Among Trump Supporters, Conflicts Of Interest Aren't A Top Concern

Mar 21, 2017
Originally published on March 21, 2017 7:57 am

Many people these days might be getting worked up about the fact that President Trump owns a lot of businesses. Not Chris Kinney.

"I think this country really needs to be run more like a business at this point," says the 51-year-old Lino Lakes, Minn., resident, a former business owner who fixes printers for a living. The United States faces a lot of serious problems, such as the growing federal deficit, and the fact that Trump brings a businessman's sensibility to solving them is a plus, Kinney says.

As for those people who have been calling on Trump to divest himself of his companies? They are "probably a bunch of people that have never been in business, so they probably wouldn't understand he's not going to just hand everything over," Kinney says.

Trump's unprecedented decision to hold onto his many businesses while in office has generated plenty of criticism from ethics experts in both major parties and led to a lawsuit by watchdog groups accusing him of violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. Critics say his many hotels, golf courses and condo buildings all over the world allow him to use the White House to enrich himself in a way no president ever has.

But among Trump's supporters, the issue doesn't seem to be registering much, at least so far.

Democratic political strategist Stanley Greenberg recently returned to Macomb County, Mich., to talk to Trump voters. Among his many findings was that the president's supporters aren't particularly concerned about Trump's conflicts of interest, an issue that has gotten widespread attention. Trump's refusal to release his tax returns barely came up in the discussions, Greenberg says.

Trump voters remain loyal to him so far and see him as under siege by opponents who refuse to accept him as president, the strategist says.

"They trust him. They know he's a businessman. They think he'll know how to cut deals that are good for the country, but that he'll fight for American jobs," Greenberg says.

More broadly, while Trump's approval ratings are historically low for a new president, he remains highly popular with Republican voters. His approval ratings among Republicans are generally in the low to mid-80s.

Only 40 percent of Americans say they are very or somewhat confident that Trump keeps his business interests separate from his presidency, according to a survey released last month by the Pew Research Center. Eighty-two percent of Republicans say that.

None of that comes as a surprise to Susan Welch, professor of political science at Penn State and dean of its College of the Liberal Arts, who has studied voter attitudes toward public corruption.

Some kinds of corruption, such as sex scandals, tend to get a lot of media attention and can hurt politicians, she says. But voters tend to be pretty forgiving of politicians who become embroiled in other kinds of corruption, especially campaign finance violations and conflicts of interest, which aren't seen as that serious.

Partisanship plays a part in this, Welch says. Voters tend to be more willing to overlook wrongdoing by members of their own parties.

In Trump's case, voters knew he was a businessman when he was elected and were willing to shrug off any problems that might present, Welch notes.

"They probably knew he wasn't going to do much about it, given his resistance to revealing his income tax return, and they just didn't care that much because they thought he would bring about the kind of change they wanted," Welch says.

"They don't care who's staying in his hotel," says former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma. "They already know he's a zillionaire. 'So fine, OK. Let him make more zillions.' "

Trump's support among his base will only really fall if he fails to make progress on the issues that matter most to them, such as improving the job market, Edwards says.

"The thing that could undermine him would be that in year two or year three the jobs have not come back and the things that he promised he was going to do, he didn't get done," he says.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Much of the country is not impressed by President Trump's first weeks in office. A Gallup survey showed his approval rating at 37 percent. Even if that's a bit off, it's very low for a new president. One public concern involves the president's business conflicts of interest, but those conflicts do not trouble some of his core supporters who spoke with NPR's Jim Zarroli.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Fifty-one-year-old Chris Kinney thinks the United States has to get more serious about fixing some of the problems it faces such as the deficit.

CHRIS KINNEY: I think this country really needs to be run more of a - more like a business at this point.

ZARROLI: And Kinney who was sitting in a reception area in the St. Paul Skyway in Minnesota last week says he likes the fact that President Trump promises to bring a businessman sensibility to government. As for all those people who want Trump to sell off his properties...

KINNEY: Probably a bunch of people that have never been in business, so they probably wouldn't understand he's not going to just hand everything over.

ZARROLI: Trump's business interests have been generating attention ever since his election. But those concerns haven't really registered with the president's supporters. Most polls show he has an approval rating of more than 80 percent among Republicans. Democratic political strategist Stanley Greenberg recently interviewed a group of Trump voters in Michigan.

STANLEY GREENBERG: They trust him. They know he's a businessman. They think he'll know how to get deals that are, you know, good for the country, but that he'll fight for American jobs.

ZARROLI: Greenberg says when he talked to Trump's supporters about what was on their minds, issues such as Trump's refusal to release his tax returns hardly ever came up. None of that surprises Susan Welch, professor of political science at Penn State, who has studied voter attitudes toward corruption. Welch says certain kinds of corruption cases such as sex scandals get a lot of attention, and they can hurt politicians. Voters tend to overlook lesser offenses.

SUSAN WELCH: They tended to not punish candidates who were charged with campaign violations or conflict of interest charges.

ZARROLI: Welch says most members of Congress who were embroiled in corruption scandals actually get re-elected. She says partisanship plays a big part in this. People are more likely to shrug off wrongdoing by politicians from their own party. She points out that President Trump's supporters knew he was a businessman and voted for him anyway.

WELCH: They probably knew he wasn't going to do much about it given his resistance to revealing his income tax return, and they just didn't care that much because they thought he would bring about the kind of change they wanted.

ZARROLI: Former Republican congressman Mickey Edwards agrees. Edwards says Democrats can talk all day long about Trump's conflicts of interest. His supporters don't care.

MICKEY EDWARDS: They don't care, you know, who's staying in this hotel. They already know he's a zillionaire. Fine. OK. So let him make more zillions.

ZARROLI: Edwards who is a critic of Trump says the only thing that's going to diminish Trump's popularity is a lack of progress on the issues that are most important to his supporters.

EDWARDS: The thing that could undermine him would be that in year two or year three the jobs have not come back and the things that he promised he was going to do he didn't get done.

ZARROLI: If Trump can't make real progress fixing the economy, Edwards says, then his support will diminish. And the fact that Trump might have profited off the White House will suddenly seem a lot more relevant. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.