contain it, Bill announced that if Hillary is elected, the Clinton Foundation would no longer accept foreign or corporate donations, and that he would resign from the organization’s board of directors. Presumably, daughter Chelsea would remain on the board in a leadership role. If so, Bill’s announcement would do little to assuage conflict controversies, if patrons of the family seek to do business with the federal government in the future, as they have in the past.
Trump, for his part, has given no rational assurances that he will curb his business empire should he be elected. To date, the most he has said is that he would place his interests into a blind trust, with his children in charge—a contradiction in terms that he, apparently, doesn’t understand.
The only ways Clinton and Trump could truly deflect conflict-of-interest scandals would be for the former to close down the Clinton Foundation or completely sever its management from the family, and for Trump to hold one giant initial public offering (IPO) for his holdings. After that, he would have to deposit the proceeds into a truly blind trust that invested in mutual funds (whose exact asset allocations would constantly shift) over which he and his children exercised no direction. Neither candidate seems at all disposed to take such steps.
But even if they did—and we were to allow ourselves to indulge in a hypothetical—neither candidate would pose a challenge to corporate dominance.
According to the most recent study compiled by the European-based Allianz Group, which studies global wealth distribution, the United States is the world’s richest yet most unequal nation. Research conducted by economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, as summarized by The Guardian, has found that the top 0.1 percent of American families now own roughly the same share of wealth as the bottom 90 percent.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that great concentrations of wealth beget great political influence. As The Intercept’s national security reporter Mattathias Schwartz observed in a lengthy feature earlier this month, a total of $2 billion will be spent on the 2016 presidential race.
Much of that funding has and will continue to come from the 106 richest Americans—the so-called Club of 106, composed of Americans with fortunes of $5 billion or more—either in the form of direct campaign contributions or the financing of super PACs. Whether they support the neoliberal Clinton or are still hoping for a Trump pivot to less incendiary rhetoric, members of the club expect a form of governance that will protect the infrastructure, privileges and hierarchies of late capitalism.
Schwartz writes that Trump, “[w]ith a supposed net worth of $4.5 billion,” is “brushing up against the velvet rope” of the club and is practically a member. The Clintons, with a fortune just north of $110 million, may be well outside the lines, but they are still miles closer than the rest of us. And, as Schwartz elaborates, they’ve used their connections with the über rich to approximate a similar lifestyle, flying in the private jets of wealthy friends “during the political offseason,” and buying such trinkets as a $10 million Manhattan apartment for Chelsea and her husband.
Whatever other differences there may be between Clinton and Trump—and whether or not either might become embroiled in an overt “quid pro quo” indignity in the Oval Office—they will function as emissaries of the oligarchy. In the end, that is the single most critical conflict of interest the media, and everyone else, should be shouting about.
Bill Blum is a former judge and death penalty defense attorney. He is the author of three legal thrillers published by Penguin/Putnam