A Debate Which May Live in Infamy

Published: September 26, 2016

By Jim Lichtman
Read More

Well, boys and girls, here we are – the first of three presidential debates which may decide who goes to the White House: the Reality Star, or the Politically Calculated Czar; the extremely reckless, or “extremely careless.”


I was previously invited to attend a screening of The Man with the Golden Arm, part of an Elmer Bernstein film series honoring the composer’s film scores, but the event conflicts with the debate! Considering my choice (I could always record the debate), I observed a strange phenomenon: both candidates could easily parallel two Bernstein films:

The Man with The Golden Arm


…vs. Summer and Smoke.


We know from past history pretty much how Hillary will show up on the debate stage: prepped to talk about the issues.

But what about Trump? Will we get the recently cautious Trump who sways, prays and panders as he did at a recent visit to a black church; or will we get the shoot from the lip, “Crooked Hillary” contemptuous Trump?

However, since this website is about ethics, let’s take a closer look at the two under an ethical lens.

Honesty –

While Hillary Clinton is guilty of memorializing false-hoods: 2008’s “I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base,” was labeled a four Pinocchio doozy by the Washington Post…

Donald Trump is the undisputed greatest of all time with a whopping 47 four Pinocchio rulings to Clinton’s 6.

The question of Trump’s honesty, however, has reached an ethical critical mass with journalists. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is blunt about it (Sept. 25):

“If a known con artist peddles a potion that he claims will make people lose 25 pounds and enjoy a better sex life, we don’t just quote the man and a critic; we find ways to signal to readers that he’s a fraud. Why should it be different when the con man runs for president?

“Frankly, we should be discomfited that many Americans have absorbed the idea that Hillary Clinton is less honest than Donald Trump, giving Trump an edge in polls of trustworthiness. …

“One commonly cited example of Clinton’s lying is her false claim in 2008 that when she was first lady she came under sniper fire after her plane landed in Bosnia. In contrast, with Trump, you don’t need to go back eight years: One examination found he averages a lie or an inaccuracy in every five minutes of speaking.”

However, if Trump is challenged by debate moderator, NBC News Anchor (and Republican) Lester Holt on any false statements, or caught flat-footed in a response, you can bet Trump will pull out the “R” word: it was rigged!

While this doesn’t matter to diehard Trump supporters, it should. If he lies like this during a campaign, (and this is a list of only the past week), what makes you think he’ll tell the truth when he’s in the White House?

Respect and Responsibility –

Critics say that Hillary Clinton lives in a world of power and privilege where the rules don’t necessarily apply. Clearly there’s some truth to that. Nonetheless, she has repeatedly apologized for using a private e-mail server as secretary of state. She has apologized for landing “under sniper fire”; in getting “it wrong” and voting for the Iraq war; and for the shameful statement comparing some Trump supporters to a “basket of deplorables.”

Trump, on the other hand, apologizes for nothing.

He has never apologized for fostering the totally false conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in the United States, despite five years of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

While he expressed “regret” for his statements last August, Trump – who has verbally attacked Mexicans, women, a federal judge, fellow Republicans and the parents of a slain U.S. soldier – has never owned up, or taken responsibility for any specific offensive statement.

In failing to do so, he lacks the accountability, self-restraint, tolerance and simple decency that Americans expect of a U.S. leader at a time when the world is facing many crises and temperament and tone are critical.

Transparency –

On taxes:

Hillary and Bill Clinton have made their taxes public since 1977, and posted eight years worth of taxes online.

Despite the fact that Trump called on Romney to release his tax returns in 2012, he says he will only release his records after the IRS has completed a 2015 audit. He has refused to release previous years that are not under audit.

How critical is Trump’s tax information?

Richard Painter served as the chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush. Norman Eisen served in the same capacity for President Obama. Both explain the importance of a presidential candidate releasing their taxes to the public:

“…how much tax is Trump paying or sheltering domestically vs. in foreign jurisdictions? That needs to be known to ascertain which nations Trump has financial ties to and where he may be susceptible to pressure. Absent this information, it is impossible to assess the potential conflicts a President Trump would face in making decisions.”

On The Foundations:

PolitiFact ran a comparison of both. The key points:

“The Clinton Foundation is a public charity that operates its own humanitarian programs around the world. For example, it runs a farming project in Tanzania and has expanded access to lower-cost HIV/AIDS drugs.”

According to public filings, The Clinton Foundation has $354 million in assets (2014) with $91 million in expenses (2014) and a staff of nearly 500.

“Several investigative reports,” PolitiFact writes, “have found a handful of examples of Clinton Foundation business intersecting with State Department business. Congressional Republicans have said they hope to launch their own investigation.”

While public officials in Congress frequently meet with donors or provide other access, there should always be a clear ethical wall between the two. However, as of this writing, there is no evidence of any criminal quid pro quo between foundation donors and the secretary of state.

“The Trump Foundation is a private, non-operating foundation that donates money to causes. It gave about $600,000 in 2014, including $100,000 to Citizens United and $50,000 to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.”

According to public records, The Trump Foundation has $1.2 million in assets (2014) with $596,700 in expenses (2014) and zero staff members.

Recently, The New York Times reported (Sept. 20), that “The attorney general of New York has started an investigation into the Donald J. Trump Foundation. At issue is a $25,000 donation, made three years ago, in support of a Florida official who was weighing possible fraud charges against Mr. Trump. No charges were brought, and the official became a supporter of Mr. Trump.”

And Trump University has been under investigation for fraud since 2013.

Further, what happens to Trump’s financial empire if he becomes president?

Trump has said that he would turn over management to his children and would not discuss business dealings with them. But with Trump’s track record of self-interest and lies, can we really trust him to do that?

What about Trump investments in Russia, China, India, South Korea and Turkey? Are we expected to believe that a President Trump would not be involved in any decisions or negotiations with a country without considering the impact on his own business?

Bill Clinton has stated that he would step down from the board of The Clinton Foundation if his wife were elected, and allow daughter Chelsea to run the operation. And they would no longer accept foreign donations.

While there isn’t anywhere near the complexity of Trump’s business enterprises involved, however, daughter Chelsea has just as much opportunity to discuss Foundation activity with her mother as Trump’s sons would have regarding the family business. While many support the good work The Clinton Foundation does throughout the world, the single operating question here is: does the appearance of a conflict exist?

With Chelsea Clinton actively working with the Foundation, the answer is, yes.

Complete divestment is the only ethically sound approach.

Civic Virtue and Citizenship –

While I credit Trump for self-funding his campaign through a long primary season, his demonstration of earnest citizenship is clouded by the fact that he doesn’t miss an opportunity to promote himself or any of his business ventures. (i.e.: he recently suckered the media into showing up at the opening of the new Trump hotel in Washington, D.C. by promising a “big announcement” on the birther issue.)

Although Hillary Clinton has made big money from corporate speeches since retiring as secretary of state, her record of service (in a very heavily footnoted Wikipedia entry) to both Arkansas and the country is considerable.

Bottom Line –

Let’s return to ethics lawyers Richard Painter and Norman Eisen, quoted earlier:

“To be sure, counsel for a President Hillary Clinton would have to address actual or apparent conflicts posed by the Clinton Foundation, but those have been disclosed and publicly vetted. They are nowhere near as obscure, profound and dangerous as Trump’s. The ethics lawyer who would have President Trump as his or her client would face a far more daunting task than either of us — or any of our colleagues in recent years — has ever confronted.”

And that’s assuming Trump would even allow an ethics lawyer within miles of the White House.

In the Trump Universe, it’s all about bigotry, simplistic answers and drama:

“We have to get tough, folks”; “stop and frisk”; “If somebody looks like he’s got a massive bomb on his back, we won’t go up to that person. If he looks like he comes from that part of the world, we’re not allowed to profile. Give me a break.”

But the issues facing the country don’t lend themselves to sound-bite solutions and hammy pandering. The problems we face are serious and require genuine solutions.

For most voters, it comes down to two choices: the intelligent, policy-focused, somewhat tarnished Princess Hillary of Chappaqua; or the unreasoned, reckless, hate-spewing Dark Lord of Trump Tower.


  1. As we were considering watching the debate last night, I said to my wife, “Whether it’s for political information or entertainment value, we can’t go wrong.” We weren’t disappointed.

    Jim, thanks again for peeling back more layers.

  2. I like this side-by-side comparison very much, Jim.

    To anyone who hasn’t been trained like one of Pavlov’s dogs to despise Hillary Clinton above all others with no regard for facts, it is absurdly obvious that Trump commits more acts of deception in the average day than both Clintons have in their lengthy careers. But in “the media’s” attempt to seem fair and balanced, they hammer Clinton with as much (or more) regularity than they do Trump, making it seem they are both equally dishonest somehow. As you point out in this post, it’s not even close.

  3. Hi Jim! Just saw Gary’s link on Facebook and had to check in to see what you’d say about it.

    We will NOT be watching the train-wreck debate tonight. Is it possible that some people haven’t made up their minds yet? Trump feeds off attention, and the debate is just one more way to feed his ego. I won’t be watching, but I am praying that the voters of this country do the right thing in November.

    There is no contest. Just a very strong message about the state of our country these days.

  4. Wow! What an interesting, informative and timely article.

    Is it OK to lie and deceive people? We need your ethical input Jim. How sad it is to be living in a time when a demagogue like this can potentially have the most powerful position in the world. Educate yourself America!

Leave a Comment

Read More Articles
The Latest... And Sometimes Greatest