On ethics, Trump is leading America in the wrong direction

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walter shaub trump administration ethics cristina alesci cnnmoney_00010023

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Story highlights

  • America is engulfed in a tsunami of unethical activity, Jeffrey D. Sachs says
  • Trump continues to mingle public interest and his personal business interests, he says

Jeffrey D. Sachs is university professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)In a recent speech in Poland, President Donald Trump asked whether the West "has the will to survive." It's a good question, but aimed in the wrong direction. While Trump spoke about foreign aggression, the real threat to the West is the collapse of ethical norms, led by Trump and others like him. America is engulfed in a tsunami of unethical activity, and there is no assurance it has the will to save itself.

The most recent sign of this rot from within is the decision of a federal appeals court to reverse the conviction of former New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver got rich on bribes and kickbacks from individuals and companies doing business with New York state. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison for fraud, extortion and money laundering.
Jeffrey D. Sachs
Yet the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan reversed the jury decision this month on the grounds that Silver's bribes and kickbacks didn't necessarily constitute crimes under federal precedents. They sent the case back to the lower court for retrial. (Silver's attorneys have denied he committed any wrongdoing.)
    The court's "precedents" explanation reaches back to another case involving former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, asked for and received around $175,000 in payments from a Virginia businessman seeking regulatory favors from the state. The governor set up meetings, briefings and events so that the businessman could make his case to state officials. A jury in 2014 reached the obvious conclusion that Bob McDonnell was guilty of bribery.
    Two years later, the US Supreme Court said no, he did not necessarily commit bribery, and vacated his conviction. There was nothing wrong, according to the twisted wisdom of the Supreme Court, with the good governor accepting enormous gifts from a constituent seeking favors from the state in return for the governor clearing a path for the businessman to make his pitch.
    These activities, said Chief Justice John Roberts, did not fit the definition of an "official action" under federal corruption law. However "distasteful" they were, they were part of the normal relations between a politician and a constituent, according to his absurd reasoning.
    One might be shocked that the Supreme Court, the epicenter of America's rule of law, would allow a crooked politician to walk, scot-free. Yet remember, this is the same Supreme Court that decided in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission to eliminate nearly all restrictions on independent campaign spending by corporations, on the grounds that such restrictions violate the "free speech" guarantee of the First Amendment.
    The court astoundingly argued that such contributions "do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption," and that "the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy." That claim is absurd. Overwhelming majorities of Americans hold that money has a greater influence on politics than in the past and that there should be limits on campaign spending.
    So here we are. Bribes are no longer bribes, campaign funds from corporations are free speech, and the politicians are just being good public servants when they accept money from those who seek their favor. Crooked politicians are thrilled; the rest of us look on shocked at the pageantry of cynicism and immorality. Senior officials in law-abiding countries have told me they can hardly believe their eyes as to what is underway in the United States.
    Which brings us to Donald Trump. Trump seems to know no limits whatsoever in his commingling of the public interest and his personal business interests. He failed to give up his ownership interest in his businesses upon taking office. (Trump resigned from positions in his companies and said his two sons are in charge.)
    Government and Republican Party activities have been booked into Trump properties. Trump campaign funds are used to hire lawyers to defend Donald Trump Jr. in the Russia probe. Campaign associates such as Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn have been under scrutiny for their business dealings with clients tied to foreign governments.
    In response to the stench, the former head of the government ethics office recently resigned, declaring that the United States is "pretty close to a laughingstock at this point." The resignation was not remarkable under the circumstances. What was remarkable is that most Republicans politicians remain mum to these abuses. Of course too many politicians of both parties are deeply compromised by financial dependence on corporate campaign donors.
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    Some countries collapse in an orgy of corruption before they heal themselves. Brazil is a vivid case of a country that turned a blind eye toward corruption until much of the political class was implicated. Now Brazil has sunk into a deep political, moral and economic crisis, its former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, heading for jail.
    Donald Trump, you are right. We are indeed fighting for the survival of democracy. And you, and the ethical collapse you represent, are our greatest threat.