Let me begin with a cautionary tale told to me by Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012) when he spoke to my Business Ethics class back in February, 1993. In case you don't recognize the name, he was a principal engineer for Morton Thiokol in 1986. On January 27, 1986, Roger and two other engineers tried to warn NASA that if they launched the space shuttle Challenger at temperatures below what had been tested, they could not guarantee that the o-rings would hold. The engineers in the room were not listened to that night and we all know what happened. Even though Roger Boisjoly lost his job and received death threats, he testified in front of Congress and became one of the most well-known whistle-blowers in history.
In 1993, when he spoke to my class, he still cried while describing his part in what happened that night and his feeling that he had not done enough to stop the launch. He explained to my students that he and other engineers had written memos about the fact that the o-rings had not been tested below 50 degrees fahrenheit. But the memos were overlooked and not taken seriously. You see, Congress was pressuring NASA for a successful launch to help keep the space program alive and NASA was pressuring Morton Thiokol to okay the launch. Morton Thiokol was worried that if they held up the launch, they would lose important government contracts in the future. Roger Boisjoly explained to those young business students that it was not really that one big decision that night that sealed the fate of the space shuttle Challenger, but many little decisions leading up to that, like ignoring memos and bending to financial pressures. Roger remarked that as NASA questioned the engineers that fateful night, they moved from asking the question, "Are you sure it is safe to launch?" to "Can you tell us for sure that it is not safe?" There is a world of difference in those two questions. The safety of all the previous NASA missions had been as assured as humanly possible because they had always asked the former question, not the latter. Roger Boisjoly cautioned my students that slipping ethically in small ways can lead to a huge moral mis-step down the line. Roger Boisjoly spent the remaining 20+ years of his life speaking to students about holding the ethical line.
I have been reminded of Roger Boisjoly recently as I see our current President-Elect crossing some ethical lines that others have not crossed in the past and I worry that we are taking baby steps in a very dangerous direction. I fear that instead of choosing the next President of the United States (POTUS), the electoral college is about to vote for a man who could become known as SCROTUS - Supremely Corruptible Ruler of the United States. Let me list the reasons I think this could happen and you decide:
1. All previous presidential candidates have released their tax returns. It is not required by law, but is a way for candidates to demonstrate integrity in their financial affairs. It is a way to reveal to the American public any potential conflicts of interest with foreign or domestic business entanglements, including ways that a president could be vulnerable to corruption by foreign actors. When asked about his tax returns Trump famously replied to a reporter, "It's none of your business." So, Trump doesn't see the need to reveal his tax returns or to disclose potential conflicts of interest before taking office. POTUS or SCROTUS?
2. All other presidents have liquidated their business assets and put them into a blind trust. Donald Trump first said he would do that, but now says he will keep the businesses but have his children run the business. That is not a blind trust. This is being compared to the "princelings" of other countries, where the president allows the kids to run things while he pretends not to be involved. Americans have berated such "princeling" arrangements as "banana republics." We hold our government to a higher standard by separating our elected officials from their business concerns. It has been one of the things which Americans are admired for around the world. It helps our POTUS avoid any hint of corruption while in the office. So, POTUS or SCROTUS?
3. According to the founding fathers, our goal is to elect men of "fit character" to hold the office of President of the United States. Our current PEOTUS said that, as a celebrity, women let him "grab them by the pu**y" and he could "get away with it." When several women then came forward to confirm this, he called them all "Liars!" A POTUS is supposed to be of fit character. Of course, a supreme ruler believes that the laws of sexual assault and slander would not apply to him. So, POTUS or SCROTUS?
4. During the campaign, our current PEOTUS railed against Hillary Clinton suggesting that as Secretary of State she had clearly engaged in "pay for play," because her husband and daughter worked for the Clinton foundation. (This was never proved, of course, but it played well on the campaign trail.) Now, PEOTUS tells us in a tweet that he can run his businesses and run the government 100%. He is keeping his businesses, and he will turn over the daily operations to his children in order to avoid conflicts of interest. He says we just have to "trust him." However, with his name on hotels all over the world and foreign countries wanting to curry favor with the POTUS, how can he avoid "pay to play?" So, POTUS or SCROTUS?
5. Previous presidential candidates have at least made an effort to be genuine in their campaign promises. This is not to say that they always keep those promises. Studies suggest that our candidates can make good on their campaign promises about 70% of the time. However, our current PEOTUS is now instructing his loyal supporters to forget about many of the things he said on the campaign trail. Those things were just said to get elected, to "win." Things are different now. He has now unilaterally decided, not to "lock her up." His indictments of Clinton and "pay to play," was just campaign rhetoric. "Forget about it," he says. He now embraces Paul Ryan, who he previously vowed to oust as Speaker of the House. He didn't believe in humans contributing to climate change. Now he's not so sure; maybe we do. I could go on. So, POTUS or SCROTUS?
You decide. I hope that you will consider the cautionary tale of Roger Boisjoly and I hope that members of the electoral college will consider these things and vote in the best interests of the United States. Faithless electors can vote for someone else. I'm not advocating for them to vote for Hillary Clinton, they could choose Mitt Romney or some other less potentially corruptible Republican candidate. Just please, let's not endorse someone who is willing to cross these ethical lines. Let's protect the integrity of the office of POTUS. Make no mistake, the reputation of POTUS can be blown up. By the little things.