Separating the private from the public has long been a concern for those interested in government - students, theorists, and practitioners alike.
Almost two and a half thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato clearly recognised that government could be easily subverted by private interests, arguing for an ideal form of government headed by a philosopher-king, a ruler versed in knowledge and wisdom but also living a selfless life of virtue, uncompromised by any private interests.
Several centuries on from Plato, the beginnings of what was to become the dominant strand in Western political and philosophical thought, liberalism, were stirred by opposition to royal privilege, in which commercial interests and political power were undifferentiated. The shift from absolutism to constitutional monarchy was driven by efforts to separate public interests from private interests.
Modern times have been witness to epic struggles to achieve this separation - essentially a recognition of the primacy of the public interest over private concerns - and the 20th century was marked by egregious examples of the private gaining the ascendancy, from petty tribal dictators in Africa assuming synonymity with the state to ruthless kleptocrats such as Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, and Mobuto in Zaire, emptying national treasuries into their personal coffers, often aided and abetted by Western banking systems. Indeed, the modern study of corruption is founded on the definition of using public office for private gain.
This brings us to the present and the case of Donald Trump, who, unlike his predecessors in the US presidency, declined to divest himself of his extensive business interests, merely handing over the running of them to his family. So complex and intricate are these interests that the Trump incumbency might well become known as the Corporate Presidency, a term of office during which the presidency was subsumed by private interests.
In the weeks after the disputed November election, attention turned to a low-key agency of the federal bureaucracy, the General Services Administration, whose job it is to enable an official transition to take place once the result is known. By declaring the "apparent winner" of a presidential election, the GSA administrator releases computer systems and money for salaries and administrative support for the mammoth undertaking of setting up a new government - $9.9 million this year.
Transition officials get government email addresses. They get office space at every federal agency. They can begin to work with the Office of Government Ethics to process financial disclosure and conflict-of-interest forms for their nominees. But, the key GSA official, Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee, held back.
Concerns have been expressed about the extent to which President Trump's business interests have profited from government.
As The Washington Post revealed, the GSA, and Ms Murphy in particular, have long been embroiled in the president's apparent conflicts of interest. These included the lease one of President Trump's companies holds with the agency for its Washington, D.C. hotel, located in the federally owned Old Post Office Pavilion, and the planned consolidation of the FBI headquarters.
President Trump's hotel lease was signed with the agency before Trump took office, and he resigned his position with the company when he entered office. But he retained ownership of his business, allowing him to profit from the property while in office. Democrats held repeated hearings seeking to get a better explanation of how the agency decided to allow Trump to keep the lease given that the Constitution prohibits presidents from accepting gifts or payments from foreign governments, which often patronise the hotel. Under Ms Murphy, the GSA repeatedly declined to provide documents to House Democrats, including the monthly income statements it receives from Trump's company.
In 2019, the agency's inspector general determined that GSA "improperly" ignored those concerns in allowing Trump's company to keep the lease. GSA defended itself by saying that the investigation "found no undue influence, pressure or unwarranted involvement of any kind by anyone".
President Trump, according to The Washington Post, has personally intervened in the most prominent real estate project in the agency's entire portfolio: the plan to build a new FBI headquarters that would allow the bureau out of the crumbling and insecure J. Edgar Hoover Building. During his first year in office, Trump and the GSA abruptly cancelled a bipartisan plan to build a new suburban headquarters for the agency, infuriating Democrats who had worked more than a decade on the project and who alleged that Trump cancelled the project so a competing hotel could never be built in place of the Hoover building, a site down the street from his hotel. The White House said the president's business had nothing to do with the decision.
Concerns have been expressed about the extent to which President Trump's business interests have profited from government, not least in the money paid by the Secret Service when staying in Trump-owned properties to protect the president.
A former Trump insider, Anthony Scaramucci, briefly White House communications director, told an interviewer on the CNN network, that it is highly likely there will be a series of investigations and lawsuits post-Trump aimed at determining just how much money he will be able to keep from his time in office.
This, he said, was a major factor driving Trump's increasingly desperate attempts to overturn the apparent election result.
- Dr Norman Abjorensen is a political historian, and author of A Ridiculous Man: Donald Trump and the Verdict of History.