Credit Photograph by Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty
During the past couple of weeks, Donald Trump has led the media in a merry dance, turning the workings of a transition team and staffing of an Administration into a television reality show, complete with elaborately staged auditions at real-world locations (Trump Tower, Trump National Golf Club), public humiliations (Chris Christie), and surprise appearances (Eva Moskowitz, Mitt Romney). Meanwhile, Trump has said next to nothing about one of the most pressing questions he faces: What does he intend to do with his far-flung business interests and the glaring conflicts of interest they potentially represent?
On Monday, the issue came into public view when an Argentine journalist reported that Trump, during a courtesy call last week with Argentina’s President, Mauricio Macri, had asked the Latin American leader to help facilitate the construction of a Trump Tower in Buenos Aires. After the report caused a furor on social media, a spokesman for Macri insisted that it was “absolutely untrue,” adding, “They talked about maintaining the relations between the countries. . . . They didn’t talk about the tower at all.”
Whatever Trump did or didn’t say to Macri, the incident illustrated some of the dangers that are in store for the President-elect, and the country, if he sticks with his declared intention of making only the most cursory of moves to separate the business of America, Inc., from the business of Trump, Inc. During the campaign, Trump said that, if elected, he would hand over the running of the Trump Organization to three of his children: his two sons, Eric and Donald, Jr., and his eldest daughter, Ivanka. Some observers initially described this arrangement as a “blind trust,” but legal experts quickly pointed out that it would be neither blind (Trump would be well aware of the identity of his businesses) nor a trust (the people running it wouldn’t be independent from Trump).
Last week, a spokesperson for the Trump Organization said the family was “in the process of vetting various structures,” and insisted that whatever arrangement they settled on would “comply with all applicable rules and regulations.” But this was yet another empty statement. For historical reasons, Presidents are exempted from many of the conflict-of-interest laws that apply to other federal officeholders, such as Cabinet members.
This exemption dates back to the earliest days of the Republic, when Presidents tended to be wealthy plantation owners with large holdings of land and slaves. The Founding Fathers were well aware that men of this ilk would see their fortunes affected by some of the policies that the federal government would pursue, such as those relating to agriculture and tariffs. Rather than forcing a President to recuse himself from dealing with these issues, or to sell off his holdings, they decided to cut him some slack. Early Congresses went along with this arrangement, which survives to this day. “Because the president of the United States is the single most consequential decision maker on the planet, Congress has decided his hands shouldn’t be tied on any issue because of conflicts of interest over any potential financial or personal gain,” Norman Eisen, a former ethics counsel to the Obama Administration, who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.
This reasoning must have been sweet music to Trump’s ears when it was explained to him. He evidently still intends to transfer managerial control (but not necessarily ownership) of his businesses to his kids. And rather than make any real break with his interests, he’ll leave things at that. Which means that every time President Trump deals with a country that contains a business with his name attached to it, there will be questions about whose interests he is really looking out for.
These questions will be incessant. According to an analysis of public financial filings that the Washington Post published over the weekend, “At least 111 Trump companies have done business in 18 countries and territories across South America, Asia and the Middle East.” Trump owns some of these enterprises, such as various golf courses in Scotland and Ireland, either by himself or with partners. Many of his other interests are licensing arrangements, in which local businessmen—real-estate developers, usually—have paid to use the Trump name. Along these lines, there is a Trump Tower Mumbai, a Trump Towers Istanbul, and a Trump Tower Punta del Este, on the coast of Uruguay.
And as my colleague Adam Davidson pointed out a few days ago, the Trump business empire is now expanding rapidly. “The firm added three new hotels, in Washington, D.C., Canada, and Panama, during the year and is looking at opportunities in the Dominican Republic, London, Frankfurt, Munich, Amsterdam, and Tel Aviv,” Davidson wrote. “In Asia, a hotel and residential complex in Bali, Indonesia, is under way. … Buildings with his name in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Istanbul have faced some problems, but the company is undaunted.”
Once you grasp the geographical spread of Trump’s interests, it is hard to see how the potential conflicts of interest could ever be resolved. Take the Middle East, a region of the world that every modern American President has had to focus on. According to the Post, in addition to the Trump-branded real-estate development in Turkey, Trump has business ties to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, two oil-rich countries that have funded radical Islamic movements. And, just last year, Trump registered eight companies named after Jeddah, the second-largest city in Saudi Arabia.
It’s not just that Trump won’t be seen as an honest broker in the Middle East. He wouldn’t be seen as broker of any kind but as a principal and business partner of some of the region’s repressive governments and their cronies. Even if, for the duration of his Presidency, Trump were to put his businesses into a properly independent trust, run by business executives not connected to him, the Trump-owned and Trump-branded companies would still be generating income for the President and his family. He and his advisers would know that. The governments of the countries where the companies are located would know that. And so would the rest of us.
As far as I can see, there are only two ways out of this conundrum. One would be for Trump to decide that he doesn’t want the job of President after all, and let Mike Pence do it. The other option is for Trump to sell off his businesses and put the money raised into a bank account, U.S. Treasury bonds, or a genuinely blind trust, which wouldn’t inform him about what investments it had made.
Late last week, a number of good-government groups and government-ethics lawyers issued a public letter that called on Trump to follow the latter course. “We understand that this arrangement would require you to sever your relationship with the businesses that bear your name and with which you have invested a life’s work,” the letter said. “But whatever the personal discomfort caused, there is no acceptable alternative—and your duties to the American people now must prevail over your personal ties to the Trump Organization businesses.” One of the letter’s signatories was Norm Eisen. Another was Common Cause, an organization whose vice-president of policy and litigation said, in a statement, “Turning your businesses over to your children is what leaders of Banana Republics do. Americans expect and deserve better from the Trump Administration.”
Trump and his advisers will be tempted to shrug off these demands as the work of Democrats and other ill-wishers. They may have more difficulty in dismissing the views of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, a very influential voice in Republican circles. “Mr. Trump’s best option is to liquidate his stake in the company,” an editorial in the Journal said on Friday. And it went on: “If Mr. Trump doesn’t liquidate, he will be accused of a pecuniary motive any time he takes a policy position. . . . Along the way Mr. Trump could expose himself to charges, however unfair, that he is violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prohibits public officials from accepting gifts or payment from foreign governments.” In conclusion, the editorial said, “The presidential stakes are too high for Mr. Trump to let his family business become a daily political target.”
That will be the reality facing Trump if he ignores the advice to liquidate his holdings—and it will be a perfectly justified reality. The choice is his, and he seems determined to brazen it out. “Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world,” he said Monday night on Twitter. “Only the crooked media makes this a big deal.”