Trump’s Chaos and Conflicts of Interest: This Is Not Normal

A chaotic transition and numerous conflicts of interest underline just how abnormal Donald Trump is.

Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015
Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

The good news is it only took the American media a few days to decide there was nothing normal about Donald Trump’s election and the way he, and those around him, have conducted themselves since.

I urged you a few days ago not to heed the calls of those who said Trump deserved a “chance” or an “open mind” from us. We shouldn’t be normalizing a man who is shockingly and dangerously different from the 43 presidents who served before him.

The last few days have been rollercoaster of reminders why.

Transition chaos

NBC News lists several peculiarities about Trump’s presidential transition:

  • Former congressman Mike Rogers, who supervised the national-security side of building the Trump Administration, was suddenly ousted in what sources described as a “Stalinesque purge”.
  • The New York Times reports that foreign leaders are “scrambling to figure out how and when to contact” the president-elect and that top donors are having “little success in recruiting people for rank-and-file posts in his administration.”
  • Eliot Cohen, a former Bush Administration official and leading neoconservative, warned Republicans to stay away from Trump’s team after advising them to consider joining the new administration only days earlier. “They’re angry, arrogant, screaming ‘you LOST!’ Will be ugly.”

Conflicts of interest

There is also a litany of conflicts of interest surrounding Trump.

Politico reports that former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a top contender for a Trump cabinet post, consulted for foreign governments, including Venezuela’s and Qatar’s. That could prove awkward if Trump wants to name him secretary of state.

The same website reports that the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Michael Flynn, who is Trump’s top military advisor, headed a firm that lobbied for Turkish interests.

Trump himself isn’t in the clear either. His Las Vegas hotel is currently in a dispute with the National Labor Relations Board for refusing to bargain with a union that represents some 500 of its workers. As president, Trump could appoint more sympathetic members to the labor board.

Trump’s hotel in Washington DC is leased from the General Services Administration, a federal agency that Trump will oversee as president.

Both are as clear-cut a conflict of interest as you can imagine.

Then there are Trump’s three eldest children and his son-in-law, who are all involved in the transition and for whom Trump has reportedly requested top security clearance.

Joshua Foust, a national-security fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, argues this is the sort of behavior you would expect in a banana republic, not in a constitutional democracy with strong institutions.

Warning signs

Foust lists more abnormalities, from Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns to the fact that he has 75 pending lawsuits against him, ranging from business fraud to illegal hiring practices.

None of this is normal, Foust writes:

  • Owing hundreds of millions of dollars in business debt to a foreign bank and refusing to fully divest yourself from those finances is not normal.
  • Asking a hostile foreign intelligence agency to hack into the emails of your opponent in the campaign is not normal.
  • Chanting for the summary imprisonment of your political opponent despite repeated conclusions that she has committed no crime is not normal.
  • Hiring an avowed white supremacist and proud antisemite to be the chief of strategy at the White House is not normal.
  • Threatening to sue the media because you don’t like being criticized is not normal.

Rather, these are warning sirens that something is fundamentally going wrong with the country: These are the opening stages of authoritarianism.

For more pessimistic views, you can read Andrew Sullivan’s in New York magazine, who argues that “A country designed to resist tyranny has now embraced it,” and Masha Gessen’s in The New York Review of Books, who draws on her experience as a reporter in Vladimir Putin’s Russia to share rules for surviving autocracy.

Foust’s advice: Don’t normalize Donald Trump.

“The presumption of normality during abnormal times is one of the most powerful weapons the authoritarian has,” he writes.

They do not want you to yearn for a freer, less oppressive time and they do not want you to think it odd when, say, a government agency is purged or a bunch of protesters are arrested and vanish into the prisons without ever seeing trial. They want you to think it’s normal when the president is openly selling your interests out to a foreign power or when he is using the levers of government to materially enrich and empower his family.

None of us ever expected an American president to act like this, but here we are.