Donald Trump’s ‘Winter White House’ and definitions of corruption

One of the challenges inherent in teaching courses on corruption and anti-corruption is defining precisely what the term means. And, this week saw me set out on my annual struggle to do exactly that. It’s one of the more tricky sessions on my final year undergraduate option on ‘political corruption’. In many ways, it’s easiest to follow the same logic as that of American Supreme Court Judge, Justice Potter Stewart; in 1964, when presiding over the case of Jacobellis v Ohio, he once noted about pornography that he couldn’t come up with a watertight definition of it, but he certainly knew what it was when he saw it.

That’s a fair starting point for analysing corruption, too; for the most part bribes, nepotism, fraud and such like are recognisable when you see them. But, as you dig deeper it soon becomes clear that conducting any sort of research on a phenomenon you’re defining in “I know it when I see it” terms is very difficult indeed. Corruption analysts have subsequently spent a fair amount of time thinking about what precisely it is that they are unpacking (see here and here for a couple of attempts to do that).

The Definitional Challenge

Traditionally, analysts of political life saw corruption as a move away from a non-corrupt state. Thinkers in Ancient Rome, for example, often saw corruption as a moral aberration. Many early analysts of corruption subsequently had a very broad understanding of the term seeing it, as Carl Friedrich once noted, as “a decomposition of the body politic” that came about through “immoral decay”. A panopoly of behaviours were then put in to this general category, largely in the belief that they were “dysfunctional and hence morally corrupt.”

Over the last 50 years, the focus has narrowed considerably. It had to. Conducting empirical research is impossible without a definition that’s a little more practical. That led to (an at times uneasy) consensus developing around a definition put forward by the American political scientist Joseph Nye. He claimed corruption to be the abuse of a public role for private gain.

Nye’s thinking can be clearly seen in the thinking of Transparency International, the world’s leading anti-corruption NGO, when it talks of “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. The OECD follows suit, labelling corruption as “the active or passive misuse of the powers of public officials (appointed or elected) for private financial or other benefits”. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also sings very much from the same hymn sheet (“the abuse of public office for private gains”) as does the World Bank (virtually the same, with just an ‘s’ added to ‘gain’). This understanding of corruption as a deliberate act where an official uses the discretion at her disposal to skew a process or an outcome in her favour is now very widely followed.

Making definitions work in the real world

Labelling something as corrupt therefore means thinking about the constituent parts of a process. More specifically, we need to keep an eye out for four things;

  1. The act needs to be deliberate. Corruption is never accidental. Corruption has nothing to do with incompetence or the inability to fulfill tasks. They may be side-effects, but they don’t define the concept.
  2. The act needs to involve some sort of abuse. The person involved needs to be acting in a way which contravenes accepted understandings of what is and is not appropriate.
  3. Conventional understandings of corruption involve power holders abusing the entrusted power that they are granted.
  4. There has to be some sort of private gain. Often that gain is financial, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be come in a variety of other forms, whether they be status or power-related, or in, say, the provision of sexual services. The private gain can also accrue to friends, family or other organisations known to the corrupted party.

The Winter White House

When talking undergraduates through this it really does help to use real-world examples. And they aren’t generally lacking.

Over the last couple of weeks, however, an almost copybook case appears to have materialised in the USA. Donald Trump’s three weeks at the head of the US executive has hardly been lacking in incident, and that may be the reason that his attitude to and use of ‘The Winter White House’ has been largely overlooked.

Judd Legum, a journalist with ‘Think Progress‘, nonetheless posted a series of tweets on Saturday evening (11 February) about the way the recent visit of Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, to the USA panned out. The US President, Donald Trump, and Abe spent time at what Trump has been describing as the ‘Winter White House’. A nice, catchy phrase that has immediately settled in to the journalistic lexicon.

The ‘Winter White House’ is actually a private members club called Mar-e-Lago. Two of Trump’s three weekends as President have been spent there. He dined with Abe there. Donald Trump, furthermore, owns the club. According to Legum, before Trump became President the joining fee used to be $100,000. It’s now $200,000. The club is clearly gaining in profile and is being talked about more than ever before (including, I guess, via blogs like this).

Where’s the problem, you may ask? Well, Mar-e-Lago is now well set to make significantly more money than it might otherwise have done. Plus, anyone who wants to curry favour with the President may think it prudent to frequent establishments that he owns.

Much ado about nothing? Well, no, not really …

Donald Trump’s presidency has already thrown up plenty of things that have got the commentariat talking. In many ways his branding of a club that he owns as the ‘Winter White House’ is understandably not quite at the top of the list of things to be worried about. But, it would appear that there is at the very least circumstantial evidence that he is using his position as the President of the USA to flag up, and indeed re-brand, a private members’ club that he owns. The price of using the club has already doubled. His regular tweets on the subject can only raise its profile.

If the framework outlined above is any help in pinning this traditionally elusive concept down, then Trump is walking on thin ice.  Corruption is a process and defining it involves pinpointing the constituent parts of that process.  Only then can (and indeed should) morals and values enter the discussion. Whatever way you look at this case, there is – at the very least – a case to be made that The Donald’s behaviour warrants plenty of further scrutiny in this regard.

Dan Hough

University of Sussex