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What is the Ethical Message of Trump's Presidency

Teaching Ethics in the Era of Trump

What is the ethical message of the Trump Presidency so far? Some may say it’s making poor choices of managers and agency heads because so many cabinet and other officials have resigned or been fired. Others might point to family ties to outside organizations and Trump-family activities that create conflicts of interest. Still others would say the message is stay off Twitter when you’re the President.

The emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution is 49 words in Article I of the Constitution.

“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

Trump critics claim the clause prohibits Trump from taking any money at all from a foreign state. To them, the clause prohibits not just straight-up gifts but also payments for services rendered. So it would prohibit a Trump-owned hotel from renting a ballroom to a foreign embassy and prohibit Trump Tower from renting out office space — as it already does —to a state-controlled Chinese bank. Lawsuits have sought to stop Trump’s businesses from accepting such payments.  Trump tower

“A federal officeholder who receives something of value from a foreign power can be imperceptibly induced to compromise what the Constitution insists be his or her exclusive loyalty: the best interest of the United States of America,” which is a statement made by a group filing a lawsuit to prevent Trump from accepting the payments. Trump and his attorneys have rejected that idea.

Although Trump has promised to relinquish management of his companies to his two oldest sons and top executives, he will continue to own the businesses. His attorney said Trump will avoid running afoul of the Constitution because his businesses will not be accepting gifts from foreign countries, rather they’ll be accepting payments, for services rendered. 

“Paying for a hotel room is not a gift or a present,” according to attorney Sheri Dillon. Dillon also sought to address a secondary concern — that foreign governments might turn those payments into gifts, by wildly overpaying Trump for a ballroom or a round of golf. Dillon said that Trump would turn over “profits” from foreign governments at his hotels to the U.S. treasury. It is unclear, however, exactly how Trump’s businesses would calculate that, because the Trump Organization hasn’t provided any details on how such payments would be tracked, collected and dispersed.

The Trump team’s rationalization for accepting payment for services as not violating the emoluments clause illustrates a basic tenet of ethics that should be discussed in schools and colleges: It is the appearance of impropriety that must be avoided whether or not an actual violation exists. Trump family members continuing to run the Trump empire and accepting payment for services to foreign governments or officials presents a conflict of interests because it may seem that decisions made by Trump that affect these parties may be tainted by the long-standing relationships that exist between the Trump empire, Donald Trump, and foreign interests.

Another important issue to discuss is the chaotic way Trump runs his administration, best illustrated by the recent changes in cabinet members and other officials. He is a domineering leader – autocratic for sure. He is not an ethical leader. He does not set an ethical tone at the top. The ethical leader understands that positive relationships built on respect, openness, and trust are critical to creating an ethical environment.

The underlying principles of ethical leadership are: integrity, honesty, fairness, justice, responsibility, accountability, and empathy. Stephen Covey addresses a principle-centered leadership approach to one’s personal life and organization development. He emphasizes that principle-centered leadership occurs when one’s internal values form the basis of external actions. Principle-based leaders influence the ethical actions of those in the organization by transforming their own behavior first. Covey encourages principle-centered leaders to build greater, more trusting and communicative relationships with others in the workplace.

Trump is running the government as if it was a business organization – firing at will; criticizing members of his cabinet; and making decisions without proper input from all voices to be heard. Indeed, if he were a CEO my guess is the board of directors would have invoked those famous words by now: “You’re fired!”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz on March 26, 2018. Visit his website and signup for his newsletter.