Rarely has a president drawn as much widespread condemnation over an action in his first month in office as President Donald Trump did with his executive order banning immigration from several countries in the Middle East and shutting down the Syrian-refugee program. Among the many sources of this consternation was confusion over how Trump and his advisers had determined the list of countries to which the ban would apply: Though putatively intended to prevent future terrorist attacks on American soil, no attack has been perpetrated by an immigrant from any of the seven countries included in the ban (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen). Especially confounding is the administration’s invocation of 9/11 to justify the policy, which does not apply to any of the countries from which the hijackers originated.
Soon, however, Bloomberg noted a pattern: The ban, which covers much of the Middle East, does not apply to the five countries in the region in which the Trump Organization has a financial stake. The president, as it turns out, has business interests in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, including a pair of towers in Istanbul (which Trump himself has already acknowledged creates a conflict of interest), golf courses in Dubai, and a branding deal with a real-estate mogul in Azerbaijan (although the organization has announced that it intends to end the deal); according to his FEC filings, he also has two businesses registered in Egypt and eight in Saudi Arabia, although the precise nature of those endeavors remains unknown. The observation was soon picked up in other outlets, some of which made more explicit its implicit insinuation: that, in choosing which countries would be covered by his executive order, Trump may very well have prioritized his financial interests over those of the country.
Over the weekend, the Trump administration defended the policy, arguing that it is similar to President Obama’s decision in 2011 to temporarily halt processing of refugee visas from Iraq. In his statement, Trump also cited Obama as the source of the list of countries to which the order applies, pointing out that, in 2015, Obama had identified the same seven countries as “sources of terror” for which there would be heightened visa requirements.
Even before Trump explained the basis for the list, though, the details didn’t bear out the assertion that the move was financially motivated. First and foremost, there are several countries that fall into neither category: Kuwait, Oman, Jordan, and Lebanon, though all predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East, are not subject to Trump’s policy, but the president is not known to have any financial interests in those nations. Were it true that one of Trump’s main considerations was where he had businesses, it’s likely that one or more of these countries would be subject to the executive order as well. Additionally, there are clear explanations as to why the exempt countries would be exempt regardless of Trump’s business interests. Though their records when it comes to human rights and terrorism are anything but sterling, the countries in question are widely considered among the United States’ most important strategic allies in the region. In fact, it is likely that the reason countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the U.A.E. were left off of the list also explains why they are the countries in which Trump has business interests in the first place: Their more conventional diplomatic relations with the U.S. facilitates American investment in a way that would be significantly more difficult in a country like Somalia or Yemen.
The question of Trump’s conflicts of interest is likely to be one that resurfaces frequently throughout his presidency, given that he has not taken any serious steps to mitigating them. As I have extensively chronicled elsewhere, Trump has a vast array of businesses around the world that create personal financial incentives that may very well be at odds with the country’s best interests. These cases range from avenues by which individuals or even other governments try to curry favor with the chief executive to opportunities for Trump to create policies benefiting his own companies to international properties for which Trump might be willing to forego longstanding standards of diplomatic relations in return for preferential treatment.
Though Trump apparently believes that he is above these influences—and that, even were he not, his behavior is perfectly legal—scientific studies consistently show that it is essentially impossible for people to entirely disregard even minuscule financial incentives. Given the enormous scope of Trump’s purview as president, it is all but inevitable that at some point he will make a decision based on these cross-cutting influences, even if merely because the knowledge that he has previously benefited from a certain relationship subtly changes his opinion on an issue.
In the particular case of the immigration ban, evidence quickly emerged that allegations of improper financial motives were overly hasty (although numerous other criticisms of his motives remain). Still, the mere fact that such an allegation circulated deserves attention because it illuminates the unprecedented situation the Trump presidency creates and the danger it poses to the process of governance. Unless Trump divests from his businesses or radically increases his transparency by, say, releasing his tax returns—both of which Trump or one of his spokespeople have explicitly ruled out—nearly every executive-branch decision will likely be intensely scrutinized for evidence that it was unduly affected by financial consideration. In other words, the president’s situation continually threatens a basic underlying principle of the rule of law: the idea that the government is discharging its duties in what it perceives to be the best interests of its people.
Ironically, Trump built his campaign largely on the idea that this was already occurring within the United States. For the better part of 18 months, he railed against his opponents as tools of a corrupt system that warped their interests and caused them to turn their backs on the common man for personal gain. During the primaries, he accused other candidates of being pawns for their biggest donors while openly bragging that he could use his billions to get them to support policies of his choosing. In the general election, he criticized Hillary Clinton for maintaining ties to her family’s eponymous foundation during her tenure as secretary of state, claiming that she was essentially running a pay-for-play operation and using the charity as a slush fund. He, of all people, would seem to recognize the role that perceived financial incentives can create in undermining the legitimacy of the government.