When Larry the Cable Guy rode the catchphrase “git er done” to comedic fortune, he was capitalizing on a distinctly American attitude.
Alexis de Tocqueville, observing and reflecting upon American culture in the 19th century, noted that everything about the nation’s circumstances “have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects.” Since our beginnings in 1776 to the present day, we have been a “get down to business,” “results-oriented,” “bottom-line” people.
Along with our attitude toward practicality comes an impatience with process. As long as things get done, we don’t want to be bothered too much with how they get done. That is especially true when it comes to national politics.
With every change in administration, the party in charge tends to focus on results. The opposition, in response, objects to the way the results are obtained: too many executive orders, not enough respect for separation of powers, too little regard for the Constitution, a lack of consideration for ethics.
And so it is not only understandable, it is completely predictable, that even while critics of the new president cry “foul” — pointing out that he is violating ethics requirements by not divorcing himself from his business interests — his defenders will dismiss the criticisms as a bunch of hooey.
When a group of ethics lawyers and constitutional scholars, including Richard Painter, former ethics counsel in the George W. Bush administration, filed a lawsuit just days after the inauguration charging the president with violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, Eric Trump, the President’s son, replied, “This is purely harassment for political gain, and, frankly, I find it very, very sad.”
But when the critics are not the usual suspects, and when the criticisms come before the president has even lifted pen to paper, we should look closely before dismissing the complaints as typical partisan nitpicking.
Beginning early last summer, ethics experts across the country cautioned that Donald Trump would face serious conflicts of interest should he become president. And regardless of the legal merits of the pending lawsuit — there are good reasons to think it will be dismissed — it is important to consider the purely ethical concerns at the basis of the criticisms.
Every profession in the United States subscribes to a code of ethics — that is, a set of rules by which it sets standards of professional conduct and seeks to protect its members and the people it serves from harm. And every code of ethics I have ever seen, whether for doctors, nurses, engineers, judges, accountants, dietitians, lawyers or realtors, contains a clause forbidding relationships or financial entanglements that may unduly influence professional judgment.
This universal concern over the harm that conflicts of interest pose did not arise out of nowhere. It is the cumulative effect of many hard-won lessons in every sphere of public life.
Those lessons fall into three categories.
The first is corruption. Whenever a person is torn between significant personal interests and professional duty, there is a potential for corruption. Those seeking to gain undue influence have an opening. The more substantial the personal interest, the bigger the opening.
The second is bias. Although we all like to think we can separate our professional judgment from our personal interests, the evidence suggests that human beings are just not wired to do that. Impartiality is hard enough in cases where we don’t have personal interests at stake; it is nearly impossible when we do.
The third is reputation. Even if one does not allow outside influences to taint one’s professional judgment, the appearance of conflict in itself is sufficient for others to raise reasonable questions about one’s motivations.
The only way to maintain a reputation for integrity is to forestall legitimate criticism by avoiding potential conflicts.
Even before the lawsuit was filed, there were a number of specific concerns with President Trump’s business interests, including the fact that the Trump Organization leases a building from the General Services Administration, the head of which is a presidential appointee, and the fact that the National Relations Board, whose members are appointed by the president, has several times had to decide cases involving employees of Trump Hotels.
And then, last week, when President Trump signed an executive order barring travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, foreign policy analysts questioned why several countries that would fit the criteria of the ban were not included, namely, Turkey, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Would the fact that the Trump Organization has significant business interests in those countries explain their exclusion? That’s a reasonable question, but it shouldn’t even have to be raised.
Until the president divorces himself entirely from his business interests either by selling them or setting up a blind trust, such questions will continue to haunt him. Over time, it will erode the legitimacy of his administration among the substantial number of Americans who have not yet made up their minds about his character or his conduct in office. Beyond that, it may do harm to the presidency itself, by undermining confidence in the integrity of the office.
Pragmatism runs deep in the national character. But a commitment to action does not have to ignore ethical considerations. Especially when it comes to conflicts of interest, we should not hold the presidency to a lesser standard than we expect of doctors, engineers or lawyers.
No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, or whose party happens to be in power, we should always insist that our elected officials “git er done” the American way — the right way.