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Experts: Trump Must Untangle Himself From Businesses

When President-elect Donald Trump takes his oath of office in January he'll begin his term as one of the wealthiest presidents in U.S. history -- and the sheer size and complexity of his business empire will make it  difficult for him to avoid conflicts of interest, experts say.

Trump has a net worth of about $3.7 billion according to Forbes. His business interests range from direct real estate holdings to management deals for golf courses, luxury hotels and buildings he doesn't own directly, but are branded with his name. Trump's empire also includes retail and food items, like Trump-branded steaks and Trump spring water.

As president, Trump will hold influence over government agencies whose decisions can directly impact his businesses, and will work with nations where his real estate empire has holdings or branded licensing deals, The Wall Street Journal reports.

For example, Trump's company leases one of its newest properties, a hotel only a few blocks from the White House, from the federal government. As president, Trump will oversee the National Labor Relations Board, which is in the process of mediating a dispute between the Trump Organization -- the president-elect's umbrella company -- and hotel employees attempting to unionize, according to The New York Times.

While other presidents -- including Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- created blind trusts to manage their business interests during their time in office, Trump's intimate involvement with his real estate empire means he'll know when a decision impacts his business holdings even if he isn't currently running his company.

Compounding the problem is that presidents aren't held to the same conflict-of-interest rules as members of Congress or federal employees. That's due to a quirk in the Constitution and a desire by Congress to avoid confrontations between government branches, according to Richard Painter and Norman Eisen, former White House ethics counsels who worked for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively.

In response to questions about potential conflicts of interest, Trump has said he will create a blind trust with his children running the Trump Organization, but experts say  that arrangement would be neither blind nor a trust.

Painter told Fortune that a true blind trust means a person in office would sell his or her business and turn it over to a trustee, who would reinvest the office holder's assets. In such an arrangement, Trump would not be privy to information about where his assets have been invested, making it impossible for him make decisions beneficial to his business interests.

In Trump's case, because he has personally negotiated many of his business deals, simply turning over the management of his company to his children would not avoid conflicts of interest, the ethics lawyers told Fortune.

For Trump to completely unentangle himself from his companies, he would have to undergo an exceedingly complex and drawn-out process, experts said, but Eisen said without doing that, Trump's conflicts of interest as president would be "profound."

“They are the most serious set of business conflicts any president has faced in modern times," Eisen told Fortune.

Another reason simply delegating his business to his children won't be enough, ethics experts said, is because Trump heavily relies on his children in all aspects of his decision-making. In addition to playing a crucial role in the president-elect's campaign, his children are also heading efforts to transition to the White House, and are helping their father make decisions about appointing staff to top posts.

Matthew T. Sanderson is among those who say Trump would not avoid conflicts by leaving his business to his kids. Sanderson is an attorney who has worked on the presidential campaigns of Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“Yes, the American public elected him knowing he has these assets, but unless he deals with this properly there will just be a steady trickle of these conflict-of-interest stories, and it could be a drag on his presidency," Sanderson told The New York Times.

A spokesperson for Trump didn't address specific questions about potential conflicts, but said Trump's transition team was working on a plan.

Meanwhile, Trump's defenders pointed to the president-elect's stated goals of cleaning out corruption in Washington, D.C., and said he wouldn't have entered politics if his primary interest was continuing to run his company.

“You have to have some confidence in the integrity of the president,” former New York City mayor and Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani said. “The man is an enormously wealthy man. I don’t think there’s any real fear or suspicion that he’s seeking to enrich himself by being president. If he wanted to enrich himself, he wouldn’t have run for president.”

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, The New York Times / Photo credit: Juliana Lopes/Flickr

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