UPDATE: Donald Trump has canceled his press conference scheduled for 12/15, at which he promised to address his conflicts of interest and how he would be removed from his businesses.
On November 30th, president-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter and attempted to address widespread public concerns about his potential business conflicts of interest. In a series of tweets, Trump said he would “remove” himself from his businesses and place his children in charge, in order to avoid the appearance of conflict.
Here’s the problem with that: Trump’s promise is an illusion. Turning over his businesses to his children on paper is nothing more than smoke and mirrors; there will be no real barrier between Trump and whatever involvement he chooses to have. If he wants, he can retain full knowledge and de facto control of his companies’ business dealings. Trump will still have massive potential conflicts of interest, as well as opportunities for corruption on an unprecedented scale. He says it is “visually important” for the President not to have conflicts of interest with his businesses – but it’s not the visuals that have the average citizen worried, it’s the actual conflicts of interest. Trump owns or has a stake in over 500 business entities tied to dozens of different countries, including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, as well as the Bank of China. In addition to the very real risk of large-scale corruption and undue policy influence, Trump’s proposed arrangement could make his presidency the most conflicted and scandalous in history. Here are a few examples of what will likely happen, from law professor and former White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter:
- Every time Trump makes a decision as president-elect or president, or someone who works for him makes a decision, critics will allege that it is intended to benefit the Trump businesses. This includes decisions about regulation of the financial sector and the potential dismantling of the Dodd-Frank banking law, as the Trump Organization, like most real estate empires, is heavily indebted to banks and other lenders.
- Every time an officer or employee of the Trump businesses discusses the possibility of favorable or unfavorable action by the U.S. government toward a person or entity dealing with the Trump businesses, that person could be accused of soliciting a bribe or extorting money on Trump’s behalf.
- Every time any foreign government or company controlled by a foreign government does business with a Trump entity, the president could be accused of accepting a payment in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, creating a constitutional crisis that could even result in threats of impeachment.
- Every time any private party sees an opening for litigation against a Trump business entity, that person, perhaps in collusion with the president’s political opponents, could file suit, perhaps even against Trump personally, embroiling the presidency in litigation.
There is a straightforward solution if Trump truly wants to avoid conflicts of interest: the blind trust. It’s a proven method used by past Presidents, and it would alleviate almost all concerns about Trump directing domestic or foreign policy to enrich himself, handing out lucrative government contracts to partners or even his own businesses, or using the presidency as his personal marketing agency. To use a blind trust, Trump would liquidate his business holdings (possibly using a leveraged buyout or IPO) and place them in a trust controlled by a neutral party with whom he has no prior business or family association. His assets would be invested and managed by top professionals, without his input or knowledge. So why wouldn’t he do this? Why wouldn’t he do what the Presidents before him did, and use a proven method that satisfies the American people’s need to trust their leadership? Simple: because a blind trust would force him to actually do what he is currently trying to create the appearance of doing. Trump has no intention of honestly separating himself from his businesses. With his kids in charge, Trump can maintain any level of involvement he chooses, shape policy based on his business interests, and enrich his family on an unbelievable scale, all while hiding behind carefully contrived “visuals” of magnanimity and self-sacrifice.
Let’s call this empty gesture what it is: sleight of hand. Misdirection. A shell game. Just like most things Donald Trump does, this is all flash and no substance. He is happy to play pretend and put on a show to quiet his critics, but make no mistake – Donald Trump does nothing unless it serves Donald Trump.
If Trump genuinely believes that the job of serving America as its president is more important than his personal businesses, he will make an honest attempt to sever himself from his enterprises – not the transparent sham he is proposing. Unless and until he does so, it is the job of the government, the press, law enforcement, and every American citizen to examine Trump’s business ties with deep skepticism and unrelenting scrutiny. Stay alert, and don’t be fooled.
Here are Trump’s tweets from Wednesday morning: