Trump and Kindergarten Lesson 2: Play Fair

Lesson 2: Play Fair

Part 2 in a series      (See Part 1: Tell the Truth)

Every president since FDR has measured what they have accomplished in their first 100 days. We rate President Trump’s the worst on record, with no major legislative victories and a string of policy and personnel embarrassments. A common theme that ties these calamities together is a contempt for ethics. Trump’s conflicts of interest and other ethics troubles contributed to each of his major stumbles, and will continue to hobble his administration unless he takes corrective measures.   – Painter and Eisen, USA Today 4/26/17

Richard W. Painter is vice chair and Norman L. Eisen is chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is issuing a report Friday on Donald Trump’s first 100 days. The authors were chief White House ethics lawyers in the Bush and Obama administrations, respectively. Follow them on Twitter @RWPUSA and @NormEisen.

Can you remember playing a board game with a 5-year old son or granddaughter? If so, you should easily grasp the point I’m about to make.

A 5-year old understands that the point of a game is to win. He understands it so well, he will likely invent rules, lie about spaces moved, or may even knock over the board in order to keep from losing. This is the right developmental time to teach him that for the game to be fair, and therefore fun for everyone, we all follow the rules of the game. Level playing field and all that.

That’s why playing games, and later sports, are considered great preparation for life. Be competitive and strive to win, but within the rules. Play fair. If you have ever followed professional golf, PGA or LPGA, you may have noticed the ultimate example of this principle. Players are expected, and do in fact, call penalties on themselves, even if no one else noticed the infraction. Seriously.

So, there are those of us who learn and embrace the importance of playing fair, who come to understand that this simple principle underpins such critical values as income inequality, social justice, equal opportunity, and ethical governance.

Examples also abound of those who believe themselves exempt. It may be that the drive to win overpowers the constraint of the rules. Thus, footballs get deflated and visiting teams’ signs are electronically poached and transmitted to the home team. Or, a businessperson cheats in order to beat a competitor, or takes advantage of clients to achieve personal gain.

It may also be that a sense of entitlement has developed to the point of believing oneself in a category where the normal rules don’t apply. Or, in the case of someone with a bent toward narcissism, believing one’s world is subject to his own rules.

Gosh, where could I be going with this?

The legion of Americans mystified by Trump’s election– with reactions ranging from head scratching to garment rending– have wondered how his voters will react if (when?) they find themselves in the same crowded boat as previous lenders, contractors, and Trump University students.

Well, the President’s track record of not playing fair is consistent, so at least he is unlikely to surprise anyone in this regard. Recent interviews of Trump supporters suggest most are willing to accept this trait so far. It will be interesting to see if they are in it for the long haul.

Meanwhile, he is treating the rest of us to an unprecedented presidential display of flaunting established protocol, traditions, standards, rules, and possibly laws. Some of this behavior is aimed at reinforcing his disingenuous populist image. Indeed, this was the election when both Left (remember Bernie?) and Right were fed-up with establishment politics and primed for an iconoclast who would blow things up.

But he hasn’t set out to blow up entrenched practices and policies that encourage corruption. Nor does he show any interest in “draining the swamp” of lobbyists and others who have made the unlevel playing field a playground for bankers, the wealthy, and large corporations.

Instead, the occupant of the Oval Office, the man from Mar a Lago, seems to be the magnetic north of his own moral compass.

Winning is clearly important to Trump, witness how often he talks about it and the lengths he goes to claim it. Everything he does has to be not just a win, but a big win. Getting elected was not enough. He persists in insisting that his Electoral College victory was the greatest since whatever (it wasn’t) and that he really won the popular vote because Clinton’s more than 3 million vote margin was due to illegal voting (nope.) His inaugural crowd was the largest ever, please ignore any visual evidence to the contrary.

After spending months pre- and post-election promising he had a great plan for repealing and replacing Obamacare, he revealed his hand was empty. He also proved he was willing to throw vulnerable Americans, including his supporters, under the bus with a series of capitulations in order to get a legislative win that never happened.

More sobering is how little regard Trump has for established norms designed to insure ethical practice. Contempt really. Inadequate attention to vetting has led to numerous appointments that are ticking ethical time bombs. Flynn already blew up but seems not to have run out of explosives yet.

We suspect he never did intend to release his taxes. He has taken so much political heat for this, some writers have speculated that what could be found in his tax returns must be worse than the political price is is paying to keep them private. That price will only become steeper now that he has released his one page tax “plan” and will continue to grow if actual legislation comes from it.

Where this contempt and the perspective of a narcissist takes us way beyond the pale is in the catalog of conflicts of interest being compiled. In November, sitting for an interview with the NY Times, Trump boasted, “The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” That is sort of true sort of not, but with a telling twist from someone who always thinks it’s all about him.

The law says that the responsibilities of the President and Vice-President are so broad and far-reaching, it is not practical to expect them to recuse themselves from involvement in matters where a possible conflict might arise. Nor is it reasonable for them to be vulnerable to prosecution. Nonetheless, the expectation remains that the executive should strive to avoid even the appearance of impropriety and undue influence through business interests. Before now, Presidents have been scrupulous to divest or otherwise separate themselves from such interests once in office.

Far from putting country above self, Trump has virtually paraded his conflicts of interest, giving the appearance of impropriety and relishing it. There is income flowing to the President and his family from near (Trump International DC and Mar a Lago, among many US holdings) and far (many business dealings in and with countries around the globe) that could easily intersect national interests.

Sooner or later, we will know whether or not Russia is one of those entanglements and to what extent.

He has chosen a not-so-blind trust for his businesses that appears to do little to keep him from accessing the assets or preventing involvement with the trustees, who happen to be his sons.

Which brings us to Jared and Ivanka. If they prove to be positive contributors, I will be glad. Yet, Trump’s making them such a prominent and powerful part of his administration seems an act of monumental hubris. They bring along their own portfolios of potential conflicts of interest and no government experience. But they are loyal family members and they reinforce the Trump doctrine that “I alone can fix it” and that special rules apply.