Thomas Jefferson had many opportunities to speculate in western lands. Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, were engaged in land speculation beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Jefferson quietly refused, because he knew that at some point he might have to “legislate” for the public domain, and he did not want to be guilty of conflict of interest or even to give the appearance of possibly being guilty of conflict of interest. Jefferson needed the money that such speculation might have brought to his always troubled finances, but he chose to stay aloof from such temptations.
When Elder John Leland of Massachusetts sent President Jefferson the world’s largest cheese in 1802–1,235 pounds, 4 feet wide, 15 inches thick–Jefferson immediately sent the pastor a check for $200. Jefferson understood that the so-called “mammoth cheese” was an innocent and lovely gift, a kind of gimcrack or prodigy, and that Leland had no political agenda (unlike today’s American Dairy Association, for example), but he wanted to maintain his principle of not accepting gifts, however whimsical or harmless, because a: it would set a bad precedent, and b: accepting such gifts might constitute a slippery slope. Integrity and republican virtue were the very basis of Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a republic.
These are just two examples of Jefferson’s lifelong habit of ethical high-mindedness as a government official. He understood what is at stake in a republican society.
-President Trump’s hotels, including the Trump International in the District of Columbia, are bustling with guests, banquets, receptions, and barroom meetings. His Mar-a-Lago resort is bringing in record profits. These facilities are filled with foreign diplomats, princes, and foreign government representatives, who could just as easily stay at any one of the hundreds of hotels in Washington, DC, or the scores of five-star resorts in Florida. This in spite of the emoluments clause in the US Constitution: “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.”- Article I, Section 9, Clause 8.
-The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, we have learned, has conducted meetings in the White House with bankers and business groups from whom he has borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars for his personal business holdings in New York City.
-The president’s daughter Ivanka’s product line was granted several trademarks in China on the same day that she sat in on a meeting between President Xi Jinping of China and her father at Mar-a-Lago. Hmmm.
This list could be much longer.
Even if these transactions could be interpreted as “perfectly innocent and/or coincidental,” the appearance of conflict of interest, of the president’s smug indifference to ethical norms and the laws of the United States, including clauses of the US Constitution itself, puts Mr. Trump at the far other end of the spectrum from President Jefferson, and virtually every other president in American history.
The only thing worse than these improprieties and (perhaps) crimes, is the steadfast refusal of the Congress of the United States to hold the president and his family accountable. To those who wish to argue that President Trump’s bombastic and narcissistic style is a wise strategy to “shake up the dysfunctional world of Washington, DC,” I ask, what is the beneficial purpose of this brand of ethical negligence? How does the republic benefit from the Trump family’s determination to use their time in the White House to line their own pockets and increase the profits of their businesses?